I made sure that was part of our meal at the restaurant Peo, as one of my hopes for that trip was to taste an authentic veal Milanese, a dish I had long enjoyed and I often make its Austrian cousin, schnitzel, with pork at home. It is one of the most famous of all Italian dishes. I had been to Italy over ten times previously and had never had the dish there, simply because I hadn’t spent any time in Milan and avoided the dish if it was on a menu far from the city, opting for something more local. I had really hoped to try it in Milan during this trip, but having dinner during my one day there was precluded by a train strike announced for that night that I was fortunately alerted to, which would have got me stranded far from my hotel. So, I missed both these Italian specialties: the veal Milanese in Milan, and a transportation strike. A trade-off.
I do have the dish a couple of times in Pavia and found it enjoyable, and little different than I expected. The veal was not as flattened as I had imagined, barely so, in fact, and both preparations were from the veal rib, with the bone attached. Though I came across renditions in articles and on the websites of restaurants in Milan without the bone attached, it seems the dish is always made from the veal rib chop. As it turns out, veal Milanese is more different from the Viennese wiener schnitzel than I had believed. The schnitzel is flattened much more so, is popular in versions other than veal – like what I do in my kitchen – and the schnitzel is dipped in flour before meeting the beaten eggs and breadcrumbs, and can be cooked in something other than butter. The recipe for costoletta alla millanese – or the less frequently found cotoletta alla milanese, which is actually the exact same thing even without the “s” – is basically and simply a barely flattened cut from the rib of a calf, dipped in beaten eggs then breadcrumbs and then pan-fried in butter or clarified butter over medium heat for about six to eight minutes a side, and then salted and served with lemon wedges.
With good quality meat, it is delicious, not-so-complicated dish with a nice interplay of textures and tastes, with savory veal, a crisp breading, a citrusy acidic bite from the lemon and some necessary salt. The first version of it I had featured it ladled with halves of ripe cherry tomatoes and arugula, the primavera (spring) version. I’ve read that this newer rendition, a creation of the past decade or so, is way to aid a lesser cut of meat. This seemed to have some truth as the dish, and meat, was better at the second restaurant where I had it, the oddly named Habanero, also in Pavia. Though it did initially look like the other elephants’ ears, it was made with a cut of t-bone. The restaurant is a meat specialist, seemingly looking to do things a little differently. Their version of the costoletta alla milanese was very good, especially the less-cooked, more tender and flavorful pieces near the bone.
I had to assume that these two versions of the famed dish were very similar to what is served in Milan. Hopefully, I can confirm that in the future. An organization that anointed the costoletta alla milanese as one of Italy’s most iconic a few years ago has an interesting and very believable history of the dish on its website. It’s a dish that’s been around since at least the middle of the 19th century, the moniker of elephant’s ear seems fairly new as it doesn’t appear with the recipe in any of the several older classic Italian cookbooks I have or guidebooks. Some fun with an older dish, I guess. I certainly had fun with it.
A very recent version of the costoletta alla milanese from a restaurant actually in Milan. Photograph by Anthony Campofelice