The one difficulty I found in my 8-day stint in Milan this summer was being able to find the city’s true gems.
Like any bustling, commercial environment (Milan is the fashion and financial capital of Italy), the city has a lot of fairly average establishments sprinkled amongst the glitz and glam of its more obvious neighbourhoods, such as Brera.
But, after some rigorous testing, I’ve rounded up a handful of unique, local establishments run by engaging, caring proprietors, so that you can leave the quotidian behind during your stay and fall in love with Milano, as I did.
Your grocery store: Terroir Milano
Located between the Porta Monforte and Aquabella districts on the central-Eastern side of the city, Terroir is owned by Gabriele Ornati and his wife. Gabriele is a tall, dark-haired, bespectacled man, and a self-declared ‘Terroirist’.
For Gabriele, being a terroirist is about soul. Quoting the American psychologist James Hillman, Gabriele says: “Places have a soul and we must discover [them] the same way we discover the soul in human beings.” To this end, he and his wife’s mission is a simple one: to be the ambassadors for small and artisanal producers unknown to the mass market, in order to help consumers rediscover ‘soul’ through these products.
Sensing, perhaps, that I was an apostle of the same lofty ideals, Gabriele was all too kind enough to give me not only a tea and chocolate tasting, but also a quick sample of a handful of the organic and biodynamic wines that he stocks in the back of the shop.
Gabriele’s products were artful, unique, and (most importantly) scrumptious. He also stocks fresh fruits and veg, teas and coffees, breads and pastas, and basically anything a regular grocery store might have — but carefully sourced and lovingly curated into a beautifully designed space. As a bonus, you might even meet his adorable parents, who can often be found helping to tidy or re-stock products.
Your coffee shop: Orso Nero
The weather was a bit touch and go whilst I was in Milan, so I made it my mission to find a good coffee shop and get to work on my website. The location for this mission? Orso Nero, in the city’s Buenos Aires district.
To my great delight, I found out that this small, 10-seat establishment is owned and run by none other than a native of my own home town: Brent, from North Vancouver, Canada. Brent’s northern origins are also the genus of the shop’s name: a little nod to the frequent sightings of black bears in our hometown (and also a name easily pronounceable in Italian). It was rather enjoyable to swap ex-pat highs and lows, and to hear my local accent so far from home. For non-Vancouverites, this café bears all the hallmarks of a hipster den of creativity.
The coffee is single origin, roasted and brewed to perfection, and priced fairly. The design is light, bright, and airy (making you forget that there’s barely enough room for the baristas to work, let alone house tables and chairs for the patrons). And the conversation and service are congenial and animated. As a bonus, Brent is very tapped in to the artisanal beverage scene writ large, and often participates in or hosts craft drink events, such as the upcoming natural wine night on November 9th hosted by Natty Wine (an off-shoot of Sprudge Wine).
All in all, I had a sublime work experience at Orso Nero, and it’s definitely somewhere that you can hole up for a day or two if the weather doesn’t hold out during your stay.
Your cultural activity: The Triennale Design Museum
If not chained to your laptop whilst in Milano, I highly recommend checking out the Triennale.
Once Milan’s answer to Venice’s Biennale, the Milan Triennale was an international triennial art, architecture, and design exhibition held from 1936 to 1996 (and again in 2016). In 2007 the core pavilion of the exhibition (in the Parco Sempione) was converted to a museum, which now serves as the permanent home of modern and contemporary design and art in Milan.
When I visited, the feature exhibit was a review of the life and works of Osvaldo Borsani: Italy’s father of modernism. A contemporary of IKEA pattern-designer Josef Frank and renowned British architect Norman Foster, Borsani was instrumental in pushing forward modernism as an aesthetic. Born in Brianza, just outside of Milan, Borsani took over his father’s furniture business as a young man but eventually expanded the business far beyond simple furniture. Borsani created and cemented not just a new paradigm of style for post-war Italy, but co-created with his contemporaries a global sense of aesthetic that has had remarkable longevity (evident in its renaissance today, which perhaps prompted the decision to show a retrospective of his life and work).
I also wandered around the other visiting and permanent galleries, which included a photography exhibit by local artists, a visiting exposition from the American painter Rita Ackermann, and interactive displays on Italy’s commercial development and commodification. The stunning art-nouveau space also has a light, bright café on both the main floor and in the gardens, and a rooftop restaurant which is meant to be extremely good.
Whilst the Borsani exhibit may not still be showing when you visit Milan, the open, airy space of the Triennale will be waiting to welcome you, no doubt with other funky, impactful exhibits.
Your trendy wine bar: Cru Milano
If an Italian version of Friends exists, this wine bar is it. Located in the trendy Isola neighbourhood, Cru was opened just this summer by Jacopo Ercolani, a Marche native with a fierce passion for his regional take on Italian food and wine.
