I’ve wanted to visit Italy for about as far back as I can recall; probably most of my adult life. And in September of 2019, my dreams finally came true as I landed in Milan to be whisked off to the truly enchanted and magical region in and around Lake Como, and the historic city of Como.
My desire to visit Italy probably stems back to my childhood in Brooklyn, NY, where the enticing flavors and aromas of Italian dishes filled the restaurants, salumerie, bakeries and endless Italian food emporiums with deliciousness. With such large populations of both Italians and Jewish people living beside one another in the borough, one couldn’t escape the best of the best of either group’s superb culinary offerings.
I will never forget my first view of majestic Lake Como and its surrounding sharp, angular mountaintops that literally plunge into the deep waters of this world renown lake. So much history. Such legacies of aristocracies. From famed summers on the lake to palaces, and onto today’s resurgence as an oasis for modern-day celebrities (think George Clooney), Lake Como and its esteemed environs continues to be the epicenter of enjoyment, tourism, and a playground where so many dream of finding themselves.
Releasing this feature about the Lake Como experience, however, was delayed until now due to the pandemic, lockdowns, and the curtailment of travel. Now, we are on-edge to live life to the fullest, and again, travel to those places on our bucket lists.
Located both adjacent to the Swiss border and amid the foothills of the Alps, Lake Como has also, historically been known locally as Lario. Along the shore are quaint old towns, churches, mansions, stunning villas, and medieval towers; the perfect location for those interested in art, history, architecture nature, relaxation, and delectable food.
My stay was at the family operated Lario Hotels www.lariohotels.com with four locations, in Como, each with their own refined, contemporary, European elegance within a few miles of one another. Staying at one of the hotels allows you to discover different perspectives about the magical lake as well as its fascinating history. With the hotels’ proximities to one another, I was able to experience three of these gems.
Albergo Terminus, with its Art Nouveau-style, was the first stop. Located in the center of Como, and across the street from the promenade along the lake, it is convenient to the heart of this ancient city. Built in 1902, the impeccably restored stately building is convenient to boutiques featuring renown Italian brands, and of course restaurants, cafes, and artisan food makers. History buffs will appreciate the nearby cathedral and prominent historic sites. The hotel structure itself is steeped in history, built for the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Alessandro Volta’s invention, the first electric battery.
Bar Delle Terme is the hotel’s bistro serving up traditional Italian cuisine such as lasagna, classic pasta and risotto dishes and charcuterie. In good weather, dine on the terrace overlooking the lake. The flora of delicate jasmine and oleander adds to the beauty of the experience.
Next stop, Hotel Villa Flori, located a couple of miles from the center of Como. Its panoramic position on the lake is breathtaking. And, oh those beautiful mountains in the backdrop. The spectacular room and the huge terrace and views made me not want to go out and explore… but I did. Walking distance is the town of Cernobbio, where its elegant past is still present.
Meandering through narrow streets, stop in the small shops and cafes while admiring the beautiful architecture. You must check out Villa Erba, Villa d’Este, and Villa Bernasconi.
Villa Flori has a storied history, built as a wedding gift for Marchese Raimondi’s (a renowned Como patriot) daughter. The hotel’s romantic atmosphere of times past, with top-of-the-line amenities in a spectacular setting with breathtaking views from every room’s balcony, you won’t want to leave. Dining at Ristorante Raimondi with panoramic views of the lake is a must during your stay. Dinner began with “Delights of the Lake,” (creamed pike perch, marinated char, pan seared eel with thyme, smoked lavarello, missoltino fish and polenta). It was a sampling of the lake’s bounty. Ravioli stuffed with burrata served with prawns and marjoram sauce was so delicate and beautifully presented. The traditional Como dessert was the sweet ending to this spectacular culinary experience. Called Miascia, it is a fruit cake with a boiled wine sauce served with house made ice cream. It was not your typical holiday; frowned-upon fruit cake. The wine choice was from the Lombardy region of Italy, Lugana Ca dei Frati was refreshing with citrus and apple finishes. The extensive wine list covers most regions of Italy.
Next stop was Vista Palazzo, Lario Hotels 5-star hotel (the only 5-star luxury hotel in the city center) with its Neo-Gothic façade. Built in 1870, it was originally the headquarters for Schmidt & Lorenzen Silkworks. The impeccable restoration was completed a few years ago. This quote says it all about Vista Palazzo, “18 splendid suites and palatial rooms that set new standards in luxury accommodations and pleasure. 18 sumptuous residentially styled accommodations that convey the joy of feeling at home in one of the world’s most beautiful places. 18 precious gems embedded in one of Como’s most attractive buildings.”
