Travel

A dive into Milan’s ‘Botteghe Storiche’

10 Mins read

The historical shops are where time stops and heritage is treasured over generations.

Craftsmanship, history, and family commitment are the founding qualities of these diverse and profoundly authentic shops. Before the affirmation of big brands, colossal supermarkets and shopping malls, Milanese citizens used to rely exclusively on them.

Not only to fix or buy a pair of handmade shoes, to enrich their knowledge through books and eat delicacies sourced from farmers or to finely restore a piece of furniture but also to find a friendly neighbourhood meeting point since “they are their living tissue. A point of reference for communities and for relations” explains Alessia del Corona Borgia (Milan’s Councillor for Culture). 

Their beauty lies in their apparent simplicity in perpetuating traditions, in times when everything changes as fast as the weather in the UK (mostly towards anonymity and homogenisation).

In their case, there is no need to change their identity to follow a mass-market trend.  Their attractiveness resides in their heritage, which remains true to its centenary past. Places that can be shops of all kinds; patisseries, groceries, shoemaker shops and artists’ ateliers, run by the same family through generations and are rooted in the historical centre of Milan.  

Milan is a creative city in constant innovation and dialogue with international realities while seeking to maintain Italy’s most known attributes: good taste and quality. A city known globally for its sophisticated taste in fashion with its luxury boutiques, and the stage for cultural and art events such as the 2015th Milan Expo, and in April the ‘Salone del Mobile’; a week dedicated to the furniture and design industry.

But there’s a hidden, shyer side to the city. In contrast with the bustling ambience many know Milan for, quaint old ‘botteghe storiche’ are at the heart of the Italian metropolis. Only the ones intrigued to go beyond the city’s metropolitan facade will discover them. Wandering in the narrow streets of the ‘centro storico’ (old-inner city) and its surroundings.  

For their cultural heritage and longevity (at least 50 years of activity in the same location) Milan’s municipality confers them the title of ‘Historical Shops’ and a gold medal to honour their historical and priceless value. Many still manage to navigate modern times by innovating their businesses, whilst keeping their inherited techniques as secrets.

Examples include Calzolaio Alvisi, the shoemaker shop born in 1907, which initially fixed and created shoes for its neighbourhood; today, it managed to expand its business in all of Italy and Europe, collaborating with foreign brands such as Red Wing from the US and French firm Famaco Paris 1931.

Others, like the Sacchi sisters, specialists in restoring ancient objects, run a more niche business. Confined to the world of antiques, a world that is now “old-fashioned” explains the artisan Mariangela Sacchi, but this hasn’t stopped her and her sister to work passionately with their circle of antiquaries and privates.  And how many can boast of surviving two World Wars? Among a very few, there’s ‘Drogheria Radrizzani’, a four generations business, ran today by Emilio Radrizzani. 

Our journey through the charm of the ‘Botteghes’ starts at Emilio’s Radrizzani’s shop.

Drogheria Radrizzani, Viale Piave, 20 Milano 

Corner of the store [Vittoria D'Adda]
Corner of the shop [Vittoria D’Adda]

To accurately describe what a drogheria’s business is about, there are no better words than the ones used by Emilio’s Radrizzani’s father:  “A quality drogheria needs to sell the three best products of all times, whose names start with ‘C’. Champagne, Caviar and Candeggina” (bleach in Italian).

It’s the earliest concept of what became the modern supermarkets. The twist to it is that the ‘droghiere’ (in this case Emilio, seller and owner) with his knowledge and passion, selects carefully the products displayed to please one’s needs.

It’s a tailor-made shopping experience. Food and items are sourced from fairs around Italy or bought by trusted suppliers. Here you can find from the simplest everyday good such as scented soap bars to the Italian excellence of wine and gastronomy: Parma hams, seasoned cheeses, chocolates, biscuits, white Alba truffles (depending on the season) and all kinds of wheat pasta. It’s a never-ending list of delicacies.

Shopping here means embarking on a delicious journey of flavours that takes you from the shores of Sicily with its signature Norma sauce, to the heart of Emilia Romagna and its renowned ragù Bolognese, all the way to the picturesque Liguria with its luscious green pesto. The shop’s secret to a successful shopping experience lies in the artful combination of various products, that differ in quality, origin and price.

“Our philosophy is to meet everyone’s needs. People from all over Milan come here also to ultimate their shopping list and please their cravings,” says Emilio.

Indeed, walking through the neatly stuffed aisles and shelves, one can notice the variety of goods. Whilst moving enthusiastically from the pasta shelf to the breakfast selection, Emilio proves his words by explaining the difference between two chocolate creams. One branded Nutella, the most commercial, the other “a goodie” branded Slitti, made with PGI Piedmont’s hazelnuts.

