SWISS International Air Lines: Lugano
Switzerland’s ninth largest city, Lugano, is also the largest city in Canton Ticino, the Italian-
speaking area of the country. Though Bellinzona, a little to the north of Lugano is the cantonal capital, most major banks and other business have their headquarters in Lugano. After Zurich, Lugano is the Swiss town that I know and love best – my oldest friend in Switzerland still lives
there and I have been visiting on a regular basis for about 35 years. In terms of a pleasant visit, Lugano has it all – a spectacular lake, scenic mountains (Monte Bre and Monte San Salvatore are each about 3,000 feet), characteristic architecture from 17th century to ultra contemporary, and of course, the excellent food and wine for which all of Ticino is justly famous. Occasionally you’ll encounter an address that states the city as Lugano-Cureggia or Lugano-
Breganzona. The names after the hyphen were once separate municipalities that have been absorbed by the city, but have also retained their original names – there are about a dozen or so of
These are Lugano’s best, perfect for a special occasion or just pampering yourself. Reservations
are recommended for all, but a few days’ notice should suffice.
A twelve-year veteran of the kitchens here, Bergamo-born Chef Dario Ranza is considered among the top dozen chefs in Switzerland. A meal at the Principe Leopoldo is a symphony of Scottish lamb, Breton lobster, Adriatic seafood, and fish and produce from the lake and market almost within walking distance of the hotel. Sumptuous indoor and outdoor settings complement the outstanding food and wine, which is available in both local and international vintages. Villa Principe Leopoldo
Via Montalbano 5
Phone: 011 4191 985 8855
Website: www.leopoldohotel.com (English version available)
RISTORANTE AL PORTONE
Two generations of the Galizzi family operate the elegant Al Portone which offers sometimes iconoclastically vivid interpretations of Italian specialties. Parents Roberto and Doris Galizza run the kitchens and dining room respectively and son Silvio has become his father’s right hand. Try
spicy calamari in their ink with tiny tomatoes and rucola, spaghetti with lobster and raw tomato sauce, or diced fillet of veal with shrimp and shallots. Soft centered apricot cake, prepared to order, is served with a yogurt gelato, and fruit sorbets are accented with a shot of eau de vie made from the same fruit.
Ristorante al Portone (Closed Sunday and Monday)
Viale Cassarate 3
Phone: 011 4191 923 5511
Website: www.ristorantealportone.ch (In Italian)
Al Portone requests that all reservations be made by phone.
A good mix of Ticinese specialties and classic Italian dishes is carefully prepared at l’Orologio.
Fall is time for risotto with porcini and all sots of furred and feathered game, simply grilled or roasted or prepared in braised dishes, while the summer menu features octopus carpaccio with fava beans, cream of cauliflower soup with bottarga (dried herring roe), and king prawns with an aromatic curry sauce. The wine list here features many outstanding wines of Ticino. Ristorante Orologio (Closed weekends during the summer)
Via Nizzola 2
Phone: 011 4191 923 2338
Website: www.ristorante-orologio.ch (English version available)
The food and wine here is very much rooted in Ticino, and its award winning wine list offers some of the most remarkable vintages made in Ticino. Chef Martin Dalsass is a connoisseur not only of fine wines but also of olive oil and he uses an array of them from Italy and other countries which he chooses depending on the dish to which it will be added. Even the chocolate mousse has olive oil in it! The coming fall season might feature his famous Scottish grouse roasted with aged balsamic vinegar, grilled turbot with capers, or medallions of kid in a Merlot sauce.
Ristorante Santabbondio (Closed Sunday and Monday and the first 2 weeks in January) Via Fomelino 10
Phone: 011 4191 993 2388
DINING AT A GROTTO
The most popular way for a group of friends to get together for a meal in Ticino, especially in the Lugano area, is to go to a grotto. No, you won’t be eating and rubbing elbows with the statue of a saint – grotto is used in a figurative sense here. I suppose the original (and primitive ones) might have utilized natural caves (grotto is cave in Italian) for storage or a natural wine cellar. Nowadays, a typical Ticinese grotto is a rustic restaurant with limited indoor seating (for the winter or bad weather) and outdoor tables where 99% of the clientele prefers to dine.
Don’t expect a menu a mile long or to go to a grotto for anything but a real stick-to-your-ribs
country meal. Even though the food is vastly different, eating at a grotto reminds me of going for barbecue in one of our southern states -- it’s casual (even a little primitive sometimes), fun, and you
eat what they’ve got.
