Northern Italy: Dine Like the Locals Do

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Our December day begins as all days in Lake Como do. The chimes of an ancient church bell ring, waking its residents at 7 a.m. Its music sails across the stream which runs between our beach and the harbor. I see the winter moon, still visible in the dark sky, reflecting its own glow on the ripples. It seems reluctant to leave.

And then, seconds later, streaks of amber pierce the sky. Over the Alps to the north, a rising sun charges the lake with its energetic light.

In between writing, painting and teaching art, I study Italian. …From borrowed books, Michel Thomas CDs, recipe magazines and travel brochures. Also, from my son’s homework when he brings it home every day. And from the neighbors and friends whom we’ve become endeared to.

Today is the annual Christmas brunch, hosted by the town mayor, for an intimate crowd of just 50 residents who have been gathering every December. They come to commemorate Christmas with—what else—a traditional feast.

At midday, Analisa, our 60-plus year-old former landlady, greets us in the parking lot. Three years since meeting her, she is now a close family friend. We’ve agreed to walk together to the hotel, just ten minutes by foot along the lovely lakeside path. She’s dressed today in a long camel-colored mantel layered over her scarf and jacket. She has a trendy new haircut, and encrusted amber stones dangle from her ears. A hint of azure sparkles in her faint makeup, illuminating her eyes.

“Buongiornata,” I greet her. “You are looking lovely.”

“Today, everyone will be elegant!” she beams. Then she takes my daughter’s hand in hers, and we stroll along the promenade to the party.

We sit at the front end of the long dining table in this family-run restaurant. Piero, Analisa’s aging husband, awaits us. He is readying the wine bottles and greets the kids with grandfatherly bear hugs.

Truth is, I’m here to kill two birds with the same stone. Or, as they say here, “Prendere due piccioni con una fava (Catch two pigeons with one bean): Celebrate the festa with friends, but also, learn more Italian. Being here provides me with insight into the fascinating culture, and a free language tutorial.

The menu on the long bedecked table consists of the typical feasting of a four-course cuisine. Seven types of appetizers. Three kinds of first courses, two second courses, dessert, coffee and abundant wine. As the food arrives, I start with the antipasti: cold rice salad, potato salad, salami, bresaola (cured meat) and pickled onions.

A little embarrassed at how quickly my plate is filled with appetizers by the waitress, I try to quicken the pace of my eating. But Piero stops me from across the table.

“Tempo, tempo,” he says, swaying his hands. Take your time, there’s enough of it,” he means to say.

Yes, there is. You learn it when you move here and discover that siesta lasts from midday until 3:00 p.m. Shops close, business go on hold; stores pull down their shutters. People gather in family-friendly café bars and restaurants. They enjoy a long, wine-infused lunch over lively chatter.

Halfway through the third type of primi (first course) comes the tortelli di zucca Mini pillows of pasta filled with aromatic pumpkin puree, tossed in olive oil and sage herbs.

I take my cue from Piero, who asks for just one piece.

“Buoni,” he acknowledges his pasta.

 “When do you say, Buono, or Buona or Buoni?” I turn to ask Analisa.

She explains: “This depends on if a noun is femina (feminine) or maschio (masculine). So you can have a buono gelato, or a buona carbonara.”

“And buoni?” I’m still confused.

Per tanti (for many)”, she replies. “Italiano non è facile da imparare (Italian is not easy to learn)!”

Finally, the main course—three types of meat! By now, I can’t imagine eating anymore, but I succumb. To the scaloppine ai funghi, pork escalopes in a creamy porcini mushroom sauce.

The house wine is flowing – everyone is making sure of it. A side staircase in the restaurant leads to an underground cantina or cellar.  It stores dozens of varieties of wine.

The Valtellina, a region known for its premium wines, is set on the border of Italy and Switzerland. Blessed with a good location and climate, there are plenty of vineyards in the region. They have been producing excellent wine for thousands of years.

Simone, the hotel manager, is in fact an awarded sommelier. “On Sundays in Italy, the families come together to eat,” he tells me. “Not as much as they did 50 years ago…but it’s still a tradition.”

