Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Italian Tryst Day One - Sunday 28th October 2018

The Italian Tryst - October and November 2018

Write up of a seven day bus trip across Northern Italy by me and some of my Malaysian Foodie and Winey friends, taking in Lake Como, Bolgheri, Alba and Milan. Dear Leader said we were a Tryst of pilgrims on another wine and restaurant and food adventure, so we became Trystians. Photos mostly by me, though some filched from the Facebook pages of Chan May Peng, Wong Yin-How and David Teh.  

Day One - Sunday 28th October 2018

Wet. Very wet. Us Italian Trystians would be pretty much drenched the whole day. 

Arrival at Milan Airport

The view outside from the plane and walkway to the bags was grey skies and rain pounding into the puddles across the Milan runway. And so it would prove the rest of the day. Not a good sign, though some were hopeful that the Tryst would bring the sun. Though it looked like this would need a lot of good vibes and attitude from the pilgrims. Grey skies always dampen the spirits, no? 

I appeared to be first into Milan airport, being still presently able to breeze through a sparsely populated line in the pre Brexit EU section of the Immigration. The rest of the world looked like it would take a good forty minutes, so I parked near the carousel first bag grab point and delighted in the free and easy to access Milan airport wifi (though it would get less easy in due course - they kept insisting on me registering and I find it a bind). Though not for long as both the bags were pretty much the first out. The pair of us maxed out at 31kg for both bags - we do like to travel light. They got duly loaded onto the pushcart and trundled back to the immigration exit to await the Lenglui. Within minutes I found myself greeting the Governor and Governess who advised that the rest of the Qatar entourage (with whom they had flown) were waiting in the immigration line. He and the Governess tootled off to their carousel whilst I started to communicate via Whatsapp with Dear Leader who was on his way to guide us all to the coach that would be our transport for the next seven days. 

I thought it might be good to try and act as a shepherd and keep all the pilgrim sheep together so as not to get anyone lost. So as they all came through I suggested for all to sit whilst all the others came through and got their luggage. In this, I learnt the first rule of shepherding - get a sheepdog. I forgot that some of the others would be getting their luggage from different carousels and might sail straight past us - this proved so as some of the sheep missed the fold and went straight out into the fortunate waiting arms of our Dear Leader. Eventually we communicated that the lost sheep had been secured and we all left the luggage area. Though not before having quite a good espresso coffee from a machine near the toilets for one Euro. Lenglui's cappuccino was also quite tasty. Coffee always helps in settling the brain after a long flight. 

Drive to Bellagio

We all got warmly greeted by everyone who had previously arrived days earlier and after a little wait all trundled through the Terminal Two exit to where the bus was pulling up to load the bags. Driver was Marco, who would prove the big strong silent type (at least to me) who, puffing and panting, loaded the bags into the various holds. Quintessential pizza and pasta chomping and beer guzzling and life enjoying massively overweight Italian boy. Almost as large as Pavarotti and a definite heart attack waiting to happen. I said a silent prayer that it would not happen whilst he was driving. I retrieved my Gant coat from the case and wrapped up against the cool morning. Might be a cool drive at 8.30am. It was.

Our first stop was a wet five minute walk to a Carrefour market in the town of Como to stock up on drinking water and other various necessaries. Not being sure when lunch would be, Lenglui and I also grabbed some sandwiches and salami ham in case we got hungry on the bus. This was a very well stocked Carrefour, with lines of fridges and sandwich bars offering well made eats. There was even a Sushi bar, though I don't think anyone tried any of the offerings. Perhaps a bit too early for a whack of Wasabi. I had earlier suggested for Trystians to invest the five ringgit 60 in purchasing a rainproof poncho from the Daiso in KL - those who did found good returns in them keeping out the incessant rain which was doing a grand job of driving the north Italian morning chill well into the bone and body. My tatty and bent folding umbrella of four years ownership also proved its worth in diverting the wind and rain away from the body. 

Back on the bus with the booty and a bit dripping with the wet, we settled in for what we were told would be an hour and a half drive to Bellagio. I was hoping for a bit shorter since the Carrefour toilet had been out of order and the bladder doesn't like to hold for long periods. We had been assured of a toilet on the bus. And indeed there was one. Trouble was it was filled with Marco's luggage. I was assured that he would remove it at the next stop and that it would become useable. Never happened. I checked it a couple of days later - didn't look like the luggage had moved. I think he slept on the bus when it was parked up. 

