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48 hours in Milan by nose and mouth

March 27, 2016

48 hours in Milan Italy. Read more on mycustardpie.com

A long weekend in an industrial European city in Winter might not sound like the biggest attraction, but it wasn’t Birmingham. It was Milan. Having not googled the word ‘Milan’ even once, my expectations were vague – modern design, fashion, perfume and football. Driving in through the outskirts, even the decaying concrete flats of the 1970s had a certain elan, and the ochre and yellow peeling paint of traditional buildings looked poetic under the pale skies. I’m a desert dweller after all, coming from a city where most buildings are less than ten years old and everything gleams. As we reached the city centre, I tried not to blink as my eyes feasted on the elegant Belle Époque architecture and cobbled streets, complete with original turn of century trams all elegantly faded in the grey winter light. I was a little smitten already.

Stay

Hotel Excelsior Gallia. Read more about 40 hours in Milan on mycustardpie.comHotel Excelsior Gallia

The surfaces of our hotel interior glistened in a very Dubai like way, with marble, chrome, white orchids and curvaceous lighting. Outside in the street it was easy to imagine The Excelsior Gallia as it would have been in the 1930s when the monumental structure opposite opened, the grand railway station built to a scale to represent Mussolini’s regime. Horses and carriages, and early cars would have bustled through the wide square and sweeping boulevard. Trams of that era still rattle past, interspersed with more modern ones. But once inside the hotel, those early guests of the hotel would recognise only a few pillars and the central staircase which now houses a breathtaking chandelier albeit inspired by the clean lines of Art Deco. A signature scent envelops you as you step through the doors and the quiet insulation of the rooms means the odd distant rumble is all that is detected from the station even though my windows look directly out onto it. I tried not to mourn the things that must have been carted away in skips and console myself that with turn of the century period architecture Milan has an embarrassment of riches.

The complete renovation of the Excelsior Gallia (which is part of the Starwood Luxury Collection) means it has been doubled in size with a modern steel and glass extension; this leads seamlessly from old to new along the corridors. It is chic, comfortable, and captures the essence of Art Deco translated by collection of top name designers using the very best materials. The rooms are simply elegant and the bed so comfortable I wanted to buy the pillows (you can by the way). When I got up in the night, heading for the marble and glass-clad bathroom (with far too many mirrors), sensors detected my movement and switched on a night-light to guide my way. The minimalist interior of the Shiseido Spa was ultra-calming, with white surfaces, diffused natural light and the most comfortable massage bed I’ve experienced (and believe me, I’ve tested quite a few) dispelling any thoughts I might have had that this wouldn’t be up to the standard of Dubai spas (which is sky-high due to huge competition).

We discovered the real soul of the hotel down in the kitchens, the beating heart of the hotel where teams of bustling staff wield knives, piping bags and huge steel trays. Eager and proud to show us the fruits of their labour, they notice our hungry looks at a stack of club sandwiches (which are delicious). Italian modern design has even transformed the subterranean staff dining room into a bright yellow space which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Prado.

Excelsior Gallia

Eat

Terrazza Gallia

The Central station in Milan viewed from the Excelsior Gallia - read more on mycustardpie.com

Luckily for us there is a super-intriguing restaurant within our hotel (plus it has a separate entrance from the road).  Terrazza Gallia is up the rooftop (the 7th floor) manned by rising star chefs Vincenzo and Antonio Lebano managed with the advice of the Michelin-starred Cerea family. We start with some aperitivo – i.e. excellent cocktails and some fairly substantial nibbles. I love this about drinking in Italy; you soak up the alcohol with delicious bites of food. We sit outside the bar area on the terrace, pashminas and heaters meant we’re perfectly comfortable in February, with an unparalleled view of the Statione Centrale.

