“We should ALL be feminist”.
This sentence is the title of a small book, on the bestseller list around the world for several years, written by a wonderful Nigerian woman, Ngozi Adichie.
Sixteen years ago, before this book became popular and a source of inspiration for so many women, armed with a journalism degree and a thousand doubts and fears, I embarked on a strictly male career path. I became a commercial wine rep, doing business with mostly men in charge of restaurants, wine bars, wineries and wine cellars.
There were only two or three women doing this work in Milan, and although young (25 years old), alone and without experience (or a husband, a father, a partner or anyone to help get my name out) I was convinced I could do it. I hated being taken lightly, as well as the dismissive smirks when I introduced myself. I just wanted to work and to do it seriously and honestly. I never thought I had anything less to offer than a man. On the contrary. I think this is what it means to be a feminist: believing that men and women in society should have the same recognition and possibilities.
I dreamed of working in the food and wine sector, my passions forever, so I tailored a profession for myself. Selling and discussing wine and also being able to always go out to eat.
Although, even in today’s world, the women at the head of a kitchen team, or in charge of a dining room and/or wine cellar are very few, or have marginal roles (we often know them as the “sister” or “wife” of someone), things have begun to change over the last few years.
Here in Milan, there are numerous women who have distinguished themselves. Excellent at their jobs, they earned their place as leaders in front and back of the house through professionalism, creativity, and skill. Surviving in Milan is not so simple.
Following is a very small selection, in alphabetical order, of some places that I had the opportunity to experience several times (although the list should be much longer):
AL PONT DE FERR
An iconic venue in Ripa di Ticinese, on the Navigli, the Bridge – as we all call it in Milan – turned 35 years old in 2021. Maida Mercuri has always been in the dining room; as owner and sommelier, she is a true icon for us “wine girls”. A woman with a fighting spirit, she is a visionary, a sunny and smiling presence with contagious energy. To the question “Maida, what is your secret?” She of course answers, “drinking well!” A genuine trattoria, featuring traditional cuisine with room for experimentation, the Bridge has always been a sure thing. The restaurant’s wine cellar, concealed under a trap door near the counter, hides treats worthy of ovation.
In Milan, Bicerin is the epitome of a wine lounge, founded in 2015 in Porta Venezia. Running the floor is Iris Romano, “Iris the volcano”, from the southern island of Procida, she has made Milan her adoptive home. She has always worked in restaurants, and her training in wine, similarly to mine, went through the phase of so-called “parkerian” (subject to the Parker rating system) wines of the 2000s. She has evolved to artisanal and natural wines, which we have now gotten to know, appreciate and above all, promote. Iris is a true Southern woman; she is tenacious, courageous, someone who never gives up. She never gave up on anything to establish herself at work and she’s proud to say so. She has always followed her heart (and belly) making meticulous life choices. Not self-denials but choices! The qualities of strength, perseverance, and sincerity ooze from her pores and it is impossible not befriending her. It’s good to know that at least in her company good drinking will always triumph over evil.
Along with the pizzerias Marghe, Giolina, Pizzium and Crocca are all projects born from Ilaria Puddu and her long-time partner, Stefano Saturnino. Ilaria is one of us, down to earth, smiling, tenacious. A successful entrepreneur, one of the few in food retail, she has dedicated the last 7 years to work, giving up all holidays. Aware of the fact that being an entrepreneur is an unpredictable and tiring job, where promptness and the ability to reach goals quickly are key, she is steadfast in her belief that women embody the concept of multitasking. She encourages the girls she meets to hold fast, because there is always room for those who know how to do thing well. With Gelsomina she paved the way for her solo entrepreneurial story. With this highly instragrammable venue, and her now iconic maritozzo, a dessert practically unknown in Milan before her vision, she won the lottery. She takes care of everything on her own. From websites, to human resources, and social media. She learned to delegate over time, to carve out space for herself. Because yes, the work counts, and the results are her. But listening to the call for a family matters even more.
