I've been visiting Milan every year for the past 20 years. I spent a bit of time there in my youth, and now that I go to Italy two or three times a year, I always fly in there. It's my first port of call and gets me grounded, mainly because it feels familiar to me. That takes a while, and I know a lot of people who really hate the city, but it's one of those places where you need to scratch beyond the surface, get past all the glitz, to really get to know it.
It's a really good walking city, and it has trams, so maybe part of the reason I like it so much is because I grew up in Melbourne. My family is from Basilicata. We come from Provincia di Potenza, a world away from the Italy of Milan. I've got really good friends there and some cousins who live and work there, so that has been the connection for me, a southern boy.
Milan is industrial and it has a real commercial edge, so that brings a lot of expats to the city and sometimes that's a good thing for Italy. Sometimes when Italians try to do that international thing it just doesn't work, whereas Milan is more open and has a cosmopolitan feel about it. There are usually bands touring through, so you can always catch some good live music, and there's always good art. There's a place called the Hangar Bicocca, which Pirelli has opened, that always has great modern art exhibitions. It's very cool.
In terms of sightseeing, one of the nicest things to do is climb the steps at the Duomo; you can climb right onto the roof and have a panino up there. I still haven't been to see The Last Supper, though. The best thing to do is just walk around Milan- there's always something to see. Walk around the Porta Ticinese, do the walk up Corso Genova, and you have to do the walk along the Via Montenapoleone and watch the Russians buy everything. "I'll take 30 pairs of that, that and that!"
I have a bit of a shop when I'm there, too, I admit. I go to 10 Corso Como, which is owned by former magazine editor Carla Sozzani. The good thing about it is you can actually drink there while you shop. Downstairs there's a restaurant, bar and clothing, and upstairs there's an exhibition space and a good bookshop, too. Drinking while you shop helps you make those stupid purchases that you only make in Italy. You're there thinking, "Wow, this looks really good," and you come home, put it on, walk down the street, catch sight of yourself and think, "Oh no, I look like a real dick." Stick with the foundation pieces.
Milan is a great place to eat, but the really high-end restaurants there aren't really for me. I tend to get really bored in those places. I've been to Cracco once, which is probably the most famous of the high-end places, but that sort of restaurant isn't something I want to do constantly. They can be very expensive and, well, boring. For me, Italy is all about going somewhere and having a simple plate of prosciutto because you know it's from a great producer, or just a plate of puntarelle, or a pasta with Tropea onions.
When I land, my first stop - because I usually get in in the morning - will be a café called Marchesi for a caffè and brioche. The coffee's good rather than great, but it's the ritual of the thing. Marchesi has been there for two or three hundred years - a small place, mainly just locals that go there. It's tiny. You've still got the cashier, a little old lady. You grab your brioche, the guy at the machine in a bowtie makes you coffee, boom, boom, you have your coffee and walk out, listen to some other people's conversations or meet somebody.
I might also stop by at the famous Princi for a coffee and the pizza al taglio. I go to the one on Via Speronari, because I think it's a really good-looking place.
If I arrive in the afternoon, though, I'll go straight to one of the wine bars for an aperitivo. Milan is big on the aperitivo thing - they really embrace it. If I'm in the mood for a big walk I'll go to Cantine Isola, which is in what they call Chinatown. It's very simple, just four walls covered in wine. They've got a list that's big on natural wines. It doesn't really have a menu, but there'll be some bits of food on the bar - salumi and bruschetta, some bits and pieces - and you grab a bottle and they'll open it up, or they'll be pouring something interesting. It's run by an older guy and his wife, and they'll pretty much open whatever you want. It's your go-to place for wine shopping, too. If you're lucky enough to be there on a Thursday night they have poetry readings. Lucky or unlucky, depending on your perspective.
If I want something with a bit more Milanese buzz, I go to N'Ombra de Vin. That's Venetian slang: in the Veneto they have an ombra of wine, a shadow of wine - a small glass, in other words. It's another good place for an aperitivo. It's a bit more chic, a lot more Milanese, more fashionable. It's quite a pretty space, too, and the good thing about Milan during aperitivo time is that everyone just spills out into the street drinking. You'll end up sitting on the kerb across the road, or leaning against a building drinking good wine out of good glasses and no one's going to hassle you.
I think that's the best part of the Milanese aperitivo experience. There's a real freedom in it.
In Milan, aperitivo usually means a Negroni, a Spritz or wine. The Negroni Sbagliato, the "wrong" Negroni, made with prosecco, is a Milanese invention, from Bar Basso, I think, but I don't tend to go there that much because it's become a bit touristy.
The Milanese drink a lot more widely than people in other parts of Italy. They certainly don't just drink wines from Lombardia; they're much more open to national and international wines. You'll get plenty of French as well as Italian wine in most of these bars.
I don't specifically seek out wines from Lombardy. Some producers are doing interesting things with franciacorta, but usually my imagination is more captured by Sicily and Friuli. There's great stuff coming out of Lazio now, and I'm loving the natural wines coming from Toscana. Sardinia is there, we're getting interesting things from Puglia, and Campania, and some of the things coming out of the Veneto are drinking really well, too.
Another great one for an aperitivo is Rebelot, on the canal. They also do some really interesting food, and there's always something good to drink there.
The thing about drinking Italian wine in Milan is that there'll be bottles you haven't seen before, or if not there'll definitely be vintages you won't see outside Italy. And price-wise, you're ecstatic. You're drinking things by the glass that you'd just never see otherwise, and you're paying next to nothing. I've had Gravner by the glass in Milan, and paid 12, 13 euros. It's fantastic. The least we could put that on by the glass at 10 William St in Sydney would be well north of $30. And then again you can drink really well at three euros a glass, or even one or two euros a glass. It just depends on what you feel like.
My first dinner is always at Rovello 18. It has probably one of the best natural-wine lists in Italy and the food is fortifying - great ingredients just done really, really well. You'll go there and it'll be, "Tonight we've got an entrée of salsiccia di Bra," sausage from Bra, and they'll have sourced some great cheese, they would've sourced really good salumi or prosciutto, they'll do a great risotto (the classic Milanese is done well there), some agnolotti del plin, and they do this spaghetti alla chitarra with cipolle de Tropea. They'll bring in some great little things from all over Italy and just do it really well. The puntarelle salad with anchovies there is another favourite, and they do another beautiful one with grana and artichokes. It's always my number one, and I'll eat there two or three times in a week.
For something quite different, try Mangiari di Strada. It's in the south, about a 30-minute tram ride. It translates as "street food", of course, but they're doing some really cool stuff - lampredotto sandwiches, or sausages from northern Italy, or porchetta, and they've got an all-natural wine list. It's fresh and casual.
If you wanted to do the smarter, fine-dining places, I do enjoy La Brisa. A stunning room, beautiful courtyard dining - you sit encircled by glass with all this foliage around you. The food's pretty good and there's always interesting things to drink there. I'd recommend it strongly as a lunch spot.
Another one I'd recommend for the daytime is Refettorio. It's built in an old convent and they do a good set menu. You go there, pay 16 or 20 euros and the food's actually pretty good. Ask for the wine list; don't drink what they give you by the glass. Everyone has the same antipasto, then you have a choice of pastas and then you can either add on a dessert or main course. At the end they'll put a Moka pot of coffee on the table for you to pour yourself, and off you go. Sunday lunch there is particularly good.
In terms of local specialties, I particularly like being in Milan around Christmas so I can eat their panettone, especially at Marchesi, and Easter for the colomba.
I have seen a tramezzino in Milan made with panettone sandwiching stracchino cheese and prosciutto, but I prefer mine just fresh, cut and straight up. I like the local schnitzel well enough, but there's only so much Milanese schnitzel you can eat.
Risotto Milanese is fine, but I prefer the risotto al salto. That's my go-to Milanese dish. It's the one they do in the pan, crisping it up. Rovello does a particularly good example. They fry it, then flip it over when they serve it to you, so you break through the crunchy top and you've got the soft risotto underneath. And it's not a proper visit to Milan without a trip to Luini. It's behind the Duomo, and they specialise in panzerotti. Two euros a pop. Just look for the line - there's always about 40 people waiting there. All the deep-fried dough you can eat. It always makes me happy, that place.
There's always the classic places, too, but they've become a bit staid. Some of the rooms are quite pretty, though. Bagutta, say, or Giacomo Bistrot - if you want to see Berlusconi you can go to one of those places. They're okay - go with modest expectations about the food. Very chichi. We don't really have anything like these places in Australia.
Bagutta is covered in artworks, covered in drawings, very Old World. There's a hell of a lot of history to it. The service is still great, and it's great for the experience, and if you've never been to a trattoria Milanese, you'd probably love it. You can have your insalata nervetti, the tendon salad, and then a risotto with osso buco and you'll be very happy.
One of the older places I like is Taverna Moriggi. A super-old tavern, one of the first ever in Milan, and a really beautiful-looking old place - smoke-stained and wonderful. It's behind the stock exchange, so at lunch it's just crazy. There's only five or six things on the menu, but they make them count. They do risotto with horse, things like that, or whole pork knuckles. It's not light fare, but quite typical of the region. Not a place to eat at in the heat of summer, but lots of atmosphere, especially in the day.
There's also some of the newer places where chefs are trying a bit harder. I don't know them all intimately but Ceresio 7, which is on a rooftop with pools, is quite chic. They're doing good things, and I'd go back. (They love naming their restaurants after the street names and numbers in Milan; maybe that's where 10 William St evolved from for us.)
I crash with friends a lot when I visit, but I do like a hotel called the Straf, and I also like the Hotel Spadari, which is next door to Peck, the famous food store. They're both super-central, just off the main square, and you can get a room there for maybe 150 euros a night (about $210), which isn't too bad. They're modernish in style, and the Straf has a good bar downstairs. The biggest thing for me is their location, and being able to walk everywhere.
The walk back from dinner at Rovello towards the Duomo is something I really love. On the way you'll pass a place called Jamaica, a bar that is quite, quite famous. It was a big artists' hangout in the '40s and '50s and is always a good place to stop in for a Fernet Branca or a few. Everyone's on the street drinking and you can really get yourself into a lot of trouble there. Which is kind of fun.