Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

Lake Como

Sunday, September 25th, 2005

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como is a magical place; the large peaceful lake is surrounded by majestic mountains that are sprinkled with villas dating back to an earlier time. Although this region will overwhelm you with its spectacular beauty, more importantly it will transport your mind and body to a state of total relaxation.

Lake Como is one of Italy’s larger lakes with an area of 55 square miles. It is located in northern Italy bordering on Switzerland and the alps. The town of Como, the largest city on the lake is located on the southwestern tip of the lake, only 45 minutes from the Milan airport. So close to Milan, but so different from Italy’s frenetic fashion city. The spacious lake always seems so quiet, its blue water shimmering like a mirror. Being so close to the alps, it’s not surprising that the perimeter of the lake is lined with steep mountains. I find the combination of water and mountains to be spectacular, but Lake Como has a third ingredient that sets it apart…beautiful historic villages and towns.

This area is rich in history dating back to the Bronze Age, about 1000 BC. However there was little recorded history of the region till the time of Julius

Basilica of San Fedele

Basilica of San Fedele

Caesar when he took the region from the Gauls. Como was the birthplace of Pliney the Younger, who compiled much of its history. In 1500 Como became Italy’s silk capital. I was rather surprised as I visited the historic town of Como that it lacked charm, and there were few sites of historic significance. The two exceptions are the Duomo and the Basilica of San Fedele. The Duomo was built over four centuries beginning in 1396, and it’s an absolute spectacular illustration of the fusion of different architectural styles. The western facade is late Gothic, while the apse and the alter are Renaissance. It is fascinating to notice the dramatic differences in the columns, windows, and ceiling. But what makes this cathedral so splendid is the smooth transition of architectural styles and how the result is so harmonious. Just a few blocks from the Duomo is the Basilica of San Fedele which was first built in 914. Although it is far less dramatic than the Duomo, the interior is lavishly decorated with 18th-century frescos and stuccoes. The Piazza San Fedele was the center of the old walled town of Como, and at the time was the corn market. While in Como, be sure to take the funicular (cog-railway) up the hill to the town of Brunate. The vistas of the city of Como and the lake are extraordinary.

Along the lake there are dozens of small towns. Most are quite small, and very quaint. I find these older stone buildings with their terracotta roofs far more appealing than modern day architecture. As you ride in one of the boats up and down the lake, you will notice many larger villas painted in warm sun-drenched tones of yellow and orange. These larger estates almost always have equally magnificent gardens. You can see rows of cypress trees, pergolas with beautiful vines and stone sculptures dotting the landscape. My favorite town on the lake is Bellagio. It is ideally located in the center of the lake, and should certainly be visited by anyone visiting Lake Como.

Boats pull into a small marina which is situated on the town’s main square, outlined by small shops and hotels. On the northern tip is the town’s one five star hotel, The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelonni. Although dining at this hotel can be

Bellagio

Bellagio

a bit stuffy, the hotel is ideally located with splendid views. Off the main square there are a half dozen cobblestone streets that weave up the hill. These streets are filled with charming stores and a few restaurants. And all the stores are not expensive, I was thrilled with a shirt I bought for 10 Euros. If you are visiting Bellagio for the day, I would highly recommend Bilacus for lunch. They have an outdoor terrace that is lovely, and the food is the real highlight. Fresh fish, pastas, and a plate of melon and prociutto that will make your stomach smile. It is low key, inexpensive, and delicious.

There are two gardens in Bellagio that should not be missed. Villa Serbelloni (not the hotel) is an estate run by the Rockefeller Foundation. Behind the small town you walk up through the woods toward the crest of the hill. There you will notice several small cabins where visiting artists and educators receive grants to come study. Amongst the cabins are several formal gardens, each prettier than the next. But the setting for the gardens is what will amaze you. You have 360° views that will make you never want to leave. The second garden in Bellagio, also quite nice, is Villa Meltzi which runs along the lakefront.

Visiting these magnificent villas along the lake transports you back in time. Although many of these estates are 500 years old, their magnificence and grandeur still shine through. Two other gardens you may consider visiting are: Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo and Villa Monastero in Varenna. Note they can both be easily reached by ferry.

