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Hidden Treasures in Milan

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Photo: Dave Lauridsen

Go looking for the new in Milan, Italy, and you doom yourself to disappointment. I say this with a confidence that results from the fact that my job has carried me to this millennium-old city four times every year for more than a decade.

True, there is the occasional glimmer of progress, far from least the recent political broom sweep that finally pushed Italy’s scandal-plagued prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to the curb. Even before the European debt crisis forced the media mogul—who had weathered accusations of corruption, ties to the Mafia, and an unwholesome appetite for teen prostitutes—to step down, there were subtle signs in Berlusconi’s hometown of Milan that change was afoot.

Some of this had to do with the construction of Porta Nuova Varesine, a much-ballyhooed urban renewal project on the site of an old rail station, built to bring millions of square feet of retail, office, and cultural space to the city, along with some shiny new starchitecture by the American firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates.

But as a New Yorker, I find it hard to generate the requisite excitement for a bunch of glass towers. Far more thrilling was the Duomo’s emergence from a seemingly never-ending renovation. When the scaffolding finally came down from the main façade, it was as if a film star you’d always loved had emerged from a face-lift as dewy and gorgeous as she’d ever been. Funding for the Duomo project came largely from the private sector, the government having fallen asleep on the job. The same was substantially the case with the legendary Teatro alla Scala, which also reappeared newly gilded and gleaming after its own long renovation.

On a more domestic scale, intrepid newcomers periodically show up to import something unexpected to Milan’s perennially conservative dining scene. In the case of Genoa natives Marco Bruni and Paul Lips, it was the introduction of regional home cooking served in a setting almost too casual and rough-hewn to fit a city so formal and prim. “Am I in Milan,” one wonders at U Barba, “or Brooklyn?”

A former sporting club turned restaurant, U Barba (the name is Genovese dialect for uncle) has a kitchen filled with the reconditioned pasta cutters and blending apparatuses Bruni collects. “I don’t want things too perfect, and with the old machines you get more texture in the food,” he said. The restaurant has a bocce court active in all but the coldest of seasons. Watching people play there, one can’t help but recall the Jane Jacobs dictum that old buildings make good settings for new ideas. Old cities do, too.

Despite the fact that Milan, Italy, plays host to the prestigious annual Salone del Mobile and the twice-yearly ready-to-wear fashion shows—events that use the city as a changeable scrim against which, season after season, designers offer up the latest in, respectively, furniture and clothing—there’s no escaping the sense that in Milan cutting-edge is an alien concept. Hip can’t happen here.

I struggled with this at first, continually on the prowl for some glimmer of newness. I made fruitless efforts to cozy up to a city bent on preserving an enigmatic northern distance. Spending as much time there as I did, it seemed necessary to discover the spring that opens the secret drawer. And, as with most revelations of this sort, when I finally happened upon the key to understanding, it turned out to have been hidden in plain sight.

I was looking for novelty in Milan when all along the allure of the place was its inverse. Few cities, in Italy or otherwise, hold fast to the time-tested as Milan does, and few places so fetishize that most conservative of virtues, refinement. In Milan it is no hardship to find a specialty cutlery store selling a mind-boggling array of, say, horn-handled hunting knives (G. Lorenzi) or one that offers an array of gloves in wrist, driving, and opera lengths (Sermoneta Gloves).

There is a confectionery shop I often visit in a storefront little altered since it opened in the 19th century. Standing at a minute zinc-topped coffee bar there, you order bite-size sandwiches while a clerk wraps your purchase of confections that must have seemed anachronistic even in your grandmother’s time. Candied violets? Pasticceria Marchesi has them, and not only that but candied rose petals and lilacs. If you happen to be there around All Souls’ Day in early November, you can find at Marchesi the delicious small seasonal loaves of sugar-dusted pan dei morti, although the ones I prefer come from Giovanni Galli, a rival shop. It says something about a city that it can sustain real competition between bakeries with house recipes for cakes for the dead.

In Milan a sober and venerable engraver (Ditta Raimondi di Pettinaroli) tucked amid the Prada and Dolce & Gabbana emporiums on the bustling high street of Corso Venezia stocks copperplates that date to the company’s founding, which corresponds roughly with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At Pettinaroli one can order correspondence cards and have them personalized using a blind embossing technique so subtle one’s initials seem written in braille.