What they’ve got is a limited but tasteful selection of Ticinese country food. You’ll normally start with afettata (literally “sliced”), a selection of prosciutto, different salames and other cured pork items served with tangy pickled onions and gherkins. Then you’ve got a choice – polenta or risotto.
They each come with sausages, braised osso buco, braised beef (sometimes), braised veal rolls, a ragout of wild mushrooms in season, or even a big, luscious slice of Gorgonzola. Desserts are not the specialty of a grotto, but you can always expect good formagin, locally-produced little cheeses, and a really good torta di pane. Wines are strictly regional and come in pitchers straight from the barrel. And you can wind up with a glass of nocino, Ticinese walnut liqueur. One note of caution – don’t go to a grotto with your heart set on grilled fish, a steak, or fried potatoes – you won’t find
any of these; but if you go to enjoy what they have to offer I guarantee you a great meal and a good time.
My favorite place is called Osteria-Grotto da Pierino. It’s a little outside Lugano in the mountains, as all the grotti are, but its well worth the trip. At Da Pierino, the food and service are rustic, but not rough. Whenever I go to Lugano I always try to arrange at least one visit to Da Pierino, in fact I’m planning on one soon.
Osteria Grotto de Pierino (Closed Mondays)
In the village
Phone: 011 4191 941 8796
In the Footsteps of Hermann Hesse in Montagnola
The great early-twentieth century novelist Hermann Hesse spent the last 40 years of his life in his beloved Montagnola, a tiny village in Ticino, now part of the city of Lugano. The Hesse Foundation and museum is housed in what was his home in Montagnola and you can spend a pleasant morning wandering through the house and seeing some of the famous writer’s own personal possessions. The Foundation also promotes exhibits and other events concerning Hesse, presented in cooperation with other museums and cultural institutions at different locations in Switzerland and throughout Europe.
Hesse wrote, “I love not only the land and climate [of Ticino], but also the Ticinese themselves. I’ve lived among them for decades, and our relations have always been peaceful and amicable.”
A few minute’s walk down the road from the center of the village is the Grotto del Cavicc
[pronounced ka-VEECH], a typically casual restaurant serving Ticinese specialties and one of Hesse’s old haunts. I love the restaurant’s yellow business card with a picture of Hesse playing lawn bowls (“bocce,” in Italian), with a quotation from him describing the location of the grotto as “…in the forest, in the shade of the mountain.” It conjures up a setting that’s both relaxing and conducive to a good appetite. Typical grotto food is available here – you’ll find an appetizer plate
of sliced cured meats of the region, followed by excellent polenta or risotto topped with braised rabbit, a ragout of wild mushrooms, or even fine locally made cheeses (formagin). For dessert there’s always a slice of torta di pane – the unusual Ticinese cross between cake and bread pudding
that I can never seem to get enough of. Local wines are the order of the day at a grotto – try
drinking them from a boccalin’ – a small glazed earthenware bowl, a Ticino classic. Most of all, soak up the relaxing atmosphere – it is still imbued with the spirit of Hesse and the pleasure he took there.
Fondazione Hermann Hesse
Phone: 011 4191 993 3770
Grotto del Cavicc
Via ai Canvetti
Phone: 011 4191 994 7995
Whenever I go to Lugano, one of my favorite stops to ogle, buy and enjoy wonderful take-away food is Gabbani. Founded by the Gabbani family from Milan in 1937, the establishment has become one of the greatest mainstays of fine food in canton Ticino. Right in the middle of the quaint pedestrian zone on Via Pessina, Gabbani is a conglomerate of a wine store, prepared food store, bakery, butcher shop, deli, cheese shop, and greengrocer, all in separate shops to avoid excessive crowding. There are streetside stands that sell excellent panini and focaccia and it’s a great place to stop if you want to pick up provisions for an impromptu picnic. The menu of prepared foods always includes polenta to take home and just warm up, roast chicken, cannelloni filled with ricotta, and crespelle (like crepes) filled with artichokes, prosciutto or endive. Cold offerings include an octopus terrine and a rabbit pate.
You already know that I only recommend good quality establishments, but I have to say that Gabbani is right at the very top of the list. The food is of such high quality, it is a match for the food from any establishment of its type that you can find anywhere.
Owner Lino Gabbani is at the helm overseeing every aspect of the operation and making sure that this consistently high degree of quality is constantly maintained. Stop in when in Lugano, you won’t regret it.