The ultra-modern interior of the restaurant follows on from the Art Deco theme of the hotel with added industrial chic; the lighting more conducive to techno lovers than un tavolo per due. The food is modern, seasonal and based on new interpretations of Milanese classics. The ingredients are all sourced from Northern Italy where possible especially flour, charcuterie and cheese. The milk and yoghurt used is from a local farmer.

My starter came in two parts; first buffalo mozzarella foam floating over a Sicilian red prawns with pine nuts and extract of tomato in a small bowl suspended over ice, then a plate of lightly cooked and raw sea bass. The Alaskan cod main course I’d ordered came with potatoes, creamed herbs and moss foam. The risotto Milanese had trendy bone marrow on it and the tiramisu was in the form of a ball to be cracked, theatrically, with a spoon. A crowd and Instagram pleaser that last one.

Terrazza Gallia

The Wine Cellar

At the other extreme is a subterranean series of rooms in the Hotel Excelsior Gallia which is much less formal and a temple to cheese, charcuterie and wine. We tried out the show cooking experience which groups can book in advance. Executive Chef Davide Castoldi led a team of chefs (including pastry chef Federico Rottigni) who prepared a series of dishes for us while we sat at a bar in front of them tasting our way through matched wines. It’s the ultimate fun girls night out for foodies and the chefs compete with each other to show off their expertise while we chat, drink, eat – until we are begging for mercy – and admire their prowess. Italian charm, good food, a bit of theatre and rivalry by people who clearly love what they do – what’s not to like.

The Wine Cellar

OM Food

I peered into countless intriguing and inviting courtyards while walking the streets of Milan. OM Food – described as a bio-bistro – is a little restaurant and shop tucked away in a beautiful courtyard of an old palace. So many restaurants boast of fresh, quality ingredients these days but it is truly at the heart of this place. The simple menu is drawn from fresh organic ingredients and products from their herbalist company, Officinali di Montauto, which makes essential oils and cosmetics in Tuscany. My plate of comforting testeroli pasta is made of chestnut flour (the pasta dried then cooked on a stone ‘testo’) with a pesto made of basil, almonds and olive oil but free of garlic (so diners can go back to work with fresh breath). We poured their estate grown olive oil in gleaming, grassy lakes on our side plates to mop up with the robust freshly baked bread. This is my kind of lunch.

OM Food

Dry

Dry cocktails and pizza - Eating out in Milan Italy on mycustardpie.comThe faces of our hosts from the hotel lit up when they described Dry to us. “This is the best pizza place in town and the place to go”. My friend who lives in Milan confirms this is true, “You must try their cocktails. The French 47 is amazing”.  We stand out on the pavement for ages while our booking is confirmed, looking longingly through the windows at a bar that is already buzzing, bartenders theatrically choreographed, dark wood tables and benches occupied by huddles of animated young people. Snaking through a narrow dark corridor and down precipitous stairs to the basement where an art installation is being projected onto a screen, we knock elbows at our rough-hewn table. The lighting is dim, the pizzas when they arrive could indeed be the best in Milan, Napolitan-style, crisp singed but softly pliable and tomatoey. The wine label is witty, better than the wine inside to be honest. The French 47 – gin, Champagne and lemon juice – is phenomenal, and I had to use every ounce of self-restraint not to conduct in-depth exploration of the cocktail menu.

Dry cocktails and pizza

Sauce Milan

Journalist Sara Porro is a voluable, witty and knowledgeable guide. After chatting we realise that not only have we been to the same dinner event in Dubai but her experience with Frying Pan Adventures was a catalyst for setting up her own food tour, Sauce Milan. The website acts as an excellent guide to the food scene and she’s happy to share her recommendations so you can go solo, but then you don’t get the behind the scenes info she imparts or her entertaining company. She even told us the recipe for perfect pizza dough.  She explained that as Lombardy (where Milan is situated) is landlocked meat is traditional and not fish, and butter is used rather than olive oil. Her Grandmother said she tasted olive oil for the first time on her honeymoon in Liguria. Fat is also synonymous with quality and there is an old saying in Milan “You have to eat lean meat from fat animals”.

