"They won't let you take photos and they won't let you smile, if they don't want you to," Anthony Puharich chuckles. "But you know, after being around for over 100 years they're allowed to call the shots."
The co-owner of butcher and traiteur Victor Churchill, in Sydney's Woollahra, is talking about Milan's prestigious gastronomic emporium with attitude, the place that Italians refer to respectfully as Al Peck. Before the world ends I'd like a couple of hours grazing along the counters of this eye-popping store on Via Spedari, in Lombardy's capital.
Peck defies labels like "delicatessen", "supermarket" or "grocer" because it's all these. It's a providore and an enotecha of exquisite things on three levels. You might call it the Louis Vuitton of provedores. It makes Fauchon or Fortnum & Mason look like your local IGA.
Puharich credits Peck with changing his life. "When I first visited Milan 10 years ago my understanding of the food industry was very limited. I couldn't take in all the wonders of Peck – it was information overload. But six years later I went back.
"I remember the Peck front window had a massive arrangement of legs of pata negra jamon in the shape of a huge flower. That second trip to Milan I visited Peck five times ... I knew then that one day I wanted to open a store like it. So Peck became the defining template for the birth of Victor Churchill in 2010."
Not only is it a reference point for Italy, but for the world too.Josh Rea, food importer
Josh Rea, a truffle and caviar importer now venturing into retail with his fine food provedore, Gourmet Life in nearby Edgecliff, was inspired by Peck's product selection.
"It was during an early food tour of Europe in 2008 that I first visited Peck. I had never seen anywhere like it. Not only is it a reference point for Italy, but for the world too.
I liked that in contrast with Eataly [Oscar Farinetti's Italian food emporium], which is limited to Italy's regions, Peck is proud to show and acknowledge produce from the best regions of France, Spain and other countries around the globe."
Peck was founded by Franz Peck, a butcher from Prague, in 1883. At first he sold only smoked meats and in the 1920s; it was a gathering spot for artists and writers. Over the years Peck expanded into wines and spirits, fruit, vegetable oils and vinegars, seafood, pasta, porcini and truffles, cheeses and charcuterie from lardo to Patanegra. It's famous for its pre-prepared dishes, which could be described as luxury take-out.
In the '70s, the Peck crown was burnished when it was purchased by the brothers Stoppani from Brescia, famous throughout Italy for their gastronomic passions. The brothers guarded the Peck legacy, but did some modernising, such as taking the store online. In 2012 a majority shareholding was sold to the Marzotti textile family.
Start your journey at Peck's salumi counter, where you can pick up some lush Bazzone ham from Tuscany, superb piled onto a piece of fresh ciabatta. Then stroll around to the cheese counter for a piece of vezzana, the unique raw milk cheese from Trentino, which is going to be delicious added to your ham sandwich. Depending on the season, Peck's great range of cheese includes parmigiana from the "caselli areas" 2854 and 3003 in the province of Reggio Emilia, where some wheels are aged for 48 months.
Along the way admire the macellaria (butchery), where a pigeon stuffed with aromatic herbs or a skinned rabbit look as posed and confronting as an Antonio Lopez Garcia still life. The variety of quality meat is impressive: massive, well-marbled T-bone cuts of bistecca fiorentina carved from the elegant Tuscan Chianina breed, Peck's house-made fresh cotechino, ciccioli (pork rinds) and Patanegra.
Next stop, the gastronomia counters for a selection of traiteur-style dishes prepared in the huge commercial kitchen behind the store. There are pretty pink lobster tails dressed in aspic and garnished with shrimp and house-made mayonnaise; pike quenelles arranged artfully on a huge platter; fresh marinated squid; small but perfectly formed canapés sporting everything from orange-scented mozzarella balls and snails to caviar, bottarga and shaved truffles. Tortellini fatti in casa is filled with ragu made from the same quality beef you see at the macelleria section. Fascinating is a huge bowl of fat porcini, glossy with olive oil, sardines in sea salt.
The joy is that I can have all of this put in practical foil boxes by the mature men in white coats and caps, to heat up at home.
The fruit section is a feast for the eye, brimming and bright with boxes of fresh, juicy saturnini (donut peaches) from Tuscany (perfect chilled and juiced for a Bellini), tiny headily fragrant wild alpine strawberries (fragola di bosco), peaches coloured like a red sunset and sweet oranges from Naples. Behind the fruit section, chocolates and a large of selection coffee, tea and herbal infusions from all over the world.
Downstairs the Peck cellar holds more large format bottles of famous wines than I've seen in one location. The entire Peck holding of wines is valued at about €5 million ($7 million) to €6 million. Double magnums of Krug are peaked by Jeroboams of Chateau d'Yquem which look like piccolo bottles alongside methuselahs of Sassiccaia. There are cases of Latour and Mouton Rothschild stacked high. The Domaine de La Romanee Conti collection bears a message from Peck buyers that their allocation always comes direct from the Domaine to eliminate the possibility of counterfeiting.
On the way out, pick out your pastry or gelato and pay at the register first. Take your ticket to the pasticceria for an intricate millefoglio, gateaux or the freshest canolli. The Italian phrase "gelato dalla paura" ("scared stiff") could have been minted for the Peck gelato sections. The ladies here are stern yes, but fear not: just point to the selection of Peck paddle pops. Mine would be the most intense raspberry gelato you'll taste in Europe (and that includes at Berthillon in Paris). No Viagra flavour here just the classics.
If you're finding it difficult to drag yourself away from the shop, you can always head upstairs to the Peck café for lunch or around the corner for an early evening bellini at Peck bar.
All of the major airlines operate frequent flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Milan.
Hotel De La Ville in the centre of Milan is a short stroll from Peck, the Duomo, the Scala and Via Montenapoleone. Rooms start from Eur 233 a night (package specials available). See www.delavillemilano.com
Al Peck Ristorante is located on the first floor of the shop in Via Spadari. See www.peck.it/en/peck-italian-bar/peck-italian-bar-2 .