Earlier on this blog, we wrote a post with some of our favorite recipes with delicious dishes from the Pertusinis, our owners, to local chefs we work with at our events. And they are delicious! This week, we thought we would change it up and give you recipes for traditional dishes served on Lake Como and in the surrounding area. The local cuisine is shaped on the one hand by the lake and its typical fish dishes, but also by the surrounding mountains that are renowned for cheese, game and wine. Sweets were a luxury in these parts until fairly recently, and the local recipes for desserts show how housewives of yore “stretched” their fairly meagre ingredients to provide a rare, special treat for their families. Whatever dishes you cook from this list, we hope it will serve as lasting reminder of your days at the Palazzo and a unique souvenir of Lake Como.
Fish is something you’ll see on every menu at Lake Como restaurants. Locals are blessed with a thriving population of succulent fish swimming in these waters, and have introduced strong conservation efforts and programs to keep it that way. The most prevalent species of fish on Lake Como are the European Perch, Brown, Rainbow & Lake Trout, Shad and Chub. Sport fishermen will enjoy trying to hook these beauties (Perch are known for putting up a fight and it is common to see Shad doing impressive cartwheels when hooked!), and the Palazzo staff would be happy to arrange angling expeditions with local guides for our guests.
One local specialty you might have trouble recreating at home is the ubiquitous Missoltino. Made with fresh shad, a sub-species of the herring family found in all of the lakes and rivers of the Como area, local fishermen salt their catch for 48 hours and then leave it to dry for a month or so in a cool, well-ventilated space. Then the fish is pressed into special containers to drain off the fat and covered in olive oil. After marinating for several months, locals serve Missoltino lightly grilled on a bed of creamy polenta. We recommend guests indulge in this characteristic Lake Como dish at one of the local lakeside restaurants you can reach by boat.
A lake fish dish you can definitely recreate back home is Risotto con Pesce Persico. This dish uses the European Perch, a renowned Italian delicacy for centuries and a familiar fish in Lake Como’s waters. Hobby anglers consider it a prize to land a good-sized perch; these big boys are known to fight and can reach a record-breaking length of 23 inches. Perch is low in fat and high in omega-3 fatty acids – making it good and good for you! – and pairs well with a creamy risotto made with the short fat grains of rice cultivated in Lombardy for centuries.
Ingredients (serves 6):
About 2 lbs of small perch filets*
1 lb of Risotto rice (preferably Carnaroli)
4-5 cups (33 fl oz) of vegetable broth
Fresh sage leaves
Dry white wine
* European perch is served in small filets, 3-6 per person as a rule. You can substitute lake perch, trout or walleye for the European perch, adjusting the measurements for portion size.
Peel and dice an onion. Melt about 2 Tbsp of butter in a large pot and fry the onion until golden. Add the rice and stir until it is translucent. Stir in half a glass of dry white wine, one ladle of broth and stir until the liquid is completely absorbed. Over the next approximately 20 minutes, add the broth bit by bit, allowing the liquid to be absorbed in between each addition.
While the risotto is cooking, dip the perch filets in butter, cover completely and shake to get rid of any excess flour. Melt about 3 tablespoons of butter in a frying pan and add a few leaves (or an entire stalk) of sage. Fry the perch filets over medium high heat, taking care to not let the butter burn and not to crowd the filets in the pan. Lay the fish on a plate with kitchen roll while you finish all of the filets.
When all of the fish is cooked, remove the cooked sage and any bits of fish or flour left in the pan, melt another tablespoon of butter along with more fresh sage in the same pan. When it just about starts to turn golden, remove from the heat. Place a mound of risotto on each plate, top with three or six filets of fish (depending on the size), one or two fresh sage leaves and drizzle with a bit of sage-infused butter.
Whether you are enjoying an elegant candlelit dinner with Lake Como’s waves lapping at your feet or nestled in a stone-clad mountain hut at 4,000 feet above the lake, polenta will likely be on your menu. This quintessentially Italian dish has been a key staple on the peninsula for millennia. The Romans made it with the ancient grain farro and other flours like buckwheat, rye, spelt and even chestnut were common until corn was imported to Europe from America in the 16th century. This filling, cheap and readily available dish was a key source of nutrition for scores of Italians during many a lean year and – like many examples of “cucina povera” or cuisine of the poor – eventually found its way into the canon of Italian food. Today, it has pride of place on the kitchen tables of families across Italy as well as the menus of the country’s finest restaurants.
