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Report 508: Small Town Couple Takes Small Towns Trip, May 1-31

By B. Dupree from North Carolina, Spring 2004

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Page 3 of 7: May 9-10 Lago Maggiore

May 9, Sunday

It's really snowing this morning and incredibly beautiful. We hate to leave, but are eager to get to Italy. We left Murren on the 9:30 train. We left Lauterbrunner at 10:20, snowing above, raining below.

We looked forward to all the tunnels that day because the weather was good inside. And, as we exited the Gotthard Tunnel, the rain stopped, the signs were in Italian, and we felt we were home again. How strange to love a place so much when you can barely (and only occasionally) make yourself understood in the language.

We arrived at the Villa Ruscello between Baveno and Stresa on Lago Maggiore around 3:30. The hotel overlooks the lake between Isola Bella and Isola Pescatori. The rooms are small, but sparkling clean and have balconies overlooking the lake. The dining room where breakfast is served is lovely. There are a number of terraces. This time in the early season we were the only guests!

Guiliana Cardini, one of three siblings whose family owns the hotel (the others are her brothers Gulio and Natalino) suggested we drive up the mountain to Gignese to the Osteria delle 3V's if we wanted to eat cinghiale. What a trip and what an experience. We drove along a curving mountain road with spectacular views of the lake and eight kilometres later arrived at the little village of Gignese.

We parked at the town hall and walked to the restaurant, too early. The staff was eating dinner, so we waited in the bar and I tried to read an Italian newspaper catching about every 20th word, so not understanding much. When 7:30 arrived, the restaurant opened, and not a moment too soon. No sooner were we seated than about 50 people showed up to eat, one family of 14, and then others, seemingly unrelated. The wait staff were running around madly, but under control at the same time.

There was no menu, but the waitress announced (in rapid Italian, of course) what was available. We ordered polenta completa because it included cinghiale. We could never have anticipated what arrived at our table. First, a huge bowl (I almost said vat) of polenta. Then followed slightly smaller bowls of cinghiale, homemade sausages, chicken, homemade salumi, lentils and some meat which tasted a little like beef, but we were unable to identify. All of this plus litre red wine and mineral water. We were surprised that no one looked askance at us when a separate tray table was brought to our table to hold the multitude of