‘Honest’ food? Not visually stimulating but truly delicious. Fried polenta and funghi porcini. To revitalise yesterday’s polenta, it has been lightly fried in butter, as served in the Trattoria behind the Santuario Della Madonna Del Soccorso in Ossuccio.
I have only recently felt sufficiently qualified to pass on some recommendations for dining out here. Why has it taken over five years to arrive at this point? Primarily because I am from England and so lack experience of local culinary traditions – I was essentially blind to those links between food and local culture. Secondly, my ability to offer a reasoned commentary of restaurant food cannot begin to match the well informed and exacting criticisms of Italian friends. Just as my Italian will always be cadenced with a strong foreign accent, I also feel that my culinary judgements can never aspire to the native level of sophistication. Thirdly, in spite of these significant disadvantages, I persist in listening to an inner voice prompting me in the search and appreciation of a cuisine I can only describe as ‘genuine’ – a quality so nebulous that I have only recently been able to appreciate what I myself might mean by it. And finally I have hesitated to step into this area since we dine out for a variety of different reasons or to meet different needs – and as such, a set of recommendations do really need to match specific motivations.
To address the latter issue first, I have decided to write a series of articles under the general title of ‘Dining Out in and Around Como’ with each one addressing a different category of need. This first one will take on what I might mean by a ‘genuine’ cuisine and where it can be found.
What is Genuine?
Describing a wine as ‘honest’ either means it’s not that great but at least doesn’t cost too much or else it’s just pretentious twaddle. Describing a meal as ‘genuine’ runs a similar risk. Further explanation is required and that, unfortunately, is far from straight forward.
Paccheri alla Napoletana – the form of pasta NOT served up as promised on the menu at Antica Riva on Como’s lakeside.
It may be easier to start by identifying restaurants which are not genuine. From my own experience once when eating at the Antica Riva on Como’s lakefront, my wife ordered a pasta dish based on a distinctive type of pasta called paccheri but was served an entirely different pasta without comment or explanation. When challenged as to why they had not served what had been ordered, the waiter offered the excuse that most of their clients would not have known the difference between it and any other pasta in any case. Restaurants of this type that display such a deplorable attitude deserve to be singled out and avoided at all costs. These are the antithesis of ‘genuine’. Unfortunately cities with high levels of tourism do allow such forms of dishonesty to go unpunished in the marketplace. Fortunately, Como has other options available but you seem more likely to find them as you move away from the lakefront.
First recommendation Ristorante Er Piu, well away from the lake near to the ex-army barracks in an area now abandoned by local industry but retaining this excellent restaurant.
Recommendation: Er Piu, Via Pastrengo 3, Como
Closed Tuesdays. Speciality fish and Lombardy Cuisine. Established for 30 years. Tel: 031 272154. Email: email@example.com. Link to website.
Notes: Located near to the military barracks in an ex-industrial area where the previous textile factories have now left. In addition to the quality of the food, it is a joy to observe how the head waiter maintains a constant control on how service is progressing across the dining room. A popular location for weekend family meals but they also offer a daily weekday lunch menu at reduced prices. Other restaurants of quality on Como’s periphery left high and dry by the repositioning of industry include Ristorante S. Anna and Ristorante Navedano.
In London, most middle-of-the-road restaurants identify themselves by alignment with a particular national or regional cuisine. Often you hear people selecting where to eat by running down a list of nations – Chinese, Indian, Italian etc. In London, on Islington’s Upper Street, there are two ‘Peruvian’ restaurants within 50 metres of each other for whom the majority of clients can only have the most remote idea of what represents good Peruvian cooking. I would argue that it is fundamentally impossible for an Upper Street restaurant to recreate a Peruvian cuisine matching anything like the quality you might expect back in Lima. To do so would require spending a fortune on flying in their raw materials as well as acquiring and retaining qualified Peruvian staff. Even in France, which we know has as proud a culinary tradition as Italy and not so prone as in England to fall for novelty, the food served up in most so-called Parisian Italian restaurants is awful and dishonestly priced.
Ristorante Pizzeria ValVerde, Cernobbio. A ‘regional’ restaurant specialising in sea food that has acquired a great reputation amongst both local and Swiss customers.
Recommendation: ValVerde, Viale Matteotti 29, Cernobbio
Open every day. Speciality fish and Sicilian Cuisine. Established for over 30 years. Tel: 031 511150. Link to website.
Notes: Located on the road out of Cernobbio towards Maslianico. This is a family run business started by the elder brother who moved up to Cernobbio from Palermo a long time ago. The restaurant prides itself on the quality of the fish bought in from the Milanese market. It profits from its proximity to the Swiss border and the fact that the Swiss often prefer to eat early from about 18.00 meaning tables are freed up for Italian clients who tend to dine from 20,00 onwards. Organisation in the kitchen is their weak point and sometimes service can suffer as a result but this is the sort of establishment that can be forgiven such shortcomings due to its commitment to quality in all other respects. They also remain stubbornly closed over both the August and Christmas periods when both brothers return to Palermo for the holidays.
