In the end, we found ourselves flagging down the bus for a jostling ride with locals through villages straight from an Italian storybook, on roads never meant to accommodate two cars heading in opposite directions, let alone a rambling, veering bus. Many times it seemed we would never make it around this corner or past that donkey-pulled cart, and the entire time we were nervous we would miss our stop. Finally, thanks to a glimpse of a rusty sign announcing our arrival to Sala Comacina, we stepped off the bus, searched the water’s edge for a boat willing to make the short ride to the island, and enjoyed the most memorable meal of our three months in Europe. And one of the top ten most enjoyable meals of my life.
I say top ten most memorable because I’m including home-made meals in that count. But, truth be told, lunch at Locanda dell’Isola Comacina was one of the top three best restaurant meals I have ever experienced. You know how sometimes all elements combine and surpass expectations? That stressful, jostling bus ride provided the perfect dose of local color and really made us feel as if we’d worked hard to earn our lunch. Because we were there in the low-season, we were one of only two tables at the lunch service, making us feel as if we’d discovered an unknown local gem (I’ve since read that the island can become quite crowded in the high season and I must say that I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself nearly as much had that been the case). The other table was occupied by a crisply-dressed Italian couple who were clearly enjoying a clandestine rendezvous, judging from the difference in their ages, the obvious wealth of the man, and the way they made flirting glances while they shared food from each other’s plate. We really got the best seat in the house, in the corner of a sun-drenched deck that provided a panoramic view of the sparkling lake and surrounding mountains. The sun shining on our necks reminded us, after a long Swiss winter, that spring always follows the cold and snow.
Both the bus trip and the boat ride to the island qualified as experiences you just can’t easily put into words, or convey through photos. They were examples of why traveling, why actively participating in someone else’s culture and way of life, are so freaking awesome.
As stated before, Isola Comacina is the only island on Lago di Como, and it’s a tiny island at that. It contains some Roman ruins at its northern tip, but the real (and, well, only) reason to visit is the locanda with its accompanying restaurant. Surely the views can’t be beat.
The restaurant at the Locanda dell’Isola Comacina offers a fixed menu that has remained unchanged since 1947. I’d never seen the expression “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” lived so fully and to such success before. Little did we know that we were in for six courses of wine-soaked, olive oil-drizzled, sea-salt showered bliss.
The first course really consisted of ten different antipasti, each of which would have been sufficient on its own but together informed us of what we should expect from the rest of the meal. The antipasto all’isolana was a halved tomato topped with a paper-thin slice of lemon, a petite pile of dried oregano, a healthy splash of olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt. Sounds simple, but let me tell you, it really worked, and I especially liked that the chef kept the rind on the lemon slice to provide an intense citrus flavor.
Next up were eight, count ‘em EIGHT, different seasonal vegetable dishes served on charmingly rustic hand-painted plates. Many were pickled and served cold, such as the carrots, celery, and cauliflower, some were dressed with olive oil such as the white beans…
… while still others were warm, tender, sweet and slow-roasted, like the onions and beetroot.
As we were attempting to make a dent in the vegetables, our server set up a carving table equipped with a platter of lemons, a bowl of salt, a peppermill, and a watering can full of olive oil.
And that concluded the first course.
The second course turned out to be even more impressive than the first and the unanimous favorite amongst our table. Our server brought out a whole fresh salmon trout that had been grilled on a wood grill.
He boned the trota alla contrabbandiera tableside and generously adorned it with the ubiquitous lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper combination. It was perfect.
Next up was rottami di pollo in padella, a butterflied chicken “crushed,” weighted, and fried in olive oil in a cast iron pot. The skin was crisped before the chicken was finished in the wood oven, and the whole chicken was served to the three of us accompanied by a simply-dressed salad. Phil, a true Southern boy at heart, was beyond stoked that this meal included FRIED CHICKEN! Could it GET any more perfect?
After the chicken was devoured and cleared away, the meal began to slow down somewhat. Our server brought out a huge wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano, cut us each two generous chunks from the middle of the wheel, and ceremoniously handed them to us for eating straight out of our hands. Nothing can compare to fresh, crystalline, salty parmigiano reggiano – certainly not the improperly stored and handled stuff sold at most grocers around the world.
Finally we were provided with a sweet note to wind everything down and aid in the digestion of such an epic meal. At our table, our waiter dexterously peeled and sliced juicy oranges which he topped with fior di vaniglia ice cream. He topped these with extra freshly-squeezed orange juice and a banana liqueur to finish the arance alla castellana.
As we were finishing dessert, a ringing bell alerted us to the arrival of the owner of the Locanda. Dressed in period costume (though I’m not sure in which period people wore funny ski hats), he poured a bottle of brandy in a copper pot and told the story of the island as he lit it on fire. He recounted the tale of a curse on the island and asked me to help him add sugar and coffee to the burnt brandy and taste it to see if it was appetizing enough to ward off the curse for one more day. Honestly, at that point he could have asked me if I wanted to sleep with George W. Bush and I would have said yes. After four bottles of wine, the brandied coffee was the cherry on top of a unique and spectacular three-hour lunch.
After lunch we waved down our boat driver who was waiting for us on the other shore and returned to Sala Comacina, hailed the local bus and happily rode a few villages down the coast, theeeeeeen jumped on the ferry to Bellagio.
Truly and utterly a perfect day.
How about you all out there? I would LOVE to hear about the most memorable meal of your life.