A fan of this column wrote to me after reading about our $300 lunch at El Cellar, suggesting that I forget writing about expensive places and focus on good food for good value.
But eating out isn’t just about the food; the experience is also important.
At this moment we are in Menaggio, Italy, on the west side of Lake Como. Across the lake I can see the famous tourist town of Bellagio, the hometown of West Hooker, the owner of Locanda Del Lago on the Third Street Promenade. Down the road a bit, just before the town of Como, is the famous Villa d’Este, reputed to be one of the finest hotels in the world. Rooms start at $1,000 a night if you are willing to forgo a lake view. We stopped in for a club sandwich, which we split, and were a bit surprised to see the price of $50. But it was quite a sight, and we were particularly impressed with the beautiful chandeliers made of Murano glass. It was an experience.
We are staying instead, in a small, Italian family-owned hotel for about $125 per night. We are saving our money for expensive lunches. And today we had one that was well worth the price, but mostly for the experience, more than the food.
That’s because we had to take a boat to get to the restaurant, which is located on the Comacina Island. The Isola Comacina is not easy to get to. We drove 15 minutes down the road to where there was a sign indicating the boat dock for the island. We walked down the long stone staircase to the dock, where we found a sign with the telephone number for the taxi boat. I dialed the number, and a friendly gentleman told me that today the boat would only be available from a different dock, about a mile further down the road.
We drove the extra mile and found the dock. At the marina, the skipper, who called himself the “commandant,” was waiting for us. The small boat rocked in the waves during the 10 minute ride to the island. The island is very small, and there is a path around it which takes about 20 minutes to circumnavigate. On the walk one sees the foundations of Roman ruins, and some better preserved ruins from early Christian churches. Everything was destroyed by the neighboring army of Como about 500 years ago, at which time some religious leader put a curse on the island.
At the end of the walk is the stone building housing the restaurant, Locanda dell’Isola. Up a flight of stone steps we entered into a comfortable lobby filled with pictures of famous people standing with Benvenuto Puricelli, the owner. Of course Arnold Schwarzenegger had been there several times, along with other famous stars from the Palisades and Santa Monica, presidents of various European countries, and Gina Lollobrigida looking about 18 years old.
The menu is the same for everyone, and we were told that it had not changed since 1947. A bottle of white Soave wine and a carafe of plain water were placed on the table. The fixed price is $100 per person.
First a loaf of hot, fresh baked bread arrived, which the waiter explained should be broken by hand. Then, on a side table, he placed six bowls of cooked, cold vegetables; very plain, perhaps boiled in salt water before chilled. The fava beans, yellow peppers, sweet onions and other dishes were delicious. Then he added two bowls of hot vegetables, very sweet dark beets and roasted onions, cooked so that the skin had peeled away and the centers were soft enough to spread on the bread. And then he brought a plate with a thick slice of ham and a mound of the famous braesiola, cured beef. It was a wonderful beginning, but we were wondering if we would be able to get through all of the food.
After some time, and a bit of conversation with the Irish-Australian couple at the next table, the bowls were cleared away and fresh plates brought. The waiter then showed up with a metal plate with a whole fish on it. This, he explained, was a salmon trout raised in a farm in a neighboring village. He proceeded to skin the fish, scrape out the bones, then sprinkled on sea salt, squeezed a whole lemon over it, poured on some of the rich local olive oil, and finished with a touch of pepper.
The result was amazing, and even my wife, who doesn’t usually like fish, cleaned her plate. The fish itself was no better than we get at home, but the preparation was superior.
The next course was fried chicken, which had nice crisp skin and the much stronger flavor that chickens in Europe usually have. I like our chickens better, but I like that crisp crust, made without batter.
Having taken a few bites of the chicken, the plates were cleared, and the waiter brought to the side table a large round of Grana cheese, from which he scooped out a nice piece for each of us. That was the cheese course. We asked him to skip the ice cream on the dessert, and he brought us a plate of sliced peach, on which he poured a local banana-flavored liqueur.
Suddenly there was a loud bell ringing as Benvenuto came in wearing a silly hat, ringing an old bell, and holding a microphone and large pail. He put the pail on a table and poured in various liquids while explaining the history of the island. I recognized the smell of the last liquid as coffee. Then he set the whole thing on fire, scaring the hell out of the young daughter of the Irish woman. He explained that this ancient ceremony was necessary to evade the medieval curse put upon the island.
Then he served up the liquored, delicious coffee in glasses for everyone. We paid the bill and staggered back to the little boat for the ride back to the car. I can’t say that this was a good value for the food, although we loved it. There were no great sauces, no complex creation, just plain, simple rustic foods, well prepared and well served. It was the experience that made the price worthwhile. The beautiful island with the restaurant tucked away on one side, the friendly service, the silly hat and ceremony — those are the parts that made it fun. Those looking just for good food at reasonable prices are missing the boat.
If You Go
Locanda dell’Isola Comacina
Ossuccio – Lago di Como
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.