Building a Food Market? Make It Like Milan’s Mercato Metropolitano

For 2015’s World Expo (a.k.a. World’s Fair) in Milan this year, more than 130 countries have space in pavilions—huge, free-standing structures by brilliant architects and designers where already, millions of people have gathered to eat and learn about food.

As with any city hosting a huge event like this, there was just not enough unused space to do it in the middle of town. So most of Expo happens a 20-minute subway ride outside of the main hub of the city of Milan.

But city officials, smartly wanting to draw Expo tourists to its urban center, planned urban food events that are spectacular and compelling. I mean, more spectacular and more compelling than the usual food goings-on in Milan. Dubbed “ExpoinCitta,” this series of initiatives and events through the closing of Expo on October 31 includes the Mercato Metropolitano, a must-visit location. And with The Plate’s Your Shot Outdoor Food Market round up of photos this morning, it’s good inspiration.

Milan’s extraordinary Mercato Metropolitano is an open-air street food, grocery, and perishables market opened exclusively for Expo, but close to the city center in the Porta Genova neighborhood. (It’s in Navigli, near the canals that Da Vinci designed—a good Zip code, as my Italian grandmother would have said, and a lovely spot for a negroni.)

In its few short months since opening, the Mercato has become a destination third-space in Italy, even in the dead of August when the Milanese leave for vacation and the city’s population plummets. My companions and I were the only people in the whole 160,000-square-foot place from its opening at 11 am until about 12:30 pm last Friday but as shoppers and diners of all ages rolled in, the aisles bustled with laughter, wine toasts, and hissing espresso pumps. In the evening, it transformed into an al fresco nightclub, crawling with singles. The mercato also holds film screenings, lectures about food, and other food-related events.

The calm before the storm of customers at Mercado Metropolitano in Milan. Photograph by Mary Beth Albright

The calm before the storm of customers at Mercado Metropolitano in Milan. Photograph by Mary Beth Albright

And it’s one of the best-planned modern urban markets I’ve seen, combining heritage street-foot stalls run by the country’s authentic restaurants and artisans; meat, cheese, and bread salespeople who can take you on a virtual tour of Italy; a small but serviceable grocery store with all necessary pantry staples; and wine by the glass or bottle, with lots of seating. It’s what I wish so many of the newly developed trendy American urban markets would have been.

Mercato’s stated purpose was to create an Italian market experience connecting people with small- and medium-sized Italian food producers and craftspeople. There are breadbakers baking bread. Coffeeroasters roasing coffee. Beermakers making beer.

A young customer surveys his cheese options at the Mercado Metropolitano in Milan. Photograph by Mary Beth Albright

A young customer surveys his cheese options at the Mercado Metropolitano in Milan. Photograph by Mary Beth Albright

One of the dozen or so stands was labeled merely “Il Lampredotto del Mercato,” so I ordered lampredotto—which is the fourth stomach of a cow. (In case you’re getting squeamish, this stomach is also where we get rennet, which is used to make most cheese, so you probably love lampredotto.)

The lampredotto stand is run by Giacomo Trapani, whose family has been making the tripe in Florence since the 18th century. Lampredotto is an old Florentine specialty, boiled with garlic, parsley, shallots, and capers for hours and usually served in a sandwich as peasant food. He also served cow heel tendon (tastes like hard, plain Jell-O), cheek, and tongue.

Trapani creates nose-to-tail dishes, from a time when anything other than cooking nose-to-tail was unthinkably wasteful. The heel tendon dish was good for belly-filling—it was available protein. Just the fact that it was from an animal made it a delicacy, from a time not so long ago when eating animals was a special occasion.

This kind of food heritage, alive for hundreds of years, might be endangered simply because people feel that they don’t have to eat it any more. Why, when you can pick up a filet shrink wrapped at a store? It may be that places like the Mercato Metropolitano will be the future of keeping such foods alive.

The Mercato resurrects other terrific old ideas too, like charging for bread based on how old it is—more for fresh and less for bread that was baked eight hours ago, less still for 18-hour-old bread. In a world of people who paw through grocery store shelves checking for the freshest food and won’t purchase anything that is close to its arbitary sell-by date, it’s a food-waste-reducing idea worth examining.

This is part of a series of reports from World Expo 2015 in Milan.

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