Via Pessina 12
Phone: 011 4191 911 3090 and 911 3091
Chocolate in Ticino
One of my first memories of visiting Ticino is of being taken to the Alprose chocolate factory near Lugano. A functioning chocolate factory, the premises contain a wonderful chocolate museum with all sorts of exhibits and artifacts that pertain to chocolate as well as a retail store where you can indulge after your visit, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Once you enter the Alprose premises you are greeted by a worker who hands you a cookie that has just been dipped in a chocolate fountain. I wanted to go to the back and get in line again for another cookie, but there was too much more to see. After seeing the exhibits you can tour the actual factory – it’s set up in an ingenious way – spectators go around on catwalks above the floor
and most of the machines for the different chocolate processes are glass sided so it’s possible to observe everything that is happening while not getting in the way of the workers scurrying around on the factory floor. You can see all sorts of bars and shapes being molded and wrapped and ah\gin, there’s that wonderful retail store where you can take home some chewy memories of the chocolate visit.
Chocolate Alprose (Closed Sunday)
Via Rompada 36
Phone: 011 4191 611 8856
On the Trail of the Illusive Formagin
Everywhere you go in Ticino that serves traditional food has a few small cheeses that are known in Ticinese dialect as formagin (literally, little cheeses). Interestingly enough, they may be made from either cow’s or goat’s milk, or a combination, and depending on the type of milk used, they may be
creamy or slightly dry. They may be consumed fresh, slightly aged or a little more aged when they develop a white crust that only adds to the delicious and delicate flavor. I’ve had a simple lunch of a dry-textured formagin with sliced dried sausage, rough country bread and a merlot from Ticino sitting under the trees at an outdoor restaurant, but then I’ve had a fancy mesclun salad with a deliciously delicate dressing and an aged cow’s milk formagin as its centerpiece at a fancy restaurant – formagin are nothing if not versatile.
During a visit to Ticino several years ago, we made a detour in the Val di Muggia near Sagno to visit the late Signora Severina Biffi, a sprightly lady who had been making cheese, notably formagin, for 65 years. She learned the art of cheese making in Sagno, then also married into a cheese-making family. Though you can no longer buy formagin made by Signora Biffi herself, her family still runs the cheese making business. You can get them at the open market in Lugano on Tuesdays. Just look for the cheese truck with the Biffi name written largely on the back. A formagin and some bread and wine make a great little lunch or snack on a beautiful Ticino mountain road.
Wine in Ticino
The fourth largest wine-growing area in Switzerland after the Valais, Vaud and Geneva cantons, Ticino takes advantage of its sunny Mediterranean-like climate to produce mostly red grapes. Most of the vineyards are arranged in small plots on terraces, also Mediterranean in style. Vines are everywhere in Ticino, and of the 247 separate communes of the canton, vines are cultivated in 176 of them
Merlot is the predominant grape of the canton, and that wine is almost synonymous with wine from there. There are three main areas, the Sopraceneri (above Mount Ceneri), the Sottoceneri (below Mount Ceneri), and the Meolcina valley, really a part of canton Graubuenden, but Ticino through and through in terms of its wines.
White Grape Varieties
Though they account for less that 2% of the grapes grown, there are some plantings of Chasselas, Semillon, and Sauvignon. There are even e few novelty plantings of Kerner and Chardonnay, but these amount to miniscule quantities of terrain.
Red Grape Varieties
Merlot, of course, is the champion, introduced from Bordeaux at the beginning of the twentieth century. A full 88% of the vines grown in Ticino are Merlot. There is some Pinot Noir and in the Sopraceneri region, there is also a native grape called Bondola that is somewhat grown.
The Regions: Sopraceneri and Sottoceneri
Sopraceneri, which means above, or north of Monte Ceneri, comprises the regions of Bellinzona, Blenio, Levantina, Locarno, Rivera, and Valle Maggia, all along the Ticino river. The most important wine areas are Gordola, Bellinzona, Camorino, and Malvaglia. In the valleys of Maggia, Leventina, and Blenio, the vines are grown on pergolas to expose them to more sunlight and consequently better ripening of the grapes.
Sottoceneri, below or south of Monte Ceneri, includes the towns of Lugano and Mendrisio. The main wine growing districts are Chiasso, Morbio Inferiore, Castel San Pietro, Coldrerio, Novazzano, and Stabio.
