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.

By Claudia Flisi Photographs by Maurizio Camagna

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 twenty something 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 mink-swathed 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; “fast-moving,” “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 publishing 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 acco-lades 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 frittomisto 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-of-a-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.

The appreciation of beautiful design has been a tradition since the 13th century, when the Visconti family took power and built Milan into a cultural and political center. Among the Viscontis’ more substantive contributions were the building of the Duomo and the fortress that eventually became Castello Sforzesco. Today, the piazza fronting the castle is the site of Expo Gate, a pair of airy, translucent pavilions that serve as information centers for Expo-bound visitors. The piazza itself bridges the Castello, with its museums and park, and Via Dante, a major shopping artery decorated with the flags of 130 countries. Beyond Piazza Cordusio to the southeast, the street becomes Via Orefici (“Street of Goldsmiths”), and continues right up to the Piazza del Duomo, the heart of Milan.

The Duomo is the largest cathedral in Italy and one of the largest in the world. Construction began in 1386 and continued for more than five centuries. The marble-faced Gothic facade is punctuated by 135 spires and 3,400 statues, more than on any other building in the world. A bird’s-eye view of this huge lacy wedding cake of a structure confirms its position at the center of the city, flanked by culture and commerce.

One wedding-related enterprise awaits just a few steps from the Duomo. Pettinaroli is the city’s most venerable stationery store, founded in 1881. Its reputation is based in part on classic wedding invitations, such as those printed on carta a mano di Amalfi (handmade paper from Amalfi).About 20 percent of his customers choose this paper, explains owner Francesco Pettinaroli, because of its unique processing and composition. “No other paper in the world is quite like it,” he assures potential clients, because it ensures the “clean, serious, conservative look” they favor.

That’s a good description of Milanese tastes in general, from art to music. To the south of the Duomo on the piazza is Palazzo Reale, an 18th-century residence that has been home to both the Visconti and Sforza families. Today it is a cultural center hosting world-class art exhibits such as Leonardo 1452–1519, a never-before-assembled collection of the artist’s works that opens on April 15. And to the north of the Duomo is La Rinascente, Milan’s leading department store: everything you want as long as you don’t want to push the envelope.

Turn left just before the porticoes of La Rinascente and you find yourself in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, one of the first covered shopping arcades in the world, constructed during the Industrial Revolution. It’s worth eyeballing for its historical and architec-tural value alone, but there is plenty of shopping and people-watching to be had too. Tourists and locals throng to such iconic restaurants as Savini, an institution since 1884. Another obligatory stop is the bull mosaic on the floor of the arcade’s central atrium. Tradition has it that if you spin your heel on the animal’s genitals three times, you will avoid the bad luck that befell the building’s architect: Giuseppe Mengoni fell to his death from a scaffold here in 1877, just weeks before the project was completed.

A happier fate awaited Leonardo da Vinci, who in 1495 was commissioned by the Sforza family to paint a centerpiece for the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. That work, completed three years later, is, of course, The Last Supper, a masterpiece of Renaissance art.

A statue of Leonardo in Piazza La Scala commemorates Milan’s debt to the man. It also faces the world’s most prestigious opera house. Since 1778, La Scala has been hosting opera, ballet, recitals, and orchestral performances by the crème de la crème of music. “Opening at La Scala has special significance for a singer,” says Anja Kampe, a German-born soprano who headlined the opening-night production of Fidelio there last December 7. The new season always starts on December 7 because that date marks the Festa di Sant’Ambrogio, commemorating the city’s patron saint, St. Ambrose. Media coverage of Fidelio’s premiere was inordinately intense, and “well-dressed” does not begin to describe the attire of attendees. The Academy Awards in a cold climate might come close.

Milan is home to beautiful (or at least beautifully dressed) people for good reason. It has the highest per capita income in Italy, enabling its residents to spend more on clothes than anyone else in the country. The haute couture salons of Paris owe much to Italian fabrics and tailoring, and in men’s wear as well as women’s, Milan sets the trends.

Capo di tutti capi of this category is Giorgio Armani. Armani is not Milanese-born (he’s originally from nearby Piacenza), but he has been headquartered here for 40 years. His block-long emporium on stylish Via Manzoni expresses his refined minimalism in myriad ways — clothing boutiques for men and women, furniture store, food shop, café, hotel. Everything you need to know about his low-key aesthetic can be gleaned in the restaurant at the Armani Hotel. Staff and guests are interchangeable — most everyone is tall, elegant, under 30, and dressed in black. The people-watching is exceptional. The food is excellent. The price is high. And if you need to use the washroom, you’ll have to ask for directions. The minimalism is such that toilet signage is all but invisible, and most visitors have to be escorted by one of the invariably amused staff.

Armani’s impact on Milan extends beyond fashion, food, and furniture. He is a devoted fan of Inter, one of the city’s two football clubs (the other is A.C. Milan, owned by that former favorite son Berlusconi). But that didn’t stop Armani from designing a sports line for a onetime Milan player. Inter and A.C. Milan are among Italy’s (and the world’s) leading football teams, attracting more fans on average in this football-crazed country than all other teams in their category.

Sports may arouse more passion than religion or politics in Milan, but business trumps all. The two women, mother and daughter, on Via della Spiga bypass the shops and turn onto Via Santo Spirito. Past Krizia at the corner and Balenciaga halfway down the street, their destination is one of the city’s discreet investment banks — “serious” and “conservative,” just the way the Milanesi like it.

THE DETAILS

Getting There Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines both fly daily to Milan.

Datebook Expo Milano 2015 runs from May to October 31. Visit expo2015.org for more details.

Where to Stay With just 21 individually designed rooms and suites, The Gray (6 Via San Raffaele; 39–2/720–8951; doubles from US$380) is a chic boutique option just north of the Duomo. For those with deeper pockets, there’s the Armani Hotel Milano (31 Via Manzoni; 39–2/8883–8888; doubles from US$740), whose 95 sleek rooms occupy a 1930s palazzo in the heart of the Quadrilatero della Moda.

Where to Eat Head to Antica Trattoria della Pesa (10 Viale Pasubio; 39–2/655–5741) for a taste of traditional Milanese and Lombardy cuisine; founded in 1880, it’s an institution for dishes like cotoletta alla Milanese. For more contemporary takes on Italian cooking, Daniel (7 Via Castelfidardo; 39–2/6379–3837) and Erba Brusca (286 Alzaia Naviglio Pavese; 39–2/8738–0711) are well worth seeking out. And be sure to stop by Peck Italian Bar (3 Via Cesare Cantù; 39–2/869–3017) for a sit-down sampling of the gourmet produce sold at the Peck delicatessen, just around the corner.

This article originally appeared in the February/March print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Milan on the Move”)

Originally published at www.destinasian.com in February-March, 2015.

writer, PR professional, mother, dog-lover, traveler. See more at www.paroleanima.com

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