Friday, May 29, 2009

Isola Comacina and Bellagio

I had high hopes for the lunch I’d planned at Isola Comacina for our second day on Lake Como. To make our 12:30 reservation, I used the lake’s public transportation website to calculate that we’d need to get up bright and early for the 10:30 ferry to the town of Sala Comacina, from which we would hire a private boat to the only island on Lake Como for spectacular views and a memorable meal. With this schedule in mind, we set our alarms and unwillingly awoke the next morning (yes, 9am was one of the earliest wake-ups we’d had in awhile), stepping bleary-eyed into the harsh morning sun.
We arrived to the dock just in time to be not-so-politely told that the ferry to Isola Comacina wouldn’t be running… oh, for another two weeks or so. Generally, traveling in the off-season is the way to go. Prices are lower, restaurants are less crowded, you always seem to get the best room the hotel has to offer, and there’s always one more teensy spot under a complete stranger’s seat on the local train into which your ridiculously overstuffed backpack can be wedged (as opposed to perching yourself on top of it for the duration of a six-hour train rain, as is more likely the case the rest of the year). Indeed, this was the first logistical snag we’d come across in our three-month winter journey through Switzerland, Austria, Germany, France and Italy! And it wasn’t just a tiny snag that could be easily ignored. It was more like the “snag” that my now-husband slashed through his shirt while attempting to jump a fence in the wee hours after his bachelor party, consequently causing his left ring finger to swell to three times its normal size. A week before our wedding. But, as usual, I digress. In order for us to reach the island for our lunch reservation, we would now have to take a local bus down the coastline of the lake, passing through over a dozen impossibly quaint and virtually identical villages at which there existed a thirty-two-percent chance the non-English-speaking driver would stop, with the hopes of miraculously landing ourselves in tiny Sala Comacina. Now Phil and I have done our fair share of traveling in some random places, but I wasn’t sure if we wanted to risk our second and last day (which happened to be a gloriously sunny one at that) on Lake Como wandering around aimlessly, attempting to communicate in Italo-Spanglish with crusty one-toothed fishermen in order to find our way back to the hotel at the end of a fruitless day. We found ourselves asking, was it really worth it? Would the views be THAT spectacular, the meal THAT memorable?

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.
He used these condiments throughout the remainder of the meal, first carving each of us a slice of Prosciutto Tipo Praga (a hunk of steamed ham smoked in a wood oven) and presenting it with a pile of bresaola della Valtellina, air-dried beef aged in the Locanda’s very own cellar.

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.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Como

Crossing the Swiss-Italian border, it really feels like you’re going to a different country. Well, I guess that makes sense, since you ARE going to a different country, but it’s really quite a stark and stunning change. All of a sudden, attitudes are a bit more relaxed, way less people speak English, things seem a bit more run down and old, and the best part – the sun is shining and sparkling on the lakes dotting the region.

Such is how we found ourselves in the town of Como, on the lake of the same name in the northern Italian region of Lombardy.

We were starving when we arrived, and after a twenty minute luggage-laden trek from the train station to our hotel, we stopped at the first restaurant we spotted. We were in luck, for Il Vecchio Borgo delivered an A+ gastronomic experience. Sitting on the sun-drenched patio, we ordered our first of many incredibly satisfying Italian meals. Phil had been dying to have a true pizza italiana and didn’t waste any time ordering one from Il Vecchio Borgo's substantial pizza menu. His pizza with prosciutto turned out to be one of the best of our two-week trip, with sweet tomatoes, salty prosciutto, and just the right amount of mozzarella cheese.
Laurie similarly couldn’t wait to have REAL lasagna in Italy, and that of Il Vecchio Borgo also exceeded her expectations, although subsequent lasagna experiences would render this one unmemorable.
I opted to try a white fish fresh from Lake Como. It was simply served, grilled and dressed with lemon and accompanied by lettuces and radicchio. The freshness was obvious, and it hit the spot. We also ordered grilled radicchio, something you can’t often find in restaurants in other parts of the world. Laurie and Phil weren’t impressed by its bitterness, but I have a penchant for bitter foods and found it to be perfectly prepared.
Later that evening, we decided to take the funicular to hilltop Brunante for dinner.
Brunante apparently has many beautiful homes and offers amazing views over Lake Como. It also apparently has many restaurants serving hearty local fare such as polenta or slow-cooked meats. APPARENTLY all of these things are true. Well, the night view wasn’t anything spectacular, and there were no street lights so we couldn’t see the apparently beautiful homes. And….the restaurants are only open in high season. Turned out our trip to Brunante was for naught. Oh well.
Luckily, at the bottom of the hill near the entrance to the funicular is an atmospheric place called L’Antica Riva. The antipasti platter was piled with liver pate, a fish cake, prosciutto, and cured meats with shaved parmesan.
Phil chose the lake perch in thyme butter sauce.
Laurie also opted for seafood and was very pleased with the Maiden fish in saffron sauce with asparagus.
I was in a pasta mood and ordered strozzapretti with prosciutto and cherry tomatoes “San Daniele.” You really can’t duplicate the taste of true Italian tomatoes.
Also on the table were grilled vegetables and potatoes.

