At a time when fancy fine-dining experiences and their rituals keep mushrooming everywhere — also becoming Hollywood’s target for dark comedy, as in last year’s film “The Menu” — it’s not every day that a restaurant is compared to a spa. Yet the parallel was viewed as the best compliment Diego Panizza has received so far for Horto, a new Milan restaurant he cofounded with Osvaldo Bosetti.
“A client showed up with her husband one night. She was disappointed because she was stuck in Milan during a local holiday as her trip was canceled. When she left, she told me that staying here for dinner felt like spending two hours at a spa,” recalls Panizza, seated at one of the birch wood tables that punctuate the expansive restaurant. Outside, a sunny Milanese day was in full display thanks to the big windows outlining the space, with the natural light filtering in and illuminating the curved walls and buttery-colored interiors, further validating the client’s impression.
Quietly opened last fall a few steps from the landmark Duomo cathedral, Horto added to the packed map of the city, which saw a string of new hotspots being launched, including luxury hotels, members’ clubs and restaurants of the likes of Ferragamo’s Portrait Milano and Andrea Aprea, to name a few.
If at first glance Horto ticks all the boxes of today’s culinary destinations — great design, an impressive 360-degree terrace overlooking the city and photogenic dishes — the restaurant stands out for its ethical approach, which informs every aspect of the project, from recipes to furnishings.
Nestled at the top floor of the renovated The Medelan complex in Via San Protaso, Horto aims to offer a quiet haven from the chaos of the city and reconnect guests to nature via food experimentation and sustainable choices. These hinge on the concept of the “ethical hour,” which focuses on promoting a short supply chain with the sourcing of seasonal ingredients within an hour from Milan. To this end, Horto has built an ecosystem of small to medium-sized farms, dairies and producers. Panizza notes they have started to join forces; for example, making arrangements to gather all stock and have just one delivery a week to limit the impact of transportation.
The same approach trickles down to Horto’s interiors and the choice of other partners, such as BWT, a supplier of water treatment systems offering refined non-bottled water to avoid the use of plastic at the restaurant.
Genius Loci Architettura — the studio in charge of the interior concept as well as of the sustainable renovation of the entire building, which was originally designed in the early 1900s by Luigi Broggi — conceived Horto as an enveloping environment defined by sinuous lines and ethereal colors. The space features an open floor plan, as well as small alcoves for intimate gatherings, with furnishings and finishes made of natural and recycled materials. These encompass the flooring crafted from old vinegar barrels and the walls covered with plaster derived from leftovers of rice processing.
The support of local communities, rediscovery of regional culinary treasures — ranging from an array of herbs to using exclusively lake fish — and the belief that “everything can be found nearby,” guide the founders’ actions.
Case in point: the involvement of Norbert Niederkofler, the three-Michelin starred and Green starred for sustainability chef, bringing on board the experience of one of the pioneers of the sustainable approach to fine dining.
The longtime executive chef of the St. Hubertus restaurant — which is housed at the Rosa Alpina luxury mountain retreat in the San Cassiano village in the Dolomites — and co-owner of AlpiNN Food Space & Restaurant on the peak of Plan de Corones, the legendary chef is known for more than a decade ago developing his forward-thinking “Cook the Mountain” philosophy of using only local and seasonal ingredients in regional dishes.
“I’m by nature a person that after five, maximum 10 years wants to change and explore new ways,” says Niederkofler over Zoom. “The big change occurred in 2008, when we [St. Hubertus] became the first restaurant in the mountains to receive two Michelin stars…
“Then I started to wonder what people really wanted and asked guests why they were coming and what they were truly looking for. They told me they were seeking local culture,” recalls the chef, adding that it took him more than a year to develop his philosophy “and question all the work done the years before, which is not easy and a big risk, too.”
“But the biggest shift was when my first child Thomas was born. It was the moment I really stopped and told myself we needed to change and rethink everything,” says Niederkofler about the decision to put sustainability at the center of his cooking. This led him to rediscover his roots, to tap and elevate the knowledge of local farmers and breeders and rethink the economic-social development at large by investigating the relationships between production, product, territory and consumption.
The development of Horto required a long gestation, too. “I’ve always been a hotelier and in 2014, I opened the Bianchi Cafè & Cycles in Milan,” says Panizza, recalling that the first seeds of Horto were already planted back then. The idea began to sprout after a couple of years, when he came up with the name, started to scout locations in Milan and first thought of involving Niederkofler.