Sauce Milan

We visit the following places with Sara as our guide:

Pasticceria Marchesi

We spotted the elegant windows and dark wood of another era from across the street and were appeased from rushing in there with the promise of our visit the next day. Established in 1824 in a building that dates back to the 18th century, the interiors come from the beginning of 1900. The shop is famous for its windows of cakes and patisserie. We join the throng of Milanese who knock back espresso and rush off again. We linger for a cappuccino and a few pasticcini. Find our more about Italian coffee drinking habits and Milanese breakfast haunts on my recent post.

Pasticceria Marchesi and Pavé Milano

Ratanà

In the middle of white concrete walls, coloured geometric structures, and spacious grass areas that make up the futuristic Isola Garibaldi area, only Ratanà remains from another era. It’s a memory of the 19th Century industrial past in a neighborhood razed to the ground and completely rebuilt around it. Ratanà was the nickname of a legendary priest-healer who allegedly cured the poor of this area during that time. For lunch it is filled with well-heeled workers from nearby offices with a bustling energy permeating throughout; people-watching is rewarding. Our courses have been chosen ahead so we just relax as they are brought. This vies for my favourite food of our trip, matched with superb wines (which you can buy to take away – see below). The menu is a modern take on Lombardy’s traditional recipes, simple in concept and beautifully presented. The saffron risotto is sublime in balance, flavour, texture and creaminess and topped with a sliver of bone marrow. At the end of service, Milanese chef Cesare Battisti sits at the front bar and chats to appreciative diners, patently a champion of good ingredients.

Ratanà

Drink

Terrazza Aperol

Eating out in Milan Italy by mycustardpie.com

Aperol Spritz anyone?

Sara dragged us away from the stunning wedding-cake-esque crenelated Duomo up into a cartoon-like place, with curved orange bar and pop art details. As I sat on the terrace outside, the warm Winter sunshine making us shed our coats, eating freshly cooked homemade potato crisps and sipping a Negroni I thought any prayers for me to reach heaven had been answered.

Terrazza Aperol

Buy

Scent

Milan is famous for its perfume houses and we were given a fascinating ‘scented tour’ guided by Mariangela Rossi who is the author of several books on the topic. After an insight into the development of a fine fragrance by perfumier Luca Maffei AFM Atelier Fragranze Milano, we browsed the sculptural bottles in the heady atmosphere of Perfume by Cale an “olfactive boutique”. Our perfume diagnosis was conducted by the stylish shop assistants as their exclusive test on an i-Pad was not working. A great place to discover distinctive creations outside the usual big brands.

We also stepped into Foglie, fiori e fantasia, an exquisite jewel of a flower shop run by floral designer Margherita Angelucci who works with many fashion brands.

Perfume by Cale and Foglie, fiori e fantasia, Via Brisa 15, West, Milan.

Wine

When I studied for my wine exams, Italy was one of the most extensive and confusing countries to study but it’s the home of some of my favourite wines. I was determined to bring back something unusual and visited several places. First there are wine shops called Enotecas (a bit like off-licences for wine which also sell confectionary). I wandered into Vini & Sapori which was a short walk from our hotel; the young shop assistant was a bit shy but ultimately helpful.   Signorvino was a bit like the wine hall at Harvey Nichols but more stylish and trendier. The staff were super helpful and very knowledgable. In addition to the shop there is a wine bar (with food) overlooking the Duomo. My favourite bottle – Maria Pia Castelli Orano 2010 came from Ratanà (see above) and was half the ‘in restaurant’ price.

I bought wine at Drogheria Grossi (see below) but suspect that the stock doesn’t move very fast given the dust on the bottle. Peck would have been another good place to forage (see below).

