One evening, not long after I moved to Milan in 2015, I was having an aperitivo with a group of Italians, who were trying to educate me about the identity of my new home: “Milan is more part of Europe than part of Italy,” they said. I smiled as my pride for Milan, a bit of an unsung hero amongst cities in Italy ran deep, but this felt like a bold statement. However, since then, this line always comes to mind when I’m describing my city to visitors. While the rest of Italy proudly suspends in time, Milan dances between reverence for its history and the cutting edge. When Covid-19 hit, Italians dusted off their copies of a national treasure, Alessandro Manzoni’s 19th century novel The Betrothed, taught in every school to every Italian high school student. While reading about how the bubonic plague ravaged Milan, and Italians washed their coins in vinegar in an attempt to sterilize them, the Milanese ate pizza and sipped on wine ordered via mobile app, in order to avoid over two hours lines at grocery stores. While food delivery existed in Milan before the pandemic, companies are already reporting over 300% increases in business this year.
February 21, the day the first person-to-person transmission in Italy was reported was also the day before my 40th birthday party, for which I’d planned to take over one of my favorite local trattorias for 28 guests. I felt crushed, and considered canceling my festa when one guest called to politely decline saying they wanted to “see how this was going to play out in Lombardy.” We went along with it, not wanting to also disappoint the trattoria owners Bruna e Sandro, whose bar I frequented for an afternoon espresso and a fistful of hazelnuts from their coin-operated vending machine. A mix of my Italian family, friends, and their kids came — we were 25 in total. With a large TV screen connected to a computer, we sang karaoke. Toto Cutugno played until after midnight: “Buongiorno Italia, gli spaghetti al dente…” Little did anyone know it would be our l’ultimo ballo for the unforeseen future.
Soon, even walking by our favorite hangouts was forbidden; then one by one they shuttered, with the exception of those who rapidly pivoted to takeout or at home delivery. When the grocery store and the pharmacy became the only places you were allowed to leave your home to go to in Milan, lines snaked around the block to shop; entering a Milan grocery store could take hours. Penne lisce, the smooth penne that was one of the few pasta that remained on shelves with the announcement of lockdown, became a trending hashtag on Twitter. Food delivery went from luxury to necessary standard. We deemed our friends with the vegetable-forward restaurant Erba Brusca clairvoyant as they had just begun to farm in an abandoned lot on Milan’s Naviglio Pavese canal and delivered their farm boxes overflowing with end of winter produce and fresh eggs. Washing the city farm grit from the enormous leeks they delivered gave us some hope, and cooking down the towering piles of winter greens gave us more to do in the kitchen, a welcomed distraction from Zoom calls.
When lockdown ended in April, the reopening of bars and restaurants was contingent on copious rules. Shiny plexiglass barriers keep cashiers and patrons at a distance. We could no longer gather al banco for our espressos as the number of people allowed to enter was limited. Caution tape was affixed on floors and bars; nervously gloved owners waited at doors with thermometers next to industrial pumps of heavily scented gels. Some places did not reopen at all. Taglio, along the heavily foot trafficked via Vigevano in the Naviglio District, was the first closing that hit us hard.
Now that we made it through summer and Covid numbers have plateaued, there is no better time to be eating and drinking in Milan. A new, hip Korean street food Li-Sei Deli opened during the pandemic across from the shuttered Taglio location and a natural wine bar not far away with an abundant garden, Enocteca Naturale, has begun hosting pop-ups with other local businesses again. As restaurants and bars have expanded into the openair, into streets and sidewalks, gathering in our favorite places is exhilarating. I barely miss the shoulder to shoulder aperitivo inside the historic Cantina Isola bottle shop as the row of colorful serviced tables outside means I can sit and watch Milan’s Chinatown come alive again. Milan’s food and drink scene is bustling and my friends and I have found ourselves going out more than ever, masks in tow.
MILK & RICE CITY
While the food-theme Expo Milano 2015 put this city on the map as a global food and drink destination, true understanding of the gastronomic riches begins on Milan’s metro map and on the historic canals as the city center was once navigated by boat, even if landlocked. Milan’s most classic establishments (and there are many!) pull from the historic agricultural bastions of Lombardy. The Gorgonzola stop on the green Line 2 was once farmland where the silky milk of grazing cows, milked twice a day, was transformed by caseificazione into the world famous ‘zola. While the town of Gorgonzola has developed over the years, production is still close by. It’s the only cheese in Italy that bears the categories of dolce and piccante – sweet and hot – the latter without peppers or any added spice, its name referring only to the cheese’s strong flavor and hard, aged consistency. The dolce is often melted to adorn creamy polenta or a steamy plate of risotto.
Gorgonzola is not the only cheese with a Milanese provenance. Long before panettone and risotto reigned in Milan, it was referred to as “Milk City.” Stracchino, mascarpone, bitto, taleggio, and many more cheese stories begin just outside the Milan city walls. The ease of transportation by boat in and around the city by canals situated the processing, consumption, storage and markets closer to the food-stuffs-generative, uplands of Northern Italy. Grana Padano’s history crystallized in an abbey next to gorgeous Trattoria Al Laghett 1890, only 9km/5m from Milan’s Piazza Duomo. After a profumato plate of risotto al salto, I like to walk around the Chiaravalle Abbey grounds just next door before heading back into the city. Once a milk and cheese shop along the covered San Marco canal, chef-destination La Latteria, across from Corriere della Sera offices and adjacent to Milan’s fashion epicenter, does not take reservations and don’t be surprised if they seat the regulars first waiting outside. Arturo and Maria sala da pranzo is amusingly decorative; their food is the welcomed punchline to their inside jokes. Northern Italian classics may delight you (prepare to google translate the menu) and non-traditional yet signature comforts including lemon spaghetti with fresh spicy green pepper, season-shifting chicory or puntarelle with anchovies are my favorites. Arturo’s “alchemic” eggs cooked on a silver pan are legendary. Instead of removing tables since Covid, the piccola La Latteria has placed sheaths of plexi dividing each of the seven tables.
