Shop signs that are more than signatures or representations: they are proud proclamations of leadership, or at least talent. They are tokens of the ingenuity, grace and elegance typical of Milan's way of doing business in the past. Follow us on a brief, nostalgic tour through the proud nobility of its business icons, banners from bygone days of the 'made in Italy' style.

Business optics

Arnaldo Chierichetti opened his optician and photography store in 1914. The store remained rooted to the old cross-roads between Corso di Porta Romana and Corso di Porta Vigentina despite several moves (the last of which after it was bombed). The current shop sign dates back to 1945. Loyalty to tradition and passion for innovation have always gone hand in hand in Arnaldo's work over the years, and in his daughter Elda's too. The store has maintained a link with the city for ninety years, enjoying a remarkable cultural promotion role for business activity. The store features a display of cameras and a fine period cabinet showcasing theatre binoculars, ancient eyeglasses and optical instruments, clear evidence of Arnaldo and Elda's good taste, research and passion for some of the aspects of their business. An attractive book which Dr Cristian Scotti, the current manager and member of the executive committee, is especially proud to show us, does the rest.


Word of mouth tastes good

The Giovanni Galli confectionery and chocolate store specialises in artisanal products since 1911, handcrafting marrons glacés (glazed chestnuts), cherry-filled chocolates, pralines and marzipan. The Milanese love marrons glacés, and creating them is an art with strict rules: first you cook them in sugar syrup for ten days, then you cover them with a thin glaze (which mustn't smother the chestnut's flavour) and finally you bake them. 'Today we still follow our great-grandfather's recipes,' says Federico Galli, the fourth-generation owner. 'Our products are hand-made using quality ingredients, and rigorously preservatives-fee. Damaging them would be an unforgivable risk.' He adds: 'I studied economics, but university doesn't reflect the reality of our business. We're artisans to the core. Expanding might mean adulterating the brand's and the store's identity.' No-nonsense, that's Federico. To the noise of advertising he still prefers the whisper of word of mouth. It's more reliable and durable.


History of an aperitif, and its temple

The bar was born, according to some, as 'Leone Bottiglieria' (Leone drink store) in about 1860. It then took the name of 'Caffé Canetta', from the name of its next proprietor, also the inventor of the first house aperitif: the Costumé Canetta. At the start of the XXth century, Luigi Donini, who created the Mistura Donini (Donini mix), gave the bar a whole new look, installing coffee machines and a modern counter. In 1931, the Marangione family took over the business and christened the old Donini mix Gin Rosa (Pink gin), giving the bar its current name and sign. The legendary Gin Rosa mix, whose secret blend is exclusively patented worldwide, is drank on its own or used as a base for countless cocktails. Above all, you can only drink it here, as the many illustrious Milanese patronising the bar know well. From 1999 the business is managed by the De Luca family, who are passionate about the tradition of a venue that has a place in the city's history.


The sound of passion

Mitarotonda put up its own shop sign in 1987, perpetuating the historic tradition of the legendary Gallini store, opened in 1888. 'Gallini was a temple of music. I used to walk in on tiptoe,' says Paola Mitarotonda, the first woman to join the Italian Association of Piano Tuners, and the current store's owner. 'Taking over the business was a dream and an honour, as well as an irresistible folly,' In 2009, when the rental cost became prohibitive, Paola relocated to the end of the street and downsized the sign, but kept the original atmosphere and furniture. The store features six hundred walnut wood drawers, containing scores for about 28,000 titles. Mitarotonda sells, hires out and tunes pianos, guitars, violins and cellos. You can find all kinds of accessories here (metronomes, music stands, music paper and albums) and advice if you need it. 'I love my pianos and I admire musicians. Music is a labour and a blessing.' And Paola's tempo is allegro moderato.


The select few

The story of Andrea Sartori, the ice-cream shop founder, sounds like that of the stereotypical eager dreamer. Instead it's true. As soon as he came to Milan from Treviso, in the North East, Andrea worked as a jack-of-all-trades in an ice-cream shop. He took to the business, worked on it, and in 1937 he bought a two-wheeled cart from which he sold his own ice-cream. The cart became a kiosk, which in 1947 turned into the current premises. The clientele for Andrea and his wife Stella grew, and in the post-war years his son Giorgio joined the business. Today it is run by Andrea's nephew, Anthony. The shop sign was altered only as the need arose. The ice-creams were never altered: they are hand-made and creamy, as tradition demands. 'Our customers eat what we'd provide to our own children,' declares Anthony. 'We know and select all of our ice-creams' ingredients. We're not interested in trends and syrups.' The flavours are the classic (select) few, no frills, and the granitas are to die for. Oh, Sartori!


