Lake fish and quirky, regional dishes, Como packs a unique punch in Italy's cuisine culture.
Como hosts over a million visitors every year and most flock to the grand, lake-side city where you're spoilt for choice of good places to at. We always say skip the tourist menus and tuck into local cuisine because that's where you'll find the best of the land along with an Italian region's pride and joy. Just like in Venice, lose your map and go get lost in the quieter streets while drifting towards the the loud buzz of locals. A strong dialect is ingrained so whilst you might not pick up much Italian, if you follow your nose and ears, you'll find the best places to dine.
TOP TIP!: Look out for menus scribbled onto chalk boards meaning the ingredients are fresh from morning markets and dishes have been decided that day. We heartily recommend osteria food where you won't find a classically 'tourist menu' pasta carbonara, lasagne alla bolognese or pizza, instead, you'll find fresh, flavourful offerings and perhaps discover something new, always accompanied by glasses of wonderful, local wine.
The lake's name in Latin is Larius, Lario in Italian, but few refer to it as this, except when talking food. Larian cuisine has a distinctive 'mountain' influence and while polenta features everywhere as local comfort food, lake fish is their true love, taking prize spot on every dining table.
Let's look at what to order in Como, and all along her sunny lake shores...
On any lake or sea shore in Italy, fish and shell fish dishes are expected, these make the perfect antipasto.
Insalata di Piovra - warm octopus 'salad' of boiled potatoes, olives and capers, drizzled in local Lombardian/Larian olive oil.
Missoltini (Misultitt or Missultin in dialect) are Como's fish delight! Once preserved these last a year thus have always been a prized part of the lake's food culture. Shad fish are caught in May/June, cleaned (with the insides kept aside to make Culadur), salted and dried in the sun for some days, threaded open-mouthed in a wide circle. The dry fish are then packed into a particular wooden or tin 'bucket' called the misssolta in layers of salt and bay leaves. A wooden, weighted cover is screwed down to keep the fish in the missolta under constant pressure until they are ready to be eaten as Missoltini in October. Adored around here grilled lightly and dressed with vinegar and olive oil, they're traditionally served alongside Larian polenta with a glass of red wine.
Culadur is another local speciality to order! A tasty sauce made from the shad interiors while making Missoltini, is spread onto toasted polenta or slices of bread as a local antipasto. The fish insides are sauteed with onion, white wine, lemon zest, breadcrumbs and cheese to make a rich local speciality you simply must try if you spot it on the menu.
Larian primi are usually substantial, as most Italian primi are. Primi means first, secondi second. In Italy you're generally expected to have both, plus the antipasto and dessert, and coffee if you're taking lunch seriously. But no need to rush - the time to eat, talk and savour your meal is most key of ingredients in Italian cooking, meaning you can easily get through a four or five course meal nessun problema, all you need is a long, lazy afternoon.
I ordered Pizzoccheri Valtellinesi in quaint, lake-side Menaggio as a local dish from the small Valley of Valtellina nearby. Thick, handmade buckwheat pasta in a potato, cabbage and casera cheese sauce made a hearty primo giving you the feeling you're at higher altitudes, rather than on the water. Como is a northern, hilly province of Italy thus draws on Alpine food culture especially in its cheeses, pasta dishes and polenta.
Polenta is staple food, cooked with yellow maize flour or with buckwheat. It's found in variants according to households and occasions but this next dish you won't find on a menu but at a party...
If you're ever invited somewhere and Toc is mentioned, accept!
The richness of this lake dish and its quirky ritual incorporates so much of what's to love about Italian food culture - simple ingredients made extra special and turned into a celebration of particular note - this one is funny 'peculiar', are you ready?
The ancient tradition of 'The Toc' begins centuries ago in the gorgeous town of Bellagio and only at very special occasions such as weddings and baptisms. Farmers would come together and bring their simple wares for in a magical culinary display taking centre stage in the celebrations.
Toc features the most basic of ingredients but cooked with the utmost of skill; one slight slip of the hand, and all goes belly-up. Thus, the official toc-maestro would take their place and begin the delicate ritual in a show of immense talent.
Enormous quantities of butter, cheese and polenta are added to a central cauldron, around which the party guests sit in a circle, as is tradition to this day.
