Walk the streets of Milan’s Ticinese district and you’ll see young people drinking freely in open spaces like Parco delle Basiliche and Piazza della Vetra – an odd sight for any American.
But it wasn’t always like this in Milan: ask around, and most locals will tell you that this relaxed attitude toward public intoxication began back in the 1960s with Bar Rattazzo and its owner, Pietro Rattazzo.
View image of Students play cards and chat in a corner of Parco delle Basiliche
Now in his 70s, Rattazzo still works behind the counter, flanked by bottles of Chartreuse and Aperol. The bar is a fixture in this area, famous for serving Milan’s most infamous characters for more than 50 years.
I never plan to close or retire. Being around young people keeps me young.
«When I opened Bar Rattazzo with my wife in 1961, it was just an enoteca (wine bar). We served grappino (small glasses of grappa) and other wines I got cheap from the farms in Piedmont where my family worked,» Rattazzo said.
His father had also run an enoteca, so it made sense to continue the family business. His experience paid off and business was good. The small shop continued in much the same way until the mid-1960s, when dramatic social changes transformed Bar Rattazzo from humble neighbourhood bar to the unofficial speakeasy of Milan’s counterculture.
View image of Pietro Rattazzo, 71, owner of Bar Rattazzo in the Ticinese district of Milan, Italy
«The neighbourhood changed very quickly. I just changed with it,» Rattazzo said matter-of-factly.
In the 1960s, the young generation of Italian students and workers was rejecting the status quo, demanding new rights and better education and threatening revolution. At that time, local governments in northern Italy were overwhelmed by an influx of workers from the south who came to work in factories churning out cars and machinery for companies like Fiat. Meanwhile, unions were losing their influence and leftist splinter groups were beginning to form. Unauthorized strikes were commonplace. The unions scrambled to reassert their influence by bringing the new groups into the fold, but the chaos continued.
Adding to the social unrest was an unprecedented number of students enrolling at the region’s many universities, a result of legislation in 1962 guaranteeing education until age 14. With the increase in literacy, many students decided to continue on to higher education. Between 1960 and 1968, the number of students enrolling at universities in Italy increased by 180,000.
View image of Colonne di San Lorenzo, Corso Ticinese
Italy’s universities were ill prepared. They were antiquated and unable – or unwilling – to adapt. Professors were often absent. Exams were oral and grading subjective. Students had to resort to teaching themselves. Dropout rates soared to almost 50%.
Students flooded Milan, home to many of the country’s best universities. Cheap housing was in high demand and the Ticinese district was full of dormitories and apartments. Young workers and students began to outnumber the older, middle-class clientele who had been Rattazzo’s main customers.
Rattazzo decided to sell cheap takeaway beers from a fridge to enjoy outside during the hot summer months – a novel idea at the time.
View image of Parco delle Basiliche, the park behind Bar Rattazzo
«The bar is close to Parco delle Basiliche. I thought it would be nice for young people to have a place when they can get a cheap beer to enjoy the park and the square,» Rattazzo said. «Especially in the summers, who wants to drink inside four walls?»
Especially in the summers, who wants to drink inside four walls?
The idea was a hit. Rattazzo added panino and meatballs to the menu. Artists and journalists living in Ticinese also began coming to eat and discuss political issues. They were known collectively as the Gioventú Bruciata, or Wasted Youth, a reference to the Italian title for the 1950 film Rebel Without a Cause. These students and workers began challenging the status quo in both employment and education. In 1968 and 1969, it came to a head when students occupied universities and workers led strikes across the north, a time now referred to as the Hot Autumn.
By 1971, Bar Rattazzo was well known as the unofficial speakeasy of Milan’s far-left movement. Throughout the ‘70s, anarchists, socialists, and communists met to write manifestos over beers and cheap eats. Revolutionary writer Mario Capanna, street artist Davide Tinelli and Anarcho-punk author Primo Moroni are just a few of the legendary Ticinese residents who became regulars at Bar Rattazzo.
View image of The obituary of Anarcho-Punk, politician, writer and social mediator, Primo Moroni
As the 1970s came to a close, the idealism of the era lost focus during the heroin epidemic of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The parks and piazzas near Bar Rattazzo became increasingly dangerous; muggings were a constant concern. Most famously, the fugitive gangster Renato Vallanzasca, “Il Bel René” (the pretty boy Renè) began to lurk in Parco delle Basiliche, bringing with him the air of lawlessness that permeated the time.
«Junkies were snatching necklaces right outside my shop. It was a scary time. Things are much better now,» Rattazzo said.
In response, the city closed parks after sunset and the once youthful surroundings were cloaked in the shadow of drugs and crime. Without a place to congregate, the neighbourhood lost its centre and students were forced to move from one place to another as cops and criminals harassed them after dark. It wasn’t until the 1990s that drug use declined and crime was brought under control.
View image of A man and his dogs walk past Bar Rattazzo early in the morning
In the early 2000s, Italian brands like Armani and Dolce & Gabbana saw Ticinese as a place to market to young people. They tried to buy out storeowners in hopes of turning the main street, Corso di Porta Ticinese, into a fashion hub. Rattazzo was approached by both to sell his shop and refused. He finally relented and sold the store to the now defunct fashion brand, Guru, moving his shop in the alley Via Vetere, a few metres closer to the park.
«I never plan to close or retire. Being around young people keeps me young. That’s why I’m still here,» Rattazzo said.
View image of Inside Bar Rattazzo
Nowadays, the neighbourhood, once a mecca of the Milanese left, is filled with families and tourists. Chinese immigrants have revitalized the area with restaurants and bars. Armani and Dolce & Gabbana have moved on, but in their place are younger fashion brands like Carhartt and Camper. The young people are still here, too, hanging out on the steps of the Piazza della Vetra and drinking cheap beers on the lawn of Parco delle Basiliche. Most are unaware that the old man selling beers from the small bar in the alley is a legend, who fostered the atmosphere of freedom they now enjoy.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.