The food-focused 2015 World Expo has catapulted Milan into the spotlight. But Milan takes a while to uncover, its hidden charm slowly revealed on long rambles throughout the city, surprising curious visitors with spectacular interior courtyards and delicious restaurants, tucked away behind giant closed doors. Like most travelers who pass through Milan merely to kick off or wrap up an extended Italy trip, we were meeting our old friends Martha and Loren for the Christmas weekend on their way out of Italy. For us it was a quick four-hour direct train ride from Geneva to Milan, through the brown winter vineyards of Valais and down the length of majestic Lake Maggiore, past floating island towns and snowy mountain backdrops, neighboring northern Italy’s more famous Lake Como.
From Milano Centrale we hopped on the green metro line, whisking us under the city to the other side where we emerged in the Parco Sempione neighborhood. We met Martha and Loren at our hotel, the tiny but superbly appointed Casa Calicantus guesthouse on one of the stately oak-lined streets. Quickly, we headed out to enjoy the aperitivo hour, a sacred rite in Milan consisting of pre-dinner cocktails accompanied by a massive buffet spread of delicacies such as stuffed focaccias, pizza, pasta, and charcutterie. Prosecco, aperol spritz, and gin and tonics in hand, we began years of overdue catching up, and before we knew it, it was time for dinner.
In the Lombardy region (of which Milan is the capital), rice has traditionally trumped pasta as the preferred primo, and risotto is the sumptuous specialty. In particular, Milan is known for its saffron risotto, served with equally renound osso bucco. To sample this indulgence we headed to the beautiful 19th-century industrial building that houses Ratanà, the only remaining historical construction in a neighborhood completely rebuilt to become the futuristic Isola-Garibaldi project. Here, local Milanese chef Cesare Battisti cooks up modern versions of traditional recipes, including a saffron risotto that is said to be the best in the city, accompanied by an osso bucco that was so tender it literally fell off the (marrow-filled) bone. Combined with a 10-year-old Barbaresco, the meal was a perfect welcome to Milan.
The next morning, in true holiday spirit, we began Christmas Eve day with a stroll to the convent of Maria De La Grazia, home of Da Vinci’s famous Last Supper. After a brief introduction, we were led to the large room containing the painting, where we had 15 minutes to admire Da Vinci’s incredible work. The masterpiece was huge at 15 feet by 29 feet, and more beautiful than I had imagined. Da Vinci invented his own technique for this work, using tempera paints on stone. He primed the wall with a material that he hoped would accept the tempera and protect the paint against moisture, but unfortunately this didn’t last and most of it has been restored. His efforts to convey more detail with this method than traditional frescos are well rewarded though, as he brilliantly depicted the instant just after Jesus reveals that one of his friends will betray him, managing to portray reactions of shock and rage from the apostles.
When our time was up we reluctantly filed out and headed back through Sempione Park to tour the 15th century Sforza Castle, one of the largest citadels in Europe at the time and now one of Milan’s main landmarks, hosting a large variety of history and art museums. From there we wandered towards the famous Duomo but were sidelined momentarily by Peck, a gastronomic heaven displaying extraordinary cases of all foods Italian and bustling with locals lining up for the myriad cheeses, meats, and wines to bring home for the holiday. After taming our hunger at the adjacent gelateria, we soon found ourselves staring up at the resplendent white marble facade of Milan’s soaring Gothic cathedral, gleaming anew after years of restoration. In December, it also served as a beautiful backdrop for Milan’s main Christmas market surrounding its base like a wreath.
We ducked into the gallery next door to the Duomo for lunch at Gatto Rosso, a touristy but authentic spot, and then walked along the artsy streets of the Brera district in search of the Pinacoteca di Brera’s Masterpiece Gallery, a museum hosting some of the most important works of art from all of the areas conquered by the French armies. Unlike other important museums in Italy such as the Uffizi, Brera did not start out life as the private collection of a prince or nobleman but as the product of a deliberate policy decision. Paintings confiscated from churches and convents throughout Lombardy with the religious orders’ dissolution began to stream into the museum in the early 19th century, along with artworks from other areas of the Kingdom of Italy. Thus, the collection comprises primarily religious works, many of them large altarpieces. As the evening waned we drifted through the Brera’s many richly colored rooms, marveling at the ancient paintings of Christ and his disciples from the 1400’s, miraculously preserved so that their vibrant colors appeared to have been freshly painted. Near closing time, we tore ourselves away and walked back home in the dark under thousands of holiday lights now twinkling in the cold.
To celebrate Christmas Eve, our host at the guesthouse had generously left us a bottle of chilled Prosecco and four glasses for a toast before dinner. Feeling festive, we made our way to BYS Milano, one of the few open restaurants recommended by Tripadvisor. We had limited our expectations, but the experience turned out to be a fantastic surprise. The dining room was cozy, decked out in holiday lights and decor. The wine and food were outstanding, equally rivaling the quality of a Michelin restaurant, but without the price or pretentious attitude. And despite an early morning departure on Christmas day, we wined and dined in true Italian style, savoring a long delicious dinner in the company of good friends – the best gift we could ask for.