Milan: Hot bums & cocktail nirvana

duomo cathedral milan

I’ve heard so many people rave about how incredible Italy is, that I’ve felt as though I should save it for a special occasion. Well, a series of events resulted in my first 100% solo trip to Milan last week (part of those events includes the fact that the flight was $100.00 roundtrip.) Special enough for me!

Milan certainly lived up to it’s name as the fashion capital of the world. Not only do they have style, but they flaunt it. The women adorn themselves in rippling velvet jumpsuits, prancing in their embellished heels, trotting down uneven pebbly streets as though they’re gracing the red carpet. The men also wore highly-fashionable, flashy round sunglasses, dressed to the nines in heavy suits. And they were all beautiful, women and men alike. I lost a lot of drool last week. The men with their dark, curly locks, tall frames, strong jaws, crooked noses and hairy manliness was just too much. Tooooo much.

I was walking through a park the other day, and I hear a strong voice… “Mammmaaa miaaa!” And some more “-ici, -oni, -itti” (I couldn’t understand it, but it sounded just like that!) 😉 I turn to see who is cat-calling me, and it was a hot Italian. A homeless, hot Italian. Yes… even the bums are good looking.

One of my nights in Milan, I met a very friendly group of Italians. The invited me to join them at a cocktail bar. As we left the first place, one of them pulled my arm and told me to hop on his Vespa, repeating “You need to come! Italian-style! Italian-style!”  I thought… why not, when in Rome Milan right?

We ended up at a very local bar called Zinc, which uses fresh ingredients to serve up spicy-sweet-sour-goodness in the form of explosively flavorful cocktails. As the night went on, I learned that most of the group work at Prada – one product manager, another designer, and the third, a male model. Only in Milan.

Ok, other than fashion and beautiful people (expected), Milan boasts a solid mixology and gastronomy scene, with 16 Michelin starred restaurants! (Madrid has 14.)

Here are a few things I learned about Milan during my time. (Yes, most of my learnings revolve around food & drink.) 🙂

Pizza, really?

As I stepped off the tram my first day, the smell of hot cheese and warm bread hit me like a bag of bricks. Of course I know pizza is from Italy…  I was just expecting that eating pizza in Italy is only for the tourists. It’s too cliche to be true. (For instance, in Madrid, people don’t eat paella. Only tourists do.) Needless to say, I was surprised to find that the stereotype about pizza was true. It really is everywhere, and Italians really do love it!

When pizza is on every corner, how do you decide where to indulge? I typically avoid any TripAdvisor recommendations and go straight to Culture Trip or Like A Local Guide for unbiased opinions from locals.

Aperitifs

Instead of happy hour (which is actually only an American/English thing), they have aperitivo hour (aperitif.) This began in Milan, and is one of the oldest gourmand traditions. People have an aperitif before dinnertime to “stimulate” their appetite, and it usually consists of either a Campari or Aperol cocktail (think Negroni, Aperol Spritz, etc.) Although it is meant to prepare your palette for dinner, most places will serve cuts of meats and cheeses (almost a neverending supply, actually), therefore many Milanese will skip dinner because they end up snacking.

If you ever find yourself in Milan, here’s a great list of places who do aperitifs well. I visited Mag Cafe and enjoyed the meat/cheese snacks plus some super-interesting cocktails.

Cocktail Movement

mag cafe cocktails
Mag Cafe cocktails. Easy to find, and apparently has some secret rooms you can sneak into… Pictured is a sage/lemon/mezal mixture.

Milan is becoming recognized worldwide as innovators in mixology. It is said that instead of using combinations of ingredients that intrigue your tastebuds, mixologists are taking cues from art to create mixed masterpieces. This is modeled after the “Futurist movement” in 1932, in which futurist artist transitioned from using art as a form of expression, to cooking. This book details “multi-sensory scenarios and the anarchic dishes and drinks that composed the artists’ dinners” for anyone curious or daring enough to experiment. Well, now, this movement is recreated in modern times, but with cocktails. As a result, a manual was published with unthinkable recipes… again, for those bold enough to try something new.