When I arrived I was warmly welcomed to a seat at the bar and served a long list of regional beverages. At the same time, I was introduced to Jacopo’s brother — the first in a long line of enoteca cast members that included family, close friends, parents’ friends, and other friends-of-friends. Owner Jacopo is as knowledgeable about wine as he is handsome, which is to say: very (it’s no wonder that it was mostly female friends in attendance).
The pace of the jazz that plays becomes more and more frantic as the service speeds up throughout the evening, joining the crescendo of bottles and glasses and voices in this buzzing but familiar space.
Whilst you watch this mad dance unfold, treats on offer include traditional taglieri (aka charcuterie boards), complete with the Marchian traditional delicacy ciauscolo: a thick, spreadable, meaty pork sausage. Paired with a foxy and vegetal Vermentino, also from the Marche, my evening meal was a great way to discover yet another region of Italy and to learn just why Jacopo’s loyalty to his heritage is so strong.
It’s great to see that Cru is receiving well-deserved praise only a few months into operation (for example, recently being written up in Vanity Fair’s Italian edition).
Long live Cru!
Your dive bar: the local legion
I can’t really tell you much about this place, because I’m not really sure what it is. All I know is that it’s centrally located, it has to do with the military (I surmised from the decorations), and the drinks are likely to knock you off your bar stool.
Some friends and I stumbled in here by accident one evening, after an experience of ‘Soho Syndrome’ as we call it in London (roving from establishment to establishment in the wee hours, trying to find something halfway decent that’s still open for a night cap). Mouldering war flags, dusty medals, and grainy black and white pictures of men-at-arms make up the décor, and judging from their copious amounts of ratty flannel and neck chokers, the clientele have just stepped off the set of Clueless.
Nevertheless, the drinks are strong, the rock music is loud, the furniture is shitty, and there are several foosball tables in the backyard. Do you really need much else?
Your all-nighter: Just Cavalli
So apparently it’s a ‘thing’ in Milan that all of the major fashion houses (Armani, Versace, Gucci, et. al.) have their own hotels, spas, and (of course) night clubs. Clubbing is generally not my scene at all, but, as they say: when in Rome…
I was taken on a late-night foray to Just Cavalli, also in the Parco Sempione (literally behind the Triennale), by a local friend. Entrance is around €50 per person and drinks start at €15 a pop, but I have to admit that this was a pretty cool experience, if just for the people watching (I think at least 70% of the crowd were models). The music is likely to burst your eardrums, the lazers might just induce an epileptic fit, and there is so much strong cologne in the air that you’re likely to pass out from the fumes. Yet something about the atmosphere will carry you away. Maybe this is why everyone loves Ibiza?
Admittedly being several negronis the worse for wear before I arrived, all I can divulge is that the bathrooms are decorated entirely in gold tiles, the set list is heavy on trance and techno, and that this establishment is the quintessential way to get down for the northern Italian glitterati.
Your hangover fix: United Tastes of Hamerica
As per the above suggestions, you are quite likely to find yourself hungover at least once during your séjour in Milan (or, in my case, every morning for a week).
Should this be the case, head to United Tastes of Hamerica, between the Zonas Tortona and Solari, for your hangover fix. This place does a proper, juicy American burger complete with the ultimate dip-scooping french fries (see photographic evidence).
Worth The Hype
As a result of all this trying and tinkering, I did find a few establishments that are on the mainstream radar but are definitely worth adding to your itinerary.
Fratelli Bonvini Milano (culture and design)
This tip-off came from the Monocle Travel Guide to Milan. This restored printers’ shop is an adorable, centenarian landmark of culture and design, located near the Porta Romana. Check it out for unique stationary and writing utsenils, and gorgeously hand-printed posters, books, and magazines. As a bonus, they also have a workshop printing space around the corner for classes and group activities, should you wish to organise something special and artsy for you and a few friends.
Pavè (brunch and apéritivo)
This suggestion was from Punch Magazine’s guide to drinking in Milan. Whilst this establishment is primarily a bakery and coffee shop during the day, they do have a superb apéritivo in the evenings, which I took full advantage of. Extremely strong ‘sbagliato’s (sister to my favourite negroni, but swapping gin for prosecco) are only €5 a pop, and the voluptuous taligeri make this an affordable and enjoyable place to end your day. There is also one very nice, squishy arm chair that is excellent for reading, if you get there early enough to bag it.
Eataly (groceries galore)
Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Eataly, since the original deli opened in Manhattan’s Flat Iron district in 2010? Now well-known and established around the world, this multi-level shop cum restaurant smorgasbord is a great place to head both for groceries and a bite to eat. I stopped in one evening to pick up a bottle of wine and managed to score a free tasting of five or six different northern Italian wines, as well as their final, special bottle of the recently departed Ernesto Cattel’s stunning prosecco. This is the place to head for browsing, gifts, snacking, tasting, or if you’re in search of a multitude of gastronomic options.