Hold your hat up high

An 1888 Liberty-style shop sign leads us into Milan's oldest hat shop. The shop is still located in the original premises and owned by the same family, and still features period floors and furniture. Above all, it showcases great walls of hats in all styles and materials: beanies, caps, berets, coppola flat caps and top hats. In felt, fabric, leather, straw or fur. 'I suffer from encirclement syndrome,' says the owner, gesturing towards the fashionable street outside. 'Sometimes foreigners think they've walked into a museum and ask if the hats are for sale.' Mr Matteo is passionate but realistic. 'Family businesses are destined to extinction. Children can choose jobs that are different from their parents', and who can afford training any more?' He continues: 'Even if Italian hats are the best in the world, the small artisanal workshops that produce them cannot cope with industrial costs and strategies.' Business is business, indeed. But hang on in there, Matteo. With your hat held up high.


Apothecaries 2.0

Milan's third-oldest pharmacy was founded in 1835 by the Foglia family, on premises formerly occupied by a 'pharmaceutical store with adjoining workshop.' The façade of the elegant XVIIth century building where the pharmacy is located bears witness to this. It still features marble bas-reliefs with images of renowned chemists and scientists. The external inscriptions in gold were instead modified by the owners before the current ones. In the last eight years the pharmacy has continued trading thanks to Director Dr Paolo Vigo and his partners. 'Our galenical laboratory is always busy. We prepare herbal products, personalised drugs and our very own vegan-inspired dermocosmetics line, not tested on animals,' explains Dr Vigo. 'In our pharmacy, the galenical pharmacopoeia tradition combines with state-of-the-art research to meet our customers' new requirements. We dispense drugs, of course, but above all care and advice. Nowadays the chemist has all but taken over from the traditional GP.' True indeed, doctor!


Fragrant craftsmanship

As you walk along Via Piero della Francesca, in the Sempione neighbourhood, you may be literally blown over by the most mouth-watering fragrance on earth: the blend of short-crust pastry and creams of all varieties, typical of artisanal confectionery. Luigi Grecchi's confectionery store, with its reassuring sign in a serif font, opened in 1959. The business is family-managed, now by his son Antonio, who works with the true dedication of a born confectioner. 'I won't compromise on quality and originality,' he tells us. 'They're something we're proud of, and they're always worth the effort. In crisis times too.' Antonio must be proud of his business: he works from twelve to fifteen hours every day, pampering an increasingly demanding clientele. 'It's such a pleasure to see them smile,' Antonio says. 'Especially at Christmas, when we concoct all sorts of customised hampers, chocolates and leavened dough cakes; the 'panettoni', Milan's typical cake, the 'veneziane'...' We have to cut his list short, it's too mouth-watering.


Light bulbs and resistance

Ms Ada Comoretto, 88, owns the electrical supplies store opened by her father since 1943. But what makes her a true 'resistor' is the fact that the shop is located in Corso Como. For those who aren't aware of it, this is the new heart of Milan's nightlife. Besieged by sparkling boutiques and hipster venues, the Comoretto shop sign (which was remade exactly as it was only because it was falling to pieces) inspires a kind of tenderness. However, despite those who want to buy the shop to turn it into yet another bar, Ada keeps on selling light-bulbs and the kind of odds and ends that are impossible to find elsewhere. And she still doesn't accept credit cards. 'Corso Como isn't like a neighbourhood any more,' she says, 'neighbourly relations are non-existent because shop assistants come and go, they don't own the shops. On the other hand, this, is my baby.' Ada is proud, especially of the customers who come to see her.. to have a chat.


Pride in tradition

Pettinaroli's current shop sign dates back to the end of the 1950s. Inside the store you can still find the original 1881 signs. The business was born as a stationery store, with a typography and binding laboratory annexed to it. Over the years, it has printed business cards, wedding, christening and holy communion invitations, using sophisticated paper and processes for the Milanese people's most significant events. Mr Francesco, named after his founder great-grandfather, is fond of the term 'stationery', even though he doesn't handle much of it: smart leather-bound notebooks (oddly enough, they sell very well), and a few unconventional gift items: all of them coming from small, traditional Milanese workshops. Mr Francesco adores antique prints, especially geographical ones. 'There's a whole world of devotees, cartographers and collectors who come to visit me,' he says smiling, 'specialisation protects against the economic crisis.' But his love for Milan's typographical tradition must have helped too.


