Wednesday, 11 June 2014

I went to "the best gelateria in the world." This is what it was like

The heat has arrived in Milan.

Oh sure, it was hot when I arrived in April. I sat outside bars at night in my T-shirt. But that was heat where now there is heat, like something from The Stranger. It burned me through factor 30 suncream on Saturday and turned tarmac to gloop.

Scooter marks in the melted pavement

I feel for the pets.

There are so many dogs here that, in dreams, I've imagined them staging a coup and overthrowing the humans. But they won't be doing that in this weather. No chance.

In this weather their shaggy coats are instruments of torture, and their leashes are chains. Dalmations drag and dally behind owners. Alsations are too exhausted to bark; too exhausted even to sniff the rears of other passing pooches. They all just pant. And pant. And pant.

For humans, there are only two things worth doing when it's this warm: go to the pool or eat gelato. So I did both. And the gelato was exceptional.

Ice dreams

A few weeks earlier, at about 10pm on the night I moved into my new apartment, I walked past a bunch of people outside a bar. There were maybe 30 of them queueing to get in, and around another 30 chatting, smoking and drinking on the other side of the road.

Except it wasn't a bar. As I got closer, I realised it was an ice cream shop and the smokers across the road were eating ice cream rather than drinking.

I repeat: this was at night.

The next day I asked a friend what kind of oddballs hang around outside an ice cream shop after dark. "Have you tasted the ice cream?" she asked with an arched eyebrow. "That is Gelateria della Musica," she added, "and it was voted the best gelateria in the world a couple of years ago."

I still wasn't convinced. Foodies often bang on interminably about how utterly amazing something is, only for me to find out later that it's merely quite good. Could Gelateria della Musica's Strawberry ice cream, for example, really be vastly superior to the Strawberry ice cream in the slightly less popular place down the road?

On Saturday, in the steaming heat, I found out.

Sweet sweet Musica

The queue just after opening, on a regular day

First, Ms Ciao and I queued for a few minutes outside, next to a graffitied wall with a printout of the day's menu taped to it. Once the bouncer (seriously – security is apparently needed for food this special) had let us through the door, I ordered a cone with two flavours: Strawberry Cheesecake and Salted Pistachio, while Ms Ciao bought a tub of Bread, Butter and Jam. And yes, I am still talking about ice cream.

Looks aren't everything

We ate outside, in the shade. And I can honestly say that the Strawberry Cheesecake flavour was like eating strawberry cheesecake, the Salted Pistachio flavour was like eating salted pistachio, and that you could taste each element in the Bread, Butter and Jam as clearly as if you were having breakfast.

Perhaps after all the build up, it seems faint praise to say the flavours tasted like they were meant to.

It shouldn't.

But I don't want to overdo this. I find things that are hyped up too much are often a letdown (I'm looking at you, Sydney). When I expect less from something, it's easier for it to be special (Hello, Budapest).

So I should dampen your expectations by saying that, despite repeated Googling, I haven't been able to verify my mate's claim that Gelateria della Musica was voted the world's best ice cream shop.

And I don't want to animate the prose I write about it with similes, analogies, rhyme and repetition. Or any of the other techniques I usually use to keep your attention. I'll stop all those right now.

I'm not saying this ice cream will change your life. Or telling you to fly from wherever you live to eat it. What I am saying is that it was delicious, the flavours tasted identical to the ingredients they were named after, and, ultimately, this was the best ice cream I've ever eaten.

Perhaps you've had better. But if you're ever in town, I recommend you try it to find out. Maybe, just maybe, you'll be as impressed as I was.

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Thursday, 5 June 2014

A stroll down the Navigli canal

Let’s take a walk. Just you and me. We’re going to explore the Navigli canal, one of Milan’s best places for drinking and people watching. It’ll be fun.

We’re starting near my apartment, mainly so I can show you this charming church.

The San Cristoforo sul Naviglio

According to the Wikipedia article I looked up as we were walking here, it’s actually two separate churches cobbled together. Why build two different churches on the same site, you ask? This is Italy, my friend. Asking logical questions will stress you out. The important thing is that it’s quaint. 

