A Strategic Eating Guide to Expo Milan, the Foodie World’s Fair
With some 170 outlets representing 140 countries, there’s no going away hungry from this year’s Expo Milan. Here’s your game plan for getting the only the best bites
By Jay Cheshes in the Wall Street Journal
A FEW DAYS after opening, in early May, the Universal Exposition running in Milan through the end of October looked well on the way to surpassing projections of 20 million visitors. Its vast site—pavilions representing 140 countries spread over 10 million square feet of exhibition space on the edge of the city—was swarming with Italian families, elementary-school groups and bands of overexcited teens. And this before the summer travel season was even under way.
World’s fairs, held every few years somewhere on earth, are always a showcase of national pride for the countries participating. This year’s event—focused on the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”—has brought food and drink front and center as never before, with many countries adding restaurants and bars to their Expo pavilions. Most have gone the traditional route, offering homestyle introductions to their native cuisines. Chile’s restaurant, for one, features 18 greatest culinary hits from up and down its 2,650-mile-long coast. “We wanted to highlight all the country’s most popular foods,” said head chef, Tomás Saldivia.
A few pavilions have taken a casual approach, building food trucks and snack carts; others have embraced serious gastronomy, opening full-fledged restaurants where top chefs consult or rotate through, cooking for a few days at a time. The restaurant atop Mexico’s pavilion, among the most ambitious at Expo, features dishes from 30 of that country’s most innovative chefs. “We don’t serve guacamole,” said Sandro Landucci, the event producer behind the place. “With our menu we’re trying to change perceptions of Mexican food.”
Though there are dozens of pavilion restaurants at Expo, they can only collectively handle a fraction of the event’s food demands—organizers expect to serve 26 million meals by the time they’re done. So there’s a McDonald’s and a juice bar and an outpost of Eataly, the upscale food-hall chain founded in Turin, highlighting 20 regions of Italy. “I have to make sure people who are here will not starve,” said Piero Galli, general manager at Expo Milan.
dentità Golose Expo, the most serious restaurant at the fair not attached to a country’s pavilion, features prix fixe meals from top Italian and international guest chefs—26 in all. Some of those cooking will be in town for San Pellegrino’s first ever “Young Chef” competition, with chef judges like Grant Achatz from Chicago and Gastón Acurio from Lima naming the world’s best chef under 30 at an awards show in Milan on June 26.
It’s one of many food-themed initiatives taking place in the city in conjunction with Expo. To keep track, Mitchell Davis, director of the U.S.A. pavilion, developed a master calendar of off-site events for his staff. “A lot of the influence of Expo isn’t in the public face,” he said. One of the most novel—and noble—projects is an off-site soup kitchen developed by Italian chef Massimo Bottura. Here, high-profile chefs like Denmark’s René Redzepi use leftover Expo ingredients to cook for needy guests referred by the Catholic charity Caritas—bringing new meaning to the notion that Expo should offer something for everyone.
Essential Expo Milan
With nearly 170 places offering food and drink, this fair can seem like the world’s most overwhelming food court. This short list of sure bets will remove some of the guesswork
Star Chefs: Many national pavilions cover all their bases by offering both crowd-pleasing fast food and high-end chef cooking. France serves on-the-go crepes and croissants on its pavilion’s ground floor while offering much more ambitious food upstairs at its full-service Café des Chefs, where former winners of the Bocuse d’Or competition—not all of them French—rotate through every few weeks, each presenting his own well priced four-course menu. Mexico serves tacos, featuring handmade tortillas and meat from an al pastor spit, at its ground-floor tequila bar, while highlighting auteur-chef cuisine at Bésame Mucho, its lively al fresco restaurant. An American food truck advisory board worked on the lobster rolls, kale salads, burgers and barbecue served from trucks outside the U.S.A. pavilion, and beyond the national pavilions, at the James Beard House restaurant—operating throughout Expo in downtown Milan—you’ll find cooking from America’s best chefs (60 in all will make an appearance). The restaurant has also invited a number of Italian chefs to reinterpret American food. On Sundays, for brunch, top Italian chefs will cook with their international colleagues at Identità Golose Expo, which is operated by an Italian gastronomy group. Once a month, the restaurant will highlight a particular region of Italy, with cooking demonstrations from its most important chefs.
A Taste of Italy: As you might expect, classic Italian food is the most heavily represented at Expo, but not all of it is worth standing in line for. Don’t miss Rigoletto, the fair’s official gelato outlet, which serves 16 flavors developed especially for the fair, most of them highlighting a prized regional ingredient (hazelnuts from Piedmont, Gorgonzola from Lombardy). Ecco Pizza & Pasta, a short stroll away, serves authentic Neapolitan pizza—beautiful blistered pies cooked fast in a Magliano oven imported from Naples—by pizzaiolos who moved north for the fair. Of the 10 Italian chefs chosen as official Expo Ambassadors—each of them linked to an emblematic ingredient—only “saffron ambassador” Davide Oldani of Milan’s D’O has his own full-time food outlet on site. At Foo’d, a secluded kiosk near the main entrance, he serves saffron and cocoa nib gelato, and a modern take on risotto milanese with a bright spiral of saffron sauce on top.
Around the World in 80 Plates: Many countries with pavilions at Expo don’t do big business in exporting restaurants abroad, so the fair offers many visitors their first opportunity to try these nation’s cuisines. In the building devoted to oil-rich Angola, the only country from sub-Saharan Africa with its own Expo pavilion (other nations are bunched together in ingredient-themed clusters), a casual restaurant on the ground floor serves rustic dishes like peanut chicken with dende leaves, while a formal venue upstairs features a contemporary fusion of African and Portuguese flavors. You can get a taste of the Caucasus at Dastarkhan, the restaurant at the Kazakhstan pavilion, where the expansive menu includes classics like horse tartare and plov (a lamb and rice dish). Uruguay, as celebrated for its live-fire meat cooking as is neighboring Argentina, imported its own grass-fed Pampas beef for the fair. Holland set up a lively food-truck park serving classic Dutch nibbles like bitterballen (fried meatballs) and stewed beef sandwiches. Iran offers bright saffron-stained pilafs and long-simmered stews like fesenjan (made with pomegranate and walnuts). Chile does brisk business at its restaurant—one of the busiest at Expo—serving beef-filled empanadas, fat abalone and other classic dishes at long wooden tables, along with a selection of Chilean wines.