Emilio Radrizzani holding a chocolate cream
[Vittoria D’Adda]

Moving to the wine area (the highlight of the shop) one can find a careful selection of wines and champagnes, precisely 120 labels, like Louis Roederer and Laurent-Perrier, along with the most economical ones perfect to “wet your risotto” in the cooking phase. 

From 1910, the year in which Emilio’s great-grandfather took over an existing shop, lots of changes took place, within and outside the walls of the shop. “We survived three wars” says proudly Emilio. Indeed the business went through World War I’s tangling years, as a small grocery furnished with the simplest goods.

Then, in 1943, under Gaspare’s Radrizzani’s lead (Emilio’s grandfather) it got destroyed by a bombing raid but with his combative spirit, Gaspare re-bought the property and rebuilt it from its rubble. Same family, same postcode but brand new walls. Modern restyling arrived in the 50s with the use of spotlights and ‘visible shelves’; a revolutionary way of displaying food for the time. 

Square meter by square metre, Giovanni Fausto Radrizzani with the help of his young son Emilio, expanded and renewed the shop to 180 square metres, reaching today’s actual size. Curiosity, passion for the ingredients and care towards the clients are values that Emilio inherited from his past generations.

Even though he trained to become an electrician, growing up beside his father and supporting him in the business inevitably led him to become its successor. He was the one who ran the business through its latest war: COVID.

With his wife Patrizia and collaborators, during the lockdown, they worked hard to supply goods of all kinds around the city. The store transformed into an efficient operational headquarter and confirmed its leading role in the neighbourhood.

“Many grandchildren still come today telling me that their grandmothers used to buy here. It is fulfilling to know that we have been by the side of the people for so many years”. In this shop, along with the delicacies, you will find courtesy and reliability, those qualities that should be embodied in old Botteghe’s service.   

Drogheria Radrizzani
Artichoke jar [Vittoria D’Adda]

Our journey continues at:

Calzolaio Alvisi. Via Goffredo Mameli, 24 Milano 

Shoes and soles
Shoes and soles [Vittoria D’Adda]

Do you love taking care of your shoes or personalising them with initials and refined details? Or simply are you in desperate need to fix your favourite pair? From heel to toe, Ermanno and Luca Alvisi will meet all desires.

Artisans in shoemaking in their truest sense, father and son work together in a business founded in far-off 1907. Attilio Alvisi (respectively father and grandfather of the two) opened the shutter in a nearby street to the actual shop, specialising in custom-made shoes for men and women, spreading its fame throughout the neighbourhood. Then, the shop changed location moving closer to the famous Porta Venezia district.

Ermanno Alvisi inherited from his father the techniques and ability to use his hands to stitch, glue and resole, teaching them to his son Luca, who has been alongside him in the trade and running the business since 2011.

Still today, Attilio’s old and strong hammer is used to weld the nails of the soles. Unlike other shoe-repair shops which often sell and fix also other items like bags and belts, Alvisi in time specialised in fine shoes resoling them with ‘Goodyear’ workmanship, a typical technique of most high-quality British and American shoes (like Church’s, Clarks, John Lobb) and in shoe care and maintenance. 

“Specialising in certain processes I think it has been the key to our success. We focused on a niche because if you do a bit of everything, it becomes difficult to do it at its best” explains Luca Alvisi.

Goodyear workmanship makes it possible to create a strong shoe that can be resoled several times, meaning that it’s dissembled completely (heel, sole, stitching) and rebuilt from scratch, without being affected. Working hard with a smile and striving for perfection is Alvisi’s philosophy.

However, the work of Alvisi’s shoemaker does not end here. Once the shoe has been resoled, it is put back in shape, sterilised, polished and treated with waxes or fine oils.  They also offer a highly customised service to create more comfortable soles or simply different from the original ones to have a unique model.

Once the sole is separated from the rest of the shoe it can be replaced with one of a different type, either by material or simply by colour. Along with big firms in the fashion industry such as Sergio Rossi and Tom Ford, with whom the shoemaker has been working for decades, many customers from all over Italy and Europe rely on them.

Sending parcels full of Louboutin and Church’s shoes from Sardegna, Switzerland, France, and Tenerife to be fixed or customised, the business over the years developed along with technology, moving most of its sales to e-commerce “Thanks to it there’s a lot of work, which is a good thing because you work regardless of geographical constraints. For example this shoe I’m working on, today will fly to Berlin” says Luca while holding a suede Redwing model. 

