DestinAsian - - CONTENTS - By Clau­dia Flisi

It may not have the glo­ries of Rome or the ro­mance of Florence, but this year, Mi­lan does have the Expo, and there may not be a bet­ter time to visit.

If all roads in Italy lead to Rome, all hearts to Venice, and all artists to Florence, then all Ital­ian busi­ness goes to Mi­lan. This should put the Ital­ian fash­ion cap­i­tal— the coun­try’s sec­ond city in terms of pop­u­la­tion and numero uno when it comes to wealth—on the itin­er­ary of 20 mil­lion trav­el­ers in 2015, the year of Expo.

TWO women catch my eye on Via della Spiga, in the heart of Mi­lan’s most up­scale fash­ion dis­trict. Which one em­bod­ies this city best? Is it the twen­tysome­thing sig­no­rina on the left wear­ing a chili-red three-quar­ter-length fur coat and im­pos­si­bly high stiletto heels that have no busi­ness nav­i­gat­ing the cob­ble­stones of this street? Or is it the minkswathed woman on her right, pos­si­bly the girl’s mother, judg­ing from the way the two are walk­ing arm in arm?

The younger lady may ex­em­plify the essence of trendy, fash­ion-im­pas­sioned Mi­lan, but her el­e­gant com­pan­ion, more sen­si­bly shoed and tot­ing a leather Trus­sardi bag, is de­mo­graph­i­cally more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of this north­ern Ital­ian city of 1.35 mil­lion. The me­dian age here is 45, with sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans out­num­ber­ing peo­ple in their twen­ties.

But you wouldn’t know that walk­ing down Via della Spiga, be­cause so many shop­pers on this street and through­out the well-touristed Quadri­latero della Moda dis­trict are for­eign­ers. Some are tro­phy wives from else­where in Europe out on shop­ping sprees with seem­ingly lim­it­less credit lines. Oth­ers are buy­ers; you see them thick as flies dur­ing Fash­ion Week in the spring and au­tumn. But th­ese are the col­or­ful ex­cep­tions. Mi­lan is more of­ten (and more ac­cu­rately) de­scribed as “gray” by vis­i­tors and res­i­dents alike— not only for its ar­chi­tec­ture and its smog, but also for its gray-haired pop­u­la­tion, who are re­puted to be a lit­tle too staid and a lit­tle too con­ser­va­tive, at least by the stan­dards of their fel­low Ital­ians.

Mi­lan’s movers and shak­ers ex­pect to im­prove that im­age with Expo Mi­lano 2015, which kicks off in May and runs through Oc­to­ber. Mi­lan won the bid to host the next world’s fair back in 2008, hop­ing the event would bur­nish its cov­eted im­age of ur­ban dy­namism and in­no­va­tion, serve as a cat­a­lyst for in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments that needed to be made re­gard­less, and en­cour­age in­vest­ment. The cam­paign was spear­headed by Le­tizia Mo­ratti, Mi­lan’s first woman mayor; her in­cum­bency alone sug­gested a change in di­rec­tion for the city.

Cur­rent mayor Gi­u­liano Pis­apia cheer­leads Expo as a ve­hi­cle for pro­pel­ling Mi­lan (and the coun­try) out of its cur­rent eco­nomic slump. He cites sur­veys doc­u­ment­ing the op­ti­mism of his fel­low cit­i­zens about the fair, in spite of a se­ries of cor­rup­tion charges in­volv­ing Expo man­agers over the last year.

“Op­ti­mistic” isn’t usu­ally the first word that comes to mind when de­scrib­ing a typ­i­cal Mi­lanese; “fast­mov­ing,” “com­pet­i­tive,” and “cyn­i­cal” are more fre­quently heard ad­jec­tives. The lat­ter cling to the ves­tiges of an ear­lier era of Ital­ian pol­i­tics: lo­cal son Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni was Italy’s prime min­is­ter three times be­tween 1994 and 2011, mak­ing him the coun­try’s long­est-serv­ing post­war leader.

A pho­tog­ra­pher friend of mine, Mat­teo, sums up his fel­low Mi­lanese this way: “When you call some­one who is late for an ap­point­ment and you say, ‘Where the hell are you?’, the an­swer is typ­i­cally, ‘ Sono già li [I am al­ready there].’ They may still be on the other side of the city, but they want to give the im­pres­sion of be­ing on time and ef­fi­cient. Of course it’s not true.”

Six months be­fore Expo’s open­ing day, the city was al­ready “not there.” I have lived in and around Mi­lan on and off for al­most 30 years, and when I was walk­ing around in De­cem­ber, the cen­ter of town—not to men­tion the fair­grounds them­selves—looked like a huge con­struc­tion site, with skele­tal sky­scrapers and scaf­fold­ing dot­ting the land­scape. Dami­ano Gullì, a spokesman for the Tri­en­nale De­sign Mu­seum, one of the city’s cul­tural bell­wethers, sees th­ese changes as pos­i­tive.

