By  on October 15, 2007

MILAN — There's a new, tasty reason to visit Milan's main department store, La Rinascente.

Chief executive officer Vittorio Radice has reinvented the food hall on the top floor, replacing the restaurant and cafe with a choice of different food bars and cuisines offering a diverse choice of meals, and a high-quality food market. "It's more tempting," Radice said. "We wanted a comprehensive, but not repetitive, selection."

The food hall overlooks the stunning Gothic spires of the city's cathedral, the Duomo. However, Radice has chosen not to rely on the view alone. With London-based architects Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, Radice has emphasized the design content of the space. Although innovative and contemporary, the decor surprisingly complements the antique splendor of the church.

A ceiling of bright orange Plexiglas reflects the structure of the Duomo's pinnacles in an abstract way, and two main lateral paths obliquely point toward the cathedral. "The light is not flat because of the slanting movement of the ceiling,'' Radice said.

Each corner maintains its own original decor, but thick wenge wood is a recurring theme throughout. In the lounge overlooking the terrace, a slab of shiny brass covers the wood floor and raises it slightly to allow a better view of the Duomo. Tiny lights shine out of the slate, reflected in the ceiling.

Radice has been overhauling the store since joining La Rinascente in May 2005. He has redesigned the beauty, fragrance and cosmetics section on the ground floor, and the innerwear, children's wear, young women's wear and accessories floors, and has attracted new brands to the apparel floors, such as Burberry, Joseph and Malo.

Just as the executive has drawn designer brands to La Rinascente, with an accessories floor carrying bags from Louis Vuitton to Gucci, the food floor is all about first-rate, quality goods.

Radice insisted on a "nonthreatening" atmosphere, "intimate" and user-friendly, with an accessible pathway that leads customers through the different areas. "We want to create a location where customers can be stimulated and relax at the same time," said Radice, who believes that a strong connection between food and shopping helps build a successful business.Despite Italy's strong culinary tradition and love of food, it has lacked the kind of food halls available at Harrods, Harvey Nichols or Selfridges, which Radice helped revamp. "This is a brand-new commercial idea for the city," he said. The floor will be open every day from 9 a.m. to midnight — a first by Italian standards. The space was inaugurated Thursday with a cocktail party.

In addition to an Italian restaurant, there is a sushi bar and wine, juice and chocolate bars. Esperya offers a wide selection of cheeses and hams — and all are also takeaway.

De Santis, a traditional Tuscan bar in Milan, and the Obikà mozzarella bar also have restaurants at La Rinascente, maintaining their own iconic decor and style. There is a food market with more than 1,000 items ranging from oil, balsamic vinegar and pasta to jam, cookies and honey. The brands are almost all Italian and are produced by traditional artisans from around the country. Cases in point: chocolate spreads by Turin-based Stroppiana, which manually processes the cocoa seeds, or tagliatelle from Azienda Agricola Mancini, one of the few manufacturers that still naturally dries the pasta.

A source close to the company said La Rinascente invested 4 million euros, or $5.6 million at current exchange, in the renovation of the seventh floor.

La Rinascente, which dates to 1865, was acquired two years ago by Tamerice Srl, a consortium led by the Borletti family, which owned it before the Agnellis. Last year, the Borletti Group, together with RREEF, the fund overseeing La Rinascente's real estate portfolio, also bought the Printemps department store in France from Gucci Group parent PPR.

The Milan Duomo store, the crown jewel for La Rinascente, accounts for 45 to 50 percent of total sales at the chain. Last year, it reported sales of 370 million euros, or $521.3 million. "There are 14 million people entering the store each year, and we've seen more tourists, and generally more interest in the store," Radice said. "Local customers want to upgrade."

Renovations of the flagship will continue until 2012. "La Rinascente wants to be an ambassador of modernity," Radice said.

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