I was very fortunate last month to stay at one of the most beautiful places on the

Gardens at Villa d'Este

Gardens at Villa d'Este

lake – Villa d’Este. It is located in the town of Cernobbio, just north of Como. This restored 16th century palazzo will make you feel like you are living in a palace. The grounds are magnificent, and includes a mosaic structure designed by Pellegrini that opens onto stairs that ascend to a statue of Hercules. Water from the statue cascades down the hill through a series of concrete cisterns which are framed on either side by mature cypress trees. The view down this hill with the open lake in the
View from Hercules to the Lake

View from Hercules to the Lake

distance is awesome. In total, the gardens cover 25 acres with a wide assortment of well manicured plants and trees, an herb and vegetable garden, numerous statues, and a waterfall. Although Villa d’Este has some historic aspects that are glorious, much of the hotel has been updated to provide the finest creature comforts. One area where they truly excel is service. This becomes very obvious as you see families returning every year, and the staff greets them as if they are family.

Villa d’Este has two large pavilions with a total of 158 rooms. The rooms have

been updated to include marble baths and modern televisions, but they still maintain a classic elegance with period antiques, silk draperies,and oil paintings. The most spectacular feature is the terrace

My Terrace at Villa d'Este

My Terrace at Villa d'Este

overlooking the lake – I would sit for hours drinking my coffee and reading the morning paper. One afternoon I remember watching several rowers glide their sculls along the glass-like lake – how peaceful. Needless to say, if you prefer an afternoon of jet skiing, then I would recommend the Bahamas.

Although I have painted a picture of everyone dozing off on the way to Nirvana,

Pool at Night

Pool at Night

I should clarify that there are plenty of activities. There are three swimming pools: the main pool that floats on the lake, a children’s pool near the main pool but tucked away, and an indoor pool that was frequented by the swimmers doing laps. Boats can be rented for water skiing or touring the lake. Hiking nearby is spectacular, with great vistas around every turn. For the tennis lover, there are beautiful red clay courts, and a pro available if you want to take lessons. A number of golf courses are also available within driving distance. There is also a spa/gym facility with a weight room, squash, sauna, and Turkish bath.

As I travel to Italy, food is always high on my list. Villa d’Este has three restaurants. The main dinning room is formal, and when the weather permits, they set up the tables outside overlooking the lake. And yes, even outside this restaurant insists on a jacket and tie. The Grill Room is the second restaurant, and it was my favorite. There is a beautiful terrace overlooking the lake, a spectacular menu of fresh fish, meat and pastas complimented with a good wine list. The third restaurant is new, and quite small with a focus on pasta. It features a huge antipasto table and a selection of five fresh pasta dishes. If you are not staying at the hotel, I would certainly recommend lunch overlooking the lake, then stroll the grounds and visit the gardens. Although I can still taste the sauted lake perch, the tomatoes and mozzarella, and those heavenly pastas, it is understandable if your budget can use a break from Villa d’Este. Up the road in Cernobbio is Trattoria del Vapore which is delicious and quite reasonable. And don’t forget to eat at Bilacus when in Bellagio.

Lake Como is now my favorite vacation site. Almost immediately I was in awe

Fishing in the Rain

Fishing in the Rain

of the natural beauty, mesmerized by the tranquility, and warmed by the Italian hospitality. You know that a vacation spot is special when you also enjoy the days when it rains. We loved it so much, we have already made reservations for next year. I hope you get to visit Lake Como, and enjoy it half as much as I do.

Eating in Rome

Thursday, January 27th, 2005

Fresh Porcini

Fresh Porcini

Every time I travel to Italy I am rewarded with fantastic meals. Although the cuisine varies significantly in Florence, Venice, and Rome, a commonality is that each cuisine is based on the freshest local ingredients. This past November I visted Rome again, and the first morning I walked through the outdoor markets in the Campo dei Fiori to see what was in season. I saw four types of mushrooms, and the porcini looked amazing. There were also bushels of fresh zucchini flowers and artichokes that I feasted on all week.

Although I can become enamored by four star chefs like Thomas Keller in N.Y.C. and Joel Robuchon in Paris, I find that I prefer the simpler dishes in Rome. Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent high end restaurants in Rome, for example La Pergola and Il Convivo, and they serve delicious food with a modern flair. However I prefer the “cucina tipica” which are those classic Roman dishes prepared by Nonna (grandma) in the small trattorias. My experience has been the “simpler the better”. Let me explain. This last trip I ate Cacio e Pepe, a classic Roman pasta dish, in five restaurants. The most upscale, highly rated restaurant’s version was too rich and overpowering, while the simplest trattoria served a dish of pure heaven. At this same fancy restaurant I also ordered one of my favorite dishes, fried zucchini flowers. They are typically stuffed with a little mozzarella, battered and fried. Unfortunately this restaurant wanted to add a twist, so they stuffed the flowers with mascapone and bananas. The result was so sweet and rich that it totally obscured the taste of those delicate zucchini flowers. I may have unfairly skewered this restaurant, Antico Arco, but I want to make a point. In fairness, Antico Arco is a beautiful restaurant that serves some very good dishes, I had rigatoni carbonara with black truffles, and it was outrageous. But in general, on a trip to Rome, I would recommend the simple tried and true classics, and here are a few places I would return to:

Cucina tipica restaurant

Cucina tipica restaurant

I was in Trastevere one day for lunch, unfortunately it was a Monday. The restaurant I was heading towards was closed, so I needed an alternative. I asked an elderly lady for her recommendation, and she pointed to a large touristy type restaurant and said “pizza”. Thankfully a gentleman came along and translated that she thought all Americans eat pizza for lunch. Some authentic Roman pizza can be delicious, but I explained that we wanted pasta, and would like a place where the locals eat. He suggested Osteria da Olinda, and it was perfect. It was a tiny place with only nine tables, and very little ambiance. The menu was very simple, and it listed six pastas, each for 6 Euros. We tried the Cacio e Pepe and the Arribiata, two classics both perfectly prepared. The house wine was served in a carafe, and it was a perfect compliment on this rainy day. I was however envious of the minestrone soup that was served to the table next to us. It was piping hot and looked fabulous, but it was not on the menu and we are not locals. Although this restaurant was “no frills”, it was a homerun because it excelled at classic pasta dishes.

Matricianella

Matricianella

Another favorite, located near the Spanish Steps, was Matricianella. Although larger, and with a more extensive menu than Osteria da Olinda, I loved this restaurant because they also focused on classic dishes, and every dish I tried was outstanding. Rome is known for its fried dishes, and Matricianella had some excellent fried vegetables. I ate the fried porcini mushrooms with a cornmeal crust and they were fabulous. The fried zucchini flowers were another hit. I also had a carciofi alla Romana, which is a steamed artichoke, and it was as good as any I have eaten. Matricianella’s pastas were also delicious, my favorite being the fettuccini with black truffles.

Sora Margherita

Sora Margherita

One of my favorite lunches was at Sora Margherita in the Jewish Ghetto. If you arrive early, don’t be surprised that there is no sign. Actually it is a building without windows, the only clue that you are in the right place is the small “30” on the wall signifying the address. At about noon, the door swings open and there are red streamers hanging in the doorway. Inside the family is erecting card tables, and setting up wobbly metal chairs. If you prefer a restaurant with plush seats and atmosphere, then this is not the place for you. But the restaurant has character, or maybe I should say is full of characters, and the food will make it all worthwhile. First you must join the club (it is free), because the area must not be zoned for restaurants, so it is a club. Then I was asked if I would like the English or Italian menu, after asking for one of each, we received Italian menus and the waitress translated. The table of six next to us must have ordered everything on the menu, I was so jealous. But I started with a carciofi alla guidia (fried artichoke) that was superb. Their pastas were also great, especially the agnolotti with meat sauce, which was my favorite pasta of the entire trip. To finish we had a great plate of cheese, which was a great excuse to get another carafe of wine. Eating here was certainly an interesting experience, but the food was unsurpassed.

Two other trattorias that I enjoyed, both located near the Campo dei Fiori, were al Bric and Ditaramba. Although I felt these restaurants were better than average, I think they were a bit more inconsistent than the other restaurants that I have recommended. It should be noted that al Bric also has an outstanding wine list.

There is a classic restaurant that varies greatly from the above trattorias that serve “cucina tipica”, Checcino dal 1887. This restaurant is located in the Testaccio section of Rome near the old slaughterhouses. One of its specialties if offal, the fifth quarter of the meat, in other words what is left for the butchers (intestines, hooves, snouts etc.) Now that you have cringed, let me tell you their food is terrific. We met friends here for dinner on Thanksgiving and had a feast. One of the signature dishes was Invaltini di Carni, beef rolled around carrots, onions and herbs and braised to perfection. You even get a plate (Buon Ricardo) as a souvenir, however that is not why I recommend this dish. We also ate veal saltimbocca, rabbit and lamb that were all delicious. One adventuresome soul in our group had the bolito misto, a mix of boiled tongue, trotters (hooves), and beef breast. The dish was interesting, but I would prefer the meat from the first four quarters and not the fifth. Checchino dal 1887 also had an extraordinary wine cellar, allowing you to select a wine to make your visit truly special.

