One of the many delights in travelling around Italy is discovering the culinary specialities of the town or area you are visiting. There is such a rich variety based on the geographical and climatic aspects and also the traditions and customs of each region. Como and its lake are no different with a cuisine obviously influenced by lake and mountain and by the culinary traditions from Brianza (for the southern part of the lake) and the Valtellina (for the north).
The most iconic product from the lake, and one that is definitely not to everyone’s taste, is missoltini – a salted and pickled small fish. As with most Italian specialities, this is a fine example of ‘cucina povera’ based on a long tradition of preserving the small and insipid ‘agone’ fish to provide sustenance over the year. The end result of the preservation process is a highly flavoured sprat which in the past provided a valuable source of protein but which is now considered a delicacy for those who have acquired their distinctive taste. The best way I have tried missoltini was as a sauce with fish roe on pasta from the Hotel Vapore in Torno best experienced on their terrace on the banks of the lake.
Missoltini and other smoked and preserved local fish are produced and sold by the long established ‘Le Specialità Lariane’ which has a production facility in Tremezzo and a shop both there and in Cernobbio.
The lake is well stocked with fish but unfortunately the numbers of perch have declined dramatically meaning that the luxury lake dish of perch fillets and risotto is potentially as delicious as ever but the perch may well have come from elsewhere. It is a supremely refined dish dependent on the quality of the creamy risotto and the freshness of the fish. You are likely to find it on the menus of the more expensive restaurants around the lake – my fellow blogger, Lake Como Style – recommended the beautifully located ‘La Pergola’ on the lakefront at Pescallo in Bellagio as being one of the best.
Strangely enough, Como is also well provided with seafood as well as fresh water fish notwithstanding the fact that it must be as far from the sea as one can get in Italy. But it is very close to Milan which boasts the best fish in Italy due to the national importance of its wholesale market. Try ‘La Valverde’ – a genuine Sicilian-run restaurant in Cernobbio – or the more expensive but good ‘Le Soste’ in Como’s old town to experience quality fresh products.
But back to the mountains and the alps which have traditionally produced cow and goat cheeses for years. Try out the local producers’ section of the covered market in Via Mentana. There are at least four stalls selling local dairy products. The main section of the market sell cheeses from further afield in Lombardy such as the Valtellina and the rest of Italy.
Lake Como is the most northerly zone for olive oil production thanks to the specific micro climate around Lenno which is influenced by the lake and the shelter provided by the mountains behind. Olive oil has been produced in Lenno since Roman times and is much prized and so is often falsely represented. Buy a known brand from a reputable store to be sure of getting the genuine article. Go for oil from Vanini Osvaldo from a shop such as Castiglioni on Como’s Via Cantu to avoid any disappointment.
Further up the western side of the lake, at Domaso to be precise, are two of the most important vineyards on Lake Como. In the past there were as many vines as can be found today just over the border around Mendrisio although the wine they produced was light and so was used to blend with stronger wines from the south. Current day IGT Terre Lariane (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) wines are of much higher quality and known for freshness, fruitiness and overall flavour. Included in this category are the wines from Montevecchio in Brianza. The two Domaso vineyards are Sorsasso and Cantine Angelinetta – contact either of them to arrange for a wine tasting. Shops such as Castiglioni will stock wines from Montevecchia and from Lake Como on their local shelves.
Much of the terracing that covered the mountain sides rising up from the lake is now covered in trees following the switch to industrial employment after the last war. Just as few as eighty years ago, the mountains around the lake would have looked very different with the carefully tended terraces marked out with their dry stone walls made of Moltrasio stone supporting vine, grain and chestnut groves. Unfortunately now the chestnut trees remain untended and their fruits are eaten mostly by the groups of wild boar living in the woods.
The rural and mountain tradition has given the area a specific dish which formed the staple diet for country people for centuries – polenta. Or to be more precise, polenta uncia which is a polenta enriched with mountain cheese and butter. The preferred flour for polenta in this area is buckwheat which produces the grey rather than yellow polenta. This is the same flour used in that typical dish from the Valtellina – pizzoccheri – a truly glorious pasta dish for a cold day consisting of cheese, potato and some greens with some additional butter and garlic.
Polenta and pizzoccheri form the staple offer in the many ‘baita’ (alpine buildings) restaurants in the mountains around Como. They serve these traditional dishes right through the summer heat which may sound a bit off-putting. Believe me though that after a brisk walk even in summer, a plate of polenta uncia or pizzoccheri (or both) accompanied by the most modest of red wines is pure heaven. Some baitas around Como offer transport up to them such as the Cascina Respau in the Parco Spina Verde or the Baita Monte Goj above Montorfano. Others along the mountain path to Bellagio from Brunate (Baita Bondella and Boletto) are good. Baita Pianvalle on Monte Croce cook steak on an open barbecue during the summer months.
