On occasion, we have lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in Milan, a hole in the wall in the Chinese district called Ottimo Fiore. Excellent flower. It’s Sicilian, and its walls are covered with photos of famous diners, such as the soccer player Paolo Maldini (who seems to appear on the walls of many Milanese restaurants), relief maps of Sicily, tourist photos, and Sicilian artifacts in ceramic. The tables and chairs are squeezed into the small space, and the Mamma and Papà who run the place are, to put it directly, very direct. A typical greeting: “You’ll have to be out of here by 9.” Once you agree to their conditions, they are all smiles and freely offer opinions about what you and your children should eat.
The last time we were there, the aforementioned Mamma recommended as an appetizer the chopped verza salad. Verza, also known as Milanese Cabbage, Lombard Cabbage, or Savoy Cabbage, is a staple in Milanese cooking. Unlike the variety we’re used to eating in the States, verza, when cooked, grounds stews and soups in a lovely earthy sweetness. None of that dirty-sock stuff one remembers from the boiled cabbage of once-upon-a-time.
I find verza particularly pleasing sautéed together with chopped onion, carrot, celery and garlic as the basis for a re-vamped “chicken soup with rice.” Here, it is probably best known as the cornerstone of the Lombard specialty, cassoeula , prepared with pork ribs and rinds plus one pig’s foot, sausage, pancetta, a little tomato sauce and the aforementioned sauté ingredients. This gastronomic heavy-weight and my own modest soup constituted my culinary knowledge of verza. I’d never imagined eating it raw. So when Signora Ottimo Fiore told me that she grew the cabbage, organically, in her own garden, and that it was scantily dressed with nothing more than olive oil, lemon juice, anchovy, and a light sprinkling of pepper, I knew I had to try it.*
It was love at first assaggio. What can I say? Fresh, piquant, clean, crunchy. Wintery and summery all at the same time. These taste-experiences are, for me, the ultimate in Italian dining. You know you’re having some kind of peak sensorial experience when every ingredient stands in perfect contrast and simultaneous harmony with its plate-fellows. When the deliciousness of the sum is the exact equivalent of the deliciousness of its parts. And when a chef’s—or a modest cook’s—ego has taken its rightful place behind the natural superiority of nature’s offerings and wouldn’t dare to gild the lily.
* This dish is impossible to photograph well, but you’ll have to trust me. It’s delicious. Try it. That recipe again:
1/3 finely sliced Savoy cabbage
the best olive oil you can get your hands on
chopped anchovy (I use 3-4 fillets)
a sprinkling of fresh-ground pepper
Finely slice, wash and drain the cabbage. Then toss with remaining ingredients to taste. NOTES: I use roughly 1/4 cup oil with the juice of a whole lemon. When it’s convenient to buy them, I use whole, salted Spanish anchovies which I fillet and scrape clean of salt and skin . But otherwise, I use already filleted anchovies (acciughe or alici) preserved in tins or small jars. This salad is best if mixed, covered and placed in the refrigerator for a couple hours before serving.
My thanks to Ann Moore for copy-editing this post.