Schnitzel here, schnitzel there, schnitzel everywhere in Vienna.
Vienna might well be the music capital of the world. Outside its famed Opera House and Concert Hall, be-wigged Mozart wannabes hawk tickets. Within its voluptuous Baroque churches, where royals once prayed, string quartets play and Sunday choirs perform a native son’s mass or requiem. Canal boats on the not-so-blue Danube broadcast the you-know-what waltz. And many of the city’s venerable coffeehouses boast their own piano players.
But man cannot live by melodies alone, even those by Vienna’s who’s-who list of famed composers.
I’m dining in Ofenloch, a cozy cafe dating from 1704, where Schubert once dined — maybe enjoying the very same treasured recipe for wiener schnitzel. The next day, it’s Cafe Mozart, a coffeehouse serving schnitzel since 1744, where its namesake ran up a bill. The next night it’s Vestibül, in the Volkstheater, whose gorgeous, über-Baroque restaurant has been carved out of a former lobby by a celebrity chef, whose schnitzel — modernized — is light as helium. Another master chef, who now gastronomizes in a wing of the city’s Museum of Applied Arts at MUMOK Cafe, offers diners dual menus: traditional fare cooked grossmutter’s way or in sleeker versions for today’s palates: schnitzel two ways.
What is it about this dish — simply a breaded, fried veal cutlet — that has so captured the city’s taste buds that it carries the city’s very name (Wien = Vienna) in its title? And how did it get started, anyway?
According to the going story, it may actually have originated in northern Italy as costoletta alla Milanese, a similarly prepared but thicker cut of veal. Legend has it that in 1857, Austrian Field Marshal Count Joseph Radetzky brought the recipe back from the Italian territories then under Habsburg rule, adding a side note in his report to the emperor about a “deliciously breaded veal cutlet.” The emperor promptly requested the recipe, and the rest is dining history.
In my search for the perfect schnitzel, I was most pleased at Plachutta’s Gasthaus zur Oper, a new cafe near the Opera House opened by the time-honored Plachutta family enterprise that has operated an ever-growing number of outposts of its original restaurant, whose specialty — and virtually the only dish on the menu — is the boiled beef dinner called Tapelspitz.
But the new Plachutta is totally devoted to another solitary culinary icon of the city: It’s a temple dedicated to schnitzel. In several sizes, it’s the highlight — and signature dish — on the menu. It’s served (as everywhere) garnished simply with a generous slice of lemon and a side dish of warm, vinegar-kissed potato salad. And beer. Don’t forget the beer! Mozart didn’t. Nor did Schubert. Nor did I.
What makes Plachutta’s schnitzel a cut above many is that it employs cutlets of veal that are well-trimmed, then pounded even thinner; they’re fried in clarified butter. Some cafes make their schnitzel from pork, which is less expensive, and is noted on the menu. The batter coating may be sturdier, less puffy. They also may fry the cutlets in oil instead of butter — none of which are verboten, it’s a matter of taste and money. Here’s the simple recipe Plachutta uses.
Carla Waldemar is a Minneapolis freelance writer.