I am starving, as I am reliving all these fantastic meals. Rome is a great city with awesome sites, but I am glad to report that in between the visits to the Villa Borghese, the Sistine Chapel, and the Forum there are some excellent places to eat. So, do as the Romans do, and savor the classics. And after you have had a great meal, please email me; I’d love to hear about it.

Rome Restaurants

al Bric
Via del Pellegrino, 51-52 tel. 06.6879533
Checchino dal 1887
Via Monte Testaccio, 30 tel. 06.6871626
Ristorante Matricanella
Via del Leone, 4 tel. 06.6832100
Antico Arco
Piazzale Aurelio, 7 tel. 06.58115274
Ditiramba
Piazza della Cancelleria, 74 tel. 06.6871626
Sora Margherita (lunch only)
Piazza della Cinque Scole, 30 tel. 06.6874216
Osteria da Olindo
Vicolo della Scala, 8 tel. 06.5818835

Rome – a City to Return to

Sunday, November 28th, 2004

Neptune Fountain

Neptune Fountain

Rome is a magnificent city steeped in history and tradition. Visiting the Forum and the Colosseum will transport you back to the time of Julius Caesar. The Basilica of San Pietro will totally overwhelm you with its size and beauty, while the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museum will open your eyes to the sheer magnificence of Michelangelo. But the true joy of Rome is to return again and again. This way you can visit the lesser known churches, enjoy a café in a piazza, and meander through the neighborhoods. Around each corner is another hidden gem: a beautiful sculpture, a quaint church, or a shop with an artisan selling his wares. Here are a few of the things that I enjoyed on my last trip.

If you have been to Rome then you must have walked through the Piazza Navona. A large piazza with three dramatic fountains, two of which were designed by Bernini. The largest and most famous of the fountains is Fontana di Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the four rivers), and the Neptune Fountain is the other Bernini. Although these fountains are beautiful pieces of art, they are also places where people congregate. There are the tourists snapping pictures, but also locals chatting with each other to catch up on the day’s events. It can be fun to sit in the piazza at one of the many cafes and watch the street life. While you are sitting, look up at the buildings that surround the piazza and admire the architecture, it’s unbelievable. A couple blocks from the piazza is an interesting church, Santa Maria della Pace. I enjoyed it because it has a very dramatic baroque façade with a semicircular portico that dominates this small piazza. The church has a beautiful cloister, which is a quiet getaway in this city overrun with Vespas.

Zucchini Flowers

Zucchini Flowers

Campo dei Fiori is another
piazza alive with energy. Every morning there is a market setup with flowers, fruits & vegetables, meats, and fish. The zucchini flowers, artichokes, and numerous mushrooms will make you wish you lived in Rome. But the people make the market even more special. An old man is hunched over his stool meticulously cleaning artichokes with his knife. Two old ladies are destemming baby spinach leaves, and there is a blazing fire a couple feet from their chairs to warm them during the morning chill. Another lady is strolling the Campo with strands of fresh garlic hung around her neck. Actually she looks a bit pazzo (crazy). Each afternoon the stands in the market are removed, and the cobblestone streets are cleaned. The Campo then transforms into a nighttime hangout. I enjoyed the Vineria Reggio, a wine bar with a great selection of 20 wines by the glass. It is filled with locals, very crowded and extremely smoky, but is fun, low-key, and a great place to hangout.

Just outside the Campo dei Fiori is the church Sant’ Andrea della Valle, which has the second highest cupola in Rome. On a sunny day, light steams in through the cupola highlighting the gilded interior and accentuating the beauty of the statues and the frescos.

Another church that was truly impressive was San Giovanni in Laterno. The land was taken by Emperor Constantine to build Rome’s first Christian basilica. Before the popes moved to Avignon in 1309, the adjoining Lateran Palace was the official papal residence, and until 1870 all popes were crowned in this church. The church is massive with two aisles to each side of the nave. Although destroyed and rebuilt many times, it is magnificent. Only the Pope can celebrate mass from the main altar, which is a splendid Gothic canopy glittering in gold and decorated with frescos. The statues, artwork, Cosmatesque floor, and cloister will keep you entertained for hours.

