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Trip Report Lake Como sights and dining

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There is a wealth of things to see and places to dine in the three towns at the center of Lake Como--Menaggio, Bellagio, and Varenna--and the area nearby. To assist ekscrunchy who is currently planning a 4 day stay in Menaggio and others who may also be planning or thinking about a trip to this area, I've gone through my notes from various trips (and posts on this site answering questions about the place) and compiled a list which I hope will be helpful. I love this area and have made 6 trips there never tiring of the beautiful scenery, the relaxing pace and the good food.

Sights

Mennagio - lovely promenade along the lake, cute central square off the promenade, feel of a small town actually lived in rather than a tourist mecca.
Bellagio - Gardens of the Villa Melzi with beautiful trees and shrubs but few flowers, also gardens of the Rockefeller Foundation at the convention center Villa Serbelloni (separate from the hotel) unfortunately I've never managed to get in to see them so I can't vouch for them, good shopping and nice walk about town though some steep streets. Most touristy of the three towns.
Varenna - Nice church on square above town, Villa Cipresi and Villa Monastero gardens,
Lovely walk along lake. Smallest of the three towns.
Lenno - Villa Balbianello where the Vanessa Redgrave movie, A month at the lake, was filmed, also a scene from one of the star wars movies. Requires access by boat from dock at Lenno, disembarking at minimalist pier and climbing up steps but I was able to accomplish it with two knee replacements though it isn't easy. If you're in Lenno for lunch, consider Albergo Ristorante Il Plinio, directly on the lake and featuring pizzocheri.
Caddenaebia (sp?) and Tremezzo-Villa Carlotta and gardens

Besides actual sights, each of the towns is lovely in its own right, just to sit by the water or at a café in town and watch town life and the beauty of the lakes and the mountains in the distance.

Dining

Overall, this is not an area of great, envelope pushing cuisine. You'll find few if any stacks of this, that, and the other,swimming in foams on your plate. But you will find good food with some interesting specialties that you'll not find elsewhere and Italian classics done well in a number of places, often hotel dining rooms. To give you some idea, you don't see veal Prince Orloff on a lot of menus any more but here you can sometimes find it and it will be accompanied by green bean bundles wrapped in bacon. That's the kind of dining you'll find something of a trip back in time. Perhaps even the dishes will all match from a common set rather than come in multiple shapes.


A word about scheduling dinner outside the town you are staying in

Because you're most likely to get around among the three main towns on the lake by steamer or ferry, you'll be best off scheduling dinners in your own town and doing lunches in others since transport is quite frequent during the day and less so, even ending early in the evening. Check out the ferry/steamer schedules and be sure that you'll be able to get back after dining if you choose to have dinner outside your own town. Ferries are most prevalent to and from Cadenaebia (sp?) so if staying in Menaggio, you may want to drive there, park and take lake transport to Bellagio or Varenna, and then drive back home. Your concierge should be able to help with the logistics.

Specialties of the area

Pizzocheri - pronounced peets ah cory, not pizzo cherry as I kept saying only to be greeted by blank stares. This is a sort of pasta, almost lasagna, type dish made of buckwheat noodles and bitto cheese often with swiss chard. Gooey and heavenly. You can find it on lots of menus. Be sure to try it.
Lavarello - the local lake fish, sort of like a pike, done many different ways, mostly just fried, but a special treat is to have it marinated with onions and sweet peppers, cold as a first course.
Trout is plentiful
Pasta specialties besides pizzocheri include pesto lasagna with artichokes.

So here's where to eat in:

Mennagio

Hotel Bellavista - directly on the water with nice outdoor patio beside their pool. The hotel is a bit old-fashioned and many of the guests stay on half pension terms so it's very much a hotel dining room. Try to be seated outside if the weather is at all decent. Food is very good. We've probably eaten more meals here than any other place on the lake. Favorites include carpaccio of smoked goose appetizer, and my all time favorite Italian meal-- pesto pasta with green beans and potatoes followed by osso buco. Any place that serves this combination gets my vote.

Grand Hotel Menaggio - very pretty, relatively modern dining room (and even prettier, flower-filled bar) with windows onto the pool and the lake beyond. Nice outdoor if weather permits. Be sure to ask to see both the menu and the ala carte menu since many of the dinner guests will be hotel guests dining half pension and only selecting from the menu. Not that the menu is bad, just that you want to see the full range of what's on offer.

Grand Hotel Victoriam dining room Le Tout Paris- another pretty dining room, more old fashioned than the GH Menaggio with tall ceilings and great chandeliers, also has outdoor, glassed in dining area. Nice buffet brunch at hotel.

Paulino - not sure if this is still there. Small place on the central square. Big appetizer buffet with every imaginable offering. Homestyle pasta dishes. Grandmotherly type waitresses urge you to finish everything--and the portions are heaping.

