MILAN — It’s a fashion week ritual that editors and retailers descend on the same small circle of eateries here — namely Da Giacomo, Bice, Le Langhe and Nobu — for rapid business lunches and late-night postshow dinners. Equally true, native Milanese rarely venture far from local spots they’ve frequented for years or restaurants with a storied past. New places simply don’t come along very often.
Paola Budel, the 36-year-old former chef at the Hotel Principe di Savoia, is out to shake up the city’s stodgy culinary landscape with her first restaurant, for which she’s still seeking a location. She left the Principe last summer, desiring a more sophisticated approach to food.
Budel has been scouting locations for her restaurant for about five months. She’s also gearing up to promote her first cookbook, “Maiale,” which means pork in Italian, and includes 28 recipes that aim to alter the meat’s reputation for being fatty. The cookbook, in Italian, is due out in a few weeks from Lodi-based publisher Bibliotheca Culinaria.
“Pork meat and lamb meat are equal in terms of calorie content,” said Budel over a cup of barley coffee at the Grande Hotel et de Milan. Dodging grisly ham hocks and ribs are just part of the health-conscious chef’s overall culinary strategy, as is an emphasis on fresh ingredients and minimal preparation.
“You have to know how to elaborate as little as possible,” said Budel, who prepares meals in line with the Zone Diet’s prescription for a 30/40/30 ratio of carbohydrates, protein and fat. “I want short cooking times that bring out the flavor of the food, little salt, few condiments and just enough oil.” She cites her former mentor, Gualtiero Marchesi, and the famed Alain Ducasse as key influences, the first for his treatment of “very clean flavors” and the Frenchman for “his managerial spirit.”
Budel, who grew up on a farm outside Venice, implements her philosophy by injecting traditional recipes with some unusual twists. Her take on the Italian summer favorite of prosciutto, melon and mozzarella translates to a pureed version of the fruit into a soup containing a crisp but tender piece of marinated pork and bite-sized pieces of mozzarella. In an effort to lighten up basic pasta, she steams Parmesan and pepper ravioli rather than boiling them and serves it up on lettuce leaves.
It’s definitely no picnic winning over an Italian audience that favors traditional dishes to novel culinary twists — a fact Budel acknowledges. She’s shocked to see how many mistakes chefs make, whether it’s the repetition of an ingredient in the courses or appetizers with lingering aftertastes.
“You shouldn’t be aggressive with tastes,” she explains. “A meal should be a crescendo.”