In Milan it is still possible to fall upon what must be among one of the last great troves of secondhand goods in Europe at the Mercatone dell’Antiquariato. Here, on the last Sunday of each month, hundreds of dealers set up at dawn with offerings including the reconditioned kitchen equipment that people like Mr. Bruni of U Barba collect, but also Venini glass or plaster crèche figures or bridal linens or Mussolini memorabilia or industrial material such as the jointed-metal 1950’s doormat I snapped up for $80 that looks like a piece of contemporary art.

Not only is there a shop (Mercatores) in Milan specializing in uniforms for household domestics, it does a volume of sales any fashion retailer might envy. The anachronism of Mercatores might seem bizarre in any other city. Houseman jackets with epaulets? Starched caps for the parlor maid? Yet it’s probably worth knowing that before every fashion show she presents, the designer Miuccia Prada—a discreet child of the Milanese haute bourgeoisie if ever there was one—sends waiters wearing crisply starched jackets from Mercatores to circulate among the throngs of buyers and press. The waiters serve champagne cocktails and cucumber sandwiches on white bread with butter, their crusts, of course, cut off.

As a sage American friend who lived in Milan once pointed out, it is fairly pointless to try to “squeeze out” newness there. “Time would be better spent,” this woman said, “unearthing the buried treasures in the land that time forgot.”

It happens that, when my friend made this remark, we were seated in a restaurant that is one of my haunts in the city, eating bowls of vivid green soup made from stinging nettles. This hearty first course had been prepared by Arturo Maggi, a man with a head like a public monument and the habit of referring to himself not as a chef but as an “alchemist.” Maggi, his wife, Maria, and their sons, Roberto and Marco, run La Latteria, an eight-table hole-in-the-wall a short walk from San Marco, a church where, in a side altar, is installed a credible copy of Caravaggio’s Deposition, a masterpiece that allegedly hung here at one time. Whenever I am in Milan, I make plans to have dinner at La Latteria, stopping en route at San Marco to light one of the pale wax candles that in Milan have not yet been replaced by feebly flickering electric lights.

Few Milanese know about La Latteria, a well-kept secret where for decades Maggi has offered his delectable but unfussy home cooking, food prepared according to quasi-scientific precepts involving an evolved philosophy relating to the reactive properties of metals and food. Maggi cooks exclusively in pots made from .999 silver or aluminum, and perhaps only he understands precisely how this benefits the taste of his cuisine. Yet anyone who eats there is immediately struck by the intense freshness of the food and the produce that typically comes from Maggi’s own garden or direct from farmer friends.

On any given day the crowd at La Latteria might include the architect Renzo Piano or Carla Sozzani, the owner of 10 Corso Como, that mother of all “concept” stores, or else Barnaba Fornasetti, son of Piero, the great furniture designer. It will also just as likely include the local pharmacist, or me.

Everyone is democratically jammed into one or another of the small tables wedged into a corner, beside a minuscule bar, or behind the door, happy to be in this brightly lit space where the decoration runs to charmingly awful floral paintings that the owners proudly frame and hang.

“It’s important that food is not only delicious,” Maggi remarked one recent afternoon, as his wife served plates of rabbit stew in dense and redolent ragù and carafes of the brusque house red. “It has to be nourishing to give you health and strength.”

Health and strength you require in plenty if you aim to penetrate the mysteries of Milan. Good walking shoes also help. I favor rubber-soled loafers from Prada or sturdy Gommini from Tod’s for pavement pounding. Despite its efficient subway system and network of antiquated trolleys, Milan is a pedestrian town. Those Frenchwomen who somehow never grow fat are not possessors of any special secret. In most European cities people keep their figures mainly by smoking and getting around on their feet. I lost four pounds in a week spent racing around the city, all the while eating like a very fortunate trencherman.

My hotel, the hyperefficient Park Hyatt, was adjacent to the 19th-century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, an immense glass-roofed cathedral to consumerism erected, with a certain impertinence, alongside the Duomo, Milan’s foremost house of God. The Galleria functions as kind of geographic pivot point for central Milan and the streets that radiate outward into the area called the Golden Quadrilateral; from whichever direction you exit the place, you come face to face with a monument.

