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The Osteria dei Binari (via Tortona, 1) comes highly recommended by many trusted voices, and as soon as we enter we feel a surge of confidence…because the place is empty. If we’re the first diners at 8:30, that means that most of our fellow diners will be locals. We’re escorted to a fine table adjacent to the (empty) outdoor patio in the restaurant’s funky, elegant-clutter interior, and given a pair of well-worn menus and a wine list, which we peruse as the usual preliminaries – bread, grissini, olive oil – arrive.

Years ago, a Piedmontese friend with whom I’ve since lost touch introduced me to the glories of thin slices of salty pork fat. And thus, lardo from Arnad is an obvious, heart-healthy first choice. Theresa opts for an incredible prosciutto served with a creamy mozzarella that seems more like burrata in disguise. We then share the night’s specialty, a truly definitive and wholly flawless risotto of porcini…the absolute highlight of the meal.

Everything up to now has been perfect. But the meal takes a slight downturn with the secondi, thereby demonstrating an assertion that is, largely, a truism outside a small few Italian regions: most foreign diners would be better-served by stopping with their primi, or at least skipping ahead to formaggi and/or dolci.

Actually, “downturn” is a bit harsh. The problem is less one of quality than it is of expectations; palates raised on and used to American- or French-influenced fish and meat cookery will find much in the traditional Italian repertoire bland and, frequently, overcooked. My costoletta alla Milanese, for example, is perfectly authentic and, for a pounded and breaded veal chop, perfectly tasty. It’s just a little boring. True, the potatoes served with it are an over-crisped mess akin to canned shoestrings, but I ignore them. Theresa’s branzino with an overlapping envelope of zucchini is moist, tasty, and far better, though again it’s her least favorite dish of the evening.

And, in fact, after our secondi we’re served – without prompting – a plate of some of the freshest, most intense parmigiano Reggiano I’ve ever tasted. We devour its salty/creamy deliciousness down to the last crumb, leaving no room for dessert.

The wine list is long and reasonably regional, though as befits an international city there’s an inclusive pan-Italian feel to it.. The wine service is exquisite, with a beautiful tableside decanting (over a beautiful old candle) and an entirely proper rinsing of glasses.

By the time we leave, the restaurant is packed to and beyond its gills, reaching a point where it almost seems overcrowded (our peripheral table helps mitigate this effect). The service is uniformly fabulous, and – as we’ve always found to be the norm in this country – the language is Italian-until-you-need-help (with an unknown meat’s identity, for example), which I consider an enormously welcoming gesture. My closing espresso is dark with just the right edge of bitterness. Overall, this restaurant seems a very fair value, though I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it cheap…after all, this is Milan. We leave happy, satisfied, and tired (me more than Theresa), and pile into a taxi for the ride back to the hotel. (10/07)


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