Monday, March 24, 2008

A Birthday in Locarno

I officially got 1 year older last week. I won’t say exactly how old I am (hint: it rhymes with “thirty”), but Maggie now claims that I have joined “The Old Club”. I just hope I don’t have to go to meetings. For whatever reason, I like looking at lists of famous people that share birthdays with myself and other people I know - just try entering your birthday on Wikipedia, you find out all sorts of interesting things that happened on that day, and you get a kind of Fantasy Birthday lineup of notables to compare with your friends. It turns out that I share a birthday with such notables as Ovid, Henrik Ibsen, Spike Lee, Holly Hunter, and Hal Linden (the star of Barney Miller). Admittedly, this list could be more impressive and I think my Fantasy Birthday team is a bit lacking in depth. Maggie gets Queen Elizabeth I, and I get Mr. Rogers - it doesn’t seem fair really. My friend James gets John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich and inventor of the sandwich, I get Mookie Blaylock.

The view from our hotel room at the undisclosed location

For my birthday this year, Maggie decided to surprise me with a trip to an undisclosed location. Due to a combination of factors, i.e., a) her desire to spill the beans, and b) my need for some cheering up on a particularly dreary London day a few weeks ago, I discovered the secret of our destination well before my actual birthday. Because I have often reminisced about the wonderful time my brother and I spent eating our way through the Italian lakes region, Maggie booked us a trip to one of my favorite spots, Locarno, Switzerland. Locarno sits in the Swiss canton of Ticino, just over the border from Italy on the northern tip of Lake Maggiore, only a little over an hour drive from Milan’s Malpensa Airport. Ticino has a wonderful mixture of cultures picking the best aspects from surrounding regions: the great food, wine, laid-back culture, and some of the Mediterranean climate of northern Italy, combined with the nice hotels, trains, and nonexistent potholes of Switzerland.

Shore of Lake Maggiore in Minusio

Locarno is one of the best known of the lake towns, and attracts a fair number of tourists, particularly during the Summer. Even now, very much off-season, Locarno proper was at times busy, most likely due to the Easter holiday. We stayed out of the bustle in the quiet village of Minusio, just up the shore from the main part of Locarno and an easy walking distance from all of the restaurants and sights. Minusio is home to Ristorante Campagna, a truly remarkable restaurant whose name is uttered with reverence by members of my family and by locals of the area. You won’t find anything about this restaurant online or in any book that I have seen, but this is one of my top restaurants on the planet.

The front, or maybe back, of Ristorante Campagna

is not especially fancy, the food isn’t presented in any splashy way, and it isn’t even particularly expensive. I’m not even sure where the actual front door is or if they have one. Imagine perfect Italian grandma-cooked food - simple, rustic, fresh, incredibly flavorful food that pleases your soul as much as your palate, food that has been passed down and hasn’t changed for generations - this is the food at Campagna. The view of the lake from the restaurant is also spectacular. When I was here 7 years ago with my brother, the weather was very warm and we ate outside on the vine-covered deck watching the sun sink behind the Alps, watching boats glide by below on Lake Maggiore, watching a local cat prowl through the restaurant garden from which our salad was picked, meanwhile eating homemade sage and ricotta ravioli while sipping on the house-made Nostrano wine. I’ll stop gushing now; just go.

View of Lake Maggiore from the terrace at Campagna

Starter courses at Campagna. Stop staring at the ravioli, it's mine.

Other than Campagna, we were a bit at a loss to find other good restaurants. Recommendations are hard to come by online for the area, and guidebooks either focus on the Italian lake towns and barely mention anything over the Swiss border or focus on the more “Swiss” parts of Switzerland. The restaurants that are easy to find, such as those right on the lake or the central plaza, are clearly targeting tourists, very expensive, and mostly mediocre. Following one tip we found, we went for dinner one evening to Grotto Baldoria in the nearby, preposterously pretty village of Ascona. After several misturns in the ancient labyrinthine alleys of Ascona, we finally got to the restaurant at around 7:00, and found the place totally empty. I normally run from empty restaurants, but we were hungry and had no other prospects so we stayed put, plus 7:00 is ridiculously early for dinner to most Italians. We were seated at the end of a large communal dining table in a room that appeared to have been decorated over the course of 500 years by wildly eccentric and possibly slightly drunk Italian fishermen, and, much to our relief, other diners soon began pouring in.

The menu at Grotto Baldoria

We quickly noticed that there was no menu to be found, nor any indication of the price of anything, and food just began showing up on our table. We prayed that we had enough cash on us. We sat with a nice Swiss couple who spoke mostly in Swiss-German and a little English to us (we had an amusing conversation about Alcatraz and Clint Eastwood), and there was a French couple, a few groups speaking Italian, as well as some diners speaking in a more standard German dialect. Listening to all of the conversations and picking up bits and pieces was extremely entertaining, but it uncomfortably highlighted the inadequacies of American schooling in the languages (or at least mine). At random intervals, someone in an adjoining room would pick up an out of tune classical guitar and strum a few random chords, or just strum open strings for a few minutes and then stop, probably to go back and stir something in the kitchen.

The food at Grotto Baldoria was very good and homey, rustic to the point of being almost mysterious, and the whole experience was like a slightly surreal dinner party at a distant friend’s house. One course consisted of thinly sliced pig tongue with a vinegary garlic dressing. I tried to conceal the exact identity of the meat from Maggie, but one of our Swiss companions stuck out her own tongue and pointed at it excitedly for Maggie. Maggie gets major points for continuing to eat it, and I get at least a few demerits for trying to trick her into unknowingly eating pig tongue. At one point, due to a series of mistranslations along our table, we became convinced that the dessert we could see across the room was some local specialty made of meat. Luckily, it was a cake (with no meat), with a fruit jam topping. The proprietor wouldn’t tell us what fruit, it was secret. Speaking of secrets, we still had no idea what this whole meal was costing us, and it was thankfully quite cheap. If you find yourself in Ascona (a nice place to find yourself), Grotto Baldoria is highly recommended for good local food and an unforgettable experience.


Doug said...

wow, that sounds incredible. Happy Birthday Andy!

Cab said...

Is it painful to write that well? Great pics, another thoroughly satisfying read. But, I have you both beat. I share my b-day with 2 American Idols, Ruben Studdard and Jennifer Hudson, and Berry White (So I, apparently, need to gain some weight and get a tan!) And Peter Scolari(Bosom Buddies, Newhart)! Sending you warmest b-day wishes, welcome to the old club!!!

RWAppleWannabe said...

Happy belated birthday, Andy, and you've made me want to visit Locarno.

Good job eating that tongue. I couldn't have done it.

Anonymous said...

Locarno. I didn't get no stinkin' trip to Locarno for my birthday. Sage ravioli, you bastards.

I'm the exact same age as Lance Armstrong and Jada Pinkett Smith. Neither of which have white hair yet.

Anonymous said...

Neither of whom, not which. Though I don't really think of either of them as people.

Jordan said...

did you see dick cheney at the undisclosed location???

Andy M. said...

Luckily no Dick Cheney, although that would have made for some good pictures.

Anonymous said...

Grotto Baldoria.....know it well. I would like to do something like that here in the states. Yum....,