A Como Exclusive
Pandoro and panettone are traditional sweet bread loaves from Lombardy and Como has its own variety which has an important added ingredient, namely an olive stick. The bread is called Resta and by tradition it was prepared for Palm Sunday. The olive stick has its religious symbolism for Easter but the commercially-minded bakers of Como back 100 years ago decided to combine their bread with this religious symbol so as to increase sales over Easter. Their next target was to create a demand for this speciality all year round. Resta can be bought where it is produced, namely at ‘La Vecchia Como’ in Via Lambertenghi, Como. This baker also produces some spectacularly decorated chocolate eggs at Easter time.
The influences of lake and mountain hold sway across the entire lake on both the Como and Lecco legs and north to Colico. The regional influence of Brianza (the area best represented by an inverted triangle with its southern angle at Monza and the two northern corners at Como and Lecco) is reflected in the local cuisine around Como or Lecco. For example, try the delicious pork and cabbage dish, cazzuola, at Cernobbio’s ‘Osteria del Beuc’ from November onwards or from whenever the cabbage’s flavours have been intensified following the first frosts. This typical dish from Brianza was made to use up the most modest parts of the pig, but as is often the case, the traditions of cucina povera manage to transform the most modest of ingredients into the tastiest of dishes.
At the north end of the lake the regional influence is from that culinary hotspot – the Valtellina, a valley which runs east starting at Colico where the River Adda enters the lake. Pizzoccheri has already been mentioned but another dish from this region often found on the lake is ‘sciatt’. This sounds unpleasant enough in English but is equally unpleasant when translated from the Valtellinese dialect to mean ‘toad’ given the shape rather than the content of this fried cheese dish. Try out this and a glorious risotto of ‘bitto’ cheese and wine at the Hotel del Mera on Via Dascio, Sorico on the banks of the Lago di Mezzola – a calm northern extension to Lake Como. This hotel’s restaurant is worth a pilgrimage – simple local cooking done exquisitely well.
If you get to read this article as soon as published, you will be in time to sample for yourself the polenta and cheeses of the area at the festival in Ossuccio held on Saturday and Sunday (14th and 15th July). If not, the following lists the contact details for most of the businesses mentioned in the article above.
Missoltini and local fish products –
Le Specialita Lariane, Via Cinque Giornate 59, Cernobbio. Website: http://www.lespecialitalariane.it/Tel: +39 0344 55250
Olive Oil and local wine:
Castiglioni, Via Cantu , Como Website: http://www.castiglionistore.com/ Tel: +39 031.26.33.88
Valverde, Viale Matteotti 29, Cernobbio Website: https://www.ristorantepizzeriavalverde.it/ Tel: +39 031 511150
Osteria del Beuc, Via Felice Cavallotti, 1 Cernobbio Website: http://www.osteriadelbeuc.it/ Tel: +39 031 341633
Le Soste, Via Diaz 59, Como Website: http://www.lesostealmare.it/ Tel: +39 031 261126
Hotel Vapore, Via Plinio 20, Torno Website: https://www.hotelvapore.it/ Tel: +39.031.419311
La Pergola, Piazza del Porto 4, Pescallo, Bellagio Website: http://www.lapergolabellagio.it/en/ Tel: +39 031 950263
Hotel del Mera, Via del Dascio 11, Sorico Website: http://www.hoteldelmera.com/ Tel: 0039 0344 84147
Baita and Rifugi
Baita Pianvalle Via Monte Croce 1, Como Website: http://www.baitapianvalle.it/
Cascina Respau Website: http://www.cascinarespau.it/en/lake-como-hostel/
Baita Bondella Via Bel Paese 9, Como Website: http://www.baitabondella.it/ Tel: +39 031 220307l:
Baita Boletto, Via Bel Paese Como Tel: +39 031 220235
Baita Monte Goj, via alla Zocca 33 Albate CO Website: http://baitamontegoj.it/ Tel: +39 349 104.64.82
Sorsasso, Via Gaggio 1, Domaso Website: http://www.sorsasso.com/en/domasino-wine/index.html Tel: +39 0344 910022
Cantine Angelinetta Via Pozzolo 16 Website: http://www.cantineangelinetta.com/ Tel: +39 0344.490095
La Vecchia Como, Via Lambertenghi 35, Como Tel: +39 031 26 19 79