Sure, aimless walks around a new city while traveling remain ideal ways to tune into the pulse of a town. And organized tours, albeit at times monotonous and long, are indeed efficient methods of tackling an area’s top attractions. But there is something to be said about alternative, creative modes of sightseeing when exploring a new city. Have you ever imagined, for example, admiring Milan’s Castello Sforzesco, a former castle-turned-museum, while simultaneously indulging in a perfectly prepared plate of pasta pomodoro and sipping on a cup of just-dry-enough red wine from Italy’s Abruzzo region? Well, you can actually do that while in town, courtesy of ATMosfera.
From the outside, ATMosfera tram cars look just like the ones traversing Milan all day long: bounded by rails on the ground and overhead wires, the trolley-like machines are popular modes of transportation used by locals. A peek inside these reupholstered and re-outfitted cars paints a different picture: the trams (there are now two in Milan) have effectively been converted in both form and function into itinerant restaurants.
“The project was born within Azienda Trasporti Milanesi (ATM),” says Cesare Zanoncelli, the commercial manager of the business, bar and restaurant line at ATM, the city’s public transport company. “We were looking to diversify our offerings and go beyond public transport. We wanted to offer something to society as a whole. This was part of it: we also had bike sharing and car sharing programs.” The service makes use of the public tramway system already set up in Milan, following a pre-established route navigating a majority of the city.
Although the first itinerant restaurant of its kind in Italy and Europe (the first car was set in motion back in 2005, the second in 2006) as a whole, the project was originally thought up in Melbourne, Australia. The Colonial Tramcar Restaurant project consisted of three converted vintage W class trams in Melbourne that began operating in November of 1982. Citing safety concerns, the system was shut down in October 2018, but plans to operate the eateries within the trolleys as “stationary dining experiences” are under way.
The idea is simple: guests, who must reserve one of the 24 seats per car up to 40 days in advance, choose between dinner and brunch (only available on Saturdays and Sundays) service, select a pre-fixe menu (fish, meat, vegetarian), note allergies or intolerances, pick the kind of wine bottle they’d like to enjoy (one for every two people, no bottle included in brunch reservations), and show up at the designated time to enjoy an almost two-and-a-half-hour-long seated tour of the city that begins in Piazza Castello and ends up becoming a journey of the culinary kind as well.
Each one of the two trolleys boasts a preserved conductors’ cabin alongside a kitchen outfitted with an induction plate, an oven and two refrigerators, where a chef cooks part of the food that’s then served by the waiter on board. The company works with a catering business that prepares part of the fare in a warehouse, based on a pre-established set of menus—four courses each—that change seasonally.
What you won’t find on board, though, is a guide, the “touring” aspect of the experience solely relegated to the actual route taken by the tram: the first part of the ride circulates Northern Milan while the second, after a ten-minute “cigarette break,” navigates the Southern portion of the city, including the famous Navigli district.
“The project was born as an intimate dinner,” Zanoncelli explains. “The structure was built with couples and small groups in mind, we weren’t necessarily thinking of tourists. If we were to put a tour guide on board, the essence of the experience would have been too tourist-focused, and we wanted to focus on the romantic part.” Nonetheless, Zanoncelli acknowledges that ATMosfera, which operates 365 days a year, is mostly boarded by travelers. Given the service’s popularity, ATM is looking into expanding capacity by adding a third tram to the roster.
Speaking of romance: when prodded about standout, memorable occurrences that took place on the tram in its 14-year history, Zanoncelli is quick to remember various marriage proposals. “There are also actual weddings that took place on board!” he says. “As for the proposals, once the tour ends, the lights are dimmed, and the question is asked. Until now, we haven’t yet witnessed a turndown!”