Before me was a shimmering lake lined by verdant mountains basking under a clear summer sky. But instead of being scorched by the burning sun, I was in an air-conditioned dining room of a two-Michelin-starred restaurant right out of my dreams.
Piccolo Lago (Italian for Little Lake) was a modern, fine-dining Italian restaurant in a standalone building that extended over the tiny Lake Mergozzo in northern Italy near the Swiss border. Owned by chef Marco Sacco and his family, it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, but was just about 15 minutes' drive from my hotel in Baveno, a small town on the banks of the adjoining, bigger Lake Maggiore.
It all seemed unreal, considering I had landed in Milan only that morning after a 12-hour direct flight from Singapore. Yet here I was, luxuriating in a region that the Europeans had been holidaying in for centuries and called the Italian Lakes. The lakes, formed millions of years ago from melted glaciers, are Maggiore, Lugano, Como, Iseo and Garda.
My nine-day trip was sponsored by Trafalgar, which organises guided holidays to the area every summer. It took me to three lakes - Maggiore, Como and Garda - with day tours led by local specialists at nearby towns such as Bergamo, Verona and Modena.
It was only my second group tour, after an earlier one to Taiwan three months ago, as I had previously opted for only free-and-easy holidays. But I said yes to this because the itinerary included a number of food-related activities such as visits to traditional producers of balsamic vinegar and grappa. Also, unlike typical tour companies, Trafalgar did not organise package tours where everyone followed a fixed itinerary. Instead, its guided holidays allowed lots of flexibility that gave me the best of both worlds.
On the one hand, logistics such as accommodation and transport were taken care of and you have the option of signing for day trips that were charged separately. I needed to stay with the pack only on days when we were moving to a different hotel.
And not all meals were provided for - just breakfast every morning and four dinners - leaving me with the opportunity to explore restaurants nearby. And that was how I ended up having my first meal at the Italian Lakes in the breathtakingly beautiful Piccolo Lago (Via Filippo Turati 87/28924 Verbania Fondotoce, tel: +39-0323-586792, www.piccololago.it), which was not a restaurant you would be able to dine at on a package tour.
Trafalgar had linked me up with the lake district's tourism office before the trip, and Silvia Lorenzini from the Distretto Toristico Del Laghi drove me to the restaurant, where the chefs had arranged a demonstration of the restaurant's signature dishes before we settled down to a fabulous lunch of dishes such as a deconstructed tagliolini carbonara and a bettelmatt flan.
Ingredients such as fish and dairy were sourced from the area around Lake Mergozzo while others came from other parts of Italy, and the restaurant offered two 10-course tasting menus at €150 (S$229) each - one that "looks forward" with modern culinary techniques and styles, and the other "backwards" with dishes from the restaurant's history that spanned more than 20 years.
I had dishes from both and each turned out exquisitely plated, with some of the food served on natural materials such as granite from nearby areas. Even the dishes from the past - such as the Carbonara Au Koque that was served with a piece of dehydrated beef bacon and a light cream sauce on the side with a milk chip - felt contemporary, which suggested that the restaurant had always been ahead of its time.
Piccolo Lago gained its first star in 2004 and its second in 2007, a feat no doubt aided by its ambience. You enter a modern dining room with wooden rafters on the ceiling from which hang a dramatic series of lights. But farther in, the setting changes as you walk into a room that is suspended over the lake, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that offer unobstructed views of the picturesque environs.
After lunch, Silvia took me to meet a fisherman at Isola dei Pescatori, a tiny island on Lake Maggiore that used to be occupied by 30 fishermen. Now only four remained. Steffano Ruffino was one of them, who lived and worked on the island with his brother Paolo, fishing at night and working in his pescaria (fishery) in the day where he cleaned and prepared the fish before it was sold to restaurants.
Isola dei Pescatori is visited mainly by tourists on day trips and the brothers also run a restaurant on the island called Ristorante Italia where they serve fish dishes and a signature lemon tart made with fruit from the northern shores of Lake Maggiore.