On the east side of the Piazza di San Giovanna is Scala Santa (holy staircase) which is part of the old Lateran Palace. These 28 steps were said to be those that Christ ascended in Pontius Pilate’s house during his trial, and were brought here from Jerusalem. No foot may touch these holy steps, so worshipers ascend the steps on their knees. The day I visited the church there were over 30 people climbing these steps. This is very touching, and certainly worth a visit.

It is interesting that we also visited another church, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, where people would climb the steps on their knees. In 1348 a huge flight of steps were built to thank the Virgin Mary for saving Rome from the plague. Up until the 19th century, some Romans would ascend all 124 steps on their knees reciting Ave Maria. There was no one on their knees during my visit, but it is a pretty church, and there are beautiful vistas of the city from the top of the church stairs.

Speaking of views of the city, there is none better than from the top of the dome of St. Peters, which is 435 feet high, and the highest point in Rome. It is quite a few steps to the top, but it is worth it. Besides, you will probably need to work off some of yesterday’s pasta. From the top you have beautiful views of the Vatican Gardens, and an overall panorama of the entire city.

Fontana delle Tartarughe

Fontana delle Tartarughe

Although aerial views give a fabulous perspective of the city, you must walk the streets to truly see Rome. I was walking through the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood on our way to lunch (the ghetto is a must area for anyone that likes fried artichokes) when we came upon a small piazza with a great fountain Fontana delle Tartarughe (fountain of the tortoises). This charming fountain was built in three stages. Giacomo della Porta designed the original fountain in the 1580’s. Then Taddeo Landini added four bronze slender youths, which added grace and charm. About a century later an unknown artist added the tortoises.

Another neighborhood that is great to visit is Trastevere. Santa Maria in Trastevere is the main church, and it’s lovely. But put the map away, and just wander the streets. The small piazzas are charming, the pocket-sized stores are fabulous; and you can just feel the warmth of a neighborhood.

Via Giulia

Via Giulia

Across the Ponte Sisto (bridge) from Trastevere is one of my favorite streets – Via Giulia. As opposed to the typically curvy street of Rome, Via Giulia is as straight as an arrow. It is lined with beautiful buildings, many of which have antique stores on the first level. The highlight is the Farnese archway which spans Via Giulia, and was built to a design by Michelangelo. The ivy dripping from the archway is stunning.

At the north end of Via Giulia you begin to enter the main shopping district which runs toward the Spanish Steps. Although Via Condotti is the most famous shopping street with many famous designers, I find some of the smaller streets like Via Governo Vecchio and Via Margutta to be more interesting.

The Spanish Steps are fun and alive with energy. It seems like a melting pot of twenty nations, and everyone has a shopping bag. North of the Spanish Steps is the Borghese Gardens, a beautiful park that I love to visit. You can walk down tree lined paths for miles. You will see horseback riding, a zoo, museums, and a lake with children sailing their toy boats. The highlight of the park, however, is the Villa Borghese, which is my favorite museum. The Villa Borghese designed in 1605 has two floors, the sculpture collection occupies the ground floor, while the picture gallery is on the upper floor. Two of Bernini’s finest sculptures are in this collection: Apollo and Daphne & Pluto and Persephone…pure brilliance.

Note that all the artwork in Rome isn’t the sheer perfect of a Bernini statue, some can be quirky and fun. In Santa Maria in Cosmedin, set into the wall of the portico is the Bocca della Verita (mouth of truth). This is a drain cover dating back to the 4th century, and it looks like an ugly face with a large mouth. Legend has it that if you place your hand into the mouth, the jaws will snap shut on those that tell lies. Nearby you must walk up to Circus Maximus which dates back to the 4th century BC, where up to 250,000 watched chariot races. What is interesting to see is that it still has the sloped sides to the arena where the spectators sat around the oval track, but it is now a park. Runners circle the dirt oval track and dogs run on the grass . In the early years, Circus Maximus was the arena, and the Palatine Hill was the elite living area. According to legend, Romulus and Remus were raised here by a wolf in a cave.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

Traces of Iron Age huts dating back to the 8th century BC have been found here. The area is dominated by the ruins of the Domus Flavia and the Domus Augustana, two parts of a huge palace built at the end of the first century. The condition of these ruins is amazing. On the far side of the Palatine Hill, separated from the ruins by some beautiful gardens, is a vantage point with perhaps the best views of the Forum and the Colosseum.

