“It was in 1965 when I entered La Latteria… I wasn’t in the trade… Arturo taught me, perhaps I already had a predisposition for this job.”
Maria and Arturo Maggi met when Maria was 17.
“I worked for Coin,” the department store, “I was a girl. I am originally from Sicily. I came with my parents, but for me work was freedom. For me working was an incredible thing. There was a girl in my department who dated Arturo’s pizzaiolo.”
He was working at a fancy restaurant near the Central Station in Milan.
“This girl says to me, come and have a drink with us and I was introduced to him. We met, and it went from there. We dated for very little, because this job takes up all of your time,” but soon they got married, and soon after that, Arturo felt to leave the restaurant. He was walking down Via San Marco, in the north of the Milanese suburb of Brera, and “he saw this small place and said this will do for me and my wife.”
They opened La Latteria, and 57 years later, they’re still there.
I grew up in Milan, only two blocks away from La Latteria, but it wasn’t until my twenties that I truly discovered this cozy hole in the wall. I can still recall my friend’s astonishment when he realized I had yet to try their famed spaghetti al limone – he insisted we go together the next day. Since then, along with influencers, Japanese tourists and old Milanese families, I too have become a regular.
Recently, on a foggy December night, friends invited me to dinner at La Latteria. Maria approached our table with her warm smile and praised our scarpetta abilities. Then the newbie at the table asked “why is this restaurant shut on Saturdays?” They tend to their land on the weekends the regulars answered in unison. It was then that I realized that there might be an environmental story behind this little neighborhood spot. When Maria returned to our table I asked her if I could interview her, she nodded and told me to come back the next day.
“This is a home. I have a way of welcoming people as if they were family. My instinct, my character is to treat people as if they were my children. I don’t realize it but I’m like that with everyone, I always try to give my best, to please them. I always work with joy. Money will come to you, but we don’t do it for that. It’s a different kind of satisfaction when you work with passion. It is constantly working with your inner truth, that might take longer to pay you back, but that in the long run always does.”
She shared these pearls of wisdom whilst simultaneously stirring a pumpkin soup in the tiny old-school kitchen. “Would you like to try it?” she casually asked. “Of course!” It was delicious. “It boosts your immune system,” she replied. We then sat down for a coffee. I ask her what is behind La Latteria’s success?
“We have always maintained that in a city like Milan where one is forced to go out to eat, you have to provide meals that you can digest, you have to serve quality. We both come from the countryside, we know good produce. In fact, the first thing we did was buy land, not a house in Milan. Because [Arturo] says he went hungry during the war, he’s from 1938, where he was born, on top of the marbles [near Carrara] there are small plots of land where they could barely grow a little vegetable garden. So for him, food has always been sacred.”
Maria has been up since 5:45. She’s the first person to open the kitchen doors. “At La Latteria, many products come from our land, and it’s hard work, it takes up most of our weekend… but it’s Arturo’s passion, he says ‘Some people go to the gym, I like working the land outside in the open air’.”
“When we first bought the land we reared animals and had them slaughtered ourselves, he wanted the quality to always be the same. We even had a space in Milan that we paid for annually… but then the government forbade this. They introduced a new law that stated that the meat had to be vacuum-packed… and we had to stop… we even tried to make salame ourselves… goose salame. Once they even confiscated a bresaola from us! Everything now has to be labeled, helping big industries that can afford it. The government gets in the way of letting small producers like us make healthy products.”
I ask what else has changed in 57 years of work in this industry?
“The most notable difference is that the flavors of the past are no longer there. I will admit that in the last couple of years the quality has improved, but we had years, mainly in the late 90s with the growth of GMOs, that we suffered a lot. You have to look for quality and you have to be able to recognize it, but it becomes increasingly difficult. The vegetables don’t taste like they used to.”