We were scheduled for a ride up the Funicular Como-Brunate so as to view the Lake - it was decided at the Carrefour that this would now not happen. Apart from the fact that there would be little to view except rainclouds, the opinion was that it might in all likelihood have been closed for the day. So it was decided to push straight on to Bellagio and hope that the weather would clear. Spoiler alert - It wouldn't. The rain was in for the day. 

The road to Bellagio would prove an up and down affair, winding around the hills that border Lake Como. And wet - all was grey and grim and not really making for a good introduction to the Piedmont. So it goes. But praise the Trystian gods - the bus had its own very powerful wifi so we all were able to Whatsapp with each other or follow the road and time on Google Maps. Which did help to make the time pass a bit quicker and take the mind off the bladder.

Bellagio Town

We got into Bellagio and experienced the first of Driver Marco's many wrong directions and reversals - he seemed to have a developed propensity to drive into either a wrong or an impossible road and have to reverse back to get onto something more hopefully fruitful. His initial road to the destination lunch restaurant was way impossible for a coach, so he reversed back up and around and we made our way onto the main road and into a car and bus park which had a view of the grey rainswept lake. Seemed we were a bit early for lunch and had to wait for the restaurant to open, so we would just have to park up for a while.  The door opened to let in some fresh air and lo! a public toilet stood directly outside. Absolutely we were going to use it. Cost one euro a hit and it seemed that the door locked itself should anyone have tried to sneak in after someone without paying - smart toilet. Lenglui and I did a double act together - two for the price of one. Of course. We are seasoned travellers. 

Back on the bus, we all stared gloomily at the grey sheen of rain on the lake and chilled as the cold outside air made its way onto the bus. It had eased somewhat so some of the Trystians had decided to walk the ten wet minutes to Bellagio town and grab a warm welcome coffee and perhaps wander through its rainy streets. More to say we had been there and done it than through a need to do much else; anyway, it was a Sunday so not much seemed to be open. We persuaded Marco to drive the ten minute walk (which he did in 30 seconds) whereupon the rest of us piled out and dripped our way along the partly covered street facing the lake. We were given about thirty minutes freedom so Lenglui and I parked at a cafe and ordered cappuccinos and again used the bathroom - cold air seems to want to make the waterworks, er, work. Coffee was good, had a sit down and chitchat with Tony and Vanessa. Seem to recall some issue about "it was better to takeaway the coffee rather than sit down or we might miss the bus"; or something. Whatever - we sat and enjoyed the dry. 

Ristorante "Alle Darsene" di Loppia
Lunch at Ristorante "Alle Darsene" di Loppia

After a gentle wander back to where the bus would pick us up, we clambered aboard and drove the five minutes to the nearest drop off point of our lunch destination, the Ristorante "Alle Darsene" di Loppia. This would prove to be a wet five minute walk downhill along a narrow road to where the restaurant was located. Joy. We took it slowly - some of the older legs and knees were complaining - but when we got there all the aches disappeared. It was hugely pretty. There was also a small jetty where, if the weather was right, people could come in by boat. Inside was warm and welcoming and with some delightful art pieces and paintings. Red and white dominated with Adobe walls, though the lighting was a shade uneven for me which made for some naff photos for my ageing camera. We disrobed our raincoats and umbrellas and sat whilst the water and white wine got poured. It was somewhat of a relieved "cheers" as we Trystians raised our glasses against the weather and enjoyed our first lunch in the Piedmont. 

The Trystians gather expectantly at the table...
And a very pleasant lunch it would prove to be. The prawns would prove a delightful soft crunchy bite with the (I think) sweet potato mash and little prickly pops of mustard cress. Then the pasta tubes with their dollops of Spinach Ricotta mixing with the creamy fondue made for a lightly gooey and craw filling contrast to which the shaved truffle added earth and texture. The Pikeperch breaded with panko was a brilliantly tasting fish finger that would have had Captain Birdseye screaming for the recipe - lovely little digits full of texture and flavour though perhaps a shade firm and hearty on the finish (NB according to Wikipedia Panko is "a variety of flaky bread crumb used in Japanese cuisine as a crunchy coating for fried foods, such as tonkatsu. Panko is made from bread baked by electrical current, which yields a bread without a crust, and then grinding the bread to create fine slivers of crumb."). 