I can’t wait to return to Rome. Each visit becomes more interesting and meaningful. I am not superstitious, but I wanted to ensure my return to Rome. So, before I left, I visited the Trevi Fountain and tossed in my coin.

Bellagio in the Heart of Lake Como

Friday, July 30th, 2004

Pool overlooking Lake Como

Pool overlooking Lake Como

Looking across the shimmering blue water of Lake Como you see the Alps form a wall around the lake’s perimeter. These majestic, craggy skyscrapers are very lush on the bottom, but are steep, bare grey cliffs near their apex. Among the cypress and pine trees, are thousands of flowers making the mountains look like botanical gardens. Small villages dot the landscape, and ochre and yellow villas with terracotta roofs illustrate the magnificence of yesteryear. Perched on the northern tip of a peninsula right in the heart of the lake, is the charming town of Bellagio, a true gem.

Bellagio has been a resort town for many, many years. It was the summer residence of the Roman patricians, and then of Lombardy’s noble families. They built mammoth villas overlooking the lake surrounded by perfectly manicured formal gardens. This town became an enchanting retreat for artists, writers, and musicians from around the world: Pliny the Younger, Longfellow, Twain, Shelly, and Toscanini. My expectation of Bellagio was that it would be very formal with a stuffy arrogance, but I was wrong. Yes there is significant wealth here, but the town, and the people in it, are charming and warm.

Lake Como is a massive lake located in the Lombardy area of northern Italy. It is shaped like an upside down Y. Although you can visit the villages along the lake by driving along very narrow one-lane roads, I found it more pleasant to travel by ferry. The ferries stop at all the major towns: Como (the largest) on the southwestern tip of the lake, Lecco on the southeastern tip, Tremmezzo, Varenna, and Bellagio all toward the center of the lake. These towns all provide interesting side trips from Bellagio, which is very centrally located.

As the ferry pulls into Bellagio you see a large open square on your left with tiny cobblestone streets winding up the hill away from the lake. The square is busy: people are waiting for the next ferry, a few vendors have stands set up selling arts & crafts, and others are just lazing while enjoying a gelato. Several hotels face out over this town square with pretty views of the lake. Although there are many lovely accommodations in Bellagio, the five-star hotel is the Grand Hotel Villa Serbolloni. It is a classic, built in the mid 19th century with elaborate interiors and formal gardens. It sits right on the lake with a huge pool, private sand beach, and a landing dock.

The main lobby of this Grande Dame is huge, decorated with chandeliers and period antiques. Although the reception area seems quite calm, the concierge desk is always bustling making dinner reservations or setting up excursions on the lake. Beyond this entry area is the grand ballroom and the main dinning room.

From the terrace of the main dinning room you can see the pool area one level down, with the lake and mountains in the distance. The pool is quite the people scene. Since it gets quite warm during the summer months, most guests spend at least a few hours there per day. The guests are a diverse mix of Europeans and Americans, a unique cross section of many cultures. Watching this cast of characters can provide hours of entertainment. The long pool is surrounded by white lounge chairs that overlook the lake. The scenery, and the boats moving about on the lake, can almost mesmerize you. Lunch, cocktails, or just a gelato can be enjoyed from your chaise lounge as you bask in the sun. On the far side of the pool, the hotel cleared away all the rocks at the lake’s edge and installed a sand beach. This provides another sun bathing area, as well as an easy access for those that want to swim in the lake.

Steps near Restaurant Bilacus

Steps near Restaurant Bilacus

Prior to heading to dinner, you may want to visit the hotel’s beautiful terrace that overlooks the pool. It is the perfect place to start your evening…whether watching the sunset or enjoying the view while sipping a Prosecco. The hotel has excellent food, a combination of fresh regional cuisine and the classic high-end dishes you would anticipate at a five star resort. But as you may suspect, the restaurant is rather formal requiring a sport jacket. Just a few blocks from the hotel are a couple of great restaurants. Bilacus, our favorite, is a trattoria with an outdoor terrace. It is casual with a friendly staff and outstanding food. Typical dishes are melon with prosciutto, fresh pasta with garlic & olive oil, and fresh seafood like lake perch. Barchetta is another good restaurant focusing on the local flavors, with the specialty being lake fish. After dinner, Bellagio is a rather quiet town, don’t expect night clubs or casinos – it’s not Vegas. But the Hotel Villa Serbollini has a four piece band that plays every night in the ballroom. It provides a great place to unwind and reflect on the day.

