Location is truly the key to loving a city, and my second stay at Antica Locanda Leonardo proved that again. It’s in a residential neighborhood with lots of culture (the Last Supper church is steps away), great cafes (I went to the lovely old Biffi every day for a caffeine fix), good shopping and a park to write in, plus it’s a quick walk to almost anything, not least the Maurizio Cattelan finger. The main food market is also close by, at Piazza Wagner, and the express train to Malpensa is five minutes away by rolling suitcase. Plus it was all of 95 euros a night. (So what if my room was designed for a hobbit? It was totally functional, with free internet to boot.)
The neighborhood was so seductive I made the mistake of eating most of my meals there, and a weird pattern quickly emerged: One would suck, the next would be spectacular, the following would be spectacular, then the next would suck big time. (The one meal I ate farther afield was with my friend Francesco, so it will be spared judgment because the conversation so trumped the paccheri.)
Sunday lunch at Trattoria Meneghina was recommended by the hotelier with the caveat that “service is comme ci, comme ca.” I wouldn’t have minded the dismissive sweating owner and his perfunctory “waiting” on me while ass-kissing the guys at the next table if the pappardelle with funghi had not delivered grit in every buttery bite and the fried zucchini with blossoms had not been gooey doughballs, senza the gamberi mentioned on the menu. (Worse was seeing a cook, I hope not the wife, wheezing up the stairs from the bathroom holding her gut. I ached for her.)
That night I made my way to another close-by option, one I had dismissed for lunch because it looked too tourist-friendly. And at L’Uccellina I had the forks-down best pizza of my life, a crudaiola with mozzarella (no sauce), arugula, cherry tomatoes and ricotta salata on a crust not much thicker than a paper plate, all the way to the edge. No bones were left behind with that baby. But the whole experience was just what you fantasize about on your own on the road: a genuine welcome, a lively room, a waiter who put up with my halt-and-lame Italian just until we got to the serious stuff (“Vino bianco? Can you be more specific? Prosecco? Gavi?”)
Lunch the next day was nearly as happy-making. On my friend’s recommendation I tried Enocratia but got there just minutes before 2; when I stepped inside to read the menu, the woman behind the counter greeted me effusively, so my tongue stumbled out: “Pranzo finito?” and my ears got, “No, no!” as she gestured to have me follow her up the stairs to a tiny dining room hung with dramatic paintings of flowers where three tables were occupied by what looked to be businessguys. The place had style to burn. And that woman (not sure if she was an owner or just a server) had the Italian confidence you’ll understand everything she’s saying, which led me to bucatini cacio e pepe for my food and two glasses of an exceptional biodynamic white from Piemonte for my drink. The pasta made me realize I could never try that treatment at home. The balance of noodles and cheese and pepper was sublime. I finally understand that your lips should tingle when you eat it. Plus, did I mention the place had style to burn?
And then I had to go and ruin my memories by trying another pizzeria/ristorante near the hotel, Acero Rosso, which, I realized only once I ventured inside, was also too near the train station. Awful room, with rows and rows of empty tables, only a few occupied by guys eating either alone or with their mobiles. Awful wine (prosecco is wonderful until you let it near food). Awful quattro stagione pizza, the kind we have suffered almost everywhere in Italy: soup on bread. I was so demoralized I had to go try the gelateria I’d been laughing at for days, the one with the big sign reading “Eat me, I’m famous.” Something had to give me a last good taste of this magical city. And the pistachio/passion fruit cupful I had there did wash away the restaurant’s sins. To the point that I could go back to the room and Tweet that its translated website had touted “homo burning” and that was the least of its sins. . .