Iachydd Dda - Cheers!
Purple mash prawns in wine sauce - great blend of textures and tastes
Dessert was excellent - the combo of crunch, creamy smooth gunk, cold ice cream and sharply sweet sauce perfectly rounded off a light yet full and fulfilling lunch. The wines were tasty without overpowering anything; good bodies, full rounded tastes, evenly balanced. Be very happy to return here when the sun is shining. 

Ristorante "Alle Darsene di Loppia"
Via Melzi D'Eril frazione Loppia
22021 Bellagio (CO)
Tel 031 952069
Matteo 339 4229884
Stefania 333 3052607
Closed on Sundays

Paccheri pasta with ricotta cheese and black truffle - double yum
Marinated red prawns with purple potatoes mash and Franciacorta wine sauce
Paccheri pasta filled with Ricotta cheese and spinach on Taleggio cheese fondue with black truffle
Pikeperch filet breaded with panko on Burrata cheese and vegetable salad
Cornets filled with chestnuts with grape ice cream on persimmon sauce

White - Sauvignon Friuli Zorzettig DOC 2017
Red - Aglianico l'Atto Cantine del Notaio IGT 2015

Drive to Cernobbio

The brilliant Captain Birdseyes
Lunch was brought to a close and we slowly clambered back up the wet hill to the waiting bus. The rain had eased slightly but still incessant in its falling. I was thankful that my old boots seemed to be holding up against the damp - I had need of repairing some of the seams with some rubber glue prior to the trip - though ultimately they would not survive a walk in the Fontanafredda Forest of Silence. See Day Six. 

Dear Leader had sought to initiate a self head count by the Trystians which never quite seemed to work - for some reason the heads called numbers ahead or before or not at all. I ended up counting and on getting the right number gave the thumbs up to get underway. The bus lurched on to the road and soon we were heading back to Como though along a different road that would follow much of the lake. 

The lunchtime booze
Whilst in Bellagio, we were told we could see our hotel from across the lake. So physically it was not that far. The road, though, was a different matter. Up and down and winding. The drive was estimated at an hour, and again I was following the route on the Google maps. Most of the others seemed to be napping off jetlag - I just gazed out at the grey rains and landscape. Our route took us back through the town of Como and I recognised our Tesco from earlier in the day and found myself wondering if they had fixed the toilet. Probably not. This is Italy. 

Check In to Hotel Villa Flori 

Trundling along the road toward the hotel, the bus suddenly stopped and stayed stationary for a while. Then it went into reverse and then turned into the hotel driveway. Another Marco "oops", although only a slight one. We clambered off the bus and grabbed our bags as quickly as Marco could unload them and got into the hotel. Lenglui had gone ahead to get our keys and off we trundled to the queue for the lift. It was a small one, able to take about four people with bags; so it took about ten minutes to get ourselves up to the third floor where our room was waiting. The door opened promptly and in we tumbled, glad to be able to get comfortable and shower and nap for an hour. 

The Hotel Villa Flori bills itself as four star luxury accommodation. It is a converted 19th-century villa originally built by the Marchese Raimondi and situated on the edge of Lake Como between Como and Cernobbio. It became a hotel in 1958 and underwent total renovation in 2011. The webbie notes that the aim of this "restructuring was to preserve the nuances of the 19th-century atmosphere through the careful restoration of the delicate stucco work and enchanting floral frescoes, the gorgeous parquet floors and the details of the antique furnishings and fixtures." At the same time, "the renovation made it possible to enhance the quality of hospitality with the most up-to-date comforts and facilities, from the lounge bar on the lake’s edge and hi-tech services in every room and suite to the fitness centre and Turkish bath."