Vini & Sapori and Signorvino

Edible goodies

Peck - Eating out in Milan Italy by mycustardpie.com

Drogheria Grossi is a blast from the past; visit to marvel at the original dark wooden shelves which climb up to the ceiling and old-fashioned service catering to Milanese old ladies in fur coats (with dogs – see below).  Shop for unusual flavours of sweets and choose from over 300 different types of tea.

Peck was founded in 1883 by Francesco Peck from Prague and its clientele included the Royal House,
major hotels and famous families. You would never have to cook again if this was on your doorstep; glass cabinets are lined with platter after platter after platter of delicacies, many slicked with aspic, or with a nod to the past such as Peck’s signature liver patè or insalata Russa. It was like stepping into an old cookbook and seeing the watercolour line drawings come to life. There are areas dedicated to meat, cheese, charcuterie, preserves and a display of fruit and veg so perfect it would be a crime to take something. But to think this temple to gastronomy is all about show would be bestowing a great disservice as we discovered in the enormous kitchens and then down in the copious cellars. Transformed into replicas of Casper the friendly ghost by our protective clothing, we descended and were given a tour showing the attention to detail about things that matter to taste – choice, storage, preparation and aging; it also explained the price tag of the items. We peered into multiple cold storage rooms lined with beef, lamb, pork, chicken and game, cheeses, charcuterie each item prized like a jewel and tended like royalty. Italians can be fanatical about food and produce but this was on a scale I had never witnessed. Sadly there was no time to  visit the wine cellar, where more than 3,000 labels are stored – although we saw some excellent Chianti being poured into a homemade ragu (a tub came home in my suitcase).

OM Food (see above) is a good source of artisanal products from their own estates. Don’t leave without the exquisite olive oil.

Domori chocolate is left on your pillow every night at the Excelsior Gallia and we are given some of the most exquisite single origin Neapolitains to take home. Chocolate has to be very good for me to rave about it – I raced veggie teen to the box everyday.

Drogheria Grossi , Peck and Domori

See

Our short trip concentrated on the pleasures of the palate but we did take in a few major landmarks, most of which have been cleaned up for the Expo of last year:

Duomo di Milano – Milan Cathedral

In the square by the Duomo in Milan Italy. Read more on mycustardpie.com

The duomo Milan Italy - mycustardpie.com

We had a few hours free and I elected to walk around the city centre which is very doable if you are a pavement pounder like me. Looking up I could see people on the upper levels outside and was tempted to scale the heights of the Gothic Duomo for the view, however opted for the pleasures of pottering round the huge piazza below with mingling with people, pigeons and buskers (including a guy who must have been 60 delivering heavy metal classics with impeccable insouciance).

L.O.V.E.

L.O.V.E. statue outside the stock exchange in in Milan Italy. Read more on mycustardpie.com

L.O.V.E.

Nothing can prepare you for rounding the corner and getting your first sight of the cathedral and there is a similar sharp intake of breath when you enter the Piazza Affari containing the smaller but no less impactful structure called L.O.V.E.  This sculpture, which is literally giving the finger to the financial establishment, is situated right outside Milan’s stock exchange, an imposing 1930’s building which radiates power and would not look out-of-place in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  Its creator artist Maurizio Cattelan denies the intention of sending an anti-capitalist message, instead citing a criticism of totalitarianism by mutilating Italy’s Fascist hand salute from the 1930s through severing the fingers. L.O.V.E. is an acronym for love, hate, vendetta, eternity in Italian.

Castello Sforzesco – Sforza Castle

While it might take you a day to wander round this enormous castle, parts dating from the 14th Century, which houses many museums and art galleries (including works of several famous Italian masters), you can wander along paths along the perimeter and through some of its imposing courtyards as I did.

Milano Centrale Railway Station

Milano Centrale Railway Station - on mycustardpie.com

Milano Centrale Railway Station

As mentioned above, the scale of this structure alone is impressive and it drew me to it every time I looked out the window or walked, ant-like, in its shadow. A cursory Google search reveals many warnings to avoid the area around it as being dangerous. While never advocating complacency, I didn’t feel any hint of this in the slightest even when walking early evening in the dark and living in a place where crime is very low my ‘fear radar’ is on a higher setting than people from other cities.

