Two Exceptional Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants in Milan, Italy
Not so long ago, traveling as a vegetarian or vegan was a challenge. Fortunately, in recent years vegetarianism and veganism have become more mainstream, thus an increasing number of restaurants cater to those of us who do not eat meat. Unfortunately, quantity does not always mean quality. I have suffered through some meals that were borderline inedible. But during a recent trip to Italy, I was delighted to discover two exceptional vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Milan.
Mantra Raw Vegan Restaurant
Marina Dell’Utri, owner of Mantra Raw Vegan Restaurant was born and raised in Milan. After completing secondary school, she moved to California to pursue a degree in Marine Biology. During her time in the States, she noticed that everyone was selling cold pressed juices. On a day when she was not feeling well, she bought a six pack of the juices to detox. At the same time, she also began doing Yoga.
“After a month and a half my mind was super clear and I felt so full of energy, she told me. “I started reading about how to transition and discovered the raw food movement.” She started going to Whole Foods and buying quality foods. When she began craving bread, crackers, and pancakes, she learned about dehydrating and began making crackers from seeds. “Then I went to work at Planet Raw in Beverly Hills. It opened a whole new world for me. What amazed me the most is there were no set rules. With raw foods it’s all about creation and invention. Everything is experimental.”
Dell’Utri decided she had to come back to Italy because there was not a single raw food restaurant in the entire country. Even cold pressed juices were unavailable. Two and a half years ago she opened Mantra Raw Vegan and it is still the only raw food restaurant in Milan. “My goal is to introduce everyone to this kind of food and lifestyle. For me it’s a passion, a mission. You don’t need to be a vegan to eat here.”
As a vegetarian, I experienced her claim first hand. I like vegan food, but suffer the pangs of withdrawal when I am deprived of cheese and butter. Though I was unconvinced that a meal consisting only of raw foods would satisfy, I dove in with gusto.
I began with a tall glass of their GREENZEN juice, a mixture of kale, lettuce, spinach, parsley, celery, apple, lemon, and ginger. It was light and refreshing, with just the right amount of ginger.
My second course was ZUP, a fresh tomato cream soup with extra virgin olive oil and fresh herbs. Chilled, of course, because it’s raw. It was simultaneously smooth, tangy, and lemony, with a mild tomato taste. It was delightful, but my bread craving kicked in so I added a basket of dehydrated crackers.
For my main course I chose RAWV, butternut pumpkin slices that had been marinated for 24 hours with ginger and rosemary, then filled with pine nut and spinach fondue, cilantro pesto, and sour apple cubes. It was absolutely spectacular. The fondue filling was a perfect complement to the pumpkin slices, which were slightly harder than al dente. The cilantro pesto made me swoon, and the cubed sour apples added that last little “zing” to the dish. It was the perfect example of how raw food is so much more than a boring salad or celery and carrot sticks, if done correctly.
I topped it all off with their CISFRU dessert, a raspberry and rose cheezecake with rose extract and pink Himalayan salt on a mixed nut base. It was really quite amazing. The cheezecake was made from cashews with, I think, some lemon, and if my taste buds were firing accurately, the rosettes on top were made with coconut milk.
The menu at Mantra Raw Vegan Restaurant is extensive, offering everything from snacks to multi-course meals. As for the quality, taste, and presentation of the food, on a scale of one to 10 I’d give them an 11. However diners need to be aware that eating here is not cheap. My lunch bill came to $45.40 Euros ($53.39 USD at the time of writing). I addressed this with Dell’Utri. She’s aware that her prices make it difficult to expose the masses to this lifestyle, but she hasn’t yet figured out a way to make the food more affordable. “Everything that is sustainable and organic is very expensive. And everything is done completely by hand, made from scratch. We have only 40 seats, but seven people work in the kitchen, where the ordinary restaurant might have three.” I wouldn’t be able to eat here on a regular basis, but despite the prices, I’ll definitely be treating myself to another meal at Mantra Raw Vegan Restaurant the next time I’m in Milan.
Joia Kitchen, a Vegetarian Bistro
Chef Pietro Leemann discovered his passion early. When he was still a child, the great Swiss chef, Angelo Conti Rossini, brought a Charlotte Russe cake to a dinner at his home. He was only fifteen years old at the time and had no idea what he was going to do with his life, but he knew he wanted to dive into that cake. “I was dazzled. It smelled of fragrant cookies and delicious vanilla. It was almost as light as air and all but melted in my mouth. The taste lingered and was just rich enough, thanks to the lengthy mixing of the yolks with the sugar, as I later learned. I ate at least half of it and understood where I was headed.”
Leemann began his career as a chef in 1978. He apprenticed in a traditional Italian restaurant and in a restaurant that served traditional French cuisine, where he learned the bases of cooking. During the early years of the 80’s he worked with two master chefs of nouvelle cuisine, yet he was not happy. “I felt that cuisine was fenced in, culturally and territorially. The sauces were all whipped with butter and cream until they were saturated with fat. There were contradictions in the terms – enhancing food by adding salt and pepper, and lightening up a sauce by enriching it with butter or cream.” When people started to speak about vegetarian cuisine, he became a vegetarian for two years to try it out. Still, something was missing. “I felt more and more as if the clothing I was wearing didn’t fit and my hat was all wrong.”
About that time, a friend in Milan started to talk to him about Asian food. “I had read about and tasted the few dishes that were available at the time and I realized that they might be new stimuli for a breakthrough…in cooking.” So, in 1986, he traveled to Asia, where he spent two years studying the cuisine of China and Japan.
Shortly after returning to Italy in 1989, Leemann was contacted by a group of friends who hired him to consult on an experiment, a totally vegetarian restaurant they named Joia. Before the year was out, he had bought the restaurant from the original investors. For the first few years Leeman struggled to gain acceptance, as vegetarianism was still considered quite avant garde, but in 1996 his hard work was finally rewarded with a Michelin star.
Chef Leemann describes the Joia Kitchen of today as “a temple of vegetarian cuisine.” He uses only organic ingredients and sources most from local growers. Sixteen cooks work in the kitchen to ensure the high standard of quality and presentation. Even their breads are homemade, fresh from the oven each day. Perhaps best of all, Joia offers a scale of prices that are affordable for all socioeconomic statuses. While the Joia Gourmet menu averages 100 Euros ($118 USD), Chef also offers the Piatto Quadro lunch plate which includes five seasonal selections, bottled water, beverage, and even gratuity for just 25 Euros ($29.40 USD).
Intrigued, I joined a friend at Joia one afternoon to try the Piatto Quadro plate. My dining partner, who eats a plant-based diet, ordered the vegan option, while I opted for the vegetarian platter. The main dish, a mushroom pasta, was perfectly al-dente, and the four side dishes were flavorful and creative. I especially appreciated the wait staff, who all managed to be exceedingly attentive without being ostentatious. And of course, the price was quite remarkable.
Joia Restaurant is located at Via Panfilo Castaldi, 18. It is open Monday through Saturday for lunch from 12:20 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and for dinner from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Reservations are recommended. Phone them at +39 02 2952 2124 or email [email protected]
If you are a vegan or a vegetarian, you may also wish to read my story about Vegetarian Restaurants in the Baltic Countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania).
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