There was little need to unpack, save for our evening wear and t-shirt for the bed, so we left most of the togs in the case - just the shirt and suit and toiletries. We had a great view across the lake though the grey rainclouds took some of the splendour off of it. The rooms were comfortable and quite spacious, though a bit narrow between the bed and wardrobe en route to the bathroom. Pastel shades dominated the soft furnishings, and the bed was big and the pillows sufficient. Delight of delight, the bathroom had those hot pipes on which the towels can get warmed and the laundry quickly dried. We washed some smalls and clambered into bed, having set the phone alarm for an hour ahead of our off for the evening dinner. I think I have finally mastered the phone alarm abroad - just set the thing for same day and the necessary number of hours rather than fiddle with dates. I think. Recall getting it wrong one time in Sicily and getting woken up six hours ahead of the supposed time. Lenglui now packs a proper travel alarm clock. Just got to remember a spare battery...

Hotel Villa Flori
Via Cernobbio 12 - 22100 Como (Italy)
+39 031-33 820

Table setting for dinner
Dinner at Villa d'Este

A cruise around the lake had originally been scheduled, but this clearly had to be declared "rained off" - no way would a band of 23 Trystians all decked out in their finest finery deliberately choose to get soaked ahead of dinner. So it was we were all able to rest up and enjoy our magnificent accommodation and gently get ourselves ready for the dinner. This was to be a winemaker's dinner at the Villa d'Este Hotel hosted by Isabella Pelizzati and husband Enrico of Ar.Pe.Pe Winery, a winner of Wine of the Year Gambero Rosso 2018 and possible future supplier of wines to Dear Leader here in Malaysia. 

Trystians seated at the Verndah - got Chinese tables hor?
Seems that Dear Leader actually considered parking all us Trystians at the Villa D'Este for the night as it would have been hugely convenient for us all to repair straight to dinner. However, staying at the better value but still splurgish Villa Flori made for substantial savings that could be diverted to quality food and wine - it became a no brainer. Financial prudence got the better of indulgence hence our putting up at the somewhat more good value digs up the road. Which worked out better, given the inclement weather - It would have been difficult to appreciate the hotel in the dark and with the blustery rainy breeze outside. We would brave Marco the Bus there and back. 

Wen Dee and Yin-How
It was still raining when Marco the Bus arrived so we umbrella-ed ourselves aboard for the ten minute ride back along the road to Como to the Villa. Franco unerringly drove into the gateway to let us disembark straight into the hotel foyer to park our coats and brollys. 

Given the dark and wet, we were unable to "do" the Bellini lakeside as suggested by the website blurb. Instead we got ushered to a small holding room where we duly got aperitif-ed ahead of our upcoming dinner. Not quite the romantic experience where guests "meander through the elegant salons of the Villa, gentlemen in jacket and tie and ladies in their dazzling couture, they admire and are admired….it is like a silent movie…. A “Bellini” lakeside as the sun sets on another day kicks off the evening’s gastronomic journey." Think we were all mostly happy to just be warm and dry and not damp and bedraggled on a boat on the windswept lake. George Clooney wouldn't, so why should we?

The lounge bar at Villa d'Este - swish, no?
Actually, some Trystians seemed secretly hoping for a glimpse of a Clooney or someone similar. Not a chance. Night like this, they'd be tucked up in front of the central heating watching Netflix with beer and pizza. 

Stephanie and Dr Rajan
The ambience of the Villa d"Este was magnificent, with unspoken elegance leaping out from around every corner and space. Hugely swish. Places like this help you understand why dress codes get imposed; anything less is an affront to the history and grandeur of the place. 

Tze Wan and Jaya
Everyone was looking quite splendid, with the gents in jacket and tie and the ladies in elegant frockery. Many compliments got exchanged and many photos got taken. Good convivial start to the evening.  

Scampi, Foie Gras flakes, Chestnuts and Porcini Mushrooms
Following a good dose of aperitif, we got ushered into the Veranda, a greenhouse looking affair against the elements where the "ballet of maitres and sommeliers in their finest suits attending to every detail' did their dances. We were being seated on two large 13 seater Chinese style round tables which were a shade too big to be able to talk across. It was a little cool, so gents were glad of the command to wear jackets. Ties were also demanded for this dinner - the restaurant had a selection for those who had failed to be so adorned. Happy to say that none of our male Trystians needed to borrow one. 

