In 1989, the building that housed the restaurant was sold and Bulleri was forced to move. When Mongiardino heard he was searching for a new location in a dreary business district of the city, he proposed to Bulleri that if he stayed in the neighborhood, he would design the space for free. "Giacomo was terrified," offers Roberto Peregalli, 55, who at the time was assisting Mongiardino on some of his projects. "He thought 'Renzo will ruin me!' "
We are sitting in the early afternoon light at a corner table by the window in Giacomo Bistrot, designed by Studio Peregalli and opened in 2007. Bulleri is with his daughter, Tiziana, and we are eating the last of fall's white truffles on risotto. He dismisses Peregalli's assessment that he was afraid with a wave of his hand. "I did think, though, 'What does Renzo know of restaurants?! He makes homes for billionaires,' " he adds. Regardless of whether Bulleri was afraid, this is a good question. The original da Giacomo was a simple restaurant and Mongiardino a creator of very fancy places. What was the thread connecting the rarefied architect of rich Italians to the proprietor of a modest trattoria?
Entering da Giacomo today, the restaurant Mongiardino made for Bulleri in 1989 on Via Pasquale Sottocorno, you could be forgiven for mistaking it, as a recent edition of the Michelin guide did, for an intact trattoria from the beginning of the 20th century. And yet, nothing about the interior feels dated. "Everything Mongiardino did remains exactly as it was because there has never been a reason to change a single thing," Bulleri says when we walk through the space. "It is perfect," he adds. Indeed, it is so perfect that you could easily not notice that it is one of the most exquisite restaurant interiors in the world. There is a poverty to its beauty, in the restraint of its décor, despite every element having been painstakingly crafted.
Mongiardino's intention had indeed been to invoke a Lombard trattoria from the early 1900s, a place intended for the daytime, when lunch was the main meal. He chose the pale colors based on his memory of the latterie, or dairy shops, of his youth: reseda green for the ornate wood paneling and yellow for the embossed wallpaper above. These details, along with other artisan-made elements like the stucco, moldings and tile floors, and the quite basic wood chairs, give a sense of being transported back in time. Bulleri's cooking, too, with an emphasis on fish fresh from the sea, invokes a beloved rural way of life that no longer exists. "Innovative restaurants, people go there to try," Peregalli says. "Here, they come to eat." In spite of this, or more likely because the place exists outside any trends shaping design or food, da Giacomo is a staple of the cool-seeking missile that is the international fashion set. For the last 27 years, when that group descends on Milan, it flows through da Giacomo's doors.
In 2007, Bulleri asked Peregalli and his partner, Laura Sartori Rimini, to create a new restaurant to accommodate the overflow of customers. Peregalli and Sartori Rimini formed their studio in the early 1990s; they both refer to Mongiardino as their master. For the new place, Studio Peregalli sought to retain the feeling of timelessness and attention to detail, but to do something completely different. If the trattoria felt wonderful during the day, then the new restaurant would be for evening, with a sense of glamour. The menu would be a bit richer too, focusing on meats and foie gras. The idea, according to Sartori Rimini, "was a place that would make you feel cozy and beloved even in a foreign city. A place where you could come alone straight from the airport or after the cinema or theater." Unlike da Giacomo, which took a year or so to catch on, the Bistrot immediately became a beloved destination, in part because it feels keenly cognizant of so many of the world's most cherished establishments.
If you can, picture a marriage between exquisite old-guard Parisian outposts like Le Voltaire or Le Grand Véfour and lively English restaurants like the Wolseley or Wiltons. In creating an atmosphere of a Milan from days gone by, Sartori Rimini and Peregalli wove through some of the elements of French taste that were influential in northern Italy at the end of the 19th century, along with ornate Victorian details found in English clubs. From England one can trace the dark polished wood paneling with pilasters and arches, antique mirrors, brass details and stucco ceilings. From France one gets the hand-painted cotton and velvet fabrics, the rare books, the Coromandel screen and oil paintings. Studio Peregalli custom-designed the tables, chairs, lights and tableware and sourced whatever details they didn't draw, from the antique sugar pots to the glass goblets.
The trio teamed up again in 2010, with Giacomo and Studio Peregalli winning a competition to design a restaurant for the Museo del Novecento, or Museum of the 1900s, opening in a Fascist-style building that overlooked the historic Piazza del Duomo. Given the somewhat oppressive strength of the architecture, Sartori Rimini and Peregalli decided to invoke the optimism of New York in the Deco period, infused with the Modernism of European designers Adolf Loos and Jean Michel Frank. To give it a twist, they added elements from the Italian metaphysical painters Giorgio de Chirico and Mario Sironi. Again, every detail — from the lacquered panels, brass grills, ebonized wood and gilded boiseries down to the light fixtures and the tableware — was designed by the duo to contribute to the overall mood. Partly through its décor and also because of its location, Giacomo Arengario reflects a more global sensibility, serving a lighter, international menu and catering to a newer, more global clientele.
In addition to those restaurants, Bulleri also opened a tobacco shop and a pastry shop, then a cafe, and, this spring, the carryout spot, all designed by Studio Peregalli. Each is a strong and romantic expression of its genre. In retrospect, what the erudite architect, his elegant protégées and the country cook — or "impenitent Tuscan scamp" as he refers to himself — have in common is quite obvious: not just a dedication to quality, but a belief that without the past, the present loses richness and meaning.
Mongiardino believed the separation we create between then and now is an artificial one, and stepping into any of Bulleri's places is like entering a living portal to another time. Back in the beautiful Bistrot, Peregalli explains that he and Sartori Rimini have tried to create a sort of "Proustian reverie," but one that is relevant and joyful for today. Meanwhile, Bulleri, sitting on a Napolean III burgundy velvet chair, is recounting the way some precious meat was stretched in his youth so that a small bit could be shared among many. He looks into the middle distance, and rubbing his forefingers and thumb together in front of his nose in the way Italians do to indicate the union of aroma and emotion, utters, "Carne buona; I'm smelling it now."