Creperie at the top of the main street of town just before you round the corner to GH Menaggio, sorry I don't have the name--nice place for an afternoon drink on the second floor deck overlooking the lake under grapevines.

Primula the local youth hostel which serves non-guests as well and was featured by Rick Steves in his film of the lakes. Looked rustic but wonderful. Haven't eaten there myself. It's just a little walk from the ferry stop.

Bellagio

Hotel Florence - three places here. The bar is the best on the lakes and one of my all time favorite bars anywhere. Round room with bar in the center. Just feels good. Bon Appetit did an article on the lakes in August 1996 and picked this place as the best of the best. The dining room is nice in a very old-world sort of way, with high ladder-back chairs and dark wood. But best of all is the open-air seating area across the street from the hotel directly on the lake under a canopy of wisteria. Heaven with a glass of champagne in hand. The food is good, too.

Bilacus- I can't offer a personal recommendation having never eaten here, but lots of folks on this site are high on it, including many whose culinary judgment seems very trustworthy.

Mistral - another I can't vouch for personally but 2007 Michelin red guide gives it one star at the Villa Serbelloni, the only Michelin star in the area I think.

Barchetta - another rec from Michelin with one fork and spoon and a symbol for outdoor dining, which I don't recall seeing but might be worth checking out.


Varenna

Vecchia Varenna - also featured in the 1996 Bon Appetit, and with two foks and spoons in the 2007 Michelin, directly on the walk along the lake, with an outdoor seating area on the lake side and the indoor area across the pedestrian path from it. Solidly good food and a likely opportunity to try pizzocheri.

Hotel Victoria - one place I recommend against. We dined for lunch on their outside tables and while it looked nice, the food was really ho hum.

Il Cavatappi - the foodie choice in town on a side street off the main square above the lake. It's a chef run small place with a slow food bent featuring homemade pastas and wallowing in authenticity. Tough to get a reservation since it's very small. Have your hotel make one.

Hotel du Lac - another opportunity to dine under grapevines with views of the lake and very good food, and another opportunity to have pizzocheri, or lots of other good things. Even if it's a cloudy or rainy day, the indoor dining area is completely windowed and very nice. Service here may not be as warm as some of the other places, but the food is as good and the view is terrific.

Villa Cipressi - this is a convention hotel that gets mixed, sometimes bad reviews, but they've recently opened a restaurant and it's very nice. The interior has great, modern Italian style with poster type paintings and the outside is at the top of the lovely gardens mentioned for sightseeing above. Food was fine and it isn't everyday you see Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio on a wine list for under 10 euros.


A meal in a class by itself -- Isola Comacina

This place served me one of the most memorable meals of my life, and that's saying a lot. I've lived a while and I've eaten lots of places. The food is rustic but wonderfully tasty and there's incredible theatre to go with it all. The tab is in the 50 euro or more range per person but worthy of the price.

You'll need to park in Tremezzo and take a boat to the island, a very short ride. You can walk about the island with its ancient church and some ruins of a settlement which was destroyed in 1169.

The restaurant is in a large hall whose walls are covered with pictures of luminaries who have dined before you---Gina Lollabrigida, Kim Novak, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Sylvester Stylone and Christian Bernard among them.

Starts with a large slice of tomato with a very thin slice of lemon sprinkled with oregano and olive oil, simplicity itself and extremely tasty. Second round is a series of dishes on a large platter each featuring a different cold vegetable--red beans, beets, carrots, diagonally sliced celery, cauliflower, peppers, onion, zucchini--each simply prepared with its own sauce or olive oil. Next a slice of crude ham and multiple slices of brescaola, dried beef. The fish course starts the theatre. The waiter fillets it then douses it with salt from a glass dish with a knife, then a squirt of fresh lemon, a slosh of olive oil and a couple of grinds from a pepper mill. Sort of Comacinian Teppenyaki. There follows a whole chicken for two which the host admonishes us to eat with our fingers. All the while the local wine flows freely. My daughter and son-in-law inform me that the chicken is followed by desserts and special drinks by the fire where the host continues the theatrics by telling a story of the curse on the island, but we missed that part when we were summoned back to the mainland to move our car which was impeding the investiture of a nun at the church whose lot we'd left it in. Be careful where you park. And most important, bring cash. The place doesn't take credit cards, but by all means go. This is rustic dining at its very best. A truly memorable experience. If you want to see what others on this board have said about it, do a search on Isola Comacina and read their praises as well.

Actually that's true of everything I've said above, if you want more than just my word on any of this, do a search on Lake Como Dining, or other similar words, and see what folks here have to say. This is a very popular topic and one which will keep you reading for hours. Most of all, enjoy.

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