Ristorante Sottovoce, at Vista Palazzo is headed up by Chef Stefano Mattara, who has worked with several Michelin-starred chefs. When asked about his culinary vision he said, “I present my distinctive gastronomic philosophy through dishes characterized by an intersection of tradition and experimentation, bringing to life a gourmet cuisine with an international touch.” He sources ingredients from the finest local purveyors of authentic Italian specialties. He continued with,” I then artfully combine them to create an impeccable harmony of flavors, colors and textures.”
The rooftop restaurant’s spectacular views, luxurious ambiance along with Chef Mattara’s exceptional cuisine made for a never to be forgotten experience for my taste buds and eyes. Choose from the 5-course tasting menu featuring chef’s signature dishes that unfolds his culinary path or dishes from the ala carte menu. I am told that the current tasting menu captures the freshness of summer. This menu includes the tradition of the Como territory “through a personal revisitation of lake perch with “Bombe Del Lago,” pasta filled with perch and sage, served with Chinese mandarins and raw tomatoes. A special innovation he calls “Orto Dolce”, or ‘sweet garden’, is a dessert made with fresh vegetables from the garden.” How creative using vegetables to create dessert. And talk about being creative, I was glad to see the intriguing dessert that I enjoyed on my visit is still on the menu. You must try it. Gin Tonic al Piatto (Gin jelly, white chocolate and lime, light cream, fizzy rock, lemon sorbet and tonic water). The dessert is completed tableside, and it will amaze you as the server pours the tonic onto the mountain of dessert, and the resulting fizzy-performance that occurs!
Although I didn’t stay at Lario Hotel’s Posta Design Hotel, I did take a tour of the hip and contemporary 14-room hotel, and enjoyed lunch at its Posta Bistrot. Located on Piazza Volta in the historic center of Como, nearby the lake, it is the perfect place to people watch. The gracious hospitality and quality are the same as their more formal grand properties.
The staff of Lario Hotels make a special effort to assist guests with unique, exclusive, and personalized outings. They are determined to make sure that your Lake Como experience is memorable. On one tour, your private butler will take you to small villages on the lakefront, pointing out ancient castles and Bellagio, where you’ll walk through the narrow streets studded with boutiques and town of Chiavenna. The history and wine excursion will take you to Bregaglia Valley with its alpine landscapes, close to the Swiss border. According to the itinerary, at the mountain village of Piuro you’ll tour a private estate with 16th century frescos, followed by a walk to the town of Chiavenna and its waterfalls and meadows. This excursion wraps up with lunch and a private wine tasting.
The “Cheese In the Alps,” outing takes you to Bitto’s Valley, known for the production of artisan cheese. And yes, cheese tasting is part of this experience. Fashionistas might enjoy the “Fashion and Design” tour. The description of this outing says, you’ll be taken by luxury automobile to Milan, about 60 miles from Lake Como where you can shop the boutiques in this fashion mecca. In between shopping, there is always time for a coffee break and appetizers.
Como, is the silk capital of the Western world and the Silk tour is described as a visit to the silk museum followed by a workshop where you can learn the technique of marbling silk by creating a scarf, a one-of-a kind souvenir of your stay at Lake Como.
My custom excursion included a visit to a bakery in the town of Piuro. It housed in a simple stone building where Gianna and Luigi Pasini prepare only two items, biscuits and Torta Fiotetto, a rustic cake made with anisette, apricot, fennel, butter and sugar; lunch at La Terrazza, located on a mountain overlooking the town of Chiavenna where I dined on tagliatelle with wild boar Bolognese. It was here that I learned that in Italy, they will know you are a tourist if you order a cappuccino after 11 am. Why? Because the milk in it, it is believed by the Italians to hinder digestion of lunch and dinner.
Further up the sharp slope, and atop the mountain, is Hermau Winery https://bit.ly/385Trc
The wines are produced from grapes grown on the ledges of the mountain. Quite a unique place for a vineyard. I was given a tour of the winery followed by wine and cheese tasting, while viewing the quaint towns of Valchiavenna and Val Bregaglia from the best point of view. Visitors can spend the night at Ca ‘Pianazola farmhouse, the winery’s adjacent Bed & Breakfast with its four guestrooms..
If Lake Como is on your bucket list of places to visit, a stay at a Lario Hotel will make you feel welcome to this magical area that has lured artists, poets, actors, musicians and writers. It is waiting for you to explore! Check out my interview with Bianca Passera, owner and President of Lario Hotel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G37B0gvv7O0
On my radar now is the soon-to-be open Vista Palazzo Verona.
The hotel, built in a 19th century mansion is steps away from Juliet’s balcony. Verona was the setting where Romeo and Juliet’s immortal love story took place.
Stephen Fries, is a professor and coordinator of the Hospitality Management Programs at Gateway Community College, in New Haven, CT. He has been a food and culinary travel columnist for the past 14 years and is co-founder of and host of “Worth Tasting,” a culinary walking tour of downtown New Haven, CT. [email protected] For more, go to stephenfries.com.