In Luca Guadagnino’s film I Am Love, the action revolves around a prestigious Milanese family who live in Villa Necchi Campiglio, an historic mansion hidden behind the hustle and bustle of the duomo. It’s easy when visiting Milan to be distracted by the stunning cathedrals and 50 flavours of gelato, but look beyond the obvious attractions and a different city is revealed, ready to engage you.
While many European cities will welcome you with an outstretched arm, Milan can appear aloof but, as Robyn Lea, author of ‘Milan: discovering food, fashion and family in a private city’, says, ‘In the same way that deeply private or reserved people can be hard to read and often misunderstood, so is the city of Milan.’
For Australian-born Lea, who moved to Milan at the age of 18, the city’s ‘tastemakers’ slowly reeled her in; names like Carla Sozzani, founder of 10 Corso Como, and the legendary designer Barnaba Fornasetti. ‘Milan is like a big creative machine, and when you live there, you want to be a part of that energy and creative force, or you won’t enjoy it,’ says Lea.
Consequently, Lea urges visitors to immerse themselves in creative spaces, such as Antonio Marras’s concept store, an old factory where one could spend a day perusing the eclectic pieces. Finding the studio of metal sculptors Osanna and Madina Visconti di Modrone illustrates just how tricky the city can be to navigate. This intimate venue, with its intricate accessories and avant-garde homeware, remains one of the city’s best-kept secrets. The atelier ‘has no sign on the street and is only accessed with permission from the doorman, through the ancient internal courtyard’ according to Lea.
This is where tour provider Antiques & Boutiques can help. The company provides tailor-made tours which focus on the design, style, food and culture that captures the true spirit of Milan. The company says that its tours ‘are curated and led by passionate and dynamic locals who invite you to share the city that they know and love’. One of the stops on the tour is at the vintage shop Cavallie e Nastri in the Brera zone, a neighbourhood which houses many of the city’s art galleries and which is dotted with interior design boutiques.
Another way to penetrate Milan’s exterior is via what Italians love the most, food, and in many ways it’s the culture of eating that’s significant rather than the food itself. Lea advises visitors to the city to start each day with coffee al bar at Taveggia, one of the oldest patisseries in Milan.
Later in the day try Luini. Situated on Via Santa Redegonda it’s been baking stuffed savoury pastries since Guiseppina Luini came to the city in 1949. ‘Today the kids who used to come to eat panzerotti after school return with their own children,’ the Luini family explains. Locals also flock to Ex Mauri on Via Federico Confalonieri, where Venetian dishes such as calamari ripieni (stuffed squid), pasta with courgette flowers, and crusted salt cod are light alternatives to rich and hearty Milanese cuisine. For dinner, head to chef Elio Sirroni’s restaurant Ceresio 7 for exceptional views and flavours.
Finally, and in a completely different vein, the Fortura Giocattoli toyshop on Via Olmetto is the oldest in Milan, founded in 1914. It is the perfect example of somewhere that might not exude obvious appeal, yet retains a loyal following, that secures its status as a century-old artifact representing the ‘real’ Milan.
‘The experiences most valuable take the most effort. And when a person is prepared to discover and uncover Milan and love the city even when the feeling is not reciprocated, eventually the barriers will be removed and the city will open her heart,’ Lea concludes.