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How Inter vs. Milan, the Derby della Madonnina, became steeped in traditions of food and football

MILAN, Italy -- The Derby della Madonnina between Inter and AC Milan, with their latest meeting coming this Sunday, has always had more bite to it than other rivalries. Not just in a sporting sense -- Inter are three points behind league leaders Juventus, with Milan a distant sixth -- though "bite" doesn't necessarily mean what you might think.

It was almost midnight when Giorgio Muggiani proposed a toast. The artist, known for the advertising campaigns he had designed for Cinzano, Pirelli and Martini, wished to celebrate his latest creation.

Around 40 friends and like-minded people had been invited to dinner at the Orologio, the restaurant's tables and chairs spilling out on a street behind Milan's Neo-Gothic cathedral known as the Duomo. They were dubbed the "secessionists" and came not only from Italy, but Switzerland and Scotland too.

What united the party was a passion for football. Muggiani had come to love the game while studying in St. Gallen, across the Alps in Switzerland. The local team won the championship during his time there, and he returned to Milan with the desire to experience the same emotions again. Muggiani became a member of AC Milan and acted as the club's general secretary for a season. However, there were differences between him and the president, Giannino Camperio, which came to a head over the participation of foreign players and led him to call the meeting at the Orologio on March 9, 1908.

Muggiani wished to start a new club, and passed a pen around the room in the hope his guests would sign up and become founders as well as footballers. "We will call ourselves Internazionale because we are brothers of the world," he declared. Inter were born from the rib of AC Milan probably over a plate of cotoletta (a breaded veal cutlet). As a club formed in opposition, the Derby della Madonnina against Milan -- Sunday (2.45 p.m. ET, ESPN+) marks their 226th official meeting -- was the next course.

Gattuso, left, was a player for 13 years at AC Milan and opened a fish market in the city toward the end of his career given his love for fishing and food.

The Orologio no longer exists. There is no plaque to mark it. A mediocre and overpriced pizza place is now serving food in the same space where Muggiani designed Inter's badge and settled on blue and black as the team's colours.

The same can be said of the Fiaschetteria Toscana, the wine bar where AC Milan's cricket captain, Edward Nathan Berra, and the football team's player-manager, Herbert Kilpin, frequently dined, using the space as an office. Other venerable institutions soaked in history have closed down too, like l'Assassino, where Cesare Maldini and the great Milan coaches of the 1950s and '60s used to lunch. It was here that Gianni Brera, the influential columnist and ideologue, held court and defined Italian football (on rather dubious ethnographic grounds) as innately defensive.

The pipe smoke and bottles of San Colombano may have gone, but the stereotypes, nicknames and neologisms he coined, all lasting memories and accoutrements of Brera's influence, remain.

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Eating in Milan means a regular and welcome confrontation with football both past and present. The family of Nacka Skoglund, the Inter striker of the 1950s who used to bet punters to buy him a glass of Campari if he could toss a coin, flick it up with his heel and into his pocket, still run a bar in town. The crosser of the ball for Mark Hateley's towering header in the 1984 Madonnina, Pietro Paolo Virdis, he of the sweeping brush moustache, also has a restaurant in via Piero della Francesca. The tuna is caught and the bottarga sourced from his native Sardinia.

Fiaschetteria Toscana is no longer open, but it was, at one time, the place where AC Milan routinely did transfer business and talked soccer.

Walk past Osteria del Corso in Moscova, with its framed Paolo Maldini and Lionel Messi shirts and artwork depicting Alessandro Del Piero and Christian Vieri, and chances are you'll see Vieri sat on the bench outside, holding court, laughing and joking with his pals. Visit the city over the summer or in January and don't be surprised if, after stumbling into a random place in search of a bite, the party opposite is brokering a transfer deal. Most of Italy's clubs have offices here and as such Milan rivals London as Europe's capital of food, fashion and player trading.

TV crews often stake out the Antica Osteria Cavallini, knowing it is a favourite with agents in need of the sustenance from a plate of ossobuco to keep negotiating through the night and find a breakthrough. Christian Eriksen's €20.5m move from Tottenham to Inter last month progressed and reached its conclusion over several dinners at Risacca Blù, a spot famous for its seafood. Pretending not to know each other when they were snapped outside, Inter's chief executive, Beppe Marotta, and the player's agent must just have the same exquisite taste for lobster spaghetti.

The special at Zanetti's steakhouse: a big filet fit for a pro soccer player or their hungry guests.

These restaurants are not just for meeting. Milan legend Gennaro Gattuso (a player from 1999 to 2012, their manager from 2017 to 2019) owns a fish market, Ittica, which opened with the visit of his teammates Ronaldinho and David Beckham a decade ago and boasts a kitchen that will cook and grill the frutti di mare for his customers. Located outside the city on the way to Milan's training ground, Gattuso's business was inspired by his childhood memories of seeing the fishermen pull in their nets on the Calabrian beach he grew up on.

It doesn't stop there, as Milan's team meals often end up at one of the city's many sushi joints. Clarence Seedorf (Milan, 2002-12) partnered with a Japanese chef who was born in Brazil, Roberto Okabe, to launch Finger's in 2004, a place where Elton John and Antonio Conte have been known to add soy to their sashimi.

Zanetti's restaurants also sport 'show walls' rich with his collectibles from nearly 20 years as an Inter Milan player.

Naturally the South American influence on Milan and Inter has also made itself felt on the city's restaurant scene. When the seasons change and the weather allows, the Argentines in particular barbecue either at the training ground or in one of their gardens along the banks of Lake Como. Sizzling big chunks of asado over hot coals, Inter defender Walter Samuel (2005-14) is reputedly as good at the grill as he is when it comes to brewing mate, the intensely caffeinated drink popular with players from the continent.

Samuel's former captain, Javier Zanetti (Inter 1995-2014), also owns a couple of steakhouses, one in the San Marco neighbourhood, the other by the canal in Navigli. On the menu at El Botinero are Argentine classics like provoleta (a grilled provolone cheese) as well as the house special that carries Zanetti's nickname, "Pupi" -- a 9-ounce (250g) filet with a red wine reduction (the Chianti comes from his own wine label), braised mushrooms and red currants. A side of "erotic potatoes," sliced thin like ridged crisps, comes recommended.

Backlit and displayed in glass cases around the restaurant's walls are some of Zanetti's captain armbands, including one he velcroed to his biceps for the derby in 2010. Then there is a "show wall" and the reason why the restaurant is called El Botinero ("The Cobbler") becomes clear, for it exhibits pairs of boots from opponents and teammates like Messi, Roberto Baggio, the original Ronaldo, Ivan "Bam Bam" Zamorano, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Neymar to name a few.

You don't have to go to San Siro to get a flavour of what makes the Derby della Madonnina one of world football's greatest rivalries. It's often there for you on a plate.

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