The Italian Job

Fri 27 Mar 2015 @ 14:03
Author Rebecca Morten

Rebecca Morten explores the authentic food offering in Lake Como, the perfect place for an indulgent weekend break.

Sitting on the hotelís balcony in the warm April sunshine, sipping an ice-cold Aperol spritz and gazing at the crisp blue of Lake Como, itís pretty hard not to feel totally relaxed. Itís no wonder the Grand Hotel Tremezzo is a favourite bolthole of the rich and famous.

Earlier that day Iíd flown into Milan from London Gatwick (a surprisingly quick one hour 50 minutes), then took the hour-long drive to Como. One of the grandest on the lake, itís gorgeously plush but not stuffy - the friendly staff make you feel instantly at ease. After the crush of London, the place felt like a breath of fresh air. And it isnít only adults who are happy on arrival Ė in reception, a large table of sweets you could help yourself to made sure little (and big!) kids were made to feel welcome.

For a weekend break to get away from it all, you can hardly go wrong with Como. There is so much to do, from water sports and hiking in spring/summer to skiing in winter, as well as historical sights to visit and, of course, shopping to indulge in. But for this trip, the food took centre stage.

Being wheat-intolerant, Italy can prove a tricky place to eat. Pizza, pasta, calzone, breadÖ All delicious, all out of bounds. Luckily for me, Como is in Lombardy. This region in the north west of Italy is known as the countryís Ďrice bowlí, and the authentic (and gluten-free Ė hurrah!) risottos Iím served prove why itís the signature dish of the area.

I ate at the hotelís fine dining restaurant on the first night, La Terrazza, where one of Italyís finest chefs, Gualtiero Marchesi, is consultant. Gualtiero is often called the founder of modern Italian cuisine, raising it from humble food to a refined eating experience (he was the first non-Frenchman to win three Michelin stars).

Choosing from the menu degustazione, for me the star of the show was definitely Gualtieroís signature dish Ė saffron risotto with gold leaf. Delicately flavoured, perfectly cooked and delightfully creamy (despite not being overloaded with parmesan), this was the real deal. It was followed by the wonderfully light red mullet with herbs and crunchy vegetables and finished off with a scrumptious trio of desserts Ė there was no doubt I was eating like a queen.

The following day, I took the hotelís launch to visit Villa Balbianello, a house set on the lake itself. It was once owned by one of Italyís most famous explorers, Guido Monzino, and filled to bursting with finds from his expeditions around the world, whether it was sledges from his North Pole trip or Mayan terracotta figures from Central America. If these tales werenít enough to capture your imagination, the villaís stunning grounds certainly would. In fact, they are so photogenic, they are a favourite wedding venue and film location (used in James Bondís Casino Royale and Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones). Although, selfishly, I was using the walk as a way to work up an appetite for our next culinary highlight Ė Locanda dellíIsola Comacina.

Taking the launch again, I headed to the tiny island of Comacina, where the restaurant is located. Run by the enigmatic Benvenuto Puricelli, itís famed for its set menu that hasnít changed since 1947, and thereís a reason for that Ė itís totally delicious. Simple yet extravagant, the quality ingredients do the talking. The antipasto allíIsolana (roasted veg) is bursting with flavour, the trota alla contrabbandiera (grilled fresh trout) thatís carved in front of you is amazing, rottami di pollo in padella (free range chicken opened and Ďcrushedí and fried in a pot) melts in your mouth, while the grana allíescavadora (a hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano) and arance alla castellana (boozy orange and ice cream) finish off the meal perfectly. But the best is yet to come. The excitement is ratcheted up when a bell is sounded and our convivial host burns a pot of brandy while reciting the mystical history of the island. Coffee is then added, and the drink is handed out to everyone dining that day. Delicious! The whole experience is not to be missed Ė in fact, everyone from George Clooney to Elton John has come to enjoy the food.

Itís pretty much impossible to move after such an amazing meal, but I was practically rolled into the launch and taken back to the hotel to sleep and swim off the meal in the hotelís spa, where massage treatments are also available.

Believe it or not, later that evening I was hungry enough to want a light meal, so I headed to the hotelís fondue and wine bar, LíEscale. Starting off with antipasto of tomato and mozzarella, and cured meats, it was followed by a fondue of meat, fish and cheese. The performance of being able to cook your own food is so enjoyable, and when washed down with very quaffable Italian red, itís impossible not to enjoy yourself. If fondue isnít quite your cup of tea, the hotel also offers a pizza bar, with its own wood-fired oven, and next to the hotelís floating pool (which is stunning!) is a beach bar, where you can enjoy freshly grilled meat, fish, vegetable and cheese. It doesnít get much more decadent than that.

All too soon it was time to go home, but happily full and with a feeling of contentment that only a totally relaxed weekend can give you. I came and made the most of my stay at Lake Como, but I will certainly be back again. George Clooney is onto somethingÖ

ē We stayed at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo, (+39 0344 4291). We also went to Villa del Balbianello (+39 0344 56110), and Locanda dellíIsola Comacina

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