The delicacies of old Milan
by Emilia Crippa
Certain streets in the center of Milan vibe with a sense of intimacy that is at the same time elegant and familiar, evident and discreet. Our journey today starts in Corso Magenta, in the stretch leading to the heart of the city, and is only a few hundred meters long, yet runs deep in the soul of Milan, with its love for high quality, art, and tradition.
Tradition is king at Grossi, a grocery store at the corner of Via Terraggio: the shelves here are crowded with endless delicacies, but we are always drawn to the wonderful Krumiri Rossi – handmade cookies, packaged in tin boxes – and balsamic vinegars from different years, not to mention the chocolate selection (including Domori and Venchi), Leone candies, and boxes of Amarelli licorice… and how could we resist the candy, sorted in colorful compartments right under the glass counter in front of us? The store originally opened in the 1920s, as the Art Nouveau furnishing can attest, and last changed hands in 1976. The current owners are real champions of tradition, and have gone so far as to keep the “JB” sign that the previous management had put up.
Going down the street – as it bends in front of Palazzo Litta and narrows down at San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, the precious “jewelry box” that is Milan’s Sistine Chapel (next to the Archaeological Museum) – we reach our next stop right where Corso Magenta takes a sharp turn into Via Santa Maria alla Porta. Push Pasticceria Marchesi’s glass door and you will immediately be enveloped by its early 1900s’ mood: decorated ceiling, columns, a brass counter where elegant liveried waiters serve customers some of the best coffee in the city, in beautiful cups that make it even more special; take your time choosing a treat from the endless sweep of sweet pastries, pralines, fondant candy and bonbons: Marchesi is incredibly small compared to the scale of the treasures it offers. At Christmas, it is one of the best places in Milan to buy ‘panettone’ – in a bulging package wrapped in white paper and topped with a red bow: choose between different sizes, ranging from the regular 1 or 2 kilos to the monumental 4 or even 5! Locals flock to the store on December 7th – the day of Milan’s patron Saint Ambrose and the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception – to give the butter in the ‘panettone’ time to melt and migrate into every alveolus of the leavened pastry, dotted with raisins and pieces of candied fruit, before Christmas. Compact and soft at the same time, it is definitely our favorite version of this all-present Italian holiday classic.
Exit the store and turn right, towards Via Borromei – a tiny street with a very “big” name – and the homonymous square and palace (whose doors protect the city’s only 15th-century cycle of frescoes, the precious “Games of the Borromeo nobles”, which can be viewed on booked appointment). Then turn left towards the area of Cordusio station, where streets are named after medieval guilds: Via della Zecca, Speronari, Spadari… Find the five-way intersection called Cinque Vie after going down Via del Bollo – you’ll have passed another monument of Milanese history, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana – and between Piazza San Sepolcro and Via Torino you will find yourself within a few meters from a handful of old and new iconic places for food excellence, like Peck and Princi. We’ll stop at Pescheria Spadari, which sells certain fish that are impossible to find in the other stores and markets of the area: needle squid, particular species of tuna from the Mediterranean, whitebaits, amazing sea basses – obviously at amazing prices… yet shopping in Milan always allows for any budget, and even in this deluxe supermarket you will be able to buy simple cuttlefish and anchovies, find a bargain, or even stop for a tasty snack, standing at the central counter. Many come here on lunch break and don’t miss their sandwich or salad!
Right around the corner is the final stop in our “delicious” itinerary: Giovanni Galli, Confetteria, next to the Cracco restaurant in Via Victor Hugo. A plaque in the window reminds us this has been a “historical workshop” since 1911. Every fall, it turns into an oasis with tray after tray of ‘marron glacés’, impossible to resist for the occasional passerby – and a yearly tradition for gourmands. The atmosphere makes for a great trip back in time: original furnishings, salesgirls wearing aprons, and the owner sitting at the cash register, as the previous generations in his family did. We recommend you try the hazelnut sweets in every color variation, with pink, yellow, or dark with chocolate almond paste, and the fruit jellies, with the absolute best being the pear. Take home a few wonderful treats: the elegant ‘babbini’ – a sublime rendition of wafer biscuits – or the more popular cake from Porretta Terme (a town in the province of Bologna, famous for its thermal springs)… Galli offers both foreigners and Milanese foodies a few real gems of Italian confectionary art, including Majani’s now legendary blue tin boxes, full of countless chocolates – so many you’ll have one for every happy memory in your life.