An ancient, rare craft

The Piccolo Jewellery opened in 1918 (as the shop sign itself boasts), inside a historic building in the heart of the city. In 1986 Mr Tommasi, the owner, offered the business to a young, passionate watch-maker. Ivano Piccolo accepted, and has been happy about it ever since. He makes a point of saying that his shop is a true little museum for antique jewellery, made of precious materials as well as 'alternative' ones he hunts for tenaciously. His store showcases some rare 1940s tools: a hand-operated lathe, a pair of scales, a chest of drawers containing watch supplies. Because Mr Piccolo not only sells highly certified watches, he also repairs them! He is the only one taking care of it in the store, and he says 'after thirty years, I'm still having fun doing it. I repair all watches, provided they're valuable to my customers.' In our fully digitalised times, an ancient, masterful handicraft such as this holds an almost hypnotic fascination.


Like tears in the rain

'Next autumn our store, and others too, will be evicted from the Generali Insurance building, to make room for the usual trendy fashion labels. We're appealing to the owners, the Shopkeepers Associations, the city and regional authorities and the press, to prevent Milan from losing part of its heritage.' Luigi Ragno's are words we wished we'd never hear. He is the son of the man who shaped the store's philosophy decisively, adding British apparel and accessories to his fabrics trade, and becoming an international household name. We were meant to write about Milan's oldest retailer, founded in 1768. In business for 250 years, with two sites, three family ownerships and one change in its shop sign. In 1960, when the store moved to the Generali Insurance building, the historic sign was adapted to the others around it. We wished to tell the story of a lasting tradition featuring style, research and passion. But come September, it all risks being blown away. Like tears in the rain.


Cherishing classic style

The shop sign for Cordusio Shirt-makers has remained the same since 1943. No capital letters, nothing loud. Almost an understatement. Showing a lofty disdain for advertising, the business doesn't have a website, it ignores social media and doesn't trust reviews. The only kind of advertising acceptable to owner Massimo Canziani (the founder's son) is word of mouth. Something which has worked very well for seventy three years. Luca, an employee, tells us the job has a close link with words, because it's based on advice, on trust and on the relationship established with the clientele over time. And a satisfied customer brings others to the store. Cordusio Shirt-makers has served many of Milan's top journalists. Where else could (for example) journalism icon Indro Montanelli turn to? 'We must resist,' says Luca. 'Nowadays there is a lot of low-quality competition. We must not listen to the siren song of fast-fashion.' Care for details, classic cuts and pleated trousers. It's great that they survive, isn't it?


A close shave

The Colla Old Barber Shop opened in 1904, but moved to the current premises in 1944. Franco Bompieri joined the second owner, Guido Mantovanini, in the 1960s. In 1975 he took over the business and affixed his own shop sign. The barber shop's reputation is confirmed by the pictures and dedications blanketing its walls, amidst early XXth century furniture and accessories. Of course! Hairdressing and shaving are taken care of here in the old-fashioned way. Trends don't matter! Mr Bompieri has trained, observed, taken notes and used his golden touch for seventy years. The products he uses in his workshop (don't dare calling it a shop!) are the fruit of artisanal expertise. They are his and his daughter Francesca's creatures. Regarding the future, Francesca has clear ideas: 'Some things will never change: respect for others and for one's work; the desire to improve constantly; humility. This establishment is the brainchild of all those who wanted it to be like this.'


Good food goes a long way

The story of Milan's most renowned deli began in 1883, when a Prague-born pork butcher, Francesco Peck, opened a shop in Via Orefici. His pork and smoked meats were so good he was appointed supplier to the Royal House. In 1918 Eliseo Magnaghi acquired the shop and moved it to Via Spadari, where it is still located. Peck became a meeting place for Milan's elite, welcoming personalities, authors and intellectuals. In the 1950s, the lunch break culture was inaugurated over Peck's counter, much more inviting than a canteen. Today's attractive shop sign was affixed by the Stoppani family (who succeeded the Grazialis) in 1997. Since 2013, the business is in the hands of Pietro Marzotto. In this temple of gastronomy, everything is high-level now: quality, choice, elegance, professionalism, politeness... and pricing. After all, Peck is one of Italian cuisine's icons, worldwide. It doesn't belong just to the Milanese.