I often advise friends to stop for a moment before heading off to La Scala or the Palazzo Reale or the Museo del Novecento to observe the small army of workers seemingly always repairing the Galleria’s pavement. Curious as the advice may seem, there’s good reason to cast an eye downward at the gorgeous mosaics, so rich and ornate and symbolic. (It’s considered particularly lucky to execute a circle atop a bull inset there, heel planted where the beast’s testicles might be if generations of Milanese hadn’t worn them away, leaving a hole in the floor.)

Decades of hard use and neglect had left the floor of the Galleria looking pockmarked and sad, yet like so much else in Milan it has undergone long-overdue restoration in recent years. It happens that the mosaici these days are not mended by traditional laborers with hands gnarled and knotted like roots. Instead, young women with art history degrees toil late into the night grinding and grouting and polishing until their faces and hair are powdered with ancient civic dust.

Repair of the Galleria is a small but meaningful thing, a gesture to a public surprisingly often excluded from much that is splendid in Milan. There’s a reason for this. Milan is above all a cold and gorgeous fortress and has been that way for centuries. The cyclopean granite walls of ancient palaces built in inner-city grids proclaim their impregnable nature. The marmoreal façades of great apartment complexes dare the curious to guess what’s inside. Concealed behind the stone walls, the palace doors, and the iron gateways are often beautiful gardens, green spaces whose existence is known only to the lucky inhabitants and to the birds. Thus it did not astonish me when an acquaintance once mentioned having gone house-hunting by helicopter.

On my most recent trip to the city, I took advantage of the chance to poke into crannies, nose down side streets I’d only glimpsed before from the backseat of a cab. I started my wanderings, as I advise anyone to do, at the Villa Necchi Campiglio, a sublime structure designed for a family of industrialists in the 1930’s by the architect Piero Portaluppi and now open to the public. Purists may gripe about the ornate fireplaces, Venetian antiques, and lush tapestries Tommaso Buzzi, a later designer, added to the house, which Portaluppi built with almost monastic severity in the then-new rationalist style. But to my eye the balance between rigor and ease attains a seldom surpassed level of elegance and chic.

The house’s material richness is offset by a disarmingly simple geometry. It demonstrates, as the director Luca Guadagnino, who filmed the art-house hit I Am Love there, once said, “the obsession with perfection and details” characteristic of the Milanese bourgeoisie. This obsession is clear in the restrained walnut parquetry, the lozenge stucco ceilings, and in an articulated steel partition Portaluppi designed to screen the solarium, a device so ingenious you barely register that it is essentially a security gate.

Giorgio Armani often cites the Villa Necchi Campiglio as one of his inspirations, and references to Portaluppi’s supremely stylish austerity are easy to see at the designer’s new Armani Hotel Milano, a 95-room property he opened last November atop his flagship store in a Fascist-era building on the Via Alessandro Manzoni, shopping ground zero.

The residential area where the Villa Necchi Campiglio stands is an odd place known as the Quadrilatero del Silenzio, the Silent Quadrilateral. Within easy walking distance of the center city, it nevertheless feels so remote from the hubbub of Milan as to be somehow enchanted.

This effect is underscored when you stroll there amid the stolid villas and Liberty-style buildings, passing on your way the kinds of half-hidden treasures in which Milan abounds. Here is the palazzo where Michelangelo Antonioni set scenes from his first film. Here is a courtyard garden at the center of which stands a four-story sycamore tree. Here is a house whose bronze entry phone, created by the sculptor Adolfo Wildt, is in the shape of an ear. Here is a garden lying behind an iron fence and a high hedge in which a flock of pink flamingos wades and struts through the papyrus in an ornamental pond.

“Milan needs to be discovered slowly,” explained Rossana Orlandi, the city’s doyenne of contemporary furniture design, whose gallery, Spazio Rossana Orlandi, has long been a showcase for the most gifted and adventurous furniture designers in the world. A curious figure in her trademark outsize sunglasses, Orlandi bears a vague resemblance to a small bird at roost in a strangely feathered nest.

All around her the day I visited stood furniture that flouted convention: chairs and tables constructed by the gifted Dutchman Piet Hein Eek from scrap wood or iron; the Spaniard Nacho Carbonell’s “Bush of Iron,” a wildly bristling desk-and-chair combination that looked menacingly alive; a wardrobe by the Slovenian Nika Zupanc that looked like an accordion file. There, too, was a tabletop on which were arrayed ranks of glazed porcelain beetles, sinister and irresistible, by the Germans Beate Reinheimer and Ulrike Rehm, who go by the acronym RaR.

