LAKE COMO – Glitterati, Gourmands & George
Why did it take me so long to get to Lake Como? It is undeniably breathtaking with gorgeous landscapes and towering snowcapped mountains. It is an ideal spot with beauty, style and great food, frequently peppered with a movie star here and there. Join us this week for a feast worthy of a movie star!
Chef's Travel Notes
“I ask myself, Is this a Dream?
Will it all vanish into air?
Is there a land of such supreme
And perfect beauty anywhere?”
Why did it take me so long to get to Lake Como? It is only a 3 ½ hour train ride from Florence. Probably because in Italy, like here in the States, running a restaurant is all-consuming. There was not a lot of free time to explore places too far from our little trattoria in Tuscany. It wasn’t until I returned to the States and had the good fortune to meet the larger-than-life, Senator Lowell Weicker and his wife, Claudia, that I was invited to their vacation villa in Varenna, on the north-eastern bank of the lake. We spent several summers together hiking, touring, and of course, eating.
Como and the lakes of northern Italy are a magical place to visit. Set against the foothills of the Alps, they offer unparalleled dramatic scenery. Lake Como is Italy’s most famous lake, now more than ever since George Clooney has taken up residence there. It is popular with vacationing Milanesi (Milan is less than an hour away) and American tourists. Lake Garda is popular with Germans and other Europeans, while Italians most likely go to Lakes Orta and Maggiore.
The suggestive landscapes have inspired many artists, writers, scientists, and composers through the years. In fact, it was those that painted and wrote there in the 1800s, that put Lake Como on tourist maps. There is a seductive allure to the majestic mountains rising from the glacial waters with beautiful villas and historical residences lining the shore. Bellagio, known as “la perla dell’lago” (the pearl of the lake), is considered to be one of the most beautiful and romantic towns in Italy.
Lombardia, where Lake Como is located, is about the size of Vermont and borders Switzerland to the north. It is the fashion and business powerhouse of Italy with Milano at its center. With a wealth of agricultural land set between fertile rivers, as well as mountainous areas, Lombardia is an ideal zone for the cultivation of fruit and livestock, as well as the making of traditional cheeses and charcuterie.
Our first course, Insalata di Pere, Grana e Noci, features two of its local specialties. Grana Padano is a hard cheese with a savory flavor similar to parmesan. This time of year Mantova pears, cultivated since the 1400s in the southern part of the region, are a real treat for fruit lovers. We toss arugula, spinach, frisee and red romaine with sliced pears (ours, alas, are Bartletts), toasted walnuts, dried strawberries and sweet balsamic with shavings of Grana Padano.
Polenta al Taleggio e Tartufo is the melding of two beloved ingredients in the Lombard diet. Polenta, a maiz (corn) flour porridge has been a mainstay for centuries. There are countless ways to enjoy it – sometimes eaten in the place of bread and other times embellished with flavorful expensive ingredients. Taleggio, from Val Taleggio near Bergamo, is produced now in the Fall and Winter. It is a semi-soft cheese with a strong aroma but mild tangy taste. Here we have melted it together with the polenta and a touch of pure white truffle oil.
Filetti di Maiale con Salsa di Funghi. Lombardia’s cuisine is the legacy of herders, dating back to the Roman Empire, and the influence of neighboring France and Austria with their predilection for stewed and braised meats. Our pork tenderloin, prepared with thyme and mushrooms (also abundant this time of year) is served over the polenta, making it a flavorful “piatto unico” (one plate) in true Lombard style.
Mele Cotte Ripiene di Amaretti. Among the many apples produced in Italy the ones of Valtellina stand out for their flavor and scent. Ours are stuffed with another Lombard specialty – amaretti – light, crunchy, almond-flavored cookies from Saronno. We bake them in a bath of apple cider with a touch of renowned Amaretto di Saronno liqueur.
It wouldn’t be a true Lombard dinner without a final bite of Torrone – the cream colored confection of sugar, honey and egg whites, speckled with toasted almonds. It is normally eaten at this time of year, around the holidays, but now can be found most any time.
Our wine selection this week, Lambrusco, is actually a family of very old grape varieties native to Lombardia and neighboring Emilia-Romagna. It ranges from dry to sweet, varying from light red to deep purple in color. It is typically frizzante (lighly sparkling) and low in alcohol. Quercioli Secco N/V, is from Reggio-Emilia province. It is dry yet fruity with fresh, pleasantly harmonious flavors with lively effervescence. I think you will find it a delightful revelation.
Lake Como is undeniably breathtaking with gorgeous landscapes and towering snow-capped mountains. It is an ideal spot with beauty, style and great food, frequently peppered with a famous movie star here and there. My sojourn to this little piece of heaven is firmly on my list of places to which return.
Como – al presto!