The spirit of the Italian Lakes
Within 10 minutes of leaving the golden-hued lakeside wine country and joining the road to Switzerland, the climate and the scenery become distinctively Alpine. Lake Lugano is set in a valley of extraordinary beauty, half in Italy and half in Switzerland. This region, known as Ticino, is home to most of the five per cent of Swiss people who are Italian speakers. It is also home to another clutch of the international super-rich, who prefer – as the local joke goes – to live the Italian lifestyle with Swiss organisation. Away from the expensive restaurants that line Lugano’s shore, authentic Ticinese cuisine is simple and delicious. When locals invite guests to eat in a ‘grotto’, they do not mean a cave. A Ticinese grotto is an old-fashioned type of restaurant in a cottage, serving one or two homemade dishes. The usual dishes are minestrone soup and polenta with stew. Grotto Pierino is next to the San Gottardo church in the hills above Lugano, off the beaten path and therefore quite possibly unknown to celebrities. It was opened 43 years ago by the late Pierino Cassina to feed pilgrims who hiked to the church. Now, his daughter-in-law, Maria, runs the grotto. ‘I’m from Portugal,’ Maria explains. ‘But I married into this Ticinese family and learned to cook like this from my motherin- law. In a grotto, the food must be Ticinese. Some places that call themselves ‘grottos’ now serve a whole range of dishes, but that makes them restaurants – which are really a different thing. A grotto is a family place.’ She takes a long wooden paddle, the shape and size of a hockey stick, and stirs the copper cauldron of buckwheat polenta, which bubbles away volcanically over the open fire. The grotto is packed for lunch. Most of the diners are neighbours and friends of the family. Everybody seems to know each other by name, laughing and slapping each other on the back. Today, Maria serves the polenta with a thick, savoury rabbit stew and sliced beef in red wine. The meal finishes with nocino – a local grappa the colour of tar, infused with cloves and walnuts. The stuffed head of a deer, which was shot by Pierino in Caccia in 1977, stares balefully at the bar, as if it wouldn’t mind a glass itself.
Grotto Pierino (Centro Paese, Quartiere Cureggia, Lugano).