After it’s clean-up ahead of this year’s Milan Expo, there’s never been a better – nor fresher smelling – time to chill besides the canalways of the trendy and historical Navigli district.
Milan, for many Italians, is a black sheep. The Milanese, they’d say, are too money-minded, too busy, moving too fast to fully inhabit their Italian identity and all of its attendant social ritual.
Pshaw, quoth Milan’s Navigli district. About 20 minutes on the Metro south from central Duomo Square (get off at Porto Genova), this neighbourhood, spotted with pop-up profumeries and retro design stores, is a hub for the aperitivo, that pre-dinner ritual of Aperol spritzers, salumi, and chat. The action is sited at any of the number of cocktail bars proliferating along the flagstoned banks of the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese canals, although banish any visions of Venice – these functional waterways sport inelegant footbridges hurdling water courses shallow enough to ground a gondola.
Today, however, a prettified bargain has been struck between middle-class modernity and the canalways’ industrial past. Groves of fabric umbrellas shade grids of pastel seating, while cyclists and scooters navigate the towpaths previously used by oxen to drag barges of cargo. There’s an antiques market the last Sunday of every month, and boutiques of miscellany where you can easily find that stainless steel table fan/old soda bottle/typewriter that you’ve been seeking. With water flowing in from the Ticino River, the canals glow emerald in the abundant sunshine and solitary fish swim against the current. In the morning soft breezes carry whiffs of coffee and garlic as the kitchens prep for the lunchtime rush.
Arrayed across the al fresco seating, you’ll find the usual dominant Milanese demographic of slim, impeccably-dressed clothes horses browsing La Stampa while sipping espresso, but the Navigli is also an outpost of the Milanese hipster (similar to most other hipsters, but more impeccably so). In the mornings you’ll find the bearded and be-checked brigade drawn to Taglio (Via Vigevano 10, taglio.me). A café-cum-restaurant-cum-deli one road over from the Naviglio Grande, Taglio has been spearheading a revolution in Milanese caffé culture since it opened in 2013. The baristas eschew the traditional jacket and waistcoat, there’s a choice of coffee bean varieties, and orders for flat whites aren’t met with a blank look. The scaffold shelving proffers log boxes of artisanal pasta, Italian liquor, and, eclectically, sets of Riesling glasses. Go for the poached egg breakfast, and tarry by the superb deli counter on your way out.
The best stretch of the 12th Century Naviglio Grande is Ripa di Porta Ticinese, the street on the canal’s southern side. This, the jewel of the Navigli, comes alive at lunchtime, with metal shutters rolling back to expose traditional trattorias peeking out from between more modern ristorante facades. Best, and invariably busiest, are at first glance what appear to be extremely traditional haunts, but you’ll usually find that there’s a fashionable twist delivered within. One such is oak-panelled Osteria Al Pont de Ferr (Ripa di Porta Ticinese 55, pontdeferr.it) with its experimental Michelin-starred kitchen lauded for its artistic culinary constructions (quite literally when Lego gets involved). A few doors down is Slow Food favourite Le Vigne (Ripa di Porta Ticinese 61, osterialevigne.it), but instead of culinary acrobatics expect hearty, good value Italian cuisine. Booking is recommended with both of these.
Side-streets throw up the odd niche gem, such as the cute La Vineria wine bar (Via Casale 4, la-vineria.it) with its €5 lunchtime sandwich deal, or Bufalatte (Via Pavia 3, bufalattemilano.com) found about halfway along the southern side of the Naviglio Pavese. A family-run mozzarella bar, Bufalatte produces a range of outstanding buffalo milk cheeses on site and serves up a regular set menu (essentially different cheeses alongside chopped tomatoes, San Daniele prosciutto, and fresh bread). Try the smoked mozzarella, buffalo milk ricotta, or, if you’re hungry, plump for the “Puglia” (€10): a silky burrata pouch all your own.
The Naviglio Pavese, the most recently built of Milan’s canals, is larger, less idiosyncratic (excepting the surreally-named Burger Wave) and generally more built-up and touristy than the Naviglio Grand. As evening falls much of its less charming aspects are concealed and there are aperitivo gems such as baroque-fronted Sacrestia (sacrestia.com). Ostensibly a laid-back cocktail bar where you’ll find a good quantity of the local student population relaxing on the cinema-style seating, Sacrestia also offers a line in more-ish Abruzzo kebabs as well as a thumping open-til-late nightclub.
While you’ll find occasional random addresses such as the Centro Dell’incizione (Alzaia Naviglio Grande 66, gigipedroli.it) on the Naviglio Grande, a tiny temple to renowned local artist Gigi Pedroli in an ivy-strung building that looks like it was transplanted from the countryside, ultimately the Navigli district is a place to eat, drink, and be merry. A pure expression of Italian-ness somehow thriving in cold, un-Italian Milan.