Visit the Duomo, L.O.V.E., Castello Sforzesco and Milano Centrale

And less conventional sights which was part of Milan’s appeal:

Dogs

I could have just written about the dogs of Milan. Everyone seemed to have at least one with Yorkshire terriers in particular vogue. They went everywhere… I mean everywhere. From the lady doing her grocery shopping in Peck – with a miniature Dachshund in tow – to the woman who brought her small dog to dinner at Terrazza Gallia and popped him up on the banquette beside her.

Scooters

Scooters in Milan Italy on mycustardpie.com

In Dubai, motorbikes are mainly ridden in groups celebrating particular owners clubs on the weekend, the mode of fast-food home delivery, or a lone rider on a death wish driving at the speed of light on a stratospherically expensive super-bike up the Sheikh Zayed Road. Maybe this was why scooters fascinated me so much in Milan being so much a part of daily life and in very well-ordered ways. From swathes of dark black macho bikes parked within millimetres of each other to brightly coloured scooters positioned on the pavement like modern art there was an invisible code of conduct policed by energetic traffic wardens.

Graffiti

I am equally attracted and repelled by the graffiti in Italian cities. The artists or vandals, depending on your point of view, seem to see no surface as sacrosanct. They show no mercy to beautiful architecture, statues and ancient artifacts layering bold signatures or coloured designs on their targets. There was so much in Milan that I was tempted to go out at 3am to discover this alternative community presuming that their work is carried out under the veil of darkness.

Bull’s testicles

In the grand vaulted shopping arcade, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, next to the Duomo is a mosaic of a bull. It is said by some that if you spin on your heel three times in the bull’s balls it will bring you luck. I had a go but my luck had already been granted with a visit to this splendid city.

Flying Emirates business class meant this short break was very doable from Dubai and would be super easy from Europe. I was definitely bitten by the Milan bug – a combination of heritage, style plus huge energy. The perfect city break for me and I walked everywhere. In fact I’m returning to the city again next month for another food-related event. Is there anything else that’s a ‘must do’ while I’m there?

What to see in Milan Italy on mycustardpie.com

What to see in Milan Italy on mycustardpie.com

Read Top 10 dining and drinking haunts in Milan by Foodiva and more about our visit by Naomi (who takes incredible pictures of desserts), my tour companions.

What’s your favourite city for a short break?

I travelled to Milan as a guest of the Excelsior Gallia.

23 Comments
  1. March 27, 2016 10:43 pm

    Sally, Sally, Sally – you have outdone yourself. Your travel posts are always my favourite reads, and this is exceptional. The detail, the descriptions, the style. I don’t think I have considered Milan until now. But I wish I could go with your eye. A most brilliant review of a below the radar city.

  2. March 27, 2016 10:59 pm

    What Kellie said! Wonderful food travel writing, brings it alive for me, and glorious photos too?

  3. March 28, 2016 2:39 am

    Wow Sally gorgeous photos and so much yummy Italian food – I haven’t been to Milan for 10 years. My top pick for a city break ‘down under’ would be Melbourne – it’s very European….

  4. March 28, 2016 4:52 am

    OK, you’re making me feel really guilty for only flying in and out of Malpensa and not going into the city…

  5. March 28, 2016 9:16 am

    You were right around the corner! Thank you for such a wonderful post, I haven’t been to Milan yet and will definitely follow your trail, trip looks fantastic X X

  6. March 28, 2016 9:46 am

    Love it Sally

  7. March 28, 2016 10:03 am

    Great report and pics! Now I want an Aperol spritz, which I discovered last year on the BiCE Mare road trip…

  8. March 28, 2016 5:06 pm

    You make it sound so enticing, and I don’t think I’ve ever really been ‘enticed’ by Milan before…

  9. March 28, 2016 10:29 pm

    Lovely post Sally, and brought back many happy memories of my own short stay in Milan. I think I was more distressed than you by the ubiquitous graffiti but that was virtually the only negative. Some things I would suggest:

    Definitely ride one of those venerable trams, and sit by the bendy bit.