“The sky­line of Mi­lan has been trans­formed in re­cent years,” he tells me. “You can see it at Pi­azza Gae Au­lenti [the new re­gional-gov­ern­ment head­quar­ters] and in the Porta Garibaldi area.” Gullì also says the art scene has im­proved, cit­ing a spate of new gal­leries. “Expo is bring­ing more changes,” he adds.

Yet Mat­teo laments the fact that his city is not “truly mod­ern and vi­va­cious,” in spite of the surge in con­struc­tion and public spend­ing. Re­cent ex­pen­di­tures on such projects as trans­porta­tion up­grades and the Pi­azza Gae Au­lenti were long over­due, he says, and many promised im­prove­ments—a new metro line, new wa­ter­ways—haven’t hap­pened. What has got­ten lost in the build­ing frenzy, he says, is the ar­chi­tec­tural splen­dor cre­ated be­tween the 1930s and ’70s. “Some of th­ese are re­ally beau­ti­ful build­ings, but they aren’t un­der­stood and many have been ru­ined by care­less re­struc­tur­ing. The city has given the green light to changes that have de­stroyed the value of the orig­i­nal ar­chi­tec­ture.”

He par­tic­u­larly mourns the fate of the Palazzo Mon­dadori, head­quar­ters for the Mon­dadori pub-

lish­ing em­pire. It was de­signed by Brazil­ian ar­chi­tect Os­car Niemeyer and is the only ex­am­ple of his work in Italy. “It is a marvel ev­ery time I see it,” notes Mat­teo, “but it is ever more choked by ugly build­ings, of­fice struc­tures, and roads that make it more and more dif­fi­cult to ad­mire.”

Change doesn’t al­ways hap­pen quickly in Mi­lan, de­spite the city’s self-brand­ing as in­no­va­tive and dy­namic. The Tri­en­nale De­sign Mu­seum it­self was dis­cussed for years be­fore it opened in late 2007 as the first mu­seum in Italy ded­i­cated to de­sign. You won­der what took them so long, since the words “Ital­ian” and “de­sign” are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked.

Ital­ian de­sign is more than clothes, shoes, and other leather goods. It is equally—maybe pri­mar­ily— industrial de­sign, orig­i­nally for au­to­mo­biles with lots of ze­ros on their price tags. Think Bu­gatti, Fer­rari, Lam­borgh­ini, Maserati, and Pa­gani, crafted by de­sign rock stars such as Nuccio Ber­tone, Gior­getto Gi­u­giaro, and Ser­gio Pin­in­fa­rina. Yet the lat­ter’s son, Paolo Pin­in­fa­rina, main­tains that Ital­ians have been cre­at­ing global de­sign long be­fore au­to­mo­biles. “Since the time of Michelan­gelo,” he sug­gests. He sees suc­cess­ful Ital­ian de­sign as chameleon-like— lux­u­ri­ous but af­ford­able, in­no­va­tive but tra­di­tional. “Our strength is the abil­ity to sur­prise, with rigor and re­spect for tra­di­tion. Plus, a good de­sign should be emo­tional.”

Auto de­sign in Italy is very emo­tional. So is the sub­ject of park­ing spa­ces in Mi­lan. You don’t see

many Fer­raris and Lam­bos in the heart of town, but you do see a lot of other ve­hi­cles: Mi­lan has one of the high­est rates of car own­er­ship in the world. So traf­fic jams, park­ing con­ges­tion, and pol­lu­tion are big prob­lems, es­pe­cially in mid April, when the world’s most in­flu­en­tial fur­ni­ture and de­sign show, the Salone del Mo­bile, takes place. You would think it was Fash­ion Week for the hordes of tow­er­ing mod­els, tem­per­a­men­tal stylists, ar­chi­tects, pain­ters, pho­tog­ra­phers, and jour­nal­ists roam­ing the city. Adding to their num­bers is a host of fur­ni­ture mak­ers, ap­pli­ance man­u­fac­tur­ers, and whole­sale buy­ers, mak­ing this the most crowded week in Mi­lan’s cal­en­dar. Though per­haps not this year: dur­ing its six-month run, Expo is ex­pected to draw an es­ti­mated 20 mil­lion vis­i­tors.

Lo­cated on 200 hectares of ded­i­cated fair­grounds in Rho, a sub­urb lo­cated out­side the city proper, the ex­po­si­tion has taken for its theme “Feed­ing the Planet, En­ergy for Life,” in­ter­preted by 144 par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries and 11 or­ga­ni­za­tions. The food theme is apt, given Italy’s rep­u­ta­tion as a chowhound’s heaven. But it’s a lit­tle less so given the lack of gas­tro­nomic ac­co­lades for many of Mi­lan’s spe­cific con­tri­bu­tions to that rep­u­ta­tion. Au­then­tic Mi­lanese dishes fa­vor rice over pasta, but­ter over olive oil, and sub­stance over ex­trav­a­gance. Nervetti (pork car­ti­lage and ten­dons), cas­soueula (a pork-and-cab­bage casse­role), and fritto

misto alla mi­lanese (fried veal brains, liver, sweet­breads, and kid­neys) do not gar­ner Miche­lin stars as a rule. Lo­cals love them; oth­ers maybe not so much. Bet­ter bets for the unini­ti­ated might be saf­fron risotto, co­to­letta alla mi­lanese (the lo­cal an­swer to schnitzel), or osso buco, which are more con­vinc­ing ex­am­ples of Mi­lanese culi­nary prow­ess.