As it’s winter, Arturo and Maria can’t supply their menu from their vegetable garden, so I met with Arturo at 8:30, earlier that morning, to join him on his grocery shopping at the bi-weekly farmers market in Brera. This is the same market my Dad and I have been visiting since I can remember, frequenting our go-to stalls. I was excited to see it through Arturo’s eyes, a true local who has been visiting the same stalls for over 40 years. I ask Arturo if the vendors have changed in the last 40 years? “Barely, maybe a couple have sold in the years, but usually the son keeps it going.” A family affair, like everything else in this country.
Our first stop is the cheese and preserves stall. Arturo and the vendor’s conversation is amusing, of mutual yet profound respect, of closeness. “I’ll stop by before lunch for a glass of wine and to say hello to your beautiful wife,” says the vendor. “Of course. In the meantime, give me a kilo of cipollotti” Arturo replies. He then turns to me, “do you know that cipollotti are healing? But you must keep them in your mouth for a little bit, the healing juices are in the cipollotto liquid.”
When I interview Maria, she speaks of Arturo’s famous interest in alchemy and how it was a passion that came to him. “One day we were at the beach and he had found a little book that sparked his curiosity. First he experimented with the saucepan, then he read every book available to him… he even found books in German and had them translated at the university. Of course he applies his knowledge in the dishes and in the vegetable garden, fermentation is important everywhere.”
At the market, the vendor reminds me “there’s a lot of influenza going around”, so I too order a bag of cipollotti. I go to pay. “Of course not, you’re here with Arturo!” the vendor exclaims.
We walk to the vegetable and fruit stall. My favorite. There’s about six different ones, so I’m happy to discover Arturo’s pick. His relationship with the stallholder is even funnier than the one he shares with the cheese vendor.
“Arturo please, buy your customers some real artichokes this time.” He mocks him. “You’re a thief with these prices!” Arturo retorts, he then looks at me and whispers, “this guy is crazy but he always has the best produce!”
Of course the fruit vendor also wants to make sure I don’t catch the crazy influenza going around. “Here, have some vitamin C you need it to protect yourself,” he says whilst handing me a huge and juicy orange. Delicious. It feels nice to be taken care of by relative strangers, it’s the beauty of Italian hospitality.
Next stop is the fishmonger. They already have what Arturo is looking for, about 30 small seppiette. Arturo seems pleased, as he crosses out the last item on his hand-written list. I wonder who’s handwriting it is, his or Maria’s?
Arturo has a gentle, quiet demeanor. You can tell he’s a dependable and loved persona within the community. Back in La Latteria, over our coffee, I ask Maria about their work/marriage relationship. “He practically raised me, we are eight years apart. He’s always respected me, and we’ve always been in tune. He’s never let out a bad word. He has a very controlled nature. He’s calm, I’m more anxious, this made us find a balance. I’m delighted to have married him, I wouldn’t change him.” Balance, the key to everything. I believe it’s this intangible equilibrium that creates the magnetism of La Latteria.
Arturo and Maria’s story has involved dedication, love, passion, trust, joy, community and respect for the land, values we have lost through the development of the west’s contemporary lifestyle. Yet as the world around La Latteria has changed in their 57 years of service, Arturo and Maria stayed true to their beliefs, watching the world modernize, whilst taking care of their community, providing a constant home away from home. “Success,” Maria explains “isn’t monetary but lies in small life satisfactions. For example when you receive a Christmas card from a family you’ve served for three generations, or when Obama’s chef mentions your spaghetti al limone in a magazine.”
Ultimately, Arturo and Maria do everything with attention, care and time – from the seedlings planted in their land, to the 40 plus year relationship with the market vendors, to their cooking and serving. In return they have been rewarded with love and praise from their loyal community.
So why is this an environmental story? For me, La Latteria truly embodies the term “slow food”. More technology, more things and busier lives won’t heal our relationship with nature. Arturo and Maria’s ideals and lifestyle reflect the shifts we need to solve the current environmental crisis, reminding me of the simple wisdom of respecting nature and its inherent cycles and rhythms, whilst following our passions and sharing them with care. It is a wisdom deeply ingrained in Italy’s food culture: love and joy can be transmitted through taste.
Isabella Cavalletti is a storyteller and co-founded eco-nnect.