The town, with its narrow windy cobblestone streets, is enchanting. Bellagio is surrounded on three sides by water, therefore it is not unusual to be constantly enamored by its beauty. The hilly streets are filled with shops: the salumaria, produce store, and wine shop are authentic, with abundant treasures for your palate. There are also many one of a kind craft stores selling pottery, artwork, jewelry, and other trinkets that you can’t do without. For those that didn’t pack enough clothes, don’t fret, there are enough boutiques to satisfy all your urges.

Although the center of Bellagio, and the majority of the village is north of the ferry dock, venturing to the south is rewarding. There is a long promenade that runs along the lake with trees lining the path on one side. It leads to Villa Melzi D’Eril, which contours along the lakefront. It’s a neoclassical villa, with a small Etruscan museum, and a gazebo that juts out over the water. The paths through the gardens are very tranquil, but also alive with bursts of color from the azaleas. It is a wonderful way to enjoy your afternoon. My favorite spot in Bellagio however, is the Villa Serbolloni,

Villa Serbollini

Villa Serbollini

which is on the hill behind the hotel. Note that this villa is not part of the hotel, but is a part of the Rockefeller Foundation, and it serves as a retreat for scholars and artists. Today, guided tours are held twice a day. As you climb up the hill, the path meanders through a combination of tall evergreens, sweeping lawns, and garden beds. You will pass a total of 12 tiny one-room buildings that have each been assigned to a visiting artist for the month. It is almost eerie how these buildings blend into the landscape. At the top there is a larger building, obviously for scholarly gettogethers. Although the trek to the top is a bit of a hike, you will be well rewarded. There is the remains of a building by Pliny the Younger, several formal gardens, and an unobstructed view that is unsurpassed.

Venturing beyond Bellagio is as easy as a ferryboat ride. Como is a medieval walled town that is larger than Bellagio. It has many chic shops, and the outdoor market in the Via Vittorio Emanuele II is fabulous. And just north of Como is the famed Villa d’Este. Varenna is another town that is an ancient gem. Being only a short boat ride from Bellagio makes it a must. As the ferry pulls into Varenna you would think the town was asleep. You walk along the lake on a narrow concrete path and pass dozens of small fishing boats. Finally you reach the beginning of town, and you begin to climb the cobblestone streets. It is a tiny town with a town square and a few charming shops, but the highlight is Villa Monastero. This villa used to house nuns, but now it is impeccably maintained by the town. What makes this villa different is the shape of the property, it is a long, sometimes very narrow, strip that runs along the lake. This 16th century garden is so varied and interesting. It has sculptures, pergolas, pools, a gazebo and several sitting areas overlooking the water.

Bellagio is a place that will warm your heart and dazzle expectations. If you can’t buy a villa overlooking the lake, do the next best thing…book a vacation and enjoy.

A Food Memory – Head Off the Beaten Path

Wednesday, February 25th, 2004

When living in New York City, you can get spoiled by so many excellent restaurants choices. But sometimes I find that the restaurant reviewers raise my expectations sky high. And for highly anticipated openings, the “in crowd” makes the experience more about the scene than the food. And how ridiculous is it that we need to make reservations weeks or sometimes months in advance?

I love to go to a restaurant and be wowed by good food. The experience is even that much better when it comes as a complete surprise. I am not talking about seeking out the next 4 star chef. I’m just recommending that we experience something unique by looking in out of the way places.

I remember having lunch in a tiny hill town Pico, located in northeastern Tuscany. It was a small restaurant at the top of a hill, with little round tables set up outside, protected from the sun by a canopy of trees. They offered no menu; and we had no expectations. The first course was antipasti with perfectly ripe melon, slices of procuitto, and a couple local cheeses. Next was the pasta, 4 types all made that morning which you could have with you favorite sauce: tomato with basil, a meaty ragu or fungi (mushrooms). The freshness made the pastas outstanding. Next was the secondi, plates of chicken, rabbit or beef. I chose bistecca, a traditional grilled steak. With wine, lunch for 2 was $28.

The good news is that you do not need to go to the remote ends of the planet…just head off the beaten path and try something new. Restaurants in the most upscale sections of town will generally be good, but also expensive, crowded, and over-hyped. Head to the less fashionable neighborhoods where new chefs are trying to establish names for themselves. Check out the menu, the ambiance, and the crowd; if it looks interesting, try it. Pico is a true memory, and I will continue to look for places that exceed my expectations …and I will share them with you.