The following evening, the president of the lakes' tourism office, Oreste Pastore, took me to visit a cheese and cured meat shop in Verbania, the provincial capital of this area in Piedmont. Dozens of whole legs of ham were hung from the ceiling of La Casera (Piazza Ranzoni 19/28921 Verbania Intra, tel: +39-0323-581123, www.formaggidieros.it), while the counters held an amazing array of cheeses from the region. There are tables if you want to try a selection with a bottle of wine, or you can take away some for supper in your hotel room later.
Oreste and I had reservations at the one-Michelin-starred Ristorante Il Portale (Via Sassello 3/28922 Verbania Pallanza, tel: +39-0323-505486, www.ristoranteilportale.it) nearby, however, so we had time for only a quick bite of the cheeses.
Il Portale is located in a row of restaurants within sight of Lake Maggiore. During summer, diners are seated outside to enjoy the view and the long daylight hours as it gets dark only at 9pm. The menu is modern Italian with ingredients put together in unconventional ways, such as lobster with foie gras, lemongrass and raspberries (€45). Beside a la carte, there are set menus priced from €65 to €150.
When the group later moved to Lake Garda, where I was to stay for five nights, I skipped a day's itinerary to meet up with Cristina Mascanzoni Kaiser, a luxury travel consultant and concierge who customised food and travel experiences for visitors ( email@example.com or +39-349-760-0766). On average, her rates started from €100 an hour for a minimum of three hours, which included travel costs.
She lived in Bordalino on the shores of Lake Garda and grew up in the area, so she was the best person to introduce me to food producers such as the artisanal organic olive oil producer Paolo Bonomelli (www.paolobonomelli.com/olivefarm.eng.html), whose TreFort oil had consistently won the most awards at the World's Best Olive Oils Ranking.
We also visited risotto producer Riseria Ferron (www.risoferron.com/azienda/) and watched a cooking demonstration of the Italian rice dish by fifth-generation owner Gabriele Ferron, who was also a famous chef.
Cristina and I got on like a house on fire because we both loved good food and beautiful hotels. And we found both at Villa Cordevigo (https://en.villacordevigo.com/), a Relais & Chateaux hotel converted from an 18th-century villa into a luxurious accommodations with modern comforts. It occupied 100ha and included vineyards and its own park that was open to hotel guests.
It also housed the one-Michelin-starred Oseleta Ristorante, where chef Giuseppe D'Aquino whipped up a lunch for us that included a course of tomato spaghetti with red shrimp, smoked milk cream and lemon peel (€30) that had such intense flavour I could still taste it in my mind. Tasting menus started from €110.
Service was tip-top and the ambience was chic yet relaxing. From where we sat, we could see the hotel's swimming pool which was right next to a vineyard.
The hotel was so lovely that I made mental plans to return to stay. It was just an hour's drive from Venice and the rates, when I asked, were not prohibitive: above €200 for off-peak and €300 for peak seasons.
Cristina also met me in Milan a few days later to take me to Cracco (Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, 20121 Milan, tel: +39 02 876774, www.ristorantecracco.it/en/), another one-Michelin-starred restaurant. It's owned by celebrity chef Carlo Cracco and moved a couple of years ago to its current location in the centre of the famous shopping galleria.
It was right opposite the Prada boutique and hard to miss, but I would not have thought of eating there if I had not heard about the chef. That was because the ground floor was occupied by a bistro and pastry shop and was a hangout for tourists and people-watchers.
The restaurant was upstairs and you walked into a totally different world of fine-dining.
Being an old conserved building, the rooms were kept intact and small, which did not have the impact of a more expansive space. But the restaurant made it up with good service and food.
I would not say everything tasted great, but the plating was beautiful and playful and there were some standouts. Ravioli filled with herring looked like a pair of eyes and a fish fillet encrusted with crispy puffs were amazing studies in textures and flavours. Menus started from €190.
SIGHTSEEING WITH LOCAL EXPERTS
Not all my meals were at Michelin-starred restaurants, of course.
On most days, I joined the group on half-day tours to towns such as Como, Verona and Modena. At each stop, we were met by a local specialist who took us on a tour of the place for an hour or two. These specialists were freelancers who lived in the area and could provide intimate knowledge of the places.