Even Orlandi’s gallery—located in a former tie factory in the courtyard of a residential building—is not easy to find. “There are plenty of beautiful places that need to be discovered here,” she added. “If I may be honest, I don’t know too much Milan myself.”

It takes time to unearth the city’s wonders—a decade in my case. It takes determination and a plan. When in Milan now, I always make a point of stopping at the Bulgari Hotel for drinks in the tranquil garden. The hotel’s air of exclusive remove is so earnest even cab drivers are challenged to find its private cul-de-sac.

I alternate meals between high-end restaurants such as Giacomo Arengario—a swank outpost of the famed Da Giacomo, this one set in the Palazzo dell’Arengario overlooking the Duomo—and lunch counters like Mandara, a businessman’s joint down the block from that great Milanese deli Peck. At Mandara the mozzarella di bufala is always “freschissima,” as a Milanese friend notes with approval. The prosciutto sliced to transparency and layered on crusty rolls is well-aged. While the selection is limited, the price is right and the cashier, a taciturn mama out of Central Casting, glowers over her empire from her throne by the till.

I stop each time I’m in town at AD56 Milano, a haberdashery I blithely walked past for years before a casual comment by Lapo Elkann finally sent me inside. Elkann, of course, is the Fiat heir famed for a style both chic and raffish. When I once admired Elkann’s shirt at a dinner party, he told me he’d had it run up at one of those “little tailoring places” that still abound in Milan.

I kick myself now for the years I squandered shopping elsewhere when all along I might have been capitalizing on Guido Vergani, the expert counselor whose advice I now seek whenever important decisions are to be made about clothes. One of the unkillable canards about men involves shopping and how much we allegedly hate it. No one ever bothers to note that men’s-wear departments are typically shunted to basements, somewhere between the rest room and the exit to the parking garage.

For an hour or so in the wood-paneled sanctuary of AD56, banked with wools, silks, and cashmeres, I get to impersonate Milanese gentlemen of some discernment. With Vergani’s assistance I explore and adjust sartorial details that are probably the true secret to personal style. I choose between spread and button-down collars, round cuffs or square. I weigh the decision to add a breast pocket or not. And when the whole performance becomes a bit too peacock for someone of my basically Calvinist nature, I nip downstairs to the main selling floor and pick out gorgeous and amazingly affordable ties to give to friends.

On my most recent visit, I piled my purchases into a car I’d hired for the afternoon and hurried off to keep an appointment I’d been trying to get for years. It was on the way to Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo’s Last Supper sits high on the wall of a former refectory, that Milan produced a bit of serendipity in the form of an offhand remark made by Massimo Padovani, the driver.

Did I know, Massimo asked, that San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore had reopened? I did not and neither did I know what that might signify. Massimo explained as he drove that this ecclesiastical complex, hidden from public view for years, boasts a masterpiece that rivals that of Leonardo: a luminous fresco cycle executed in the early 16th century by the undersung genius Bernardino Luini and his sons.

Since the 1980’s the frescoes have been undergoing major surgery, an overdue attempt to stabilize an ailing patient using funds from a local bank. Over decades, technicians painstakingly resuscitated a fragile and fugitive picture cycle that—like the Last Supper—had suffered badly from the moist breath of Milan’s deep aquifers and the interventions of restorer hacks.

When Massimo told me this, I decided on a whim to forgo my allotted 15 minutes with the Last Supper and stop into San Maurizio instead. Both Ruskin and Nabokov, I knew, were unified in praise of a painter some art historians wrote off as a Lombard bumpkin. Could both Ruskin and Nabokov be wrong?

For an hour that brisk afternoon, I took in the assorted ascensions and annunciations; lunar madonnas and bloody-fanged demons; martyrs beheaded, impaled, or fricasseed in oil. I wandered among the idealized virgins ostensibly modeled on nobles of no such virtue and puzzled over an ark onto which Noah herded an eclectic menagerie that included a pair of unicorns.

That the church that day should be so eerily empty felt hard to explain, until I remembered a defining feature of a city where talent and wealth has concentrated at least since Roman times. In Milan, there are so many riches it would take a lifetime to scratch the surface of them all.

Guy Trebay is a reporter for the New York Times.

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