Throughout Ticino, the wines of the best quality are Merlots. With its garnet-red color and subtle aromas of ripe cherries or other red fruit, Merlot never ceases to fascinate. It is usually a bit tannic, with little acidity and a fine note of spice.
Nostrano is a wine made from 80% Bondola grapes and 20% other European varieties, such as Freisa, Bonarda, or Malbec. This is the wine you’ll find easily in a “grotto,” an outdoor restaurant
with casual dining, a limited menu, and local specialties, especially in the realm of cheeses and wines.
Master Winemaker Guido Brivio
Guido Brivio is a winemaker with courage – he started his own wine company in 1988, even before
he finished his formal studies in oenology and has been thriving ever since. He came to the table (or the barrel) with a considerable genetic bent for wine – his family had been in the wine business
for 3 generations before him, but this didn’t prevent him from taking up formal wine studies in both
France and the United States, where he met his Michigan-born wife in California. Brivio is a shining example of Switzerland’s progressive winemakers, at the forefront of the wine business worldwide. With grapes that come from more than 80 different growers in the Menedrisio region of Ticino, he makes more than a dozen different world-class wines, among them the famous Bianco Rovere, a complex white wine vinified from red Merlot grapes. His wines are aged and stored in natural caves in the side of Monte Generoso, with more than 600 barrels dedicated to wood-aging of his finer wines.
Several different Merlots, an exceptional Rosé, Chardonnay, and multi-grape blends, including a Merlot-Cabernet, a Sauvignon-Semillon, and a Gamaret-Merlot are among the selections offered by Brivio.
Though I didn’t know Guido Brivio at the time, his white Merlot was one of the first Swiss wines I
ever wrote about, back in 2001, after tasting it a Terrance Brennan’s New York restaurant, Picholine. Fine wines are Brivio’s passion – and you can enjoy them right here in the United States
– ask your wine dealer to have a look around for them – they are here.
I Vini di Guido Brivio
Via Vignoo 8
Phone: 011 4191 646 0757
RECIPE: RUSTIC BREAD PUDDING CAKE FROM TICINO
TORTA DI PANE
Switzerland’s southernmost Italian-speaking canton of Ticino abounds in traditional recipes. This bread-based cake is a common offering in a grotto, a type of rustic mountainside restaurant, usually outdoors, that serves only the old specialties of the region – sliced cured meats, polenta with a
variety of homey toppings such as braised rabbit or a ragout of wild mushrooms, and of course, torta di pane for dessert. My version is based on one I tasted many times at my favorite grotto, Da Pierino, in Cureggia in the mountains above Lugano, where I have shared many happy meals with my friends from Ticino.
Makes one 10-inch cake, about 16 servings
1-pound loaf of French or Italian bread, firm or slightly stale, cut into 1-inch cubes 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 quart milk
6 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon alkalized (Dutch process) cocoa powder, sifted after measuring
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup (about 4 ounces) whole almonds, skinned or not, finely ground in the food processor 2 cups (about 10 ounces) dark raisins
Whole blanched almonds and pine nuts for topping the cake before baking
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Confectioners’ sugar for finishing
One 10-inch round cake pan, 2 inches deep, buttered and the bottom lined with a disk of buttered parchment or wax paper
1. Set a rack in the middle level of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.
2. Place the bread cubes in a large mixing bowl and scatter over the lemon zest. Bring the
milk to a simmer over medium heat and pour over the bread to cover it entirely. Let the
mixture stand for 10 minutes so that the bread absorbs the milk completely.
3. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs until they are broken up and whisk in the sugar in a
stream. Whisk in the cinnamon, cocoa, nutmeg, and vanilla. Stir in the soaked bread
mixture and then stir in the ground almonds and raisins.
4. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Decorate with the almonds pine
nuts in a symmetrical pattern. Dot the top of the batter with the butter.
5. Place the pan in the oven and immediately lower the heat to 350 degrees. Bake the cake for
about an hour, or until it is deep golden and a toothpick inserted in the center emerges dry.
6. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack.
7. Invert the cake to the rack and remove the pan and paper. Place platter on the cake and
invert onto the rack, firmly grasping both the rack and the platter to keep the cake from
sliding out. Remove the rack.
8. Dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar immediately before serving.
Serving: Cut into thin slices or even into squares – the latter way is how it is served in a grotto.
Storage: Keep the cake loosely covered with plastic wrap and at a cool room temperature on
the day you prepare it. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for longer storage. Bring the cake to
room temperature before serving again.