It may be stating the obvious that there are no ‘Italian’ restaurants in Italy nor are there ‘French’ restaurants in France but revealingly one can find a handful of restaurants in London identified as ‘English’. Here however there are an increasing number of restaurants identifying themselves as regional, e.g. Sicilian, Pugliese, Tuscan or Umbrian to name some of the more common. Regional restaurants have been around for some time but crucially the original ones rarely identified themselves as regional. They were set up by migrants who, not being that far from their places of origin, could source the real raw materials and initially offer some culinary novelty to their clients in their adopted locations. They then worked over the years to establish a reputation for the quality of their cuisine. The more recent wave of regionalism is instead a reflection of marketing trends aimed at commercial exploitation and more likely originating from a partnership including a Milanese financier rather than owned by a displaced family applying their traditional skills whilst seeking their fortune in a wealthier part of the country. This new wave will have to wait the test of time and the judgement of the marketplace before they can gain the accolade as ‘genuine’.
‘New Wave’ Pugliese regional restaurant ‘Casa 28’ on the corner of Via Vitani and Via 5 Giornate, Como. Slick interior, kitchen on view and even a slogan ‘Your satisfaction is our best prize’ on the exterior blackboard. Time will tell if this establishment can be classified as ‘genuine’ but it has gained some initial popularity.
I contend that very few people in Italy consciously decide to go and eat out in a regional restaurant. The national or regional ‘identity’ is not what primarily attracts people. Even if a restaurant does identify itself as Tuscan or Sicilian, it is more likely to be selected on the basis of its reputation and not by any geographical identifier. And their reputation depends on offering dishes that stand out and which they do best. Regional identification is in my opinion a marketing error since it is appealing to novelty, and novelty has a limited shelf life.
La Barchetta, Argegno. The interior of this restaurant has not changed in any respect since when this photo was taken in 2012. ‘Genuine’ restaurants tend not to remodel their interiors very often.
Recommendation: La Barchetta, Piazza Roma 2, Argegno
Closed Mondays. Speciality lake fish, Porcini mushrooms and truffles, Alpine Cuisine. Established in 1908 and run by the Dotti family since 1989. Tel: 031 821105. Link to website.
Notes: Located on the lakefront in Argegno at the start of the Valle Intelvi. Renowned for the quality of traditional local dishes such as Risotto al Pesce Persico or Risotto ai Funghi Porcini as well as Ossobuco with Risotto Milanese. They also get in white truffles from the Alba area of Piedmont when in season. This restaurant is included in the Rassegna Valle Intelvi along with other quality restaurants in the Intelvi Valley such as Ristorante Castiglione. Another recommendation in the area is the Locanda Sant Anna.
Reputation depends on a number of factors, not least being the passage of time and the ability to sustain consistency. Reputation is gained by keeping faith with your clientele and seeking to maintain what is good and improve wherever possible. This in itself requires experience, a true desire to impart pleasure and a high degree of honesty to yourself as the proprietor and to your customers. Put all this together and we arrive at that ‘genuine’ cuisine.
View of the lake and the Villa Balbianello Peninsular from the Locanda Sant’Anna above Argegno on the road to Schignano.
Thus ‘genuine’ cuisine is a notion at odds with novelty although innovation is not disallowed. It is at peace with tradition and comfortable with the notion of seeking to recreate what has been done well over many years. It is aided by consistency and continuity and by strong links to culinary habits laid down through previous generations. Given all that, a ‘genuine’ establishment goes beyond the menu to provide a relaxing atmosphere born out of its own effortless self-confidence in its quality and its capacity to impart pleasure. It is a quality that seems to hang in the air providing an oasis of certainty in an insecure world and which can only be extinguished by an excess of luxury.
Osteria del Gallo on Via Vitani, Como’s oldest street. Traditional food in a traditional almost timeless setting.
This definition seems to preclude new establishments, and admittedly it is harder but not impossible for them to qualify as ‘genuine’. What they need to offer before they acquire the necessary patina of experience is their enthusiasm, a clearly visible commitment to quality, the warmth of their welcome and the sincerity of their desire to please. As time passes, these restaurants are permitted to become more individualistic in their approach and style always assuming they remain ‘genuine’.
Momi’s Restaurant on the lakefront at Blevio. This must be one of the most romantic and soothing locations when not over busy, matched by the quality of the cooking, commitment to local and seasonal products and a warm welcome.
Recommendation: Momi, Riva Stendhal, Blevio
Closed Mondays. Speciality lake fish, local and seasonal dishes using quality ingredients. Established in 2010 by Chef Momi who tries to give a personal greeting to all customers. Tel: 334 1202327. Link to website.
