Milan has no sea and no rivers, but it does have an island. A metaphorical island, surrounded by railways and not by water, which for years has been a world apart.
In 1865 the construction of the new railway isolated the district from the rest of the city, making it a worker microcosm. Until 2000 the Isola district was a town, where the elderly played cards in the square on Sundays and where the trattorias served only cutlets and the “piatto del giorno”. Isola was the area of the ligera, the Milanese crime syndicate, then that of the squatters and social centers. Today it is teeming with clubs, restaurants and addresses for vintage shopping. The island that previously lived its separation, today bases its identity in hyperconnection with Milan and the rest of the world; thanks to Expo 2015 it has in fact changed its face a second time, as the skyscrapers of Porta Nuova grow visibly, the addition of the sparkling Piazza Gae Aulenti, the residences of the Vertical Forest. From its heart, Piazzale Minniti, you walk seamlessly through the Biblioteca del Alberi, and then along Corso Como, Corso Garibaldi and up to the Duomo. What was on the edge is now part of the new center of Milan.
The island is no longer what it once was
In Isola you don’t go by car, you arrive by subway and then you walk on foot, from the narrow streets of the Old Milan to the sidewalks of the skyscrapers, traveling through space and time observing urban transformations of the last ten years – room after room, restaurant after restaurant. I lived on the island in 1998, the fishmongers of the market woke me up daily and there was a bar with billiards in the back where they served dinner in the evening: “Today we have two cutlets, a portion of soup, three omelettes, boiled carrots”. The lady took orders (or gave them!) verbally, among black and white photos of cyclists such as Coppi, Bartali and the Giro d’Italia. At the Circolo 1° Maggio they read l’Unità, drank Campari and the retired seniors played bocce. There was the headquarters of the Communist Party, where today there are beautiful buildings worked blacksmiths and carpenters, everything that now stands above the fifth floor did not exist. We went to dance reggae in the basement of Pergola Tribe, to watch independent films at the Sant Antonio Rock Squat in a room that had been a cinema but no longer had a roof. Even earlier I remember when as a child in the eighties, where today there are two Michelin starred restaurants, I went with my father to the Varesine amusement park. It was the East Berlin of Milan, where young musicians, artists and revolutionaries lived integrated in a popular neighborhood that was then marginalized. Then it became trendy.
In 1999 the title “Isola Nuova Ticinese” appeared in a local newspaper: an era was about to end and you could already smell the imminent gentrification in the air. The Osteria dei Vecchi Sapori, the Nord Est Cafè and the pizzeria La Coccinella, a hardware store and little else remain from the island of that time. But no nostalgia, after all there is much better.
Shopping and nightlife
If your laptop is too serious when it has to go to bed, put a Pijama on it. Since 2006 in Isola this independent brand has been creating iconic covers, accessories, bags and backpacks in colored neoprene. Collection after collection it has become a must among the creatives of communication agencies and the fashion world – the perfect 100% Made in Milan souvenir. But Isola is above all vintage, with many shops selling used clothes such as Le Vintage, Ambroeus Milano and Live in Vintage. There are also many flower shops, but not the classic ones, a new wave of hybrid florists like Offi where you can buy an indoor plant, a composition of flowers or sit down for a coffee. In the evening, when the shutters of the shops close, those of the places where you can drink a beer open, even sitting in the square on a bench – because Isola maintains a free spirit different from other Milanese neighborhoods. Storici, the Italian headquarters of the Blue Note, a famous club dedicated to jazz and blues music, and Frida, a fun cocktail bar loved by hipsters (who, however, do not want to be called such).
The Sweet Island
The island has a sweet, very sweet side, and two of the best addresses in Milan for gourmands. One is a pastry shop, which is not by chance called L’Ile Douce (“Sweet Island”) and produces wonderful artisanal French pastry, sweet and savory. Italian pastry does not exist unless you are talking about regional desserts, but the Milanese eat croissants, pain au chocolat and on Sundays they have brunch – here to be accompanied with excellent cappuccino, teas, a selection of wines and champagnes from small producers both Italian and foreign. If the pastry is French by definition, the gelateria is a national excellence and in fact Artico is one of the great interpreters of Italian gelato. Given the highest awards and accolades, it is a fixed stop for a cone or a walking cup filled with tastes of the month, inspired by sweets and local ingredients, or their unmissable signatures: salted pistachio, salted caramel, carrot cream or cream of pumpkin and chestnut in autumn.
Eating the New and the Old Milan
There is a shortage of trattorias in Milan, but in Isola there is a new trattoria that has partly rediscovered the Milanese and Lombard cuisine from oblivion. At Chef Cesare Battisti’s Ratanà you can eat mondeghili, nervetti and yellow risotto with ossobuco, wonderful, but also Lombard and super typical ingredients in contemporary interpretations that are the true new Milanese tradition. To understand Milan beyond chasing the traditions of the past, because Milan now feeds on sushi, pokè and tacos and hummus in the kitchen it is better to resign yourself and embrace those of today. Try the ramen and Japanese-inspired cuisine of the very Italian Casa Ramen, the great cocktails served at Bob or the free-spirited cuisine of starred chef Takeshi Iwai da Aalto. Italian, Japanese? Both or neither, like the cosmopolitan soul of Milan, and of the island of today.