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Eating Well in Ticino

Ticinese food has strong ties to northern Italian cooking—logically enough, since Lombardy and Piedmont in Italy segue right into Ticino, which became part of the Swiss Confederation in 1803.

Italian staples here include cheeses—from semihard Formaggio d'Alpe Ticinese to tiny goat's-milk formaggini—and sausages from cicitt (goat meat and cinnamon) to zampone (pork stuffed into an emptied-out pig's trotter and leg). Game is popular in season, and deer or wild boar (also horse) find their way into salami, salumi, salamelle, and salametti. A major specialty is polenta: cornmeal cooked for a long time and then formed into a cake.

As for markets and festivals: during the pre-Lent (late February or early March) festivities like Rabadan in Bellinzona, there's a risottata when huge cauldrons of risotto are stirred in the streets, the air redolent with smells of grilling luganighe (pork sausages). Chestnut fests, like the castagnata in Ascona, take place all over the canton in October.

Drink Like a Local

When you're here, avoid Swiss-style coffee; opt for a liscio, Italian-style espresso. At all hours of the day, you'll hear customers asking for a corretto—coffee laced with local brandy, called grappa. Finish off your meal with a shot of nocino, a green-walnut liqueur also known as ratafiá. The unripe nuts are soaked in alcohol such as grappa and mixed with herbs and spices.

Grottos

A grotto is a simple eatery serving local Ticinese cuisine. Grottos usually have tree-shaded outdoor seating in warm weather, and are mostly located off the beaten track. Word to the wise: the food here is seasonal, so some of the dishes described may not be available depending on the time of year you visit. Here are some of our favorites and the best Italian-influenced dishes you can find at each.

Grotto Morchino. Feast on specialties like bresaola (Ticinese air-dried beef), busecca (tripe soup), and risotto with leeks and rosemary. 1 via Carona, 6912 Pazzallo 091/9946044 www.morchino.ch.

Grotto Flora. Martin Dalsass of Santabbondio and other top Ticinese chefs call this grotto located near Lugano a favorite. Mushroom and saffron risotto, meat (beef, chicken, lamb, pork) arrostite sul fuoco (roasted on an open fire), and zabaione (whisked eggs, sugar, wine) are must-haves. 6927Agra 091/9941567 www.grottoflora-bnb.ch.

Grotto del Giuvan. Dine on specialties like nerveti e barbabietole (chopped meat and onion with beets); prosciutto crudo (raw ham) with pears and mustard; and potato and nettle gnocchi with porcini mushrooms. 19 via Stradone, 6872Salorino 091/6461161 www.grottodelgiuvan.ch.

Grotto dell' Ortiga. In this converted craftsman's workshop near Lugano, try the soup of fagioli e radicchio (bean and red chicory); pizzocheri (buckwheat pasta); or seasonal risotto with nettles, artichokes, asparagus, basil, mushrooms, or pumpkin. 35 strada Regina, 6928Manno 091/6051613 www.ortiga.ch.

La Baita. Across Lago Maggiore from Locarno is this popular grotto serving salami, coppa, lardo, pancetta, mortadella, and salumeria nostrana (meaning "made our way"). To finish, try the pesche al vino (peaches in wine). 6573 Magadino-Orgnana 091/7804343 www.baita.ch.

Ticino Wine

Roughly 6,000 tons of wine grapes—about 7% of Switzerland's total production—are grown each year in the rolling hills of the Ticino. Leading the way is the popular Merlot grape, introduced in 1905, which now accounts for 80% of the region's wine production. If you appreciate Merlot and the many other white and blush varieties grown here, you should visit in May when locals celebrate Cantine Aperte, (which means "Open Cellars"), an open house of wineries across the canton. The occasion, when visitors can stop by for free tastings, marks the launch of wines from the previous autumn's harvest. Dates are posted at www.ticinowine.ch. In September, don't miss wine-harvest festivals like the Sagra dell'Uva in Mendrisio (www.sagradelluva.ch) or Bacchica in Bellinzona (www.bacchica.ch), when street life leaps alive with seasonal markets, eating and drinking, parades, music, and dance.

Updated: 09-2013

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