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Culinary Shootout: Milan vs. Naples For The Scudetto Cup

Updated on March 20, 2011

The Final Showdown Between Northern and Southern Italian Cuisine

Milan is the cultural, business and heritage center of the Lombardia region, an area so rich, ordered and pan-European that it is home to a very powerful separatist party which would devolve Lombardia (or Padania as they call it) from the "southern rabble." Therefore, what better cuisine to challenge the traditional Neapolitan? In an echo of great soccer championships of decades past (when Naples had a good team instead of their current bunch of overpaid slackers), we present Naples vs. Milan for the Scudetto (championship cup) of Italian Cuisine.

Whenever you hear a traditional song you immediately associate with Italy, Tarantella, O Sole Mio, Torna A Surriento, Santa Lucia, or literally hundreds of others, most people are not aware that they are listening to strictly Neapolitan music. 

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Within the very musical country that is Italy, Naples is Mozart. All the great and famous tunes come from the city set on the sweeping bay anchored by the threatening volcano. Given that acknowledged superiority in songsmithing, it is natural for the Neapolitans to expect equal triumph be allotted to its cuisine which is almost completely different from that of, say, Rome just 100 miles north!

The great zenith of Neapolitan cuisine, the original and only real pizza, has already been covered in my World's Best Pizza and Learn To Make Pizza Hubs. Yet, there is so much more to Neapolitan cuisine. We can start with the lip-smacking, drool-triggering Genovese sauce (read the Best Pasta Sauce Hub for all the luscious details); go on to Ragu, which is a very particular tomato sauce simmered for hours with big chunks of sauteed beef, onions and a splash of red wine to give it a heartiness and scrumptiousness unlike any other; and Puttanesca (yes, it does mean the Prostitute's tomato sauce) with roasted garlic, origano, parsley, fresh capers, black olives from nearby Gaeta, and lots of spicy hot peppers. Naples is also the home of spaghetti with clams served in their freshly opened shells and in the traditional way with just a bare squish of tomato; Pastiera, which is a brick-dense cake packed full of ricotta, milk-simmered wheat grains, and redolent of orange water.

No dialogue on Neapolitan cuisine would be complete without fried pizza "a ogge a ott'": Nowhere near what anyone outside of Naples would consider pizza, it is the ancestor of the calzone, created in the years of foreign domination when most of the population of Naples was totally poverty stricken. A slab of dough is panfried and then a bit of topping is placed on it, usually a small amount of mozzarella, sardine, salami, olives, capers or escarole. The pizza fritta chefs would accommodate their pennyless clientele by marking their client's purchases on their own cooking bibs. The client would than have seven days to pay. A ogge a ott' means from today to eight days from now, intending that on the eighth day you get no more pizza fritta. Given that it was often the only food source in the whole city and all the pizza fritta chefs formed a tightly knit community, this credit arrangement was very rarely violated.

Far to the north, with far greater links to Germany, Switzerland and France than to Naples and the rest of the south, lies wealthy and industrial Milan, one of Europe's truly great cities. Although Rome may be the capital, no Italian is under any illusion of where the power truly lies. The cuisine of Milan parallels the characteristics of its city, it is rich, sophisticated, complex, refined and varied. If you are lactose intolerant, give Milan a wide berth, as most of the dishes are based on some form of dairy product. Milanese cuisine is centered around cream, milk, butter and cheese of every imaginable type and flavor. Rice supercedes pasta as the main course as it absorbs more of the creamy, thick sauces that the Milanese adore, and polenta, a cooked corn meal slab, is a staple.

Given its historical position as a city of wealth and position, Milanese cuisine relies on expensive ingredients such as meat, wild mushrooms and the heavenly white truffles from nearby Piedmont which fetch about $3,000 a pound. Yes, I've been to elegant Milanese dinners where I've consumed a couple of ounces of the precious tuber, thinly sliced atop risottos and pasta dishes and incorporated grated up into the recipe. There is simply no other taste that can compare.

Some of the signature dishes of the city include Ossobuco Gremolato, which is a breaded fried veal shank covered with the garlic, parsley and lemon zest Gremolata; Cotoletta Milanese, fried breaded veal cutlet served with a spritz of lemon; and Piccata Milanese, fried breaded chicken breast in a ham and mushroom butter sauce. If you're starting to think that everything in Milan is breaded and fried, you would not be correct as the crowning achievement of Milanese cuisine is Risotto Milanese, a splendid saffron and Parmigiano Reggiano rice dish cooked in rich broth added a ladle at a time and stirred nonstop. And who can speak of Milanese cuisine without including the Cassola fish soup, the Buseca butter and bean sauteed tripe (cow's stomach... it's tastier than it sounds), or the Panettone, the internationally loved, delightful tall domed cake shaped like the Duomo in Milano and packed with candied peel studding its rich, dry golden "mollica" or inside "crumb" part.

Now that these two titans, one representing the finest of the north and the other the most passionate of the south have clashed, who gets the Scudetto. Since I have been appointed the sole judge, I must rule in favor of the most delicious, magnificent and world class cuisine... and of course, I am half Neapolitan and half Sicilian, thus it may not surprise you that the winner is...

Milan!

Sorry, Naples. Milanese cuisine is built on the foundations of all great cuisines. It is varied, exciting, makes the best of a broad spectrum of wonderful, fresh, local ingredients and will please the most demanding gourmand. Neapolitan cuisine is delicious but it is a one note band. Not only are most dishes oversalted and over-olive-oiled almost to inedibility, but they may have figured out a million variations on the humble tomato, but at the end of the day, it's still just a tomato served up a million different ways. While the Milanese definitely enjoy tomato sauces, their greater culinary latitude gives them the clear edge in any head to head comparison. Butter and cream are completely unheard of in Neapolitian cuisine and considered not fit for human consumption. That is why Naples loses and Milan wins. The best part about any great cuisine is its wide open horizon, and the Neapolitans bear such an ardent inherent dislike of anything non-Neapolitan that they have restricted themselves out of world contention.

Sure, I'll savor a great pizza by the Naples shore and then go to Caflish for a superlative sfogliatella pastry. But when I want a truly great gourmet meal, I head north to Milan.

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    • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

      Hal Licino 

      11 years ago from Toronto

      Southerners absolutely despise butter. My own mother, raised a Sicilian but lived most of her life in Naples, will leave the table gagging if I spread some butter on my bread, or if I pour milk in my cereal. The thought of using a dairy product which isn't cheese seems to be against their genetic code! I think that's hilarious when you consider that all Neapolitans will greedily devour fresh mozzarella di bufala that is literally dripping with... yeah... MILK! DUH! Oh well... nobody ever said anything actually made sense in Naples... :)

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 

      11 years ago from San Francisco

      I remember reading a joke that the biggest difference between northern & southern Italian cuisine was...butter (northerners love it, southerners are happy with their olive oil), but you make a good argument for why culinary purism eventually leads to stagnation.

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