Wine bar and kitchen, with Lea as chef and Lorenza as sommelier, this place opened just before Covid but immediately distinguished itself for quality and versatility. Open from breakfast to after dinner, it has a beautiful hidden garden with a veranda in the back (to really get to know Milan, it’s known that you have to dive into it). Onest offers excellent cuisine, with Slowfood products, organic and locally sourced; the selection of natural label wines is also greatly enjoyable. A detail not of least importance, which the owners care about a great deal, are the specialty coffees made to perfection. All this in a place that seeks the maximum sustainability of ingredients and materials. Leaving their respective jobs in other fields, Lea and Lorenza threw themselves head first into this “honest nest” project, hence the name. Located in the Città Studi district, I am confident you will like it!
Of Cantafiorista (literally singing florist) there is just one in the world: Rosalba Piccinni, from Almè in the province of Bergamo. Rosalba who thinks a hundred things and does a thousand! From her passion for singing (countless times she sold out her shows at the Blue Note in Milan), flowers, and good food, she launched her unique project, Potafiori, a bistro, flower shop, and entertainment space. In the Bocconi area, it has become a landmark, and Rosalba remains the generous and volcanic entrepreneur who never ceases to excite. A true example of a small town girl who knew to believe and bet everything on her dreams and passions.
This restaurant is in the food district of Porta Venezia on Via Nino Bixio. An all female team (even the architect who led the project is a woman), the front of the house is led by Federica Fabi, highly trained maitrè and sommelier, with a mischievous look in her eyes and always smiling, assisted by Maha. Laura Santosuosso and Anna are at the reins of the small kitchen: Remulass (Milanese vernacular meaning remolacci, a carrot-shaped white root, similar to turnips) is a “small kitchen with roots”, attentive to sustainability, respectful of the product, aware of the human value of its suppliers. Smiles, empathy, and a crazy energy go hand in hand with dishes that look to tradition with a nod to more exotic tastes. Assertive flavors with surprising combinations. Nice, nice, nice!
Food hub, offering coffee, wine, breads and more, located in the heart of Gorla, on the Naviglio Martesana. Created and managed by mother and daughter team, Carla and Martina wanted to offer the neighborhood a meeting point for good food and drink. Carla was a former journalist, and her daughter Martina was a student at the University of Pollenzo with work experience in Northern Europe, they became partners in TipA (what everyone calls it in Milan). The name combines Carla’s world of writing and storytelling, (tipografia), while that of food (alimentare), is Martina’s great passion. All the artisans chosen by Carla and Martina are listed on their website, a transparent and direct network between producers and consumers. Colorful, informal, a cuisine based mostly on vegetables and a selection of wines with an exclusively green footprint, they have recently inaugurated an on-site bakery and rest assured, the bread served is among the best tasting in town. A “place to be” with two great passionate and exciting women at the reins.
VIVA Viviana Varese
Viviana Varese’s Viva restaurant is located on the second floor of the EATALY Milano store. In recent years she changed the name, as well as style, and Viviana is one of the few female chefs in the world to secure the prestigious Michelin Star, the only one in Milan (except for Aimo e Nadia, with famed chef Nadia at the helm in the kitchen, and lifelong companion Aimo in the dining room, now both long retired). Viviana has had to overcome great discrimination in her life: as a child of the south, born in Salerno her parents moved the family up North, overweight in a very figure conscious country, and as a gay woman. From her first and smallest restaurant Alice (on via Adige) where in her kitchen another well-known chef of the Milanese scene, Alice Delcourt of Erba Brusca, took her first steps, today she leads a team of almost 20 people. With three restaurants under her belt (Viva Milano, SPICA with Ritu Dalmia, W Villadorata Country Restaurant in Noto, Sicily) and an ice cream project run by women victims of domestic violence, Viviana has made inclusion, determination and perseverance her trademark. She is a phenomenal and generous woman above all, and then, a great chef. If a star also existed for the value given to human relations, she would certainly get it.
I have always believed and cheered for The Power of Women, a power made up of sensitivity, attention to detail, tenacity, ambition, empathy, and irony. I am the eldest of three sisters, raised in a family of great women. I am a mother and yet I never stopped working. I slowed down, yes. But I chose. And I haven’t given up on my career. I simply chose to be a mother in addition to being a working woman. And only when we stop wondering if we are enough for others, but rather come to understand if others are enough for us, then yes, there will be a turning point within each of us.