For our final dinner in Milan, we met up with Geoff's friends Kenny and Shirley, who are studying there on exchange. Located in the relatively quiet Piazza Vetra, Cantina della Vetra was bustling inside, with a solid mix of tourists and locals. I had found some generally positive reviews online, and based on the big Japanese table next to us, it's probably made it into some Japanese guide books as well.
After a big dinner at Cracco, Geoff and I were looking for something simple, and Cantina della Vetra seemed to fit the bill. The place has a casual, laid-back vibe, with friendly (and English-speaking) service.
We shared a few appetizers, starting with this squash blossom dish. Fiori di zucca was one of the epiphanies of my first Italy trip way back when. Since then, it's become fairly common in America as well, but I still love the ubiquitous fried blossom stuffed with cheese. This version was superb, with the addition of minced anchovy lending a rich saltiness to the whole dish.
Our waiter said that they were famous for their house salumi plate, and these meats did not disappoint. We were given very good versions of mortadella, prosciutto, salami, and coppa.
Best of all, the salumi plate came with this plate of gnocco fritto - essentially little fried pieces of bread. Soft and chewy inside, these were the best bread items we'd eaten all trip. Which brings me to a random bread tangent...
I've always found it peculiar that restaurants in Italy almost universally serve lifeless baskets of dry bread and pre-packaged breadsticks. The bread is always terrible (especially compared to the French). At Cantina della Vetra, when our waitress brought the requisite bread basket, she warned us "here's your bread, but don't eat it - the gnocco fritto is coming!" which I thought was hilarious. Of course, the gnocco fritto was awesome and the bread basket was crappy. Which begs the question, who eats all that dry bread being served everywhere, when there are far more delicious forms of carbs available on every menu in the country?
The seafood here was well-executed and very tender, but otherwise not that memorable compared to the other stuff.
We then moved on to sharing some pastas, which the restaurant graciously divided up into individual plates for us (a regular order of each was €13). The risotto was my favorite, with a simple, creamy, cheese-based sauce. It had a beautifully strong truffle fragrance (though no actual shaved truffles were on it). The fettuccine with ragu was rich and slightly salty, and the orecchiette was just alright - both worth eating, but not as good as the risotto.
I was excited to see a beef tartare main dish, and happily ordered it. This version used a soft, lean beef, and a bunch of usual suspects as mix-ins (mustard, onions, parsley, capers, and some chopped pickly/relishy stuff). The result was a little dryer than I'd prefer, and it could have used a little more liquid to bind everything together. The flavor and the meat were great though.
It was a great way to end our stay in Milan - good, well-priced food, some nice conversation and a bustling crowd made it a satisfying experience. The gnocco fritto in particular, simple as it sounds, is worth a visit. If you're looking for something a little simpler, and not so ultra high-style Milan, Cantina della Vetra is a good bet.