Milan owes both its heart and wallet to the Navigli, the vast waterway system that once operated more lines than the London Underground.
Half a millennium ago, Leonardo da Vinci perfected a hydraulic system that channelled the canals as far as Switzerland, Lake Como and the Adriatic by way of the River Po.
As exports flowed out, ingredients flowed in. Piedmontese truffles, Lombardy vegetables and seafood from the Adriatic were stored in the vast warehouses that still line this docklands zone.
By the 1980s the Navigli cut a forlorn figure on Milan’s southern edge. Canals had been cemented over for roads; Via Tortona was a post-industrial mess with just a single restaurant to its name.
But cheap rents pulled in fashionistas desperate for atelier space, all of whom clamoured for after-work drinks.
Street markets like Papiniano took over the vacant streets, creating a produce source for the bargain eateries that popped up alongside. This perfect storm breathed innovation in the form of Spanish tapas joints, authentic Greek delis and Sri Lankan restaurants, none of which could be found in ritzier districts like San Babila.
Those warehouses now make a fabulous venue for aperitivi bars and fashion shows.
During Fashion Week and the Salone del Mobile, the Navigli is the destination du jour.
Zona Tortona is where you go for hip hotels and design galleries, and diners can even ‘do a da Vinci’ by taking a barge to the restaurants of Trezzano sul Naviglio, a comune 10km south of Milan, returning to the city at midnight.
Rita is nothing short of an institution. This Naviglio Grande bar helped to anchor the district many moons ago as a one-stop-shop for cocktails, canapés and chatter – in that order. It also claims to be a pioneer of the now Italy-wide institution of aperitivo. This is the six ’til eight spread where salumeria, pizzette, tramezzini and other light bites are piled on the bancone (counter).
It’s trusted that you won’t nibble more than your fair share because formal dinnertime, that Italian must, is just around the corner. Rita’s help-yourself banquet is also healthier than most, with lots of raw finger food to choose from.
Although Rita goes way back, its drinks list is far from dated. Yuzu and organic ginger beer make it into the ingredients list, while among the amusingly named cocktail headliners are Rosemary's Baby (an Armagnac meets apricot jam fizz), and Suffering Bastard, a long drink sourced from the venerable Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo. For décor read 1950s Americana with a pezzettino (snippet) of classic Cinecittà thrown in. Vintage posters advertise cigarettes and booze from a less healthy era six decades ago.
You can lose yourself in El Brellin. Think five higgledy-piggledy salons (ten if you count the steps down midway between each room) strung over two floors. As befits a building that dates from the 1700s, the ceiling is wooden, the floor is stone and the restrooms can service only one midget at a time. A fine outdoor terrace comes into its own after the Salone del Mobile each April.
The cuisine is as classic as Brellin’s starched white tablecloths. The culinary watchwords are consistency and reliability, with innovation best left for the architect’s office across the street.
For lunch and dinner seven days a week locals pile in for risotto alla zucca and ossobuco di vitello, as bow-tied waiters with non-hipster haircuts scribble orders on notepads like it’s the pre-digital eighties.
Not that the funghi porcini flan and pappardelle with wild boar ragout aren’t ridiculously tasty. Just don’t ask for a squeeze of pomelo on your grilled branzino (sea bass).
As befits such an age-old eatery, the wine list is exquisite. Brellin sneaks local finds like turn-of-the-century Sassella Valtellina Superiore into its capacious cellar, along with some special Amarones from nearby Verona. A handful of off-the-card vintages date from the 1950s, when the Navigli canal out front was concreted over, much to the distress of local washerwomen.
A boozer and ristorante in one: a massive establishment where you can cruise in for cocktails at six and depart several kilos heavier (and €50 lighter) in the early hours. This former dockyard repair unit (everything has a riparian origin in the Navigli) even has space for a delightful jungle garden out back.
Officina stalwarts swear by the G&Ts served in the dedicated gin bar, the city’s first such venue when it opened a decade ago. Heady distillations from Menorca, London and the United States make even Hendrick’s look like a beginner’s tipple. Stop by for aperitivo when the tabletops groan with pastas, chips and Cucumber Gimlets.
Then comes dinner. Inventiveness sees certified local ingredients (think beef, veal and speck) respectively cubed into tartare, fried and dipped with plum jam, and served with violet potato chips. But get this. The dough for the tagliolini is infused with coffee; the turbot has a sesame crust; and the polenta is made with buckwheat. Could you ask for more? Traditionalists can thankfully order a cotoletta alla Milanese as they gaze on in horror.
And don’t forget Officina’s forno a legna: this wood-fired oven processes delicious pizzas faster than the Fiat factory in Turin. From the pizzaiolo’s (pizza maker’s) ceaseless conveyor comes “Norcia” with Umbrian pork and “Reale” with buffalo mozzarella and Parma ham.
Take one bearded barista, add one avant-garde chef, plus two pasta makers and a direttrice who loves to cook: the result is Taglio, a caffè-brunch-diner with a food emporium on the side.
The latter section takes its look from the final pile-’em-high aisles at Ikea. But here the shelves groan with pastas from Gragnano, oils from Puglia and breads direct from the historic Grazioli bakery.
If Taglio is famous for one thing, it's coffee. So enamoured are staff of blending and brewing techniques that the second Italian AeroPress Championships (sponsored by the American push'n'sip coffee brewer) were held right here. Various filter coffees and Chemix-derived concoctions make ordering a cappuccino with hazelnut topping seems pretty tame.
Taglio’s refectory-esque tables come into their own at lunch. Chef Domenico Della Salandra dishes up bargain platters of rabbit laced with black truffles and ravioli stuffed with anchovies and roasted tomatoes. And yes, you can still get a cotoletta if you must.