This article was also published in the Financial Times.
The message from my friend, a proud Florentine, was as unusual for its content as for the enthusiasm with which he conveyed it. 'Do let me know when you are next in Milan', he said. 'At last there are several really exciting restaurant openings here.'
Although he has spent his working week in Milan for several years now, a city he still refers to as 'Italy's office', this friend's heart remains firmly in his home town. His ideal day consists of riding his motorbike from Florence to the Hotel Il Pellicano at Porto Ercole on the Tuscan coast for a club sandwich, a glass of wine and a siesta before heading home.
A subsequent conversation with the charming Camilla Baresani Varini, my counterpart at Corriere della Sera in Milan, added context to this viewpoint.
She astutely explained that in the past Italians have been passionately interested in everything Italian – fashion, design, architecture, food and wine – but since the recession many have only had the means to enjoy food and wine.
Then she added that the impetus to the much higher level of confidence and financial commitment in what is still a highly conservative city has been the selection of Milan to host the next Expo from May to October 2015. Buildings are springing up everywhere with new restaurants opening in their wake.
This is most conspicuous in Porta Nuova, the new financial centre only a brief walk from the main train station and within view of the Hotel Principe di Savoia. And it is here among unfinished exits from what will be a new underground car park and only half-complete walkways that we walked into the just-opened Ristorante Berton.
Andrea Berton is a distinguished and talented chef whose food I always admired when he was cooking in partnership with Trussardi, the fashion house, close to La Scala. Over the past couple of years Berton has branched out in two quite different directions. (This photo of Berton and some of his team is taken from the restaurant's website.)
Initially, with the backing of two architects and a lawyer, he opened two casual restaurants cheek by jowl on via Solferino, a short walk away from Ristorante Berton: Pisacco, where the menu includes inexpensive interpretations of Italian food and, on the other side of the street, Dry.
Dry has proved a spectacular success by focusing on a combination hitherto missing in Milan, the unlikely duo of excellent pizzas and equally exciting cocktails. While the front serves as a bar with trays of focaccia topped with creamy mozzarella, vitello tonnato and prosciutto, the pizzas are served at the back, past a kitchen that allows the customer a clear view of quite how furiously the chefs need to roll their pizzas to meet demand.
For the past year, Berton has been concentrating, with his business partner Davide Fregonese, an asset manager by day, on the design of his new 44-seater restaurant that now bears his name. The design is ultra modern, with good acoustics and space between the tables, and provides a new twist on the now essential 'chef's table', although here there are two. The first, for two, is right opposite the chefs in the kitchen while another, for four, is inside the restaurant but with a clear view of the chefs beyond.
Berton, at 1.85 metres, is one of the tallest chefs I know and, with a beard, he stalks around his dining room with a rather professorial air. While he described his latest menu as even more modern, there were still strong nods to tradition, particularly in his fish dishes: small shrimps with a shot of fish stock and soft shell crabs with anchovy, both inspired by Venice, and an excellent combination of octopus with creamy potato. A reworking of veal Milanese, enhanced by a slow-cooked lemon, was first class, as was a dessert of the thinnest meringue topped with sesame seeds and a small square incorporating coffee and chocolate.
Tortona, to the south of the city, was once home to several major industrial units that have recently been converted to house the offices and showrooms of such fashion giants as Armani, Ferragamo and Zegna. The Martone family, who create the fragrances for the major brands, have now converted what was their perfume factory into Magna Pars, a 29-suite hotel that offers wonderful natural light and must have consumed vast quantities of white paint, the only colour on show.
Around the courtyard downstairs is Da Noi, a restaurant overseen by Piemontese chef Fulvio Siccardi. As part of his involvement, Siccardo has brought many bottles he had amassed in his previous restaurants so there is plenty here for any lover of mature Barolo and Barbaresco.
Finally, I headed off to the highly atmospheric canal paths of the Navigli district that are now home to chef Matias Perdomo in the historic osteria Al Pont de Ferr. Born in Uruguay, Perdomo combines exuberance with great technical skill, and his dish of a mosaic of tuna, foie gras and macadamia nuts set in a specially commissioned mosaic dish is both mouthwatering and eye catching.
Pisacco 48 Via Solferino, Milan; tel +39 02 91765472
Dry 33 Via Solferino, Milan; tel +39 02 63793414
Ristorante Berton 13 Viale della Liberazione, Milan; tel +39 02 62087732
Magna Pars 6 Via Forcella, Milan; tel +39 02 83338371
Al Pont de Ferr 55 Ripa di Porta Ticinese, Milan; tel +39 02 89406277