“In 2018 he just had opened AlpiNN and I went there with a project, but I had no [lease] contract in my hands. We had an hour-and-a-half meeting with the chef, who liked the project and promised we would touch base again when I had a contract. In February 2021 I signed the lease contract, and two months later we signed with Niederkofler, too. It was the simplest thing, really,” recalls Panizza.
The chef confirms he was drawn to the project “because we should start thinking about our future a little differently not only at the mountains, but also by the sea, in the city and around the world… we really have to see how to set up the future and what to leave for the next generations.”
Hence he started to think right away how his “Cook the Mountain” philosophy could be transferred to Milan. “The only difference in my approach is the location, but the goal is the same. The idea is to change the world for better in the future, while making the chefs’ job more interesting,” says Niederkofler.
To this end, the chef is gearing up for the next chapter of his mission, which will focus on giving “more visibility and responsibility to the young talents working with us” and forging the next generation of chefs by launching a university course on gastronomy in Bolzano, Italy.
“Today I want to put at the disposal [of the university] everything we’ve done in the last 30 years. This is what I think my future will be: leaving much more room to youth. And of course they have to take their part, take their share of responsibility and be aware of what they want to do,” he says.
For example, while Niederkofler helms the strategic and organizational direction of the Horto kitchen, one of his previous collaborators at St. Hubertus, young chef Alberto Toè, leads the daily management of the restaurant in the role of executive chef and head of menu development, flanked by maître Ilario Perrot.
“With Horto we are bringing an idea of cuisine that is dictated by what nature and the surrounding area offer, while enhancing the human involvement… It’s admirable to see nowadays young people wanting to innovate, starting right from where their grandparents left off. We operate with this concept in mind, while committing every day to follow a practice of no-waste and give raw materials a new life,” says Toè, who has had international experience, including a stint in Uganda that particularly shifted his view toward a no-waste cuisine and the repurposing of every part of an ingredient in his recipes.
To this end, conservation plays a fundamental role in fighting waste. Applying Niederkofler’s lessons, Toè puts fermentation techniques at the core of his work, signaled by big glass vases standing out in front of Horto’s open kitchen.
For example, one of the culinary highlights on the menu is eel with fermented kiwi. Employing only two ingredients reflects the challenge of perfectly cooking the fish.
“Recipes are all based on four ingredients maximum, but the beauty is that each can result in six different versions,” he adds. His creations also include saffron plin; tortelli with potatoes and elderflower; cream risotto with trout consommé and crème fraîche; durum wheat pasta with snail ragout, and yogurt ice cream with fig leaf oil, to name a few.
Overall, the restaurant offers five-course and seven-course tasting menus, priced at 155 euros and 185 euros, respectively, with wine pairings at between 65 euros and 80 euros. Guests can order à la carte as well, picking two, three or four courses for 90 euros, 120 euros and 150 euros respectively.
Adding to its lunch and dinner services, Horto has recently also filled the “aperitivo” gap in its schedule via the experimental bar overseen by Ivan Patruno, who translates the restaurant’s no-waste philosophy into cocktails. Flavored waters, fermentations and kombucha are created using the juices’ leftovers, while other ingredients from the kitchen like salt, oil, butter and vegetables become part of the cocktails’ preparations. Panizza says the plan is to open at breakfast soon, too, in a move intended to further leverage Horto’s location for business-oriented meetings.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, guests had the chance to enjoy the best of both Niederkofler and Toè’s cuisine through the first iteration of Horto’s new series of exclusive four-handed dinners. The next one is scheduled for Feb. 28 during Milan Fashion Week.
Asked about the reaction since opening, Panizza underscores that the fashion crowd was the first to understand the project and its approach. The space hosted several private dinners and events for fashion and beauty companies, with Fratelli Rossetti being among the first to stage a presentation and believing in the concept, to the point of supplying footwear for the staff, complementing the uniforms crafted from recycled fabrics.
“Private clients tend to be a little bit more biased at the beginning, for instance regarding the choice of lake fish instead of sea fish. But in the end they thank us for the experience. This is an opportunity to make them reconsider their prejudices, too,” concludes Panizza.