Polenta flour and water are mixed on a moderate flame in an enormous pot until the sides come away and we know the polenta is ready. 200g of cheese and 200g of butter (per person!) is then added to be stirred with a rodech in a very precise manner ensuring that the butter is correctly incorporated. This is the crucial moment because if not done correctly, the Toc will suddenly release the butter and become completely inedible!
After the abundantly rich Toc is devoured, ragell is ready to be prepared in the same cauldron by the maestro. No need to clean much here, we're looking for that rustic polenta taste... copious amounts of red wine are now poured into the pot with the addition of spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves. Add sugar, lemon zest and an apple (sounding a lot like mulled wine) and then comes the magical bit - as the wine is heated, the alcohol catches alight and the cauldron produces flames in an extravagant, blazing show of light to the sounds of 'Ahhh!' - the ragell is ready.
The beverage is served from the centre of the room in a wooden bowl passed around the circle with a celebratory sip so everybody feels united in one dish and one bowl in one important celebration.
Don't you love it?
Wine, cheese, butter, polenta and a cauldron = one dramatic feast.
You'll always find lake fish featuring in Como secondi as fritto misto - deep-fried catch of the day, these are lightly battered and fried quickly, served with polenta.
Another delicious, fresh option is grilled lake fish - shad or bleak, chub or perch, pike, trout or lavarello perhaps added to a menu breaded and fried with sage leaves.
One authentically local dish from the lake is fish 'in Carpione'. Freshly-caught, fried and marinated in a sauce featuring wild thyme picked from between the rocks on local stone walls sauteed with garlic, onion, chives, sage and vinegar and poured over the fish in a flavourful special.
Polenta Taragna is special because while it's not an amazingly complex dish, it's an integral part of the food culture, made simply from buckwheat and often found seasoned with garlic and local herbs. Perfect with slices of local Como cheese...
Cheeses from the hills surrounding lake Como are traditionally aged in naturally-temperature controlled caves. Gorgonzola originates near Milano, not far away, with a legend or two to it's name! Have a read here.
We love to order a tagliere when visiting a new part of Italy, or returning, in fact, always... a wooden board full of local cured meats and cheeses to discover what the area has to offer.
You'll find an incredible selection of cheeses in this area, after fish, it's what they love most. Valle d'Intelvi is a close by valley renowned for a couple of truly unique dairy products which, if you're a cheese-lover, will beckon you closer... Casoretta is a creamy cow and goats milk cheese used to flavour pasta dishes and polenta, Semuda is a well-known, low-fat cheese and Furmaggit is loved by the people of the area, seasoned with herbs, marinated in oil or pepper. Another peppery cheese to try in Como is the Zincarlin - seasoned ricotta covered in a black pepper crust and aged for one year to produce a strong, tangy cheese not to be missed!
With all the wines the country has to offer, these lands have allegedly never been known for their wines but in recent years the territory has worked hard to form an alliance of 19 local wineries as the Consorzio IGT Terre Lariane ensuring unique, high-quality produce, adding the local, hardy vine Verdese to their fields and successfully creating bright reds and golden whites they're now very proud of. Como restaurants strive to promote the Consorzio so if you spot local wines on the menu or in an osteria, go give Como Rosseia, Merlot and Sangiovese a try and see what you think.
A quirky Lombardian drink must be mentioned and ordered if you find it, the rosümada, a fascinating, ancient tonic aimed to provide instant energy. Whipped eggs and sugar are skillfully incorporated into local red wine and drunk there and then to harness the full effect of the tonic. Italian's believe in the power of eggs and sugar - just look at the history of Tiramisu!
Much of Larian food is hearty and flavoured with their land's and lake's produce, the Miascia is a traditional bread-based dessert served warm if you're lucky. Apples, pears, pine nuts, raisins, dark chocolate and occasionally Amaretti biscuits go into this ballsy cake dating back to ancient times.
You'll find Cutizza on a Como menu but as beautiful as a simple pancake can be, to me the Masigott is much more alluring - rustic and crumbly, this moon-shaped dessert brings together so much of this land - buckwheat, pine nuts, raisins and candied oranges - buonissima!
It's a fascinating place, Como, with much more than luxury villas, calming waters and lovable towns. A rich culinary history with a deep love of the land and a strong sense of local pride can be tasted in the cooking around here so to put the cherry on top of your lake trip go search out the local food because a unique marriage of territories, diverse in landscape and produce, makes the most unusual and quirky of traditions to try in the Province of Como - buon appetito!