LAKE COMO, ITALY
Lake Como is one of many idyllic regions of my dear Italy. Yes, it’s another lake in a region filled with lakes, but one with cliffs rising sharp, softly carpeted with green, out of shimmering blue, offering a majestic yet intimate connection of water and hillside.
I recently stayed in a most magnificent villa on the lake, on a cliff jutting out over the town of Mennagio, with views directly across to Bellagio and Varenna. In returning to Italy for a third time, the same and greatest joys remain at the forefront: perfect coffee (cappuccinos in the morning, espresso the rest of the day), blissful gelato, leisurely pace, attitude and charm, culture and art, and, obviously, divine food.
I share with you a few favorite finds from my week in Lake Como:
• Silvio – After a walk through magically romantic Villa Melzi, then wandering along the riverside and up hills, we finally found Loppia di Bellagio Hotel, where family-run Silvio restaurant resides. They did not open till 7pm so as it was 6pm, they brought my party bottles of wine and Prosecco (Italian champagne) which we savored as the sun set over the stunning lake and hills. A pool filled with turtles enlivened the scene until we were escorted inside the glass-walled dining room looking out over the water. Silvio is known for fresh fish caught daily from the lake – you can even arrange to go out on a fishing boat to bring in the days’ catch. With warm service and an easy mix of locals and hotel lodgers dining, we began our feast. A house specialty is Agoni, lake sardines prepared in a style called “Missultini”, an ancient preparation only known by the most experienced fisherman. The sardines are salted, dried in the sun, then pressed between laurel leaves in cans; the whole process takes months. They’re served drizzled with olive oil and have a smoky accent to the briny saltiness. Primi (first course) was a divine Risotto with flaky, perfectly grilled Perch (again, caught fresh), covered in Parmesan, Sage and Butter. Magnifico! Secondo (second course) was Veal in a rustic brown sauce with succulent Parma Ham layered across the Veal. All in all, a meal to remember… and quite reasonably priced.
• Barchetta – One of the best meals of my trip, Michelin-rated Barchetta is up one of many steep, charming steps of downtown Bellagio. To the right of the cozy bar on the ground floor is an intriguing wood door leading you up stairs to a second floor, open-air patio, ideal on a gorgeous day, such as the one we had. An interesting starter was the Gambieri (plump shrimps) in red bean puree with olives and asparagus. The ecstasy-inducing winner of the meal was a special of the day: flawless Gnocchi served with fresh lake-caught Pike, pushed over the edge with grilled onions, asparagus, sage, rosemary and juicy tomatoes, sautéed in olive oil and butter. Other highlights: Gnocchi in a tomato cream sauce with grilled Porcini mushrooms, and a savory Pork sautéed in Armangnac, served over a Polenta cake in a creamy Gorgonzola sauce with a Parsnip Parmesan Spinach. Dessert was a rich Dark Chocolate Souffle covered in a divine banana butter cream, and warm Zabaglione (frothy egg whites mixed with alcohol). Following this seamless meal, I craved nothing but a long nap filled with dreams of Barchetta.
• Villa d’Este – This breathtaking ancient villa sitting majestically on the Lake in the town of Cernobbio and is now a very expensive hotel. The grounds are open to anyone and well worth a sunset stroll, like The Renaissance Man and I shared on our anniversary. The restaurant is very costly and from reviews, does not seem worth the high premium. But for drinks lakeside, it’s quite a romantic rendezvous.
• Il Gatto Nero, Via Monte Santo 69, Rovenna, 031-512042 – Il Gato Nero doesn’t have a website but their praises are sung in many a review, raved about by locals and travelers alike. With brilliant views of the lake and nighttime glittering lights, it’s like a magical tree house perched in the hills above Cernobbio. As twisty roads continuously changed names, The Renaissance Man and I had almost given up when we rounded a corner to see it perched on the edge of a cliff. No parking existed so we pulled up by the entrance where a man rushed out, ordered us to follow him (we assumed as he spoke Italian only), jumped in a car, led us further up the hill to a parking perch, then drove us back down to the restaurant. A unique start to an enchanting meal. Words inadequately describe the setting, warmed by heat lamps, candles and town lights shimmering below. I highly recommend the deck, though multi-floored dining rooms are likewise cozy and glowing. Service was spotty: a mix of attentive timeliness and sheer neglect. The food was tasty though not as idyllic as Barchetta or savory as Silvio. Butternut Squash and Hazlenut Risotto hit the spot, though I have had a more lush version of the same dish at San Francisco’s authentic Incanto. A puff pastry vegetable starter was probably the finest note of the whole meal as a grilled butterfish entrée was fresh but bland with no sauce and minimal vegetables. Even though we had better food on Lake Como, the setting alone was worth a visit. On a clear night, it’s nearly heavenly.