Pumpkin Tortelli, Tardive Chicory and Amarone wine sauce
The webbie says that the " World-class dining at the Veranda is defined by Chef Michele Zambanini who combines tradition and refinement with his innovative personal style". Okay… seems chef also has his garden growing herbs and vegetables - always a good sign. The dinner itself was very good across all the dishes - plump scampi and crisp mushrooms gave a good base for the bite of the chestnut and foie gras, the tortelli contrasted in its richness and finish - nice touch with the chicory adding a cute pop in the mouth. The veal was magnificent - totally tender melt in the mouth - and the souffle to finish was a delightfully light and fluffy hot and cold cream wash across the cheeks. Excellent more-ish bread and butter and brilliant gooey cannoli and sweet crunch caramel snap to finish. 

Smoked Veal, Pepper Foam, pickled vegetables and Amaranth
The wines came across as surprisingly Burgundian in character given that all were made from the Nebbiolo grape, though winemaker Isabella explained this was perhaps the result of the grapes being grown at the higher altitudes and therefore somewhat cooler. The wines are differentiated by the heights at which the grapes are grown - every 50 meters or so, the parcels get demarcated (I think - check if correct). We were drinking a horizontal of the 2007 in magnums from the various parcels and they indeed did display different characters across the altitudes. They all were drinking well, though some had a good few years in them to peak. A fantastic alternative to those of us who like a good burgundy but cannot quite afford the prices demanded by the markets. A comment came back that the Trystians were underperforming in terms of wine consumption, probably as a result of flagging from the jetlag and lunch. So Tony and I called for more and some of the other diehards followed suit. Sometimes you have to take one for the team and not let the side down. We are IWFS. 

Isabella of ArPePe winery explaining the differences in the wines
May Peng in her Facebook page wrote: "I would not have guessed that we were tasting Nebbiolo...ArPePe' s Nebbiolo grown on the South facing Alpine slopes of the Valtellina valley, produced wines which were more elegant and gentle, a little more acidity, yet with good pronouncement of fruit and good length, in contrast with its more famous cousins in Piedmont. The wines here are also aged in chestnut barrels, which Isabella said, was an old tradition of the area. After the first wine, we had a horizontal tasting of four 2007 vintage wine. They were all excellent but had different expressions, probably due to the different elevations of the land the grapes were planted on and different harvest time. My favourite, which was a most difficult decision to make, was the late harvest Ultimi Raggi. Still very much a dry wine, it had more fruit and floral on the nose."

Enrico and Isabella Pelizzati of ArPePe with May Peng and me
Yin-How wrote: "Honoured to have Isabella Pelizzati and her husband Enrico join us. Gambero Rosso Italian wine of the year 2017 was her Rocce Rosso 2007 but she is ever so modest despite the accolades. Food was traditional styled at the grand restaurant and the wines from this emergent superstar of mountain Nebbiolo were translucent, delicate and ethereal. All single vineyards from the 2007 vintage were served from magnums."

The Italian Tryst with new friends from Ar.Pe.Pe
Lenglui and I went outside to try and get a few photos, but the wind and the darkness made for pretty grim results. We came back in for some cheese and a wonderfully warming and snappy espresso before saying our farewells to Isabella and Enrico and heading out to where Marco the bus was waiting to transport us back to the Villa Flori. Don't remember much about the drive back except getting to the room, stripping down into the bedclothes and crawling straight into the bed. Out like a light for a pretty solid sleep.

Villa d'Este
Via Regina 40
Lago di Como

Pretty Magnums all in a row...
Scampi, Foie Gras flakes, chestnuts and porcini mushrooms
Pumpkin tortelli, tardive chicory and Amarone wine sauce
Smoked veal, pepper foam, pickled vegetables and amaranth
Souffle with ice cream
Coffee and assorted pastry

Rosso Di Valtellina 2016
Valtellina Superiore Grumello Buon Consiglio Riserva 2007
Valtellina Superiore Sassella Vigna Regina Riserva 2007
Valtellina Superiore Sassella Rocce Rosse Riserva 2007
Valtellina Superiore Sassella Ultimi Raggi Riserva 2007

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