15 May 2011

LIFE: Lovely Lugano

SARONNO, Italy –  One of the advantages of living in Saronno is the easy access to parts north, specifically Lugano, Switzerland. Friends of mine from my Genova days keep an apartment there and when they are in town, like they are now, I try to go to see them. And when friends and/or relatives from the States come to visit, going to Switzerland for lunch is always an adventure - even if it only takes a little more than an hour by train to get there. 

 Lake Lugano
Lugano is in the Italian speaking Canton of Ticino, the part of Switzerland that borders Italy.  At different times I’ve tried to find out how and why Switzerland came to be divided into three cantons, each speaking a different language, German, French and Italian, but their history is as full of holes as their cheese. There are references to Napoleon Bonaparte, the Duke of Milan and Austrian mercenary troops, treaties and agreements, wars won and wars lost, and frankly it is a bit too complicated for me.  

There are not a lot of “touristy” things to see in Lugano. There are a lot of banks and other types of financial institutions which are not particularly interesting to look at, but the center of town is picturesque and pretty, with a special charm that is totally Swiss. Last weekend the center was dressed in its springtime best, with flowers blooming everywhere, in all the parks, along the lake and in giant flower pots that added a touch of whimsy to this othewise serious financial center.  There was an outdoor auto show which brought in thousands of visitors just for the chance to see the latest Mercedes, Ferraris and BMW's, and there may have even been a Bently or two. 

Red is my favorite color
In the past couple of years they have re-beautified the narrow winding streets of the old center. Some outdoor shops have gone indoor, but it still feels like Old Europe. The fruit and vegetable stands are still out on the street, and they add their bit of color with bins of yellow and red peppers, beautiful heads of pale green lettuce flecked with burgundy, bulby artichokes and silky dark green strands of barba di frate. And even though the Swiss don’t like to admit it, Lugano is very, but very Italian.

Love these giant flowerpots
During the summer music festivals are held in Piazza Riforma, the town’s main square. The Lugano Festival is dedicated to classical music and runs during April and May. World renowned orchestras and soloists perform at the dozen or so concerts. The Estival Jazz arrives in July and everyone from Miles Davis to Dizzy Gillespie has played at this important Swiss event. In August and early September, the town rocks with the Blues to Bop Festival. These free open-air summer concerts draw thousands to this little town. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

There is also a museum of modern art, the Museo d’Arte Moderna of the City of Lugano, that regularly offers interesting and varied exhibits. Two other museums worth mentioning are the Alprose Chocolate Museum, which tells the story of the Swiss chocolate making and, the Hermann Hesse Museum, which is  just  south of Lugano in Montagnola  where the Noble Prize winning author lived half of his life.

But to tell you the truth, I have never been to the museums, but I have been to a couple of the concerts and if you plan to go, take my advice and get there early as seating is limited.  My favorite thing to do in Lugano is just hang out with my friends. We go for coffee, we take walks, we do a little shopping, but mostly we talk.

 Piazza Riforma
Saturday night we walked into the center of town and had dinner at my favorite Swiss pizzeria, the Argentino, on the edge of Piazza Riforma. Mr. A and I had pizza. He ordered the large, since he is large, and they brought him a yard long pizza on a wooden cutting board. Mine was regular size and that is big enough. I love their pizza, it’s thin and crispy just like the pizza in Saronno. Mr. and Mrs. T opted instead for the spaghetti alla carbonara.  

The next night we had a most splendid dinner at a lakeside restaurant that I had never been to before. The restaurant is called Antico Ristorante dell Porto, and it is right on the lake, near the harbor and the Lugano Yacht Club. Tables are set out under enormous umbrellas that just clear the branches of the giant chestnut trees that are like a mini-forest in front of the restaurant. There’s a great view of the lake, the boats in the harbor and the hills beyond. It’s a spectacular setting and I’m hoping to get back there at least once more before they go back to the States.

The food is basically Italian, and the night we were there they were offering a special “spring” menu, featuring all the traditional springtime foods like lamb, asparagus, baby carrots, zucchini and tiny new potatoes. 

Boats at the Lugano Yacht Club
We all ordered risotto with zucchini that were no bigger than your little finger.   As a second course Mr. A ordered the lamb chops and I ordered veal scallopine in a mushroom sauce.  Our dinners came with tiny carrots, zucchini and the smallest roasted potatoes I’ve ever seen.  Mr. and Mrs. T both started with a cream of asparagus soup and after their risotto, they quit. I’d never enter them in a food eating contest, I can tell you that. It was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend. With a soft and warm springtime breeze coming in off the lake, and us making ‘oh this is so yummy’ sounds, as the sun slowly set behind us.

Back at the apartment, the lights of the villages that sit on the slopes of the mountains were a sparkling background to the lights of the city, and behind them  the smoky dark outline of the mountains that embrace the town.

Auntie Pasta is back! Look for new food news and views post this Thursday May 19th. Oh Yeah!

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