Milan is a city built over flowing canals of water that flows into the rice fields surrounding the south and west parts of the city. While its signature risotto Milanese made with arborio rice may be what guidebooks tell you is standard, carnaroli while more expensive is the local standard for risotto as it is almost impossible to overcook, maintaining it’s al dente with a high starch content. Ratana’s ever-changing contemporary spin with Riserva San Massimo carnaroli is a top five favorite in Milan. Trattoria Masuelli 1921’s shimmery al zafferano with saffron is renowned as risotto Milanese runs under third generation chef Max Masuelli.
Expats that live in Italy are used to revising, scribbling, amending, translating, and even footnoting lists of where to drink and eat to share with friends and family when they visit. We share our favorite books and articles about our adopted country and often make reservations in Italiano at restaurants that are our local favorites. I always choose to pepper my lists with museums, shops and directions as Milan’s gems are spread out.
While taxis lack efficiency, they also usually manage to feel like a rip off so I have deemed them prohibitively expensive both in time and money. (A friend of mine drives everywhere in Milan; possible when compared to Rome or dare I say traffic-ridden Naples. This is why our air quality is lacking, along with our proximity to the Alps, which encourages the carbon monoxide to linger.) Instead, I have embraced all non-vehicular forms of transport, and have learned there is nowhere worth going that public transport won’t take you besides Erba Brusca and Trattoria Al Laghett 1890 which are best reached by taxi.
A short metro ride on the yellow Metro Line 3 to Lodi, for instance, followed by a 10-minute walk to the spartanly exquisite Prada Foundation is well worth the trip even if only to admire the grounds, though the experience is enhanced appreciably by a panini or slice of pink cake at Bar Luce. It may have been the first place in Milan where you could plug a USB charger cord into the wall, thanks to Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis’s OMA design in collaboration with Wes Anderson. (Ahead of the first of ten of Italy’s humdrum Starbucks which have opened in rapid succession since the buzzworthy Piazza Cordusio Roastery ribbon cutting in September 2018.)
Another metro ride on the red Line 1 to Sesto Marelli about thirty minutes from Duomo is to Pirelli HangarBicocca (admission is free) where the Pirelli tire foundation commissions contemporary mixed media artists from around the world for monumental mind-bending exhibitions that fill one of the company’s former factories. Walk through to view the emotional permanent installation by Anselm Kiefer. I recommend stopping on the metro ride back at the Galleria Campari Sesto 1 Maggio FD, once it reopens. (It’s currently offering virtual tours guided live by museum operators.) Any negroni lover will marvel at art and design but it will make you thirsty. Metro back to Piazza Duomo on the red line to the Camparino Bar for one of the several Campari cocktails on offer though be warned that likely no one will engage you about your interest in Campari’s history here as it’s often jammed with tourists vying for a table facing the Galleria Vittoria Emmanuele – you’re likely to find me at the bar with a Campari Seltz. Next, pop across Piazza Duomo to Museo del Novecento (which once housed one of Mussolini’s offices) for some twentieth-century Italian art. Experience the piazza from above at the Giacomo Arengario bar inside the museum with a better view than the Aperol Terrazza bar where you’ll feel obliged to sip on an overpriced spritz.
If you can get a prized reservation at Italy’s three-Michelin-starred Enrico Bartolini, head down to the Tortona District with time to explore the MUDEC museum and the design shop. After a meal, marvel at drivers navigating the people and cobblestones via Tortona and make room for a cone at Gusto 17. End your walk in the charming and historic Naviglio area in time for a cocktail at Rita and dinner at 28 Posti.
Milan in a day is a question I frequently am asked and besides a food tour with me, I say: put on your cutest walking shoes and visit Brera, Porta Nuova, Chinatown and end your stroll in Duomo. While it’s only a taste, there’s a little bit of everything.
TOP EAT & DRINK MILAN IN 24 HOURS
old-world coffee & pastries at Pasticceria Marchesi 1824 or Ignazio Massari
specialty coffee at Orsonero or Nowhere Coffee & Community
Ligurian focaccia snack at Manuelina Focacceria or Milanese-style pizza at Spontini
classic lunch at La Latteria or Antica Trattoria della Pesa or Trattoria Masuelli 1921
wine shopping at Cantina Isola or booze shopping at Enoteca Cotti dal 1952
Chinese dumplings on foot at Ravioleria Sarpi
aperitivo & gift shopping at 10 Corso Como bookshop
dinner at Ratana (or taxi to Erba Brusca or Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia)
after dinner drinks at Bar Basso before you get on the train at Centrale or roll back to your hotel
Elizabeth Jones leads food and drink experiences in Northern Italy. A passionate baker with 18 years in the food industry, she founded Food Book Fair and writes about the intersection of food culture and sustainability.
Andrea Wyner is a lifestyle photographer based between Milan, NY & LA. Featured in the NYT, Tmag, Travel+Leisure, and F&W to name a few