Culture to stand up for

When you enter establishments such as these, the urge is to take your hat off. Even if they extend over 50 m2 only. The Bocca bookstore has been operating since 1775 and is perhaps Italy's oldest. It was opened by the Bocca brothers in Turin and had up to five branches, of which only the one in Milan's Galleria, dating back to 1930, has survived. Of its endless list of awards, we shall mention only the one which Giorgio Lodetti, the current owner, is most proud of: being designated in 2007 by FAI, the Italian Fund for the Environment, as 'Luogo del cuore', meaning a most treasured place. Nowadays the bookstore has an artistic vocation, but the works of the greatest XIXth and XXth century authors were printed here. Books that contributed to overhauling the age-old balance of society, or opened up new avenues to the development of thought. Yet (these are indeed troubled times) it risked being closed down. Thanks to Mayor Pisapia, the bookstore's city licence was renewed at a sustainable rate until 2025. And very recently it set up a partnership with art publisher Skira.


Back to the original

Mejana was registered at the Chamber of Commerce in 1911, as a knives and men's leather goods store. It opened in the Galleria in 1917, specialising in the sale of fountain pens and writing implements. The current proprietor succeeded his father in the 1990s, making this the fifth generation of Mejanas: a record. Mr Roberto explained to us his lucid entrepreneurial vision, which can be summarised as this. 'Nowadays, selling fountain pens is no longer sufficient. A historic shop must manufacture something of its own, featuring original local craft products, and going beyond mere retail. To our 'historic' articles, now a market niche, we added a new leather goods range. You can purchase any brand of pen online. The quality bags produced by local craftsmen exclusively for us, are instead ours'. Rather than a trend reversal, this means going back to the origins of the workshop concept. Indeed, it's a return to the original.


Never lose the template

This historic shop's sign, unchanged since 1860, seems like a premonition. Actually, Centenari ('centenary' in Italian) is the founders' surname. In the year before the unification of Italy, they began retailing artistic prints, paintings, picture frames and rare objects in Milan's most distinctive central area. The store has been owned by the Comini family for fifty years. These days, Sandra, Gianni and Marcello continue to fly the flag of artistic prints (where each artwork is an original), patiently offering explanations to their customers, who still, luckily, want to know the difference between a woodcut and an etching, what is a printing press used for, what is a template, or how is an icon manufactured. 'Passion for art and craftsmanship is what keeps us alive,' says Mr Marcello. 'We don't want them to disappear.' To a lady asking for one of the wooden bas-reliefs featured in the window display some time ago, he replies: 'They were made by a South Tirol craftsman. We're out of stock, sadly.' Indeed, you won't find photocopies here.


There is smoking... and smoking

NOLI smokers' articles. Tobacco, cigars and tax stamps. This is what is duly written on the sign taking pride of place in the window of this historic Milanese tobacconist, located right in the city's heart. The name is printed in italics, like a signature. The store has been located in Milan's Galleria since 1927, and in 1973 it was taken over by Leonardo Noli, who is still managing it today with his children Luca and Simona. Laughing, Mr Noli confesses he has never smoked. Yet, the cigars he sells are carefully selected among top Italian and overseas brands. Noli cigars are produced in Nicaragua and he considers them 'his own offspring.' Mr Leonardo defines himself as an indirect expert, as he explains patiently what a humidor is for, and the differences among the magnificent pipes on display. Perhaps it's because the job still amuses him, perhaps it's because he likes to talk about it, but in his descriptions smoking (allow us to be less than correct from a health standpoint) seems to be an art.


Silver kingdom

The current owners of the scintillating store in Via Manzoni belong to the fourth generation of the Bernasconi silversmiths, who in 1872 opened their first artisanal workshop and in 1924 were appointed 'Suppliers to the Royal House' of Savoy. The historic store's latest move, supervised by Claudio and Maurizio, brought Bernasconi to the so-called 'fashion quadrilateral', the city's central area home to the top Italian and foreign fashion brands. Over the years, Bernasconi added artisanal products made out of natural materials to its hand-crafted silver range. Ginevra, wife of Ernesto, the founder, had plenty of intuition and a keen nose for business, so the story goes. In the 1930s, inspired by the luxuriating plants growing in her Ethiopian house's garden, she had handles made of bamboo roots applied to her silver cutlery. The precious set was lost during the return journey, but the idea remained, and her great-grandsons used it for a new collection that bears Ginevra's name.

What we have learned.
We learned about persistence, pride, passion, respect and dignity. About good grace, wisdom, humour, hope and irony. About fatalism, resistance, stories from the past and visions for the future. We are grateful to 'our' shop signs for their outbursts and bitterness (which never turns to desperation). For their wonderful Italian (not a foregone conclusion). For their language, both wry and soft-spoken. With an aftertaste that feels like withheld sarcasm, so typical of the 'real' Milanese.
License: Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives 4.0