For example, at Verona, where practically every tourist, including us, visited the balcony made famous by William Shakespeare's Rome And Juliet, the local specialist showed us where Romeo lived too. It was marked by a plaque on the outside wall showing the ill-fated lover on horseback. The ground floor of the building was now an osteria and because it was before opening hours, we were the only tourists in sight.
Lake cruises were, of course, included and the one on Lake Como was particularly interesting, with the guide pointing out famous villas such as the one owned by George Clooney. And if you had watched Murder Mystery, a new Netflix movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler that was filmed at Lake Como, you would recognise the 19th-century Villa Erba. It was a location for the 2004 film Ocean's Twelve too.
Other excursions revealed quite a different aspect of Italy, such as a visit to the Ferrari museum in Maranello, where you can find exhibits of the supercar from the last century to concept models that have not been put on the market yet.
And our coach driver sprang a surprise on us one morning and took us on an unscheduled stop - to visit the tomb of the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti outside Modena.
After every morning tour, we were given about two hours to break off for lunch. That was when I would ask the local specialists for recommendations. Sometimes the Trafalgar travel director Sandra Nikolic would offer suggestions too. And everything turned out good.
A simple Parigina pizza (€10) from Ristorante Pizzeria Le Colonne ( Piazza Giuseppe Mazzini 12, 22100, Como, tel: +39-031 26-6166, www.albergodelduca.it/en/restaurant-2/) was totally satisfying not just for its toppings of smoked salmon, mushrooms, olives and cheese, but also for its delicious thin crust that was good enough to eat on its own.
And in Bergamo, a city north-east of Milan and a Unesco Heritage site on top of a hill that is accessed only by funicular, the local specialist took me all the way to the packed Ristorante Pizzeria Da Franco and helped me secure a table.
Otherwise, I would have missed out on the excellent fresh foiade pasta with porcini mushrooms (€11) and veal ossobuco with gremolata and polenta (€19) recommended by my server. The pasta was especially good, in the shape of smooth, thin sheets that came drenched in a delicious mushroom sauce.
Dinners that were included in the itinerary were mixed, however, as they were restricted to set meals in restaurants that would accommodate our boisterous group of 31.
Trafalgar has an interesting programme called Be My Guest, where a local family hosts dinner for the travellers. On this trip, our host was the Leardini family who owned a farm near Lake Garda where they ran equestrian lessons.
They also had a restaurant where the eldest son was the chef and mum was manager. Dinner for us was served home-style, with everyone helping themselves from platters of antipasti, paccheri, risotto and braised beef at the centre of the table.
The farewell meal the night before we left the group in Milan had the best food, in a traditional Italian restaurant called Il Coriandolo (Via Dell'Orso, 1 - 20122 Milano, tel: +39-02 869-3273, www. http://www.ilcoriandolo.com/en) that was within walking distance of the famous La Scala opera house.
We feasted on pasta with sea bream in tomato sauce and Milanese-style veal cutlet, among others, and said our farewells by clinking glasses over desserts of tiramisu and apple strudel. There was no way anyone was leaving Italy hungry.
- The writer's trip was sponsored by Trafalgar, with flights sponsored by Singapore Airlines. The direct flight from Singapore to Milan takes about 12 hours.
The nine-day Best of the Italian Lakes tour is priced from S$2,225 a person (2019 trips) and S$2,003 (2020 presale). Included are accommodation, breakfasts, some dinners and coach transport. Flights are not included, and guests meet at the Milan airport terminal at the start of the tour. Some day tours are optional and cost extra, from more than €20 to more than €60.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
The views, material and information presented by any third party are strictly the views of such third party. Without prejudice to any third party content or materials whatsoever are provided for information purposes and convenience only. Council For The Third Age shall not be responsible or liable for any loss or damage whatsoever arising directly or indirectly howsoever in connection with or as a result of any person accessing or acting on any information contained in such content or materials. The presentation of such information by third parties on this Council For The Third Age website does not imply and shall not be construed as any representation, warranty, endorsement or verification by Council For The Third Age in respect of such content or materials.