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Italy may well be the loveliest country on earth

It was the pizzas that got me.

As you probably know, though Italy invented the pizza, it was America that made it famous. Italy then quickly tried to catch up: after all, what Italian immigrants to the US could do, Italians back home could do better, right?


Well, yes and no. Because contrary to what we may think, pizzas are not a regular part of the diet in every Italian home. They started out as a regional thing and the best pizzas are still made in Naples in the South. Naples pizzas are nothing like American fast food pizzas. They are large with blistered raised edges and moist areas in the centre. They spend very little time in a very hot oven and should, ideally, be consumed soon after they are ready.


   There is another kind of pizza, the so-called Roman pizza, which is thinner and more even in texture, which conforms to what the rest of the world thinks of as pizza. But till recently, it was hard to find good pizzas of any kind in the North of Italy. It was, I guess, I little like looking for good dosas in Ludhiana (or good kulchas in Trivandrum). And outside of the South, the Roman pizza seemed to dominate.


   But this time, I travelled through Lombardy, in the North, and found pizzerias everywhere. Pizzas turned up on every menu. At the Grand Hotel Victoria in Menaggio (more about which later), where I was staying, the restaurant manager suggested I try the pizza. He must have seen my face, because he added, “I am from Sicily and the pizza chef is from Naples. I can promise you that it will be a real pizza”. And indeed it was.


   Later in the trip, in the smallish town of Bergamo, an hour from Milan, I was startled by the number of pizzerias. At first, I thought they were all meant for foreign tourists but the language I heard at every table was Italian. And every single place I visited served Naples pizzas not the Roman version.


   None of the pizzas, in Bergamo, it must be admitted, was very good. (It’s like: when was the last time you had an outstanding dosa in Bhatinda?) But the Italians were not complaining.


   What many of us don’t realise, till we get there, is that Italy has enormous regional variations. There is, first of all, the matter of language. They all speak Italian now but there are also distinctive local dialects that are still widely spoken. Even the food, as we have seen, can vary. It is probably an oversimplification but the North (which includes Lombardy) is much more European, keen on blander food and fond of dairy products.  It is the South that forms the basis of the caricatures of Italian food all over the world: fresh herbs, olive oil, tomatoes, garlic etc.


   But no matter which part you go to, it is hard to dispute that Italy may well be the most beautiful country in the world. It isn’t just the natural beauty, it is the elegance and splendour of the construction and design of every city and every town. There is a surprise at every corner.


"He allowed the wedding party to take over a public piazza and a whole street to set up a long table for 240 guests who dined on pasta and drank Tignanello while musicians played and dancers performed."

   We began and ended our journey in Milan staying for a day each way at the Westin Palace. If your sole experience of the Westin brand is in India or the rest of Asia, then you will expect modern American-style hotels. But in Italy, every Westin can be a surprise. The Westin Palace in Milan turned out to be an old hotel where no two rooms were alike and where our room had wooden panelling and marble bathrooms. (The Westin in Rome is the Excelsior Hotel, the grandest Rome hotel of my childhood, and the historic Westin in Venice has now been upgraded to a St. Regis, alas, with rates to match!)


   And then there are the grand hotels of Lombardy. I have stayed in Lake Como before at the Villa d’Este, but there is now a new grand hotel to reckon with. Villa d’Este is in Cernobbio, which along with Bellagio, is one of the two Como towns you are most likely to have heard of.


   But there is also Menaggio which, to be honest, I had not heard of before. This may have been because the town lacked a grand hotel. This has now been set right with the opening of the Grand Hotel, Victoria. I spoke to Michele Spaggiari, the schoolteacher who is also the Mayor of Menaggio, and he told me how keen he was to attract Indian visitors to his lovely little town.


   I was there for a friend’s wedding (in the interests of protecting their privacy, I will not name the bride and groom or their many well-known guests) and wondered what Menaggio could offer that Cernobbio etc. could not.


   It turned out that Michele was deadly serious about his commitment to attracting visitors. He allowed the wedding party to take over a public piazza and a whole street to set up a long table for 240 guests who dined on pasta and drank Tignanello while musicians played and dancers performed. I have seen grand chateau/palace weddings. But I had never seen anything like that.


   The groom is a global foodie, so that meant that all of the dining was spectacular. The wedding dinner was cooked by Mauro Colagreco, the chef whose restaurant Mirazur has three Michelin stars and has been the number one restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Even a simple pool party had barbecue organised by David Pynt of Bunt Ends, who had flown in from Singapore for the event.


   After the wedding, we went to Lake Garda, Lake Como’s less affluent cousin, and it was absolutely stunning, too: blue skies and the bluest water I have seen in a long time.


   And then there is the food. You can eat badly in Italy (and I sometimes did on this trip) but if you pick wisely, steer clear of the very scenic places (some of which take the line that now that you have got the view, you shouldn’t worry too much about the food) and stick to smaller family-run establishments, it is hard to go wrong.


   Admittedly it was located by the side of a busy highway, but I loved the food at Dalie e Fagioli near Lake Garda, where the lady who owns it fed us delicious pasta with recently picked fresh porcini mushrooms.


   And who can top Da Vittorio, near Bergamo? It is one of Italy’s greatest restaurants with three Michelin stars (since 2010) and is still run by the Cerea family whose love of food extends from the excellence of the kitchen to the warmth in the dining room. Set in acres of gardens (the restaurant also has 14 deluxe rooms for people who want to use it as a hotel), it has many signature dishes. The most famous though is the least pretentious: paccheri (a large tubular pasta) in tomato sauce. You would think that there is nothing to it. But the sauce is so perfect that you marvel at the elegance of its simplicity.


   Of course, not everything is wonderful. Italy is a little like India, so expect some hassles. It was very hot when we were here and most places have no air-conditioning. Also, there was a drought and the power grid was under pressure, so the Mayor of Milan had asked the few air conditioned shops not to lower the temperature below 26º, which is like no air conditioning at all. And as if all this was not enough, the taxi drivers declared a wild cat strike.


   But when a country is so beautiful and the food can be so good, who cares?


   Not me, for sure.


Posted On: 08 Jul 2022 11:30 AM
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