Notes: Located with a terrace directly on the lake in the tranquil small village of Blevio, Momi’s restaurant is individual and their commitment to quality is best made obvious when the season quietens down and they are not under time pressure. They offer a very reasonable Menu del Giorno during weekday lunchtimes. Staff at the restaurant also manage the neighbouring imbarcadero so they will not let you miss your boat departure. Other establishments with direct lake access and a reputation for quality include La Tirlindana in Sala Comacina.
Momi’s from the Imbarcadero which is operated by staff from the restaurant.
The average lifespan of a London restaurant is measured in months not years and that is because most are ‘identity’ based and so are appealing to novelty, fashion, aspects of life style, or god knows what else other than the quality of their cuisine. They are created around marketing briefs and business plans which fail to go beyond a superficial understanding of quality , or lack a fundamental interest in delivering culinary authenticity. Their ongoing replacement with new establishments with the same mentality, and destined for a similar short-lived existence, marks the triumph of hope over experience, but at least goes to guarantee a future for those establishments that conversely do commit to quality.
Some local dishes such as missoltini can be an acquired taste. Missoltini are the small lake fish (called Agone on Lake Como) which have been salted, pickled and pressed. They have a strong and distinctive flavour. They are typically served with the ubiquitous polenta.
While I am more than prepared to admit regional restaurants into the band of genuine establishments, for example ValVerde in Cernobbio, it has to be admitted that those offering local cuisine are usually better placed. That is because they call upon the tradition of local expertise with locally-sourced products. Many are also family enterprises and these seem well able to provide the continuity necessary to establish long-lasting reputations for quality. Nothing disqualifies a restaurant faster than an ever-changing chef.
L’Antica Trattoria, Via Cadorna, Como. This long established restaurant specialises in grilled meat but the full range of its menu is of excellent quality.
Recommendation: L’Antica Trattoria, Via Cadorna 26, Como
Closed Sundays. Speciality barbecued meat, local and seasonal dishes using quality ingredients. Established many years ago and family run. Tel: 031 242777. Link to website.
Notes: Located well away from Como’s lakefront, L’Antica has built its reputation on commitment to quality and use of seasonal products. In particular they specialise in ‘carne alla brace’ and in guaranteeing totally gluten-free cooking for those suffering from this intolerance.
Rassegna Gastronomica Special Menu for La Fagurida in Tremezzo
The local cuisine comes into its own at this time of the year – a period of plenty based on the harvest of corn for polenta, wild mushrooms from the woods and chestnuts. To reflect this abundance, there are now so-called ‘Rassegna Gastronomica’ (Gastronomic Collections) established in Como, Valle Intelvi and Tremezzina. These are all seasonal initiatives promoting local cuisine in participating restaurants. I had somewhat cynically assumed that these were primarily intended as marketing ploys to fill a slack period after the end of the summer season and prior to Christmas. However I now know better and would redefine them as nothing less than a perennial reassertion of local culinary culture.
The Rassegna Gastronomica Valle Intelvi is in its second year. It runs from 18th October to 18th November involving sixteen different establishments. More details are available from their Facebook page.
The GastroLario is also into its second year. It is on a larger scale than the others involving fifty restaurants promoting the local cuisine found around Lake Como and within the province. It runs from 4th October to 24th November. Details are available in English from their website. This year’s competition is to identify the best ‘polenta uncia’ in the area.
Mendrisio’s Fire Brigade offer hospitality and a plateful of polenta to diners at the town’s annual Wine Festival
The Rassegna Gastronomica Tremezzina is into its fourth year. It runs from 18th October until 30th November and, as in the Valle Intelvi, involves sixteen establishments. The link here is to download the organiser’s brochure.
Over the border in Switzerland the Rassegna Gastronomica di Mendrisiotto e Bassa Ceresio is just coming to an end as it runs from the 1st October to 3rd November. This year was its 56th edition celebrating as always the local cuisine and the winemaking of the region. More information is on its website.
If you too might be in search of a cuisine that might loosely be described as genuine, try out some of the establishments within these initiatives, or any of those recommended here. It’s also a good idea to seek recommendations locally and the best in my experience come from those who have lived here for a long time. They can identify which restaurants have moved beyond novelty to withstand the test of time.
I would also like to mention the Slow Food movement which campaigns to retain and strengthen the same principles about food that I have attempted to describe here as genuine. There is a local chapter of the Slow Food movement here in Como and their website explains their philosophy and notice of the various events and initiatives in which they are involved.
Local cheeses (from goat, sheep or cow) form a key part of the area’s alpine diet and are readily available within the covered market or, as photographed here, in the Christmas market.
A follow up article will seek to expand on the alpine roots of the local cuisine and the habit of Como city dwellers to dine out at weekends in one of the mountain refuges or ‘baita’. Additionally, in spite of my argument that there is no such thing as a national Italian cuisine, one has to recognise the ubiquity of pizza and ice cream and so we need to identify the best pizzerias and gelaterias. Finally, and probably not before next Spring, we will try to address the complex and varied needs of tourists to Como to offer our advice to the savvy visitor.
Tagliatelle at La Fagurida, Tremezzo