    The Museum of the 20th Century, right by the Duomo is fascinating, though more an art gallery than a museum, as I remember it. As well as some great art it has wonderful views of the Duomo and the square from the top floor, particularly after dark.

    The Brera art gallery has some wonderful paintings and is in a rather charming area.

    The Navigli, the last remains of Milan’s once extensive canal system, are very atmospheric after dark. There is a wonderful ice cream shop there and a fun second hand book shop.

    And of course Leonardo’s Last Supper is in Milan, if you can manage to get in to see it! I didn’t 😦 but will another time.

  10. March 28, 2016 11:47 pm

    I fly into Milan in four weeks and I can’t wait!

  11. March 29, 2016 1:12 am

    Wow, what an adventure!! I love all the photos. The whole trip sounds amazing 🙂

  12. March 29, 2016 11:09 am

    I feel like i’ve been on holiday just reading this post – what a fabulous time you had and such a wonderfully photographed and written account of your glam city break. I adore Italy, and would love to visit Milan after seeing all those amazing places. Pizza and cocktails at Dry look especially great….

  13. March 29, 2016 6:00 pm

    Such a wonderful place! Although it’s close to Geneva, I have never visited this city…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

    http://www.reveriesbramblesscribbles.com/blog/

  14. March 29, 2016 6:02 pm

    Thank you *so* much for the kind words, it was great to get to meet you and to show you around! Please do come back 🙂

  15. March 30, 2016 10:19 am

    What a jam packed visit! We stumbled on the Castello Sforzesco when on honeymoon in 2003 and it was free of charge and filled with so many treasures. We didn’t have our camera with us that day, so went back a few years ago. We paid for our entrance to see one painting again – in a room that was then being renovated, and to see the Pieta for a second time #awe

  16. March 30, 2016 6:35 pm

    “You soak up the alcohol with delicious bites of food”. Yup. More than one Italian told me: you can’t be drunk. You just didn’t eat enough. What an account. WHAT an account. You left me peckish for a Milan adventure!

  17. The Real Geordie Armani permalink
    March 31, 2016 2:09 pm

    enjoyed this review immensely Sally 🙂

  18. April 5, 2016 8:49 pm

    We are off to Milan this summer and I was so happy you wrote this post! It’s kicked off all my research now and you’ve saved me so much work with all this information on the foodie bits in particular!

  19. April 17, 2016 6:21 pm

    Such a comprehensive account Sally of a really exciting trip! It is so cool that Sara was inspired by Arva to set up her own tour business as well 🙂

  20. All Thyme Favourites permalink
    April 18, 2016 11:04 pm

    Wow. I’m so jealous. All that food looks stunning, and the place looks amazing. I’m going to Barcelona later this year and cannot wait to dive straight in to all the Spanish food but Italy is next on my list!

  21. April 30, 2016 9:23 am

    What a fabulous post! It’s the first time since my honeymoon that I’ve heard mention of testeroli pasta. My husband and I were lost in Montemarcello when we found a small osteria in the middle of nowhere to get a quick bite. Nobody spoke english (our Italian was almost non-existant) and since there were only a couple of items on the menu, they brought us the only pasta they had that day. Covered in a simple and beautiful pesto, it was one of the best pastas we had ever eaten. We were told that the pasta was called “testeroli” by the lovely nonna in the kitchen, and I have struggled throughout the years to describe this beautiful dish. Thank you for briniging back a wonderful memory!

    • May 2, 2016 9:45 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful memory (all my best ones involve food btw).

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