Several different types of polenta have a long tradition in Lake Como and environs. Polenta Taragna is found in the Valtellina valley and in Lecco, a mixture of coarse cornmeal and mountain cheese made in a copper pot and stirred with a wooden stick known as a “tarell”. Polenta Uncia (loosely translated as greasy or fatty) uses a mixture of buckwheat and cornmeal as the base, adding garlic, fresh sage and copious amounts of butter and mountain cheese for a real stick-to-your-ribs treat. Pult is a treat many on Lake Como remember their grandmothers cooking. A very soft polenta made with wheat and cornmeal, ladled into a bowl and then topped with a cup of cold milk. Often, day-old polenta was also sliced and grilled or fried as a side dish for stew, soup or cooked vegetables.
Toc is a real institution in and around Bellagio – a celebratory feast typically prepared for special occasions like weddings and baptisms and a two-for-one deal with dinner and (liquid) dessert from the same pot. Using local produce – stone ground cornmeal from a nearby molino and milk, butter and cheese from the cows grazing the hills – the few ingredients it requires were readily available to everyone. Toc is not necessarily part of a balanced diet; this exceedingly rich dish with loads of butter and cheese is eaten no more than a few times per year. The traditional copper cauldron sits at the center, with everyone gathered in a circle around it, taking their portion straight from the pot with a wooden spoon, shaping it into bite-sized balls and – gasp! – eating it with their hands. After dinner, the same pot is used for a decadent dessert of mulled wine. Salute!
Per person (we know, it’s a lot!), use
1 cup of good quality polenta
2 cups of water
2 sticks of butter
2 cups of grated farmhouse cheese
As any good toc-maker (like our very own Alessandro Pertusini!) knows, the simplicity of the ingredients is deceptive. Start by boiling the water, then whisk in the polenta to prevent lumps. It can take up to two hours to cook a good polenta – the trick to making it perfect is to keep the heat low, give it a good stir every few minutes and never let it stick to the bottom of the pan. When it starts to thicken and pull away from the side of the pan, it’s time to add the butter. After the butter is incorporated, add the cheese and keep stirring until the creamy, rich mix has the consistency similar to scrambled eggs. Now it’s time for everyone around the pot to grab the rodech (traditional wooden spoon), take their portion and share this unforgettable culinary experience with a side of storytelling and a dash of laughter – but it’s not over yet!
The fun really begins when the pot is (almost) empty. Place the pot back on the fire, add a bottle or two of red wine, a few cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, sugar, orange and lemon zest and an apple cut into pieces. This unusual mulled wine – called ragell in the local dialect – gets its characteristic flavor from the bits of polenta and cheese that are still in the mix. Especially adventurous chefs may add a spot of brandy and flambé the lot for an extravagant touch, before placing it back in the center of the group and dipping in the spoons again. This is Italian cuisine at its most authentic – using simple, local ingredients, prepared with love and shared with family and friends.
Dessert was a luxury many people native to Lake Como could only rarely afford. Sugar was scarce, refined white flour even more so, and the local housewives were forced to improvise and make do with the ingredients that were available. Miascia, a dessert found all around Lake Como, uses stale bread as a base and adds apples, pears and dried fruit for sweetness. Cookies, like Pan de Mej made with millet flour or Nocciolini di Canzo made with hazelnut flour, were served on holidays accompanied by milk or cream as a special treat. And several versions of sweet focaccia, like Braschino with dried fruits and topped with a sweet egg white wash or Masigott with pine nuts, walnuts and candied orange peel, have a long tradition on Lake Como.
One dessert we are particularly fond of here at the Palazzo is the crepe-like concoction known here as Paradel, Cutizza or Laciada – maybe because Giovanna is an expert in making it! In the especially lean years, the recipe for Cutizza was a simple mix of flour and water, fried in oil and topped with sugar, marmalade or fresh fruit. A richer version substituted milk or a combination of milk and water for the liquid, producing a richer version known as Laciada. Paradel, at least in Giovanna’s version, adds chopped apple to the pan as the crepe cooks, taking care (and she’s very insistent on this!) to only barely cook the apple so that it still has some bite. In today’s indulgent times, it’s hard to believe that sweets like this were once a cherished rarity. But if our kitchen is any indication, home cooks who master this simple recipe and serve it with a generous dusting of powdered sugar are very popular!
Ingredients (serves 2):
1 cup of flour (Type 00 if available or sifted all-purpose flour)
1/2 cup of milk
1 chopped yellow apple
Pinch of salt
2 teaspoons of sugar (or to taste)
1 tablespoon of butter
Beat the eggs with the sugar and then add the flour a few spoons at a time, mixing well after each addition to prevent lumps. Whisk in the milk and salt. Melt butter in a skillet over medium-high heat, taking care not to brown it. Add one ladle of the mixture, heat briefly until firm on the bottom. Right before flipping, add a few chopped apples and cook the other side – just long enough to set. Slide the finished paradel onto a plate, sprinkle powdered sugar on top and enjoy while it’s still hot!