There’s something distinctly un-Italian about vegetarianism. When a friend of mine, at a meal in Piedmont a few years ago, told her host she didn’t eat meat, she was asked if she disliked men too. But if vegetarian food is ever going to catch on in Italy, then Milan is surely the place, especially during its biannual fashion week, when calories are there to be counted.
Joia, in the Porta Venezia district, is in the vanguard of the Italian vegetarian movement. Its Swiss chef and co-owner, Pietro Leemann, has run the place for 25 years and he’s a hit with the fashion crowd. The food may sound a little hippyish—dishes include “Serendipity in the garden of my dreams” and “Let us sing the mountain”—but it’s creative, playful and truly delicious.
You’d still enjoy the food if you were drinking mineral water, but what a shame to miss out on such a great wine list. Joia’s sommelier, Antonio di Mora, has put together an outstanding selection, focusing on organic, biodynamic and “natural wines” made without added sulphur. The list is cosmopolitan. Around 75% of the 800-plus bins are Italian, but with bottles from France, Spain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Lebanon, America, Argentina, South Africa, Switzerland and Slovenia. I suspect the demand for its New World wines is minimal, which may explain why some—the 1997 Shingle Peak Pinot Noir from Marlborough and the 2005 Yacochuya from Argentina—are a little old.
What to drink with Joia’s subtle, painterly food? Ordering by the glass is the best option, as di Mora is happy to open almost anything in the cellar and pour you a bicchiere. We tried two contrasting whites: the round, floral 2012 Ca’ Brione Nino Negri, IGT (€7 a glass), and a challenging, tea-leafy, orange-coloured 2006 Radikon Riobolla Gialla from Collio (€10). We also had two reds, the refined, scented 2011 Vietti Langhe Nebbiolo (€8) and the 2013 Occhipinti SP 68, a youthful, fruit-packed blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato from Sicily (€8).
The combinations with the food were mostly successful, but I’d advise you to keep four wines on the table and mix and match them for fun. Don’t miss out on the desserts either: one of them, a chocolate and orange terrine called “Five minutes”, came with its own hourglass. As with the wines, you won’t regret the calories.
joia.it; around €75pp including wine
Where else to go and what to drink
ALLA CUCINA DELLE LANGHE
Traditional Milanese food on Corso Como, bang in the middle of the fashion district. Around €50pp
Best white: 2013 Tasca d’Almerita Regaleali Bianco A refreshing, herbal, unoaked blend of Grecanico, Catarratto, Inzolia and Chardonnay from one of Sicily’s best estates. The wine is rich and slightly honeyed, but it has plenty of acidity for balance. €12
Best red: 2010 Massolino Barolo Top vintage, top producer: what’s not to enjoy? This intense Nebbiolo may still be a little young, but drink it with robust food and the tannins soften like a dream. Thick and sinewy, with a lift of floral sweetness. €60
AL PONT DE FERR
Fashionable, canal-side restaurant in the Navigli district with a great wine list. Around €50pp
Best white: 2011 Vita Vinea Amber Dry Rkatsiteli, Georgia An unusual wine, this was fermented and aged in buried amphorae. The result has plenty of colour, backed up by corresponding depth of flavour, with dried fruits to the fore. €12 per glass
Best red: 2011 Sandrone Dolcetto d’Alba Luciano Sandrone is sometimes dismissed, wrongly in my view, as an arch moderniser in Piedmont. This juicy, perfumed, berry and liquorice-scented Dolcetto shows that he’s equally adept at making red wines without oak. €20