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Expo 2015 in Milan: the Pavilions, the Experience and the Food.

For the past 11 years, I have lived with one foot on each side of the Atlantic.  Lucky circumstances and hard work brought me to move from Italy to New York.  Today, I consider myself a New Yorker who was born and raised in Italy.  Bridging the gap between these two heritages is a bit like reconciling both parts of the brain: the more disciplined and determined one tries to overrule the other, more creative and fun, and vice versa.  I have found a balance in embracing both, along with the fact that being Italian will always define me, no matter where I live.  As much as I love Italy and being Italian, I am often critical of it, partly because I am becoming more of a New Yorker every day.  I get constantly frustrated by the fact that few instances really showcase the beauty of the Country, and Italy sometimes lacks the ingenuity to build the opportunity to shine.  But, when that opportunity comes along, Italy really does shine.  Italians are hardworking, they have built their Country, and many more, including a large part of the United States.

As a part of my American heritage, I love underdogs: seeing how they are often overlooked and how they work their way up.  2015 is the year that Italy, the underdog, really shines: from May 1, 2015 to October 31, 2015, Milan hosts the Universal Exhibition.  The “Expo” has a theme that is near and dear to Italy, “Feeding the Planet, Energy For Life”. Visiting the Expo, you’ll not only learn about the agricultural and gastronomical aspects of food from 140 Countries, but you’ll also get to taste it!

Living in New York, I didn’t hear much about the preparation and investment Italy put into the Expo. As usual, many have criticized this huge undertaking. Some even took the protest to the streets of Milan.  Since I see the Expo as an opportunity to shine, I was a little confused when I landed in Milan and realized that it has such a polarizing effect on people.

“Food is life” says the ad campaign… food is my life too, because I love to eat, cook and talk about it on Lemonade25.  In spite of the criticism (if you are Italian, you are well versed in filtering what comes out of people’s mouth before it reaches your ears), I was thrilled nonetheless and, as soon as a colleague cancelled a meeting, I took the subway to the Rho, where the Expo is located. This is also my first Universal Exhibit ever so I was twice as excited!

My first impression, reaching the Expo from the city center is that it is in the middle of nowhere, but then again where else would you put 1.1million square meters of pavilions with 12,000 trees and water features? The second impression is that the Expo is, in one word, HUGE! It feels like it’s another city dedicated to food. My kind of city, indeed!

At first, you encounter Pavillion Zero that sets to the tone for the exhibition. It contains installations on the development of food, agriculture and general consumption along with mankind and it is a great way to present the Expo’s theme from the get go. After a quick visit to Pavillion Zaro you get to the Decumano, the main boulevard of the city. Some Countries elected to exhibit the history and tradition of their food through a dedicated pavilion, others to participate to the Expo along with other Countries in a Cluster. Clusters are not just geographical groupings of Countries but more collaborations based on core ingredients (rice, legumes, spices, fruit, coffee, chocolate, etc). While I found the clusters interesting, the proper pavilions are really the stars of the Expo.  Since each Country was allowed to design and build their own pavilions from the ground up, they all were given the opportunity to tell their story, and even better to have visitors taste their food.  The pavilions are conceptually different and express the aesthetics of the relevant Country, and many give you the impression that you are no longer in Milan, Italy, but in Shangai, Tokyo, Baku, Wisconsin, Paris, etc.  It is really impressive to see that, in designing their pavilions, many Countries shied away from clichés while others embraced them to the fullest.  You would imagine that the UK pavilion is all about tea with Princess Kate, Prince William, and their adorable kids, right? Well the UK opted to showcase the English garden, honey and bees. On the other hand the Japanese pavilion is not all about sushi.

What did I visit, then? I only had a few hours and understood that I couldn’t possibly see it all so I went in with a plan. Since Italian is my first language, I read as much as possible on the pavilions and tried to figure out what to visit ahead of time. I was interested in the pavilions more than the Clusters so I selected few that I knew would be fun: Germany, France, United States, China and Japan. The German Pavillion is one of the most advanced in terms of technology, at the entrance you are given a piece of white paper and when you reach certain areas, you can visualize additional content on the paper by placing it under a special light. The French pavilion has a boulangerie inside where you can buy baguettes and croissants. The US Pavillion has a vertical farm and oak trees, but also features the “food truck” culture that has taken America by storm in the past 7 years. The Chinese Pavillion has a gorgeous terracotta floating roof of a traditional Chine farm. The Japanese Pavillion is architecturally beautiful and also features a message of thankfulness for the resources we have the joy sharing them with others.

I just went with my guts for the other pavilions, with obvious mixed results. The Great Britain Pavillion was really a miss: it could have been a wonderful way to showcase British food and its recent evolution; instead they decided to go with a theme, the beehive, which was pretty but uninteresting. The Netherlands turned its pavilion in a gorgeous and educational amusement park that was as fun for the kids as it was for the adults. The Azerbaijan pavilion features three different biospheres. This pavilion was not particularly busy or crowded but it surely was one of the most interesting from an educational standpoint. I really liked the UAE pavilion featuring the story of date trees while you walk along streets that might be in old part of Dubai, Deira.  Austria brought a forest into its pavilion and it featured air, one of the most important elements for agriculture. I love the pavilion and the moisture they spray in the air is great on a hot summer day. Finally I thought that the Ireland pavilion was a big miss, they could have done so much better than big screens with flashy slogans.

If you read until now you probably realized that I am missing an important piece of the puzzle: the Italian Pavilion. The largest pavilion of the Expo is also the most underwhelming and chaotic, in my opinion. The Italian Pavilion should feature the diversity of agriculture and gastronomy in Italy but instead it showcases a cliché’: the Regions of Italy.  Clearly politics must have taken the lead in selecting the theme of the Italian Pavilion. It’s frustrating that instead of giving a message of unity and innovation, politics push the focus of the Italian Pavilion towards geographical distinctions that only serve as a constant reminder that the North likes meat and the South likes seafood.  And even this cliché’ is incorrect as some of the best seafood can be found in Milan and you can eat great meat dishes south of Rome.

There are only 2 areas that do Italy justice, and coincidentally they are outside of the Italian Pavilion  and all about food.  One is the Eataly restaurant, featuring the best products and selling the best dishes from all over Italy. The other is the Identita’ Golose restaurant which every week features a special meal prepared by some the best Italian chefs.  These two restaurants are in my opinion worth checking out at different times. For example I visited the Eataly restaurant during the day for a quick bite, but if I were to visit the Expo at night (and when the ticket costs only €5) I would make a reservation at the Identita’ Golose Restaurant on a week in which some of my favorite chefs are featured.  I have been a fan of Identita’ Golose since it landed in New York and the quality of the food and craftsmanship of the chefs they select is consistently excellent.

Speaking of food, there has been quite a bit of controversy in the press about the food at the Expo. Some felt that the price of admission €39 for the whole day should warrant cheap prices. But in my opinion cheap prices often beget subpar food and since that is the core theme of the Expo, why not showcase really great food from all over the world?  Aside from my recommendations above, I didn’t try any of the food offered by the pavilions so I won’t be able to give you guidance on that, but check out my upcoming post on the top 10 tips on the Expo 2015 for more information.

In general my Expo experience was a positive one. In spite of the crowds and the controversy, it makes me proud that Italy could pull this off. Maybe this opportunity to shine will leave a good impression on the rest of the world.  Italy is not only about food and fashion; it’s all about hard work and entrepreneurial spirit!

This post is brought to you in partnership with Identita’ Golose.