Re­gard­less, the city boasts some of Italy’s finest restau­rants, of­fer­ing re­gional spe­cial­ties from all over the coun­try as well as ev­ery­thing from Tex-Mex to Thai, egg rolls to em­panadas. Among my fa­vorites is Daniel, where 34-year-old en­fant prodige Daniel Canzian brings a rich cos­mopoli­tan di­men­sion to mod­ern Ital­ian cooking. He trained in Ja­pan as well as Europe, and the Asian in­flu­ence shows in such dishes as risotto with leeks and green tea, and a dessert “origami” of turnip and pis­ta­chios with cit­rus and tar­ragon. Mi­lan’s culi­nary eclec­ti­cism is also on show at Erba Br­usca in the Nav­igli area. Prize-win­ning chef Alice Del­court is an amal­gam of Amer­i­can, French, and Ital­ian ex­pe­ri­ence, and the mélange is ev­i­dent in sig­na­ture dishes such as squash vel­vet soup with gor­gonzola crum­ble and wal­nuts; risotto with chest­nut cream, ba­con, and fried rose­mary; or eggs Bene­dict with Dutch sauce, ham, and tat­soi greens.

Yet some­how, the ef­fects of all this good eat­ing are not vis­i­ble on most Mi­lanese. Those living in the city cen­ter (the most ex­pen­sive area) are ac­tu­ally said to be leaner than the av­er­age Ital­ian, and Ital­ians in gen­eral have the low­est per­cent­age of obe­sity in West­ern Europe. You might won­der how they pull that off, with restau­rants and cafés on ev­ery cor­ner and tem­ples of gour­man­dism like Peck and Eataly. Think of Peck as the mom in mink: founded in 1883 in the heart of down­town, the leg­endary deli has catered to gen­er­a­tions of af­flu­ent lo­cals with its volup­tuous dis­plays of meats, cheeses, fruits, veg­eta­bles, 3,000 wine la­bels, and 200 of­fer­ings of tea and cof­fee— Fort­num & Ma­son with an Ital­ian ac­cent. Eataly is Peck’s flashier, younger, more cos­mopoli­tan com­pan­ion. The gourmet mar­ket opened last spring on the site of a for­mer theater as the 10th Ital­ian out­let in a grow­ing in­ter­na­tional em­pire of food em­po­ria— think sep­a­rate dis­plays or aisles de­voted to sa­lumi, cheese, fish, veg­eta­bles, pizza, and so on, plus coun­ters where pas­tas, sand­wiches, desserts, and piad­ina are made fresh be­fore your eyes.

Maybe the Mi­lanese stay fit by walk­ing? Although Mi­lan is the sec­ond most pop­u­lous city in Italy, its his­toric cen­ter (where you’ll want to spend most of your time any­way) is com­pact and pedes­trian friendly. You can wan­der, as the lo­cals do, on foot from one lo­cale to an­other, such as the at­mo­spheric Br­era dis­trict; a banker friend of mine says it’s his fa­vorite place in the city for drinks with friends. In­ter­spersed among the restau­rants and nightspots and shoe stores in this for­merly work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood are bou­tiques for cu­rios and ogget­tis­tica, those one-ofa-kind ob­jects that adorn Mi­lan apart­ments. Eclectica on Corso Garibaldi, for in­stance, stocks hand­crafted pieces by up-and-com­ing Ital­ian de­sign­ers along­side screens and rugs from Asia and Africa. And on Via Fiori Chiari, tarot card read­ers sit at lit­tle street-side ta­bles, ea­ger to tell your for­tune if you cross their palms with the ap­pro­pri­ate coins.

An­other fast-gen­tri­fy­ing area is the Nav­igli neigh­bor­hood. The orig­i­nal nav­igli were a net­work of wa­ter­ways that flowed through the city. Most have been cov­ered over, but two canals, lo­cated in the south­west­ern part of Mi­lan, re­main open. To­day they form the nexus of all nightlife with con­sid­er­ably more sparkle than the dank aquatic pas­sage­ways them­selves. The Nav­igli can be crowded in day­time too. Sun­day brunch is a big draw at the in­nu­mer­able cafés and restau­rants, es­pe­cially on the last Sun­day of the month when the canals are bor­dered by two kilo­me­ters of an­tiques stalls. Don’t even think about find­ing a park­ing place then.

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