Calzolaio Alvisi
Owner Luca Alvisi (left) and the artisans at work [Vittoria D’Adda]

It’s a proper auto-sufficient factory, everything is done within the walls of the small store: production, sales and deliveries with the help of other three collaborators. From the moment you step inside, the space exudes a distinct historical charm, brought to life by the furniture and objects that adorn it.

Old shoe advertisements grace the walls while the work table is strewn with an array of shoes, soles, and work equipment. A smaller room nearby houses a collection of both vintage and new machines, used to complete the various stages of the shoemaking process.

“A bigger place would be more functional sometimes, but honestly I could never leave this place, because here, history happened” says Luca Alvisi smiling. Clients can hop in, drop off or pick up their pair of shoes while admiring the work of the craftsmen. This place is the perfect example of how an old Bottega modernised in time, expanding its business through digital canals whilst maintaining its true essence: craftsmanship. 

Machinery room [Vittoria D'Adda]
The machinery room [Vittoria D’Adda]

The last stop is at Sacchi Restauri ’s atelier. 

Bottega Sacchi, Piazza Luigi Vittorio Bertarelli, 4 Milano

Working table [Vittoria D'Adda]
Working table in the atelier [Vittoria D’Adda]

It was 1968 when Carlo Sacchi bought the atelier, which today is still run by his two daughters Mariangela and Anna Sacchi. Nestled in the courtyard of an ancient building in Milan’s “Cinque  Vie” district, among narrow and stone-paved streets; the atelier is a timeless space.

Filled with ancient objects, paintings and working tables covered with brushes, working tools of all kinds and paints, it’s an oasis for artists where technology hasn’t advanced yet. Immersed in this ambience, the Sacchi sisters work in restoring antique objects, specialising in gold coatings, lacquers and polychromies on wood or other materials for tables, painting frames, chairs and many other furniture pieces. 

“It’s a neglected technique, a niche form of restoration. This paid off since it has helped us to distinguish ourselves from others” explains Mariangela, the eldest. They learned this craft during their studies in craftsmanship and fine arts but especially from their father, Carlo Sacchi, who was an accomplished woodcarver and restorer. 

During post-World War II years, he worked on rebuilding Milan’s most famous palazzi, theatres and churches such as La Scala’s facade.  Years fuelled by the creative sparks of visionaries such as Gio Ponti, the legendary architect and designer from Milan, and the boundary-pushing artist Lucio Fontana. Carlo Sacchi had a witty way of explaining his restoration work: “One arrives in naked and goes out totally dressed”. This means that an object in their hands goes through all the necessary steps to come back to life and shine.

Today, the Sacchi sisters carry on their dad’s legacy, collaborating with famous artists and designers such as Bruno Munari (from 1988 to 1998), with museums like la Triennale, antiquaries and private art collectors. Many of their works are destined for auctions around Europe, like Maastricht, Rome, and Geneva. However, restoration is not as profitable as it once was, given the decline in popularity of antique pieces. But the Sacchi sisters continue to work tirelessly to preserve the historical significance of each piece they work on

As Mariangela Sacchi says while grazing a golden detail of a table, “Our work requires slow timings otherwise the final result isn’t accomplished. The artistic process has stages and times to respect. So it is like working against today’s rhythms, which are fast. We work against the current.” 

Anna and Mariangela Sacchi
Anna (left) and Mariangela Sacchi [Vittoria D’Adda]

Despite the challenges they face, the freedom that comes with their work is priceless because “mastery of technique frees you” since you can apply it to whatever you want, it’s a timeless profound knowledge, to be treasured and applied to different crafts.

That’s why nowadays their work shifted mainly towards modern antiques and contemporary art, because people’s taste has changed in the last decades. Minimalism and modernity overtook the art scene and there’s a lack of interest towards antiques since “they need to be known, studied and people have to make an effort to understand their value and history” explains Mariangela. 

The two master artisans are on a noble quest to safeguard Milan’s cultural legacy and their atelier is an ode to the value of time-honoured craftsmanship. Whether you seek to restore a cherished object or to admire the artisans’ work, this is the destination to head to.

Gold flower details of an ancient table
Gold flower details of an ancient table [Vittoria D’Adda]

Visiting these shops is like travelling back in time, where the past meets the present. They are living museums, where visitors can witness the artisans at work, learn about their techniques and stories, and appreciate the beauty and value of their craft.

So, the next time you’re in Milan, make sure to visit the ìBotteghe storiche’ and discover the city’s cultural treasure trove.


Featured image by Vittoria D’Adda

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