Lunch in Milan; Not Quite What I Expected
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone say, I’m going to Milan for my vacation! Nothing about the city with its industrial, business-minded, high-fashion reputation shouted my name either. But, when Arthur suggested lunch in the centre as we passed by on route to our holiday in Croatia, I was hungry. Sure, I said, why not?
Finding the driving route to the centre of a European city is easy, you just follow the signs. Centrum. Zentrum. Centre Ville. Centro. The hard part is navigating the tangle of narrow, cobbled roads designed with a horse-drawn carriage in mind. The new-millennium edition of any thousand-year-old city is a maze of one-way signs, tram tracks, and bumper-to-bumper cars. Arthur takes this on as if it is a Sunday drive through the country-side. The guy deserves the zen-city driving award or at least a follow-me-to-the-centre bumper sticker. We’ve developed something of a ritual for the centre-drive-through; Arthur casually moves through traffic, while I twist and turn in my seat pointing out the landmarks to both of us.
We were following our typical pattern as we narrowed in on Milan’s Centro. There! That’s Santa Maria Delle Grazie! That’s where The Last Supper is! And, Oh! The Sforza Castle! We rounded a cobbled bend, and in the narrow view between two blocky buildings, I glimpsed the magnificent, immense pink marble Duomo. Look! I pointed it out for a concentrated Arthur who was no longer paying attention to my guided tour. Something’s wrong with the van. He said distractedly while pumping the unresponsive gas pedal. We rolled to a stop, miraculously managing to avoid blocking traffic.
Arthur called for road-side help (yes sir, numero-uno, Piazza Del Duomo). I went to find pizza. Take out, I stated sheepishly. We tore the pizza into pieces and ate it standing by the roadside while, the tow-truck driver made arrangements with a garage for our repairs. He spoke in animated Italian, supplemented with much hand-waving, and then did his best to confer the message to us, No tima. No tima! He fixa nexta-weeka.
Okee dokee. It’s time to talk about the dog. You may have noticed a five-pound Ewok showing up with some regularity in our photos. About a year and a half ago, we became a party of three. Why have I not mentioned this before? Perhaps I was in a state of denial. How can you live a bi-continental life, yet have a dog? Apparently, if it fits under the airplane seat, you can. Arco has crossed the Atlantic 14 times in her 18-month life-span. She is equally at home on the roof in Europe, or under the bow in Canada, as long as she can sleep on my head. The thing about dogs is that they get you out there, and meeting people happens spontaneously. Dogs have no qualms with sniffing other dogs, and other dogs are attached to other humans. Enter Tito.
We checked into a (pet-friendly) hotel and then headed out to find dinner. As we strolled along, discussing strategy for finding authentic Italian, rather than tourist food, Arco’s leash became entangled with Tito’s leash. And that’s how it works. Introductions were made, and Swa and George walked us a few blocks toward Trattoria Nerino Dieci, before waving goodbye.
I must admit, an Italian menu has always been a mystery to me. Do people really order something from every section? I’ve never had the courage to try. But, when in Rome... I ordered it all. Antipasti: fresh mozzarella stuffed with ripe peach and basil leaves. Primi: house-made al-dente tagliatelle with red shrimp, lime and pesto. Secondi: pistachio encrusted tuna steak. Contori: mixed Mediterranean vegetables from the grill. Dolci was rich dark-chocolate gelato from a roadside vendor, somewhere along the tangle of streets between the trattoria and the hotel.
The next morning, spurred on by having conquered my first full Milanese menu, I shook off the feeling of shock at having to spend a good chunk of my holiday here, left Arthur in the hotel studying scores (with dog), and ventured tentatively into the city. Within one block of walking, I discovered Peck! Peck, is the quintessential slow-food multi-floor Italian delicatessen. It’s like, The Source of Food. Each counter heaped with Italian delicacies; fresh ravioli stuffed with porcini and black truffle; locally sourced, hand massaged, cured meats; delicate pastries, and wheels of pecorino cheese. If I’d have known I was coming to Milan, I would have learned about Peck through my research, and it would have been at the very top of my list. I wanted to shout out, Ha! No guidebook – look at me now! This was indeed auspicious.
From here I branched out. I took the stairs to the grand expanse of the Duomo roof, and wandered the halls of the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele. I hung out in the back streets of the Cinque Vie neighbourhood, where I stumbled onto an impressive set of Roman ruins belonging to Mediolanum, the Roman city predating Milan, and I got myself into trouble with the black-tie waiters at Marchesi, a café dating from 1824. (Apparently, you must take your cappuccino standing at the bar if you have not paid the stipend to sit in the green velvet arm-chairs).
I visited as many ancient churches as I could. At the 16th century Chiesa di San Maurizio, an elderly gentleman-volunteer appointed himself as my private tour guide. Stand-here! He directed, and holding my shoulders, backed me into a clearly-off-limits, carved wooden choir stall. Imagine the cloistered nuns standing here singing, and praying for hours! He emphasized, nearly shouted, the last word. Other visitors stopped to watch the scene. He took a step back, leaving me to stand on my own. Now, he asked slowly, what you feel? (other than a wee bit awkward?) My growing audience waited breathlessly, but he answered before I could. Lumbar support! He exclaimed, delighted to share this secret with me. And he was right, I was darn comfy as I stood there on display. My volunteer then towed me over to a fresco depicting Noah’s Ark, painted by a student of Leonardo da Vinci. The audience followed. My next test, What you see? I looked frantically at the animals matched up in tidy couples, but thankfully, he couldn’t hold his enthusiasm. There! He pointed to a third dog. Apparently, the artist couldn’t resist slipping in an image of his own furry friend. He toured me around to other frescos; The Last Supper! And here you don’t have to pay! Haha! And then, Look! Again the dog! He was right, there was the familiar hound peering out at me from another scene. This was the original version of Where’s Waldo. I concluded my tour by telling my guide he had made my day and left him grinning ear to ear.
One morning, there was an email from Swa inviting us to join her for dinner in the Brera district, an area of cozy cobbled streets lined with palazzos, and patio cafe’s. I recommend Trattoria Torre de Pisa, she wrote, they like having pups around! Tito and Arco hung out under the table while we had one of those unforgettable evenings that can happen when strangers realize they are friends. We ate slowly, by candlelight, drinking chianti and limoncello, and chatted easily and endlessly.
Near midnight we said good-night, and until we meet again, and parted ways. We walked back through the tangle of streets that had become our neighbourhood, and stopped for one more dark-chocolate gelato somewhere in the centre of one of Italy’s greatest cities.
Hover over the images (or choose landscape on mobile) to see some pics of our week in Milan