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Wednesday
May312006

Lovely Lake Lunch

The mists are hanging in shreds around the steep sides of Lake Como as we arrive at the Villa Serbollini dock for our appointment to boat out to the Isola Comacina for lunch at the iconic Locanda dell’Isola, but there’s no sign of a boat. A young boy is arduously attaching an outboard to a 12 foot Avon raft, and I experience a moment of trepidation that it might be our transport. A word to the concierge, and a resulting frantic scramble, however, turns up Alessandro with an ancient 25 foot wooden caique, with a little covered cupola cabin in the center. The view of Bellagio from the water is lovely. We motor down the coast, past the Villa Melzi, and others of various size, age and elegance.

Perched on a sheer promontory of land above the lake, sheltering the Isola is the Villa Balbianello, a stunning villa now owned by the Italian National Trust. Various buildings of terra-cotta stucco and stone, with a prominent loggia and a twin bell towered chapel, surrounded by manicured hillside gardens form a spectacular setting.

We approach the island from the lagoon side, and Alessandro expertly brings the boat to a halt at the dock. We climb up a stone path to a gate reading “Benvenuto all Locanda dell’Isola Comacina”.  Further up the tree-lined steps we arrive at the locanda’s terrace, to be greeted by our waiter. The terrace is of stone, as is most of the locanda. The interior is very mountain lodge—high, beamed ceilings, plain wooden furniture, and a massive stone hearth.  We elect to sit outside, since it’s covered, and the weather is gray, but not raining, and there’s a marvelous view of the lake and far shore.

We are informed, in Italian, that the menu is “alla pensione” or fixed, with everything included. A loaf of bread, bottles of Soave and mineral water appear immediately. We know generally what to expect from a 10 year-old Gourmet articles, but wonder if much has changed. Slight variation appears soon-instead of antipasti of radishes, olives and pickles, a pre-antipasti of one slice of tomato, with a slice of lemon, herbs and oil is placed before us. Would not have expected lemon and tomato to work well, but the combination is tasty.

A serving table appears next to us, and is rapidly loaded with verdure – fagiollini, or green beans, carrots, celery, beets, artichoke hearts – all cooked crunchy, and marinated. Rice salad, roasted yellow and green peppers, and onions roasted black in the coals and then split open to reveal their interior. The waiter cuts thin slices from a whole Prague ham, and tosses shards of Bresaola della Valtellina—air-dried beef aged in the Locanda’s cellar—with lemon and oil.

This is a great way to start a meal – wide variety, healthy food, a bite of this, or that—trying combinations to see what shines. Tart, marinated pepper with sweet roasted onion for example.  The Soave is light, crisp and goes will with everything. We are soon through a bottle, and a replacement is whisked to table. Our host, Benvenuto Puricelli, stops by to inquire after our health, in his customary orange and black plaid vest. We assure him that everything is terrific, and that we’re having a great time.

Soon the waiter appears with a tray cradling two crisply fried trout. With deft dexterity he first removes the top skin, then slides one whole filet off the bones, discards the spine, and slides the other filet onto the plate. Repeating with the other trout, he then proceeds to sauce both: a half lemon squeezed vigorously on each plate, coarse salt flicked from a cellar with quick jerks of a knife, and a pepper grinder swung as a priest would a censer, showering pepper on the boned filets. Finally, fragrant golden olive oil is plashed with abandon over the whole.  An enchanting performance, and the trout itself is spectacular. The owner had told us that they now get trout from the mountain streams, rather than from the lake, as in earlier days. The lake still contains trout, along with plaice, eel, and whitebait, but increasingly few.

The weather is not changing, and the misty mountain scene, dropping into the lake, its surface a dull, oily gray, is pleasing if different than a sun-drenched afternoon.

The trout demolished, we are served a chicken, cut in quarters, which has been  deeply browned—perhaps a bit overly so. It’s acceptable, but a bit dry, and no match for the trout. This menu remains virtually unchanged from that of Lino Nessi, the previous owner—retired in 1976—who cooked the same thing for years before that. His credo was, and remains, the best and freshest ingredients, simply and perfectly prepared.

The world’s simplest cheese course: we are presented with a small and almost caramel chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano stravecchio—extra-old—served on a knife directly from a now hollowed half-wheel of cheese. 

Dessert is a slightly odd combination of vanilla ice cream and sliced pears topped with a deep orange-colored banana liqueur from San Giovanni, across the lake. Not bad, but unusual. Puricelli continues the tradition of exorcism started by his predecessor. The island was once cursed, he says, and a ritual of flaming brandy poured from a ladle back into the pot may or may not have an effect on the curse. But the addition of strong black espresso turns the potion into a bracing after-lunch drink.

We make our way carefully down the stone steps, and Alessandro scurries to ready the caique as soon as he sees us. We motor back up the lake, past the lovely villa Carlotta, tumbling down the hillside, wedding-cake style, across to Bellagio, feeling both satiated and content, and fortunate to have such a special experience.

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