In Austria people call them schnitzels, but they’re just the same as breaded escalopes. An even heartier version, not suitable for those with a high cholesterol count, hailing from the food-lovers’ haven of Asturias and going by the name of cachopo, has also become fashionable. In 1859, the Austro-Hungarian Empire relinquished control of Piedmont and with it, the recipe for escalope milanese. And although Asturias and Austria may sound alike, the way they prepare their breaded meats is quite different.
Milan derives from midland, the land in the middle. It’s also known as Mediolanum, although this name has now been hijacked by a financial services provider. Let’s hold onto the idea of middle, however, as it will be of some importance later in this tale.
Curiously enough, there are certain culinary delights that fail to secure patronage and, in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War, are destined to be used as weapons. For example, the popular dish known in Spain as “Russian salad” isn’t Russian at all; there, it’s known as “American salad”. When it comes to the escalope, there are those who claim that the dish is actually from Naples or even from Argentina, like pizzas. Its origins are up in smoke, lost in the cooking fumes of bygone centuries, and nowadays it’s almost impossible to state with any certainty who first thought of breading a steak. Which, if we stop and meditate, has nothing intuitive or casual about it; there’s clearly premeditation in this action. Or even devious intent.
What is undeniably Milanese, however, is the so called cotoletta alla milanese, a breaded veal cutlet served with lemon and mustard. And it’s the dish that gave rise to this story, in which two men, jointly responsible for some of the greatest films of the 20th century, shared an escalope.
One is Nino Rota, the composer of unforgettable soundtracks including The Godfather, Amacord and The Leopard, who was born in a neighbourhood of Milan. There, from child prodigy to up-and-coming star, he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Igor Stravinsky, among others.
Nino Rota lived in Milan for most of his life, although he made regular visits to California and Rome. There was no alternative if he was to conquer the two Olympus of the soundtrack universe: Hollywood and the Cinecittà studios.
The other is Federico Fellini, who met Nino in 1950 after directing his first film, Variety Lights; the pair would be musically inseparable from then on.
In Austria, when you order a schnitzel the waiter will ask if you prefer regular or large. If we’re really hungry, we can be tempted to opt for grosses. When it arrives, however, we’ll realise that we’ve either overestimated our stomach capacity or underestimated Austrian generosity. The dish could be defined as a bedsheet of breaded meat, delicious but infinite. And this is key to understanding what happened during that meeting between these two friends.
The charming eatery in Milan where Nino and Federico had decided to have lunch and chat about The White Sheik, Federico’s next film and the first in an uninterrupted series of collaborations with the composer, provided a discreet setting and home-cooked food, certified by the delicious aromas escaping from the kitchen.
Located just a few metres from the Vittorio Emanuele II arcade, on an alleyway north of the Duomo, this little restaurant was the ideal venue for the discussions between these two artists, whose careers would be bound together until the end of their days.
“What will it be?” asked the attentive waiter, with a distinctly Neapolitan accent.
“Cotoletta alla milanese, of course! The large version!” exclaimed Fellini enthusiastically. Federico was a Mediterranean man given to the pleasures of eating, as illustrated by the rounded figure he would strike in the decades after this meeting.
Nino, much slimmer, perhaps because of his musical sensitivity, was less given to culinary excess. Out of politeness, though, he ordered the same dish as his guest.
“And another for me.”
“Very well. I’ll bring along a selection of antipasti and a local wine to liven up your wait.”
“And this film, The White Sheik, the one you want me to write a soundtrack for… What’s the plot? What do you want it to sound like?” Nino asked Federico.
“Actually, I’ve got another two or three films in mind that will have a similar sound. I Vitelloni and La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8½…”
“Are you thinking about all those films for the future?” asked Nino, taken aback, perhaps in his mind already humming the central themes of those movies, yet to be filmed. “And you want me to compose the soundtrack for all of them?”
“Of course Nino! I’ll answer you with a phrase that will become famous in a decade’s time, the last line of the film Casablanca, which hasn’t yet been shot. It goes: ‘Nino, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’”
“Do they really say ‘Nino’?”
“Well, in fact, the guy’s called Louis and he’s a French police officer,” explained Fellini, distractedly.
The waiter had brought the wine and starters, which were freshly baked crostini and pumpkin flowers. His demeanour was stern, however, as he announced solemnly:
“Gentlemen… I’m devastated… We only have one escalope left in the chill cabinet. We go to the market every morning and calculate our purchase based on the previous day’s orders, but today we’ve had some unexpected visitors who’ve left us short of stock.”
“Oh…” Fellini managed to utter, his stomach rumbling ferociously.
“Well, don’t worry,” said Nino Rota, eager to calm the situation. “We’ll share the cotoletta. If it is genuinely large-sized, I’m sure Mr. Fellini will be satisfied even with half.”
“Thank you for your understanding, signore. We’ll split the large escalope down the middle.”
Within a few minutes, the waiter served two sizeable dishes of cotoletta which no one would ever have imagined were half-sized portions. Even Fellini, who was used to gargantuan servings.
“This…has been cut down the middle?”
“Exactly,” said Nino. “I told you that in Milan we’re generous with food.”
“And so you are! Let’s share!”
After the feast, the creative duo of friends wandered arm in arm along Vía San Paolo towards the San Babila quarter to visit the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory.
And Nino began to whistle a very catchy nine-note melody:
“Daaa, da daaa, da daaa, da da da daaa…”
“Magnificent!” exclaimed Fellini. “Carry on whistling, the escalope’s clearly inspired you. And me too. I think I’ve had a vision…”
“A vision?” asked Nino.
“Yes, and a word… I think it’s the title of a film I’ll direct someday. And you’ll use that music you were just whistling.”
“Well… What’s it called then?”
Fellini stopped and looked at his friend. With a ceremonious air and the kind of circus-like bow he loved to pack into the occasional scene of his future movies, he said:
Illustrator: Amaya Arrazola