Three years ago, when I was interning for Philadelphia Magazine’s food editor, I was tasked with eating about a half-a-dozen bowls of phở all over the city. In two days. In the middle of August. I was putting together a piece for the October issue’s Foodie’s Guide to Cheap Eats feature, and trying to prove that this Vietnamese noodle soup is the ultimate cheap eat for those who want to eat well. At most of Philly’s Little Saigon joints (my favorite is Nam Phuong), $6 gets you a large bowl of rich homemade broth, rice noodles, thinly-sliced beef, and endlessly-adaptable garnishes (I like mine with basil, bean sprouts, lime juice, cilantro, and a healthy squirt of Sriracha). Though I was a bit scarred by the experience of eating steaming hot soup three times a day in the worst of Philly’s humidity, I came away with a solid sense of what makes a worthwhile cheap eat: it has to be a complete, fresh, and flavorful meal.
Milan isn’t exactly known for its cheap eats—it’s Italy’s banking-and-fashion capital—but it was cheap eats I was seeking there last weekend. I was reuniting there with my friend Sarah, who had made the transatlantic journey to check out my expat life, and we were trying to pull off a Milanese weekend on a grad student budget. That’s where Luini’s Panzerotti, a tiny bakery just off the tourist-clogged Piazza del Duomo, stepped up to the plate. This place is a real city institution—they’ve been hawking panzerotti (essentially mini calzones) for 125 years. The line of teenagers snaking down Via Santa Radegonda gives away Luini’s status as a cheap eatery: where there are kids, there’s a good deal. And where there is a security guard policing the line, there’s a good deal that’s probably worth the wait.
Luini’s turnovers fit my fresh, flavorful, and complete meal cheap eat criteria. They go for less than €3 each (about $4), are fried (or baked) freshly throughout the day to keep up with demand, and come stuffed with everything from savory mozzarella-prosciutto to sweet fig-walnut-cocoa. I went for the panzerotto of the day: tomato-pesto-mozzarella, and the freshness of the basil and tomato cut through the zeppole-esque fried dough, making it not too much of a stomach bomb. Another plus: Luini’s pinches the edges of their pockets tightly, so one bite doesn’t send the filling oozing as you stroll and eat. A great find in the most expensive city on the boot.