I once knew a charming couple from Milan named Omer and Maria Grazia. My memory of them is a bit hazy by now—sadly, we lost contact and it’s been years since I’ve seen them—but two food-related memories still stick out in my mind. The first was the time I made them minestrone alla milanese and they pronounced it not just excellent, but the best they had ever had! They had me describe how I had made it, step by step, and the table, which included a friend of theirs from Bologna, decided that my ‘secret’ was the time and care I had taken with the rosolatura of the aromatic vegetables. I had to admit, I was beaming with pride—after all, this was their dish, so to speak, and here I was, an Italo-American with southern roots and no real connections to Milanese cooking. I still count that as the nicest culinary compliment I have ever received.
It was at that same meal that Omer and Maria Grazia described to me one of their favorite dishes, which has come to be a part of my summer repertoire: a cotoletta alla milanese (a breaded veal chop) served with a delicate tomato salad, not as a contorno (side dish) but spooned on top as an integral part of the dish. It’s a simple combination that looks and tastes like summer on a plate. Even though I don’t care at all for breaded items in tomato sauce (a common Italian-American conceit in dishes like Chicken ‘Parm’) I do find the combination of the breaded meat with fresh tomato simply to die for. Go figure.
- One costoletta alla milanese (see this recipe)
For the tomato salad:
- One ripe, juicy tomato, cut into small dice or sliced
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- A few basil leaves, ripped into small pieces
Make the costoletta as per the usual recipe.
While the cotoletta is cooking, make your salad by putting your tomato in a mixing bowl with a bit of salt. Allow the tomato to macerate for just a minute or two, then drain out the excess liquid along with most of the seeds. Take the pulp, mix it with the basil leaves and toss with the olive oil. Adjust for seasoning.
Serve the cotoletta, still hot, with the tomato salad spooned over the top, and eat it right away!
The character of the dish depends almost entirely on using the best possible tomatoes. If you have access to some garden or farm tomatoes at the peak of the season, by all means use those. If not, small hydroponic tomatoes, the kind called ‘Campari’ tomatoes here in the US, or cherry or grape tomatoes, will do.
You may have noticed, the tomato salad used in this recipe contains no vinegar or lemon juice, which was a point that Omar and Maria Grazia really emphasized. And you can see why: the assertive sourness of either condiment would throw off what is otherwise a very delicate combination of flavors. In fact, many Italians will tell you that neither vinegar nor lemon belongs in a proper tomato salad anyway. My usual preference (when making tomato salad on its own) is to add just the tiniest bit of white wine vinegar, hardly enough to notice. Not for this dish, but I also actually rather like a tomato salad dressed Italian-American style with red wine vinegar and a light sprinkling of dried oregano, one of the few uses for dried oregano in my kitchen. It makes especially good eating when you fa la scarpetta…
The costoletta is, classically, a veal chop. But as mentioned in the master recipe, a nice pork chop is very nice made the same way and costs much, much less. And this dish succeeds even with your ‘cotoletta’ made with chicken or turkey breast, too. In fact, you could even made a vegetarian version with eggplant slices, which is perfectly delicious too.
Milan, by the way, as Omar never tired of pointing out, may be one of Italy’s most under-appreciated cities, by tourists and other Italians alike. Heavily bombed during the Second World War, many parts of Milan lack the overwhelming ‘surface’ beauty of so many other Italian cities. But Omar’ was fond of saying that Milan’s beauty was hidden away—in its courtyards, on its side streets and other unexpected places. Its shopping is second to none in Italy and it has some of the best food in Italy. As Italy’s business capital, Milan can afford to eat very, very well, and it does.