International Day of Italian Cuisines

The fascinating history of a dish that is a gastronomy masterpiece (If done according to the Authentic Tradition)

by Rosario Scarpato
The origins of Costoletta alla Milanese are rooted in that Lombolos cum panitio, that is, breaded and fried veal cutlets, offered by the abbot of Saint Ambrose Basilica in Milan , in the distant 17th of September 1134 . Ambrose, Bishop and Roman Consul, was and is the saint patron of the city and on that day it was the feast of Saint Satiro, his brother. As Pietro Verri writes in his History of Milan, the dish appeared in the menu of the nine-course banquet offered to the canons of the church for the occasion.

“Janvier, Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry”, Book of hours

The breading and golden brown frying, as a cooking technique, has a long history in Italy , possibly also thanks to the myth surrounding the use of gold in the kitchen. Physicians during the middle age, for example, convinced that gold was the best therapy against heart diseases, suggested to coat the dishes with the dust of that precious metal. A very expensive remedy indeed, available only in the kitchens of kings and few more fortunate mortals. What about all the others then? Well, apparently, they had to make it with the colour of gold. That was possibly one of the causes of the widespread breading and frying golden brown technique. Not by chance, Martino de Rossi , aka Maestro Martino of Como, the first “celebrity chef” in history according to Wikipedia, was concerned about the “colorito”, when he gave his detailed instructions on how to bread the lombolos, which were still cooked on the spit tough. In 1492 , the same year in which Columbus discovered America , he included them in his De Arte Coquinaria , recommending to slowly cook the meat, which was still far to be called costoletta or cotoletta .

The first mention of cotelètta, from the Milanese dialect cutelèta , appears only in 1814 , in the Milanese-Italian dictionary written by Francesco Cherubini and published by the famous printer Imperiale Regia Stamperia in Milan . It’s called cotoletta but it clearly refers to costoletta because the name has a clear French origin. It comes from côte or côtelette, a piece of veal meat from the rib, with the bone , which in Italian corresponds to costa, costola or costoletta .

Indeed, breaded and golden brown fried côtelettes have appeared in French cookbooks since the beginning of the 18th century , including the fundamental “ La science du maitre d’hotel ”, 1749 . Food historian Massimo Alberini , former President of Accademia della Cucina Italiana , pointed it out in an article and reminded that when these côtelettes arrived in Italy, at the beginning of the 19th century, they were called in Italian “( French Revolution cutlets ). The cotoletta of the Revolution however had to be marinated in melted butter with salt, pepper, cloves and fine herbs and then go through the triple coating: flour, beaten eggs and breadcrumbs, before being fried. In other words, a method (and some ingredients as well) quite different from the first recipe of Costoletta alla Milanese ever published, which appeared in 1855 in Gastronomia Moderna (Modern Gastronomy), a book written by Giuseppe Sorbiatti. The recipe was titled as “ Costoline di vitello fritte alla milanese ” (fried veal little cutlets): Costoline or Costolette in Italian are pretty much the same thing. The method requires that the ribs are dipped in beaten eggs, coated with breadcrumbs and golden brown fried in butter. The author recommends a slow frying, on a moderate heat (fuoco lento). He uses the words “calor biondo ( literally blond heat ), and “ soffriggere a fuoco lento ” to give the idea of how has to be the process. “Soffriggere””in this case can be easily translated in English as to brown. There is no yet clarified butter, which had to be used at a later stage since it has a higher smoking point and it’s particularly appropriate in professional cooking. The recipe of Sorbiatti recommended to serve the meat with the melted butter in which it had been cooked, in addition to wedges of lemon .

Modern Gastronomy,Giuseppe Sorbiatti

Cotoletta or costoletta? As we have seen above, in the case of the Milanese dialect the words refer to the same recipe. That is why in cookbooks and culinary literature it is possible find both terms. Ada Boni in Il Talismano della Felicita’ and Fernanda Gosetti (In Cucina con Fernanda Gosetti) call it Costoletta . It appears instead as Cotoletta in La Cucina d’Oro (The golden cuisine) by Giovanni Nuvoletti Perdomini and in la Cucina nazionale Italiana (The Italian National Cuisine) by Allan Bay and Paola Salvatori. Food writer Ottorina Perna Bozzi calls it Costoletta in her La Lombardia in cucina (Lombardia in the kitchen) and Cotoletta in Vecchia Milano in Cucina (Old Milan in the kitchen). For this reason, on March 17, 2008 the declaration by the Municipality of Milan of Costoletta alla Milanese as De.Co – Denominazione Comunale (a sort of controlled municipal appellation) came as a relief. The protocol of the De.Co provides the guidelines for an authentic Costoletta alla Milanese .

Fernanda Gosetti

The term Costoletta enhances the identity of the dish and its original recipe. Too often Cotoletta has been used to describe a preparation much more similar to the Wiener schnitzel, which has not much to do with the Costoletta. To start, Austria’s National Dish , which in Italian should be properly called Scaloppina alla Viennese or Fettina impanata, is made with a different cut of veal meat, let alone the fact that in 18th century it was much more common to find schnitzels made with pork meat, which was less expensive. “The true cotoletta is a costoletta with the bone cut between the first and the sixth rib of the loin of a milk fed veal”, makes clear the food historian Silvia Tropea Montagnosi .
In addition, the schnitzel is very thin and heavily pounded before cooking, while the Costoletta Milanese is thick ( it must be 3 or 4 centimetres thick”, according to Tropea Montagnosi ) and only lightly (if) pounded. Finally the Austrian delicacy was traditionally and often still is fried in pork fat rather than butter.

Wiener Schnitzel

So it is totally irrelevant which of the two came before and which influenced the other and these are useless disputes based on falsely patriotic basis. Not to mention the inexistent sources, such as an impossible letter describing the discovery of Costoletta alla Milanese sent by the Marshal Radetzky , commander of the Austrian invading force that dominated Northern Italy from 1831 to 1857 , to a lieutenant who never existed. Italian migrants between the 19th and 20th centuries took the Italian tradition of fettina panata or scaloppina alla Viennese with them. In Argentina , for example, they wrongly called it “ Milanesa ” and soon it became the Argentine national dish, which has also a variation called milanesa napolitana, a contradiction in terms, made by a schnitzel (prepared with different cuts of meat) topped with tomato sauce and melted cheese. The great contemporary Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi challenged his customers with his own version of Costoletta alla Milanese . He didn’t change the method but only served the costoletta cut into squared cubes of 2.5 cm, individually fried with the bone, with still some meat attached. In this way, each morsel is individually browned and deliciously crunchy.

What IDIC stands for?

The International Day of Italian Cuisines IDIC was born as a reaction against the systematic forgery of Italian cuisine and products. It aims at protecting the right of worldwide consumers to get authentic and quality Italian cuisine when they go to eateries labeled as “Italian”. Thousands of chefs, restaurateurs and lovers of Italian Food all over the world join the annual IDIC appeal, a tradition by now, launched by itchefs-GVCI (Virtual Group of Italian Chefs), a network of over 1900 culinary professionals working in 70 countries. True Italian cuisine is part of the world’s cultural heritage; its celebration is not against creativity in the kitchen or innovation. It’s only about establishing some basic principles: when the name of a traditional Italian dish is used, that dish should be prepared in the traditional manner.

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