I’ve done that terrible thing of leaving it too long to write a review. It’s easily done: minutes turn into hours and days into weeks. You add new meals to memory, replacing the mundane with the extraordinary. So, let me think back, to Milan…
I’ve visited Italy’s “Fashion Capital” many times over the years, although my dress-sense suggests otherwise. Still, I’ve studied plenty of natives strutting along the Piazza del Duomo, and women in Armani gliding through the Galleria Vittorio. Everyone looks too cool to work in insurance or telecoms.
I was dining with my friend Daniele Frisardi. He is one of those Milanese types who wears bespoke suits with monogrammed made to measure shirts and manicured d’Artagnan bristle. It’s so much cooler to be Italian and sport a well-kept musketeer goatee. If you’re English, you just look like David Brent.
Frisardi is also responsible – and should feel guilt for – introducing me to grappa, the grape-based pomace brandy with a strong essence of lighter fluid. More than one of these appeared on the receipt from Ristorante da Giulia, as did bottles of Amarone, limoncello and a single macchiato. All fine Italian liquids in their own right, but when absorbed together, make for the most head-spinning, stomach-bile-inducing amalgamation I’ve experienced since I was six years old and ate Play-Doh for a bet.
The receipt tells me there was orecchiette al pesto with tomato and octopus. Orecchiette is a pasta typical to Puglia in the south; da Giulia’s orecchiette is, of course, made fresh onsite. Usually, orecchiette’s appearance lives up to its name – derived from orecchio (meaning “ear”) and etto (meaning “small”) – but da Giulia’s are shaped like petals and finished with olive oil, a mix of pea-green pesto, baked and squidgy tomatoes that pop in the mouth, and octopus tentacles that are wild, bright and loop around the pasta. Together it’s a delicate carb-creation that is vibrant and delicious.
Seabass arrives whole, with chargrilled vegetables, lemon juice, thyme and chilli. Soft chunks break away from the spine, and are full and fleshy on the fork. Mussels au gratin are deep-fried and crispy, the Grana seconds away from being burnt. Mussels are the poor man’s shellfish, a mollusc in the doldrums. Even a singular prawn or oyster offers something gastronomically striking. So the mussel needs dressing and addressing, and the process of au gratin therefore necessary.
There was more octopus: I piccoli polpi affogati con patate e prezzemolo, which is listed on the website as “small octopus drowned with potatoes and parsley.” “Drowned” must be the worst word in food vocabulary. Worse, even, than “nom” when followed by “nom”, and “Jay” when followed by “Rayner”.
“Drowned” must be the worst word in food vocabulary. Worse, even, than “nom” when followed by “nom”, and “Jay” when followed by “Rayner”
Drowning brings to mind struggle and an overflow of liquid. Something drowned ceases to be. Octopus drowned with potatoes and parsley sounds like a medieval death sentence given to those under suspicion of regicides. A crime so terrible, it was often punishable by Crocodile Shears or the Culla di Giuda (do not Google it). The dish here however was clearly freshly-made, deliciously doused in olive oil and much better than using the out-of-place “drowning” adjective suggest. Purple-twisty-tentacles and creamy-suckers were soft and chewy, not in a jaw-aching toffee-chew-it sort of way, but with just enough bite, as top-notch squid and octopus should be.
Inside, the restaurant is cramped, designed for showing off giant photographs of seafood, rather than for people to eat comfortably. The windows are shaded by deep-pink curtains. When the light shines through the room glows a hideous haze of fuchsia. So we sat outside, on the small Piazza Antonio Gramsci, between Milan’s Bullona and Chinatown. It isn’t the prettiest piazza in Milan, in fact I’d say it’s in the Top Three Ugliest.
Italy has some the most eye-grabbing, medieval piazzas in Europe: Piazza del Duomo is Milan’s most obvious, but the Etruscan Piazza della Cistern in San Gimignano tops my lineup, even if it is named after an underground toilet bowl. San Gimignano is rural, historical and enchanting, and where I first shared ice-cream with my girlfriend. Piazza Antonio Gramsci, on the other hand, looks out across an open cement field. But if you’re in Milan, give it a try. Sit outside and order the pasta and octopus. Just take it easy on the plonk. C
Ristorante da Giulia, Piazza Antonio Gramsci, 3, 20149 Milan, Italy
+39 02 3651 2177; ristorantedagiulia.it