Luca Guelfi, Alessandro Longhin and Alberto Cartasegna.

From the hospitality veteran who aims to bring the world to Milan to the Millennial who relaunched local traditional cuisine and the dynamic, former fashion p.r. who injected the concept of branding into the food business, here are three Italian entrepreneurs redefining Milan’s culinary landscape, and their take on the city’s cultural renaissance.

Luca Guelfi, founder of Oyster Bar

If there’s a specialist in creating a culinary impact in Milan, that’s Italian entrepreneur Luca Guelfi. Counting more than 25 years of experience in the business, Guelfi is the mastermind behind some of the city’s hottest destinations that have popped up over the last three years, including Mexican restaurant Canteen, the Vietnamese cuisine-based Saigon location and the Shimokita Japanese tapas bar. His newest concept is a little gem called Oyster Bar that opened its doors last fall.

“All my ideas come from my travels around the world. I study what I see abroad, what is missing in Italy and what could fit in the Milanese culinary landscape. In this case, it was an authentic oyster bar, as the ones you can find in London or New York,” explained Guelfi. In particular, he was fond of introducing “the concept of eating around a counter, which is new for Italian customers used to having traditional tables and seats.…The whole goal of my job is to try to offer something new. It’s pointless to replicate what is already there.”

Taking central stage in the refined space outlined by brick walls, Venini lamps and an expansive backlit cinema board, the icebox counter offers not only 21 types of oysters — “the widest selection in Italy,” according to Guelfi -— but also seafood ranging from urchins, mussels, scallops and red shrimps to lobsters, king crabs and caviar.

Oyster Bar in Milan.

Oyster Bar in Milan.  Elena Benvenuto/Courtesy Photo

To flank the raw seafood parade, an à-la-carte selection of dishes includes salmon tartares and sea bream ceviches with mango, leche de tigre and chili pepper but also foie gras medallions with blinis, fig jam and red onions, among other specialties. A long list of 70 international wine and Champagne labels, as well as premium gin and vodka brands, completes the offer of the location, which is in walking distance from its sister Canteen, Saigon and Shimokita destinations, enriching the city’s lively area around Via Archimede.

“I think this is a very international part of Milan, also due to the presence of fashion showrooms,” explained Guelfi, citing the No.21 headquarters standing opposite the Canteen restaurant. “And that’s an asset, because people who travel a lot can better understand the concepts I develop. Plus, it’s a safe area for girls to move around at night, which is key, too. And I concentrated most of my locations here with the goal to offer a complete package: People can have an aperitivo at Oyster Bar, move to Saigon for dinner, then have a drink at Canteen, for example. So parking the car just one time, they access different experiences and that has worked very well so far.”

Oyster Bar in Milan.

Oyster Bar in Milan.  Elena Benvenuto/Courtesy Photo

Having a privileged viewpoint on the evolution of the industry, with his Julien Café bar dating to 1994 and other formats opened in Sardinia, Spain, Miami and the Dominican Republic since, Guelfi noted an increasing buzz around Milan in the last few years.

“Milan has had an incredible acceleration after the Expo in 2015. Now when I’m abroad and talk about the city, people have a super-positive reaction. It has really become attractive worldwide and that favored many entrepreneurs of this field to take the food industry in new directions. The restaurant business here has always been very classic, mostly family-run, while now it is having a more managerial structure,” he explained.

For Guelfi, good food remains central, but it is no longer enough to define the success of a location, since other elements such as interior design, lighting, music and entertainment must now be taken into consideration. “Today you can eat very well also at home thanks to delivery services, so why should people go out? I need to tempt them by offering an experience,” he said, mentioning the refined atmosphere and the implementation of cocktail bars, music performances and DJ sets in most of his locations.

Luca Guelfi.

Luca Guelfi  Courtesy Photo

This approach will also be mirrored in the next project the entrepreneur will unveil this year — a Brazilian restaurant that will turn into a club after dinner. And if Guelfi has always tried to bring corners of the world to Milan, in 2020 he will also go in the opposite direction by exporting “an authentic, homemade Italian cuisine” format to Los Angeles. — Sandra Salibian

Oyster Bar
12, Via Archimede
Monday to Sunday, 6:30 p.m. to midnight

Alessandro Longhin, founder of Chihuahua Tacos

Tasty food, a charming atmosphere and a cool crowd are no longer enough to make a restaurant and cocktail bar successful.

