Burgers - Milan's art of fast suppers

Updated: 2013-09-08 07:42

By Ratha Tep (The New York Times)

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The Italian city has become besotted by this US comfort food staple with a spate of burger bars and restaurants opening in recent years, writes Ratha Tep.

On a crisp Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, a steady stream of patrons milled about a space with red brick walls, waiting to pick up orders of towering burgers before nabbing wooden stools at the restaurant's perimeter. It was a scene that could have taken place in Brooklyn or Boise, especially given the huge American flag that hung near the doorway. But the restaurant, 202 Hamburger and Delicious, was on the Corso di Porta Ticinese, a shopping street in Milan.

It is just one of a spate of burger bars and restaurants that have popped up across this refined northern Italian city in recent years, fueled by a fascination with American comfort food and its implicit casualness - the antithesis of the lingering, multi-course traditional Italian meal.

The most intriguing of these new spots use high-end ingredients that are distinctly Italian in provenance but have far-ranging results: Burgers that are near facsimiles of the best across the Atlantic, some that are emphatically Italian-accented and others that touch on both cuisines.

 Burgers - Milan's art of fast suppers

Corso di Porta Ticinese is a shopping street in Milan. Photos provided to China Daily

 Burgers - Milan's art of fast suppers

Owner Tizzy Beck stands in front of Tizzy's NY Bar and Grill in Milan.

"Milan is international compared to other Italian cities, and people are starting to move away from the classic Italian way of eating with courses like primo and secondo," says Tizzy Beck, who owns Tizzy's NY Bar and Grill in the city. "They're also starting to realize that fast food doesn't have to be junk food if high-quality ingredients are used."

At the year-old 202 Hamburger and Delicious it is not just the atmosphere but the luscious burgers that could pass for American - the result of a six-month tasting trip in New York City by its owners, Roberto Caramia and Ivan Totaro.

"We tried a different burger each day," Caramia says.

Beniamino Nespor and Eugenio Roncoroni, friends since they were teenagers, cooked in some of the world's top restaurant kitchens - Nespor at Restaurante Martin Berasategui in the Basque region of Spain, Roncoroni at Quince in San Francisco - before opening Al Mercato Ristorante and Burger Bar in 2011.

The two distinct concepts are at play on either side of a glassed-in kitchen.

On one side, diners at Al Mercato Ristorante are treated to a more formal experience, with the option of a 10-course tasting menu. The meal is more casual at the Burger Bar, which offers patties made from Rossa Reggiana beef and other global street foods like a pork belly tostada.

"Eating a burger is fun and dirty," Nespor says. "It's not like sitting down for a traditional family meal for two-and-a-half hours and getting uncomfortable."

Even large restaurant companies have become besotted with the burger.

Gruppo Sebeto, a Neapolitan restaurant group known for its far-reaching pizza chain Rossopomodoro - which New Yorkers may know from its outpost in the Italian-food emporium Eataly - turned its sights on the hamburger with the 2011 opening of Ham Holy Burger.

"After so many years in the pizza world, we started searching for another 'food for all'," says Franco Manna, a Gruppo Sebeto founder.

On a car-free Sunday, parents and their well-dressed children biked through the boutique-filled Brera neighborhood to the airy restaurant, where they customized their burgers made with Fassone beef from the Piedmont region.

Toppings included Italian ingredients like the cured meat speck, smoked scamorza cheese and grilled radicchio. The concept appears to be thriving: The second Ham Holy Burger opened in May 2012 in Rome, and the third in Milan's Marghera neighborhood in November.

Before heading off to one of the raucous bars along the canals of the bustling Navigli neighborhood, young Milanese stop at Trita Tailor Made Burgers.

It's a bright counter-service spot founded in March 2012 by three friends: Riccardo Cortese, Federico Pinna and Alessandro Dalli.

In addition to beef, the menu here includes Buffalo Campano - meat from buffaloes that are raised for 15 months. Through the kitchen window, cooks can be spotted cutting huge slabs of meat, running them through a grinder and shaping patties by hand.

Another group of investors plans to open Polpa, another burger spot, in the lively Porta Romana neighborhood later this summer.

A few blocks away, a hipster crowd congregates at Tizzy's, which opened in 2011.

The flavorful patties are ground and blended by a mom and pop Italian butcher shop, says Beck, a New York native, but are accompanied by Americana - toppings like cheddar cheese, desserts like banana splits and Brooklyn Brewery beer.

Already armed with an arsenal of favorite burgers in her hometown, including those at Shake Shack and at Little Owl, Beck did not have to make special burger research trips.

"I'm a New Yorker just doing what I know," she says.

The New York Times

(China Daily 09/08/2013 page16)