Lake Como- An inside look at Italy's Hidden Gem
By- John Spada
Lake Como has a reputation for being expensive, which it is, if you stay in Como. There are two youth hostels on the entire lake, and the other is in Menaggio, way up on the northern end of the lake. Menaggio is one of the cheaper places I've been, and the hostel is a beacon of youth and energy in the town. The most enjoyable way to get from town to town (Bellagio, Como, Lecco, Etc.) is by ferry. I found myself on all my ferry rides being the only one under 45, which spawned refreshing conversations and unveiled new perspectives.
Lake Como Fun Fact: A lot of local eateries put wild boar on the menu under local cuisine, but it isn't. Wild boar were brought in by local hunters for sport, and now populations have grown out of control because they have no natural predators in the area. Local farmers are having huge issues with them ruining crops. How did I find this out? The answer comes later.
When I got into Menaggio the first person I met was Jason, a very skilled cyclist from Canada. I was quite excited because I have been searching for a place to do some cycling this entire trip. He had been packing his bike around with him, and I went down to Como and rented one for the three days I would be in Menaggio. Everyday we would spend five or more hours on our bikes exploring the local area, from Lake Como, to Lagano, up through the southern Swiss border, and back down around the lake. It was an incredible way to see the country side, and a perfect change of pace after I had been in Rome for a week.
Now to explain my inside information about boars.
First some back story on the hostel. The hostel was started up in the early 80's, and they welcomed all travelers, but weren't keen on tourists. This means no big groups, or people that are going to just hang out at the hostel all day. It was started by a man named Tiziano and his wife Paola. Tiziano is a wonderful cook, and would make amazing meals for all of the guests every night, for a very cheap price. The hostel had a warm cozy feel with wooden walls, a huge open fire place, and a grand piano in the corner.
Photo credit- ezioman
Tiziano would talk to each one of the guests personally over meals and such, and as he explained it "They were a name and a person, not just a number". After his reputation grew (Rick Steves was the first to put him in a guidebook), people would come from all around the world for the beauty of the lake, but also for the amazing food. After some legal changes and some sort of fall out with the local governing bodies, Tiziano was ousted a few years back and the hostel lost its heart and soul. It is still an amazing place to stay, but more because of the area, rather than the hostel itself. The fireplace is gone, the walls were replaced with the stale white walls you see in doctors offices, and the piano is gone. Fabio, who was the 100th guest ever at the hostel, took over after the fallout, and is attempting to recover the vibe that he remembers from long ago, but as you can imagine its easier said than done.
On my last night there, Jason who has been a cook for eight years, and Aubrey who has worked at the hostel for eight months, were given an invitation by Tiziano to the restaurant he opened a few miles down the road, post-fallout. As we had all been hanging out for a few days, I was extended an invitation as well. We went to Tiziano's place around seven, and were immediately invited into the kitchen to chat and help as he prepared the meal. He explained his philosophy, which he explained as "Non-Democratic Cuisine". Tiziano has a set menu for only a week at a time, and every Sunday comes up with a new menu for the coming week.
There are a few "theme" days involved; Tuesday is the lake menu, Sunday is grandma's menu, Thursday is the garden (vegetarian) menu. Tiziano uses all local ingrediants, and cooks everything from scratch. He runs the restaurant downstairs with only 25 plates per night, while his wife runs the 16 person bed and breakfast upstairs. Because its the off season, we were the only people in the place, and got a full explanation behind all of the food. Our night had a chestnut theme. It was the best meal I've had in my life. I'm finding it hard to properly convey how great it was, but he charged us each 30 euro for a four course meal with a new wine to match every course. He would bring out the plates, sit and chat for fifteen minutes about the inspiration and logic behind the dish, and then return to the kitchen to get the next course ready.
He would explain everything from why the pasta had a certain name, to the bit about wild boars, to the reason food was used in certain regions, to the fact that he liked to explore poorer regions of Italy for new ingredients because they truly got the most out of what was available. It was an incredible meal topped off with homemade grappa and an explanation of the progression of his cooking career. One of the best ways to sum it up is to say that he is all about quality over quantity. Below is the menu from our chestnut themed meal.
Chestnut Warm Salad
Chestnut Tagliatelle with Lard and Leek
Veal Stew with Chestnut
Chestnut Cream and Chocolate Sauce
The decor of the restaurant was that of an old mans library with a warm feel, and old Italian cook books packed into shelves all around. A classical guitar on the table, and a fireplace in the corner.
An amazing experience that was exactly the type of thing that can only be lived by opening ones mind and saying yes to invitations that arise while on the open road.