Italy on the road
Milan at Christmas, between tradition and gourmet shopping
Immersed in the magical atmosphere of centuries-old city traditions, we discover an epicurean Milan that is at its best during the Christmas season
In Milan, Christmas officially begins on 7th December with the celebration of St. Ambrose, the patron saint of the city. And it is precisely on the evening of 7th December that the highly anticipated Prima della Scala takes place, a cultural—and social—event that gathers the who’s who of Milan around the stage of the city’s most famous opera house, which dates from 1776 and is called the Teatro alla Scala because it was built on the site of the church of Santa Maria alla Scala.
For 500 lucky celebrity guests, the Prima della Scala also means a gala dinner. After the performance, they tuck in to celebrate with a menu that is entrusted to a different chef each year, usually representing his or her very personal interpretation of both Milanese haute cuisine and the opera on stage.
It’s not a war cry, but almost. Coming from the Milanese dialect, ‘Ohbej! Ohbej!’ (in standard Italian, ‘Oh belli! Oh belli!’, roughly translating to ‘Oh how nice!’) is actually what the city’s children allegedly exclaimed in 1510 upon receiving gifts from the then papal envoy on his visit to the annual Milanese Christmas market. Over the centuries, the expression has entered the popular vernacular and, today, the event is known to all as the “Fiera degli Ohbej Ohbej” (Ohbej Ohbej Fair).
The Fair has been held since 1288, growing larger and richer each year. It starts on 7th December and features local handicraft and gastronomic specialties, as well as offerings from all over Italy and around the world.
While walking among the stalls, it is tradition to enjoy a bag of roasted chestnuts; they used to be bought from el fironatt, the Milanese term for vendors selling roasted chestnut necklaces.
Too much worldliness and Christmas shopping can leave us tired and hungry. In these moments, it’s better to give ourselves to another kind of shopping—food shopping. Especially at Christmastime, a tour of the city’s many gastronomic sanctuaries is a must if you want to get an idea of what the Milanese really love to eat and to stock up on goodness.
The Milanese will be at the delicatessen
Faithful to the custom of shopping in local stores, the true Milanese can be found at the delicatessen. There is something for every taste and budget in the city.
The most famous delicatessen in Milan is certainly Peck, which is quite literally overrun during the holiday season. Open since 1883, you can find everything here (including a wine shop with thousands of labels). Everyone has passed through here at least once during the holidays to buy a gift or some goodies to put on the table at Christmas.
While the temple of fresh pasta has been Il Nuovo Principe for almost 50 years, many traditional Milanese dishes can also be found at Rosticceria Galli, which has 70 years of proud activity behind it. But it is Il Salumaio on Via Montenapoleone that is leaving everyone breathless: The famous streets of the fashion district are home to this vaulted-ceilinged delicatessen, worth a visit if only for the atmospheric location.
If you are averse to buying ready-made meals and would rather exercise your culinary skills, you are still in the right place: The freshest raw ingredients arrive in the city daily. The Mercato del Pesce (fishmonger and restaurant) is a sure bet for good fresh fish, and for meats you can take the opportunity to stop at Macelleria Maggio while visiting the trendy NoLo district. Or, strolling down the now hugely popular Via Paolo Sarpi in the heart of Milan’s Chinatown, you can shop at the historic Macelleria Sirtori, which has been in Milan’s Chinese district since way back in 1951 and continues to be an important point of reference for its fine Piedmontese and Lombardy meats, sourced from small producers who have been using traditional methods to raise livestock for generations.
For a truly Milanese experience, try making a nice saffron risotto and meatballs made with the previous day’s leftover meat, which are called mondeghili in Milan.
At Christmastime, panettone cannot be absent from the table. To buy a good panettone outside the more commercial circuits, you will need to leave the central city streets and go for smaller shops and bakeries. One good idea would be to visit the Città Studi district to visit the historic locations of the University of Milan and then wander over to Via S. Benigno, where you will find Panificio Carlo e Rita, one of Milan’s Botteghe Storiche (historic shops) which, since 1950, has been baking bread, focaccia, fresh pasta—and, of course, the quintessential Milanese panettone.
Don’t want to cook but prefer to eat without breaking the bank? Again, Milan has your back. When it comes to street food, you are spoilt for choice.
You can rely on history and order a sandwich at Bar Quadronno, the first to offer stuffed and griddle-warmed panini in the city back in 1964. Or drop by Giannasi, a kiosk that has been churning out the city’s most famous rotisserie chicken, as well as fried foods and various delicacies, nonstop for decades.
Also among the passions of the Milanese since 1949 are i luini, or hot, melty panzerotti from the little Luini delicatessen, a stone’s throw from the Duomo. You’ll have to queue to secure one, but you’ll be putting another little piece of the city’s gastronomic history in your belly.
Learn all about the Christmas traditions in Italy by reading the suggested articles below, or let our recipes guide you as you prepare some classic dishes: