Lake Maggiore is situated on the border of Italy’s Lombardia and Piemonte regions; its northern arm extending all the way into southern Switzerland. It’s the second largest of the lakes in Italy, a breathtaking body of water framed by a backdrop of dramatic snow-capped alpine mountains; lovely, historic islands brimming with baroque villas and lush terraced gardens and the charming little town of Stresa.
The purpose of my first trip to Lake Maggiore was business. We wanted a weekend retreat – someplace close to Milan – where we could work out the details of our business plan and actually sign a contract. Paolo chose close-by Lake Maggiore. It was his intention that the location be as important as this seminal moment in our partnership – that it be a “contract-signing” kind of place. Paolo was, after all in the image business (Managing Director of a Milanese advertising firm) and wanted all the details to come together in one grand package.
My first clue that our weekend would be one of opulence and splendor was when Paolo arrived at our hotel in a stunning antique white Jaguar. Usually I am not one who notices cars. But I must say the sensual, flowing lines of a Jaguar have always caught my attention – and this particular one was breathtaking.
We stylishly entered Stresa and drove into the handsome vine-covered carport of the Grand Hotel Des Iles Borromees, a majestic hotel that exuded old world grandeur. Since the late 19th century this hotel has welcomed statesmen, aristocrats, intellectuals and famous authors from all over the globe. Ernest Hemingway set part of his novel A Farewell to Arms here. A room is even named in his honor and the hotel guest book displaying Hemingway’s signature stands proudly on a pedestal near the reception desk.
Many famous artists and writers were drawn to this lake’s beauty. French writer Stendahl wrote “What can one say of Lake Maggiore and the Borromean islands…except to pity people who do not go mad over them.” Byron, Dickens and Faubert also fell under its spell. Winston Churchill chose it for his honeymoon. Queen Victoria graced it with her royal presence. And today celebrities from countries around the world can be seen walking along its riverbanks or sipping a Campari and soda in one of many chic outside cafes.
The Hotel Des Iles Borromees is the grandest of the grand hotels in Stresa. We could feel the weight of its historic past as soon as we entered the Art Nouveau-style lobby. We chose a little alcove designed in the style of a belle epoch palace as the perfect place for our business discussions. It was quiet and away from the bustle of daily hotel activities.
Paolo showed us a variety of logos for our consideration – all drawn by his company’s art director. Our favorite was a design which featured two hands crossed over one another – one holding a glass of wine and the other a fork centered under a stylized grape leaf. An ancient Renaissance octagonal pattern encased the center design. Deep sienna and bright rust warmly highlighted the white of the hands and grape leaf. We were still uncertain as to the specifics of our project, but we all agreed that this logo – no matter what direction we chose for our business venture – conveyed our message about Italian food, wine and culture. (Convito uses this logo in all of its literature to this day.)
We were excited about our plans and made a “next steps” agenda focusing mostly on my impending regional education. Wanda was ready to begin teaching me the dishes of each region and Paolo was strategizing over the order and timing of our future regional visits.
When it came time for signing the contract, Paolo ordered a bottle of Moscato d’Asti to mark the occasion. It was a perfect afternoon sort of wine – light and crisp yet frizzante enough to convey celebration. And importantly, it was from the region. Bob had prepared a very detailed contract but one that was easily amendable as our plan evolved. Paolo pulled out his Montblanc pen. We both solemnly signed the contract. For me, this day was momentous, one I look back on as a day that changed the course of my life. And Paolo had staged it perfectly: a gorgeous lake location, a grand hotel, a perfect pen and glorious summer day .
That evening we continued our celebration over dinner at a lovely, intimate restaurant in nearby Arona – one of the best meals of our trip – a 6 course pre-fixe dinner. My favorite dish was the second – a vegetable tart with shrimp – light and summery – a dish that has forever lingered in my memory – as did this whole celebratory weekend.
Vegetable Torta Borrommees
with Sautéed Shrimp
I tested this recently with Convito Chef Noe Sanchez based once again on memory and notes from my journal.
4 – 3 inch pastry rings
1-cup chicken broth
4 small Yukon gold potatoes (total 10 ounces) washed, sliced into paper thin rings
1 small zucchini (approx. 4 oz) washed, sliced into paper-thin rings
1 medium tomato sliced into thin rings (12 slices total)
1 small red onion sliced into thin rings (soaked in water for 10 minutes)
4 mini basil bouquets
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
In a medium sized saucepan, heat the chicken broth and water over medium heat. When it begins to simmer, add the potatoes and gently simmer for approximately 3 minutes. Add the zucchini and simmer for another minute. Cooking time may vary. Vegetables should be tender but firm and not falling apart. Carefully drain onto a plate and cool.
To assemble, place the 4 rings on a cookie sheet
Begin with a layer of potatoes arranging them in a circular fashion overlapping slices
Do the same with the zucchini
Place 3 slices of tomato on top of the zucchini
Place 3 -4 slices of onion on top of the tomato slices
Continue with another layer of potatoes
Finish with another layer of zucchini
Place in a 350-degree oven for approximately 10 minutes just to heat through
12 peeled tiger shrimp (approximately ½ pound total)
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Season the shrimp with the salt, pepper and parsley
In a small sauté pan, heat the olive oil over high heat. Add the shrimp and sauté 1-½ minutes per side. Remove and set aside.
½ cup fresh tomato-basil sauce heated
To plate, place 2 tablespoons of tomato sauce in the center of a plate. Spread into a circle. Place the vegetable filled pastry ring into the center of the tomato sauce. Jiggle the ring to make sure the vegetables are stable. Slowly remove the pastry ring. Place 3 of the sautéed shrimp around the vegetables. Top the vegetables with a mini basil bouquet and serve.
Business details accomplished, we spent the next day touring the Borromean Islands, a group of three small islands and two inlets located in the western arm of the lake and just a short boat trip from our hotel. Isola Madre was our first stop; the most exotic of the islands overflowing with rare plants and flowers, ancient trees and a delightful population of peacocks and parrots helping to create the charm of a tropical island. Another short boat-ride took us to Isola Dei Pescatori. This old world fishing village where we had lunch at Ristorante la Pescheria is still stuck in time; its quaint streets in complete contrast to glamorous Isola Madre. After a glass of Gavi di Gavi, one of my favorite white wines of the region and a bowl of cheese ravioli with a simple tomato sauce, we continued on to Isola Bella the grandest of the islands – resplendent with a Baroque palace and luxurious raised terraces. After Dickens visited this island he wrote in one of his travel journals, “For however fanciful and fantastic the Isola Bella may be, it still is beautiful”. And author Edith Wharton described the gardens as “so unusual that they should be compared to Renaissance poetry, not to horticultural works.” I was equally, though not as eloquently, overwhelmed by its opulent beauty.
The palazzo has a wealth of rooms; the arms room, the medals room, the tapestry rooms, the music room, the Napoleon room to name just a few. To this day the Palazzo Borromeo on Isola Bella is the home of the Borromeo family. We saw no trace of them but I couldn’t help but wonder what living here would be like. How did they avoid the crowds? Where exactly were their quarters?
I returned to Lake Maggiore many times over the years. Particularly memorable was the voyage I made there in 1999. I was staying with a group of family and friends at Luigi Lazzaroni’s lake home in nearby Oriano. Luigi thought a boat trip was the best way to appreciate Maggiore and its many islands. The day of our scheduled journey, we awoke to cloud- covered skies, fog and even a slight misty rain. Luigi was concerned about visibility and disappointed that he would not be able to show off his beloved lake to its best advantage. But we went anyway. It may have been a different experience in bright sunshine but in a way, the dewy misty skies gave the ancient villas climbing the mountains and the many intriguing little towns dotting the shoreline a mysterious almost ethereal look. And we all looked forward to spending another day with Luigi and his wife Pucci. To the rest of us the weather was not a concern.
Our first stop was Rocca di Angera, a medieval castle in the southern part of the lake. The Torre Castellana at the top of the fortress is famous for its magnificent views but because of the fog, we stayed indoors and marveled at the 13th century frescos and the first Italian doll museum, one of the most important collections of its kind in Europe.
Our next destination was Isola Pescatori, one of the three most famous of the Borromeo islands. It has remained the same peaceful quiet little fishing village it has been for centuries. It looked the same as it did the last time I visited it. I enjoyed another meal in the little lakeside restaurant Ristorante la Pescheria. This time I ordered a salad with tuna (similar to a Nicoise) and a bottle of Vietti Arneis (Arneis literally means little rascal) so called because it is somewhat difficult to grow. I love the crisp, floral nature of this wine. Luigi ordered a dessert for the group to share. I had enjoyed fried foods in other parts of Piemonte but never fried apples. They were delicious. Below is the version I created back in Chicago. I think very similar.
1-teaspoon baking powder
¼ cup sugar
pinch of salt
zest of 1 lemon
3 ounces Mascarpone
2 – 3 large Granny Smith Apples
2 cups vegetable oil for frying
Combine the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a bowl. Mix well. Make a well in the middle. Crack the egg into the well and stir all ingredients until combined. Gradually add the water and the milk. Stir until the batter in smooth. Add half of the lemon zest (reserving the other half for garnish). Leave for 1 hour.
Peel and core the apples and slice them into ½ inch rounds (there should be 12 to 16 rounds. I use 3 rounds per serving.
In the meantime heat the oil in a heavy saucepan over high heat until hot. Heat should register 325 degrees (I use a candy thermometer to check the temperature). Dip each apple slice into the batter making sure each is well coated. Gently add 3 to 4 slices at a time into the hot oil. Fry until the batter turns a golden brown turning each round once (approximately 2 minutes per side). Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper toweling. Sprinkle both sides with granulated sugar and place 3 – 4 slices on each plate. Serve with a dab of Mascarpone sprinkled with the remaining lemon zest.
We set off for our last island visit – Isola Bella. I never tire of touring this magnificent palazzo with its deep historic ties to old world grandeur. But this time we were delighted to hear that we would be treated to present day grandeur. To our surprise Luigi had secretly arranged a visit with his friends, the actual residents of the palazzo – the legendary Borromeo family.
Luigi led us down the long serious 17th century hallway to the family residence where the Principe and Principessa Borromeo graciously welcomed us for tea in the family’s Empire-style salon. As I walked through their “home” my focus was pulled from one marvel to another: the beautiful furniture; the prints and paintings on the wall; the lovely crystal vase overflowing with freshly cut flowers. Finally I just decided to concentrate on the totality of the experience. Who doesn’t enjoy a cup of hot tea with an Italian royal family – the very family whose life and quarters I had tried to image back when I first visited this incredible island.
At the conclusion of our visit, we climbed back on the boat with Luigi still bemoaning the grey skies that he felt had ruined our voyage. How could he possibly know – how could I possibly tell him – what a magnificent day this turned out to be.