Northern Italy... here we come...

Friday, May 22, 2009

Lugano

Before leaving Australia for Switzerland in December, I got the best possible advice on foods to try in the German-speaking region of the country. My roommate Madi has lived in Germany on two separate occasions and the mere mention of a brezel is enough to make her belly grumble. Here's the inside info Madi drew up for me on German food and travel must-dos:
Unfortunately I wasn't able to make it into Germany or try many of these dishes during my time in the German region of Switzerland (and some I downright avoided - the Radler!). But I certainly ate my fair share of hearty winter specialties, like wiener schnitzels as big as a platter with an accompanying salad of endive, radishes, zucchini, corn, kidney beans and grated carrots and parsnips:

Another Swiss accomplishment that I enjoyed many a time is the good ole bratwurst and rosti.

The local Olma bratwurst is memorable for its smooth tenderness brought about by a mixture consisting predominately of local veal and milk. A saucy onion gravy meets the rosti halfway across the plate.

While the classic Swiss German specialties are always a treat, the region is no stranger to more exotic fare. An unexpected dinner celebrating Phil’s graduation melded the foreign flavors of India and Africa with familiar vegetables and meats.

After experiencing the German and French parts of the country, I was anxious to visit Italian Switzerland. A three hour train ride south from St Gallen brought us through mountains, ravines, and picturesque towns. Upon arrival to Lugano, our growling bellies were rewarded on via Pessina, where a well-known salumeria sits directly across from a well-stocked cheese shop.

Phil chose a ciabatta roll filled with the local carne seca at the salumeria…

While I remained across the street and drooled at the cheeses on display at Gabbani, bottega del formaggio.

I’d heard good things about Vacherin Mont d’Or, a soft cheese in a round wooden box decorated with Swiss flags and wintry scenes (in the middle of the shopfront window). It’s made only in winter and I would have purchased a box if only I could have guarantee of refrigeration in our hotels!

Strolling down via Pessina we ran into an outdoor market selling produce not easily found in the rest of the world, such as Friar’s beards…

... and pink-flecked lettuces.On our climb back to the hotel, we noticed a cute restaurant called Trani and decided to return there for dinner.

But first, it was cheese and wine on our hotel balcony to watch the sun set over the lake.

Restaurants all over town were advertising their seasonal asparagus and artichoke menus, signaling that spring had indeed arrived. At Trani, we chose a simple dish of asparagus with shaved parmesan and a plate of artichokes five ways.I wanted to try risotto al salto to see if it was as good as the version I make at home. The name literally translates to “jumping risotto,” presumably from the way the rice jumps out of the pan as you flip it in order for it to brown and form a rice pancake. The risotto al salto at Trani was a bit too thin and dry for my taste, so I think I’ll continue to make thicker, smaller cakes at home in order for them to crisp on the outside but remain moist in the center. All-in-all, it was a fitting meal to end my time in Switzerland – simple preparations and fresh, seasonal ingredients in a warm, comforting atmosphere.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Life is busy. And delicious.

Hello everyone! I’m back after a loooooong hiatus. I can explain, folks, I can explain. Since my last post on Switzerland in March, I’ve traversed the Italian peninsula, returned to the U.S. after being gone for a year and a half, gotten married, had a honeymoon, found a new home (a cottage on the quaintest street in the U.S.), attempted to get used to a new last name, searched for jobs, procrastinated on my dissertation, and ate so much darned good food that I have as much material for this blog as my tired fingers are willing to type. So here’s my plan of attack over the next few weeks. I’ll give you some wedding highlights in this post, then go back in time and take you through my trip through Northern and Central Italy before returning to the U.S. to recount stories of catfishin’ and ramp cookin’ in Ohio and tales of the freshest seafood and Latino specialties I’ve been enjoying here in Florida. That should bring us up to the present moment, so stick around friends, and you will hear tales of love and lust, disappointment and envy, happiness and sorrow.... all as they relate to food, of course.

But first things first. Let me just tell you that my wedding included the sunniest day ever to grace Saint Augustine and the most rocking party anyone has ever had, in any time or any place. Ever. Okay, that might be an exaggeration, I’ve heard P.Diddy’s white parties are pretty sweet and those Greco-Roman parties thrown by Enron execs a few years back looked kinda fun, but nevertheless my reception was AWESOME. The food was spectacular… but more on that in a second.

