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Touring and Tasting: Haute Cuisine in Italy's Lake District

July 4, 2013
Haute Cuisine in Italy's Lake District

If you ask an American if they know about the Lake District of Italy, the first thing they tend to mention is George Clooney. He's the most visible of the celebs who have homes on the shores of Lake Como. The largest and most picturesque city on that lake, Bellagio is the subject of many paintings, with its grand formal gardens, sun-dappled stairways and grandiose villas lining the shimmering water. In the summer, there are hordes of tourists soaking in the romantic atmosphere and hoping to catch a glimpse of the movie star in person.

But, if you're looking for a quieter place, more affordable, with the same breathtaking views of the Alps and limpid lake water, try Lake Maggiore. The most westerly of the lakes, it is on the border of the Piedmont and Lombardy regions and it provides a convenient base to explore the wine regions producing Barolo, Barbaresco, Valpolicella, Dolcetto, Soave and Prosecco, among others. Lake Maggiore is laced with ferry routes, a fun way to see the art galleries of Stresa, the Swiss town of Locarno at the north end of the lake, the white peacocks and villas of the Borromean Islands, and other interesting locations. I've stayed twice in the Laveno area, which is home to the funicular that ends with a panoramic view of the lake and mountains--and to Il Porticciolo restaurant and hotel.

Hotel Ristorante Il Porticciolo is built nearly on the water. One can peer down from the lake-side rooms and see the waves lapping against the base of the hotel. I was there five years ago with a yoga group and we enjoyed the warm summer evenings on the restaurant patio overlooking the sparkling lights of the lake at night. The food was wonderfully fresh and innovative. Proprietor Giovanni Bassetti and his son Riccardo created delicate and flavorful entrees like lemon risotto and many types of lake fish in aromatic broths. When I returned this spring, I found that in the intervening years, Chef Riccardo had been in Paris working as Chef de Partie for the 3-star Michelin restaurant Le Maurice and as Premiere Chef de Partie for the world-renown Joel Robuchon at his L'Atelier Etoile.

Chef Riccardo returned with a new skill set for haute cuisine and is turning out fabulous food. His innovation continues, but with elevated technique. Two of my favorite dishes were Beet Gnocchi with Valcuvia Goat Cheese Snow; the Cream of Asparagus Soup with Egg, Parmesan Wafer and Joselito Ham; and the Cone of Chicken With Curry, Potato Puree and Caramelized Green Onion, which was plated to look like a landscape of path, boulder and pine tree. The cone-shaped chicken was coated with very finely minced parsley. Everything was hand-made, including the bread and lovely plate of miniature pastries.

Chef Riccardo has shared one of his recipes with us: Branzino With Leek and Clam Broth With Lime. The hotel has undergone extensive renovation and modernization. For information on their hotel or restaurant, visit their website: www.ilporticciolo.com