Well, of course I had to. This took me to two very notable places – Nottingham Forest and Pravda Vodka Bar.

Nottingham Forest

This bar makes the 100 Best Bars in the World list. It is known for pushing the limits of cocktail-making by incorporating molecular mixology (manipulating the physical and chemical makeup of an ingredient by altering it’s molecular structure.)

nottingham forest molecular cocktail

Pravda Vodka bar

I am all about finding hidden gems. After doing some digging, I learned about Pravda Vodka Bar, supposedly one of the best cocktail bars in Milan. I made a special trip to this place after reading rave reviews from locals. Pravda is so unsuspectingly tucked away in a residential neighborhood, that it could be very easy to miss (I almost did.) The only reason I knew I was in the right place was because I can read Cyrillic, as it was plastered on the wall above the bar. (Правда, meaning truth in Russian.)

hidden gems cocktail bars milan
Pravda.

And after poking my head inside, I considered blowing that popsicle stand. A train of thoughts ensued… “Really? This place serves some of the most interesting cocktails in Milan? It doesn’t look like anything special… And wait, what? They don’t have a cocktail menu? How am I supposed to know what “interesting concoctions” they have…? And, why do they call themselves a ‘vodka bar’ when they have rum, gin and tequila?”

Nothing was going in their favor so far. But, I decide to stay.

I ask the bartender if they make cocktails outside of just gin/tonic or vodka/soda. He responded with a sly smile…

There was hope.

After asking me what flavors I typically go for, he returns a few minutes later with an exquisitely crafted cocktail… My tastebuds were tickled from the tastes of tart lemon, zippy ginger, subtle spice, and vodka (of course.)

And then I finally understood the allure of this dive. Everything is hidden: the name, the location, the menu, the appeal. The bar does absolutely no marketing. They simply create memorable and interesting experiences for those with curiosity and patience.

My assumption was validated when a wave of Italians flooded the bar around 11:00pm. This is as local as local gets. In fact, I began talking to an Italian who was completely shocked that I was a tourist in this bar. “How did you find this place? I’ve lived here 15 years and just discovered Pravda this year.”

I guess the truth is hard to find sometimes… You just have to know where to look. 😉

Wes Anderson’s Cafe

Another neat, yet not-so-secret, gem of Milan is the cafe designed by Wes Anderson himself, called Bar Luce. Wes Anderson’s distinct style can be recognized easily, known for symmetry and interesting use of angles. However, about this space, he says ‘there is no ideal angle for this space. It is for real life, and ought to have numerous good spots for eating, drinking, talking, reading, etc. While I do think it would make a pretty good movie set, I think it would be an even better place to write a movie. I tried to make it a bar I would want to spend my own non-fictional afternoons in.’ Apparently he wanted to mimic 50’s/60’s Italian cafe design and pop culture, combining wood elements with brightly colored plastics, but of course adding his own Wes Anderson-ey twist, also using inspiration from his short film, Castello Cavalcanti, made for Prada (8 mins.) It’s worth a watch if you’re a Wes Anderson fan.

Art & Architecture

This is Italy after all, and Milan’s pride and joy (one of them, at least), is Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.

last supper milan
da Vinci’s Last Supper

Also, a can’t-miss sight (literally, there’s no way you can miss it.) It’s the first thing you see when you exit the main metro station in the center, Duomo. Building this cathedral began in 1386 and ended in 1805. Apparently Napoleon Bonaparte was about to be crowned the King of Italy and demanded that the façade to be finished.

duomo cathedral milan
Duomo Cathedral, center of Milan

In summary, Milan was amazing. If you’re into food, drinks, art, fashion, it’s a must-see. Next stop was supposed to be Madrid, but turned into an interesting experience in Bergamo, Italy, consisting of getting stuck in a bathroom with an old lady

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Cheers, Roumena Kratchunova

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