The same could not be said for two curiously named places that we’re about to pass on our way along the canal. They're both closed, but that's only one of many reasons we're not going inside. Here’s the first venue:

If you're ever in London, try their English franchise, Tea Chips

Seriously, who outside of Italy would think of coffee and burgers as natural bedfellows? If this place were open, you'd see that nominative determinism is not a big thing in these parts because the patrons are usually swigging beer and guzzling crisps.

There’s not long to think about that though, because here’s a venue with an even more striking name:

Classical drinking

I have almost never seen Johann Sebastian Bar open and I’ve walked past a bunch of times. However, what I have seen, and what I am pointing out to you while you’re avoiding the dog mess on the pavement here, is that the curtains and chairs inside are gold. Puns and ostentation – what's not to like?! 

We’re still not at the main drinking area though, so let’s pick up the pace because I’m thirsty and I know you’re a bit of a lush. The rock bar we’re passing is decent and I might take you there another time, but tonight we’re going to Banco.

I like Banco because they do happy hour cocktails for 6. Also, they bring very tasty mini pizza squares with the drinks. (Technically, this is a form of aperitivo, but that’s a topic for another day.) Thirdly, the tables at the front provide excellent people watching.

Let’s sit at this one, right at the front, and have a look around.

The Italian eccentric 

Britain tends to be rather proud of its eccentrics. The first result that comes up if you type “British eccentrics” into Bing (I know, but I’ve got a Windows phone you see) begins “England may be a small country but it seems to have more true eccentrics than many larger countries”. In my view, there are as many here; people just don't make such a big deal out of it.

Hold that thought because here comes the waitress. I’ll have a Mint Julep and I recommend the Mai Tai if you’re unsure. While we wait for the drinks to arrive, why don't you have a look around? Beergut 80s rocker and his gold clad companion are a decent starting point, but there are plenty of other people here too.

The banks of the canal, seen from Banco

Check your watch. It's 6pm, which means we're right on time for the local "passeggiata." The direct translation is "little stroll," but essentially, the hours before dinner are a time to see and be seen. Half of Navigli is here. Look at the guy who just walked past you. Observe his textures and tones. His hair is silver but slicked, his blazer is blue and starched, and his white shirt is unbuttoned halfway to his navel. Tan shoes match his tanned face, while his red trousers wouldn't be out of place on a Hoxton hipster. He's pushing 70 but he walks with a flourish and there's a shine in his eye that's more than halfway hopeful.

Behind him, there's an interesting woman... and I want you to look fascinated by what I'm telling you because right now there's a rose seller heading for our table and the best way to get him to leave is to be engrossed in conversation. What? No, I'm not buying you a rose. Get over it.

Anyway, this woman I mentioned... She's over there. Do you see? She's the one with the King Charles Spaniel bobbing along beside her. Notice how the ribbon in the dog's hair corresponds with the ribbon in hers? That's no coincidence. 

I don't want you to think that Italy is full of peacocking polished people though. There are some, but that's a stereotype and not the general reality. The best thing about the passegiata is observing a panorama of life. 

Tuck in; you're on holiday

Here's a young couple, all laughter and lust. Leaning against the wall behind them is a guy who's been on his phone since we arrived. His right hand's holding the phone and his left one's in his pocket, but that's not stopping him from gesticulating. If you watch closely, you can work out what's going on.

First, his gestures were fast and – literally –
 furious. Then they became wider, more expansive. He was accepting whatever had happened; shoulders shrugging, arms spreading. Now, though, his right hand moves up and down in his pocket. He is pleading. Has he been stood up? A business deal gone wrong? Whatever has happened, he is not a happy coniglietto (bunny).

That girl in her early 20s at the next table is American. You can tell just by looking at her. She is with a group of males, and seems shy. Did she just meet them at the hostel down the road? They're hardly speaking to her. I can't quite work out the dynamic, but I'd better lower my voice – I think she knows we are talking about her.

If we spend a couple of hours here, we will see Romeos and Juliets, doubting Tommasos and moaning Micheles. We will observe hellos and goodbyes. We will watch the moon rise. We will see Italians young and old in their natural habitat. And tourists. You are far from the only tourist around here.

Let's sit back, relax and order another drink. You're buying.

Missing Italy? Want to read more about la dolce vita? Then why not subscribe to Ciao Mr by using the 'Follow by email' box on the top right of this page.