Best of the Italian Lakes
Lake Como: Eat
International A-listers frequent Navedano (Via Giuseppe Velzi, Como; 39-031/308-080; dinner for two $208), in a 19th-century windmill. Fresh flowers fill the intimate dining room year-round, and during summer, the outdoor veranda is surrounded by roses, orchids, and lemon trees. Order the bouquet di mare, a vast platter of steamed seafood with lemon juice and olive oil.
Every morning owner Cristian Ponzini sails out on Como to catch lavarello and other native fish to serve at his glass-walled Ristorante Silvio (12 Via Carcano, Bellagio; 39-031/950-322; dinner for two $91). Ponzini is one of the few who have fishing rights on the lake—a privilege that has been passed down through his family for generations.
For the best pizza in the area, head to the no-frills La Piazzetta (6 Piazza Roma, Argegno; 39-031/821-110; dinner for two $78), where a wood-fired stone oven turns out crunchy buckwheat thin-crust pies. Standout toppings include locally sourced Gorgonzola, fresh marinated tuna, and red Tropea onions.
Ettore Bocchia is one of the most experimental chefs in the region, incorporating molecular gastronomic techniques at Ristorante Mistral (1 Via Roma, Bellagio; 39-031/956-435; dinner for two $215). Besides the liquid-nitrogen-cooled guacamole ice cream, we love the ravioli stuffed with tender peacock breast.
Hot on Bocchia’s heels is up-and-coming chef Simone Raviscioni, who runs the kitchen at Pesa Vegia (7 Piazza G. Verdi, Bellano; 39-0341/810-306; dinner for two $105), housed in a pink villa. Don’t miss his spin on a classic tiramisu, made with siphon-sprayed mascarpone foam.
The lake region, which stretches from Piedmont to Lombardy and the Veneto, has had a mythic quality for centuries. Ancient Roman writers, including Pliny the Younger, were among the first to use the area as a summer escape. They wrote lovingly about its shady plane-tree walks and flowery banks. Today, its legendary reputation continues. Celebrities including George Clooney and Richard Branson have owned villas on Como for more than 10 years, while Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi purchased a 30-room mansion on Maggiore in 2008.
Little has changed in the past 50 years, though several grand hotel openings (most recently the lavish Castadiva Resort, in Como) have added to the lakes’ cachet. The main attractions, however, remain the simple, authentic pleasures that travelers have appreciated since the days of the grand tour. On the following pages, you’ll find the best of the region, from top hotels and restaurants to little-known treasures, such as an 11th-century abbey where monks have bottled home-brewed liqueurs for centuries.
Despite a high celeb quotient, Como, Italy’s most sophisticated lake, embodies low-key glamour, history, and tradition. Its 30-mile-long western shoreline runs from the miniature sailing port of Cernobbio through sleepy Laglio to Menaggio. On the eastern shore is the chic hillside village of Bellagio, with its rainbow-colored villas; the old stone fishing villages of Bellano and Varenna are popular with culture and nature buffs, thanks to their medieval castles and elaborate Renaissance gardens.
Set along the southern banks of the Alps, Maggiore, Italy’s second-largest lake, is the busiest and most untamed. The eastern, Lombard shore is characterized by wild woodlands, but most travelers go to the western side, where the village of Stresa is chock-full of artisanal shops. Close to the Swiss border you’ll find the town of Cannobio, a labyrinth of cobblestoned streets, medieval palazzi, and waterfront restaurants. Less than 10 miles west of Maggiore, Lake Orta is only eight miles long and less than a mile wide. In its main village, Orta san Giulio, the central stairway leads from the ocher-and-cream-colored Santa Maria Assunta church to the lakeside Piazza Mario Motta, which is lined with arcades and outdoor cafés.
Built by a powerful industrialist in 1879, the turreted Villa Crespi is a moorish-style estate with original plasterwork ceilings, four-poster beds, and damask draperies. The real draw, however, is the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant, where chef-owner Antonino Cannavacciuolo, formerly of Capri’s Grand Hotel Quisisana, whips up such creative dishes as buffalo mozzarella ice cream with tomato sauce and basil granita.
Fringed by lemon groves, olive trees, and vineyards, Garda is the balmiest of the lakes—and also the largest. Sailors and windsurfers come for its breezy waters, while foodies are drawn to the award-winning olive oils and Bardolino and Valpolicella wines. On the eastern shore, a cluster of small villages (San Felice del Benaco; Gargnano) have glorious Roman ruins, villa museums, and a clutch of upscale hotels, including historic Villa Feltrinelli.
Read on to find out what else Italy’s best lakes have to offer.