What strikes me is the simplicity of each dish that Simone has served. The steaming risotto, besides having four types of local cheese, looks ordinary enough. Yet each bite is a spoonful of wonderful flavor. As if one could imagine the chef stirring with passion, generously grating the parmigiana.

Desert arrives—a chilled glass of sorbetto di limone (lime sorbetto). It’s the kind of crushingly sweet yet light citrus flavor. It goes down well after a full-on feast.

Ma, fragole per me (But—strawberry for me)!” insists my two-year-old daughter. Alessandra knows exactly what she wants. In typical female fashion, she asks for something not written on the menu. But she was made in Italy, you see, and her palate has been quite spoilt, I’m afraid.

“Per favore!” I chide her, before she is immediately served strawberry gelato.

Analisa beams proudly. The child eats well, feasting on every course.

“The beautiful Alessandra was conceived in my house!” she announces proudly, to her friends, and anyone within earshot. I blush with embarrassment.

Changing the subject, I ask Analisa more about the local produce. How do they bake those cakes? How do they cure the bresaola, or bottle the wine?

She repeats to the other elderly ladies beside her what I have said. When she turns back around to face me, she’s flashing not one, but two handwritten recipes.

Guarda (look),” she says, and fumbles with her glasses to read the printed letters. Someone has written the precise instructions for creating torte di castagna. It is a cake recipe using seasonal chestnuts as a main ingredient.

Our feast ends with a giant chunk of pandoro, the traditional golden Christmas cake.  Soft as a cloud, buttery and sweet. Yellow on the inside, roasted golden on the outside, and dusted with powdered sugar.  My son devours it in seconds.

To punctuate everything, there is caffè corretto (literally, “coffee correct”). This is an espresso shot infused with liquor – in this case, grappa, the preferred local digestivo made from grapes. It has a dizzying 60% alcohol content. The proper way to drink coffee after a meal, of course.

Then, each lady present receives a deep red poinsettia, the Christmas flower. The mayor thanks everyone in attendance.

And four hours after it has begun, the feast comes to an end. We say our arrivedercis and linger awhile longer for more chatter, as is customary.

As we walk home along the lake promenade, we stop to watch seagulls and enjoy the glowing sunset.

“Tempo, Tempo,” I recall Piero’s lingering words.

“I will be 74 on the first of January!” he had said, a beam of pride glowing in his eyes.

Tempo, Tempo. In English, we use the word to measure music; in Italy, it is used to measure life.

I chase the kids home, their shrieks of laughter piercing the quiet stillness of the lake. It’s been a good day. Above the silence, one can almost hear a song. But it is only the lapping of waves at our misty shore, as the water kisses Lake Como’s banks goodnight.



More to do near Lake Como:

  • Hiking:Try trekking in the Val Masino or Val di Mello, an otherworldly level of beauty. With jagged rocks and boulders, it is popular with rock climbers in the summer.
  • Biking:The lanes that wind around the lake is for pedestrians and bikers. No matter what season of the year, you’ll enjoy touring this land the slow and sweet way, on foot, or pedaling it.
  • Wellness:A favorite family getaway is the Bormio Terme, just a couple of hours from the lake. It is a public pool that also includes a sauna and restaurant. Its main highlight is the thermal waters from natural sources, full of healthy minerals. Try also the relaxing thermal spas of QC Terme Bagni Vecchi and QC Terme Bagni Nuovi.
  • Skiing:Check out the slopes in Madesimo, Livigno or Bormio, for family-friendly fun.
  • Watersports:Come during the summer and you’ll find the lake packed with every kind of acqua a You can choose depending on your level: kitesurf, windsurf, sail, or stand-up-paddle.
  • Wine Holidays: A visit to the Valtellina should include a tour of the vineyard trails. Find them encircling the lake, and taste the local wines at any bar or restaurant.


Hotel Recommendation

Cinque Casa Hotel, Via Statale Regina, 107, 22010 Gera Lario, Lago di Como

For reservations, call: +39 0344 84119


Special thanks to the Bormio Tourism. (Associazione Pro Loco Turismo Bormio, Via Roma 131/b, 23032 Bormio (So). For more travel info, contact + 39 0342 903300 or email

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