It’s all about branding, at least according to Alessandro Longhin, a young entrepreneur with a background in fashion public relations who’s masterminded successful Milan locations such as The Botanical Club and Champagne Socialist over the past 10 years.

Last fall, the entrepreneur opened Chihuahua Tacos, a location that blends traditional Mexican street food with signature cocktails in a cool place located around the city’s Navigli district.

“My background has helped me to understand the importance of building content and doing research, seeking experiences rather than just products,” he explained. “For too long, the food and beverage sector has been rooted in tradition and good products without paying much attention to the stories.”

Longhin described Chihuahua Tacos as “authentically Mexican, but with an urban kick,” inspired by New York or Los Angeles.

Original tacos are made with bio corn tortillas filled, for example, with pork thigh, coriander and pickled radish, while healthy and vegan options include a taco with candied tomato, nopals, toasted corn and fresh cheese. A range of beers imported from Mexico is complemented by Chihuahua-branded craft beers and a selection of signature Mezcal cocktails for a juicy culinary experience at an affordable price point.

Chihuahua Tacos' tapas and drinks.

Chihuahua Tacos’ tapas and drinks.  Courtesy Photo.

“As a developing city, Milan is welcoming new trends and flows coming from different cultures and scenarios. When you make your research, you need to look into global trends that will hit the market, but also understand if they can really have a penetration,” Longhin explained.

“Our vantage point was that Mexican cuisine already resonated with the local audience, however, we wanted our offering to be closer to the Mexican roots…without being too didactic,” he said, noting the Tex-Mex variant has been particularly strong in the city in the past few years.

Mexican food culture is having momentum even at the highest levels, with the recent opening of a Noma pop-up restaurant by chef René Redzepi in Tulum, Mexico, while in Milan a range of Mexican restaurants, including Agua Sancta, Santo Taco and Bésame Mucho, have recently opened their doors.

Chihuahua Tacos’ interiors were developed in-house but drew inspiration from the work of Mexican architect and engineer Luis Barragán. Solid walls in vibrant hues of pink and orange (“trending in fashion, as well,” said Longhin) have a grainy effect, nodding to pueblos. Industrial tables and neon lights further enhance the laid-back attitude of the restaurant.

“It’s [part of the] branding. Of course complemented by the authenticity of the food, which needs to honor the promise you make to your clients,” he said.

The name itself was well thought-out as it boasts plenty of references: To the namesake Mexican region; a 2003 summer hit from Swiss artist DJ BoBo, as well as to Paris Hilton’s pet. “It also contains the ‘wow’ sound, which is kind of a positive message.”

The Chihuahua Tacos logo.

The Chihuahua Tacos logo.  Luca Matarazzo/Courtesy Photo.

“I was looking for something funny and ironic, which was not too self-referential. It’s odd and cute and a bit naughty,” noted Longhin. The restaurant’s logo — a beefy Chihuahua biting a cob — was developed in collaboration with Studio Temp, a Bergamo, Italy-based design firm that has worked with Virgil Abloh and Nike, among other brands. The logo appears also on T-shirts and goodie bags that are available at the restaurant and Longhin said he’s planning to patent and sell Chihuahua Tacos’ sauces. “We’re committed to brand extensions,” he explained.

Entertainment is a big part of Chihuahua Tacos, although Longhin stressed it needs to feel fortuitous. “I’ve come to realize that entrance and exit are the two most important moments in a client’s journey, where you need to secure an effective and pleasant experience,” he said, citing the music selection as an example.

A second unit under the same name will bow in March on Milan’s Piazza Santa Maria del Suffragio, building on the success of the first banner.

Alessandro Longhin, owner of Chihuahua Tacos.

Alessandro Longhin, owner of Chihuahua Tacos.  Saverio Lombardi Vallauri/Courtesy Photo.

“In the past, especially in the Eighties, there were the great restaurateurs that were all alike, but then we started to experience a more diversified scenario in the city,” Longhin underscored, noting the city’s food and beverage sector has been living a renaissance after the 2015 Universal Exposition. — Martino Carrera

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