We decided to have the Big Day in Saint Augustine, Florida. Phil grew up just north of the city and took me there the first time he brought me to meet his parents seven years ago, so the place has a special spot in our hearts. Plus, it’s one of the prettiest towns along the East coast in my opinion, with a history dating back to its founding in 1565 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro Menendez de Avil├ęs. Because of the city’s Spanish colonial heritage and local Flagler College, Saint Augustine has a very bohemian European vibe, with narrow cobblestone streets and vibrant arts and culinary scenes (which you will read more about if you continue following this blog over the next month or so). I’ll condense the day into about thirty photos, which you have to understand is borderline impossible considering there are about 2,000 perfect shots to choose from. All of these photos were taken by photographer Nikki McEneaney, who did such a superb job and blended right in with my family and friends, never missing a shot and truly capturing the essence of our personalities and the specialness of the day. Thank you so much, Nikki!

The ceremony took place at the Oldest House and Gardens in the historic downtown. You really can’t find a prettier garden for such an important occasion. One of the biggest draws is the old live oak which shades most of the site and formed the centerpiece of our ceremony.

Local violinist Kyle Wehner provided music for the ceremony and I highly recommend him. We got an infinite number of compliments from guests about how his haunting, romantic tunes perfectly fit the setting and the tone of the day.

I also highly recommend my Daddy. He’s pretty cool.

Reverend Dr. Gabe Goodman, the father of one of the groomsmen and long-time friend of Phil’s family, officiated the ceremony and broke out into song partway through.

The garden was in colorful bloom.

Sealing the deal.

Yay!

The Oldest House and Gardens has a bajillion little spots that make perfect photo backdrops. There are bells…

Gates out of which we could pretend to walk…

Benches upon which we could sit…

Quiet spots in which we could meditate…

And an oak forest in which I could strike cheesy wedding over-the-shoulder poses.

I must share this priceless photo taken with my flower girl Paisley and her wedding Barbie doll. Too cute!

And my parents leaning in for the kiss.

The flowers were arranged by Flowers by Shirley and oh me oh my they were much more than I dreamed! Boy did they exceed my expectations. I requested that our florist Barry provide a just-picked-from-the-garden feel and somehow incorporate herbs into the arrangements since as most of you know I am slightly obsessed with food and cooking and herb gardens. Barry went over and above his job, truly showing passion for his craft by searching out fresh bay leaves, rosemary and oregano which lightly scented the bouquets and arrangements with the comforting scents of my favorite spots – the garden, and the kitchen.

My bouquet made me sooooo happy!

After the ceremony we were whisked away in an antique Model A that drove us through the streets of historic St. Augustine, where we received cheers and congrats from total strangers. Someone – a perfect stranger – even gave us a $50 bill!! How’s that for Southern generosity and spirit!

The reception was held at the Casa Monica, a sumptuous hotel in the most picturesque square of St. Augustine. The Casa Monica was built in 1888.

Casa Monica shares a fountained square with the Lightner Museum…

And intricate Flagler College.

I must say that the Casa Monica also far exceeded my expectations and turned the day into a dream. I chose the wedding venues from the other side of the world while living in Australia last year. The Casa’s informative and well-designed website attracted me to the place, but photos just can’t compare to seeing it in person. And event specialists Erin P. and Megan C. were such a pleasure to work with, meeting all of our requests with a smile. The initial cocktail hour was in a lavish narrow room next to the Flagler Ballroom. I loved the low lighting and patterns created on the ceiling and walls by the opulent light fixtures.

Staff passed a variety of hors d’oeuvres, such as tomato and mozzarella bruschetta with basil oil.

For gifts, I self-published a cookbook full of recipes that reminded me of each of my guests for one reason or another. Each recipe was accompanied by a story about the dish, whether it was taken from a dinner party hosted by Phil and me in Boston or in Japan, a family recipe passed down over the decades, or an exotic dish shared with friends in a faraway place. Also given to guests were seashell-shaped chocolates in Florida-themed flavors such as key lime or orange from the local Whetstone Chocolates, and saltwater taffy from a candy shop on St. George Street.

Before the dinner service I was shocked and amazed when we received a telegram from our dear friends Jackie and Bob all the way from Australia!!!!! What a treat. Who the heck sends telegrams nowadays!!!!!

I went completely crazy and made the desserts for the reception the week before the wedding. I wanted to have one dessert that represented each of the places Phil and I have lived over the past ten or so years, and that would have been impossibly expensive to request of a local baker. So, with my mom and grandma, I baked lamingtons from Australia…

And hazelnut dark chocolate brownies representative of the U.S.A.

I picked up sugared olive oil crispbreads with almonds from Spain and accompanied them with dulce de leche from Argentina…

And provided Swiss chocolates and truffles.

Pocky represented our time spent in Japan…

Lastly, we alerted guests to the fact that they could request Irish coffee from the bar if they so desired. The desserts were very meaningful and personal and I thank Meghan from the Casa for allowing me to cater them myself and for displaying them so elegantly.

Phil and I had a blast with our wedding dance. Local band The Committee performed their version of Taj Mahal’s “Lovin’ in my Baby’s Eyes” and entertained guests for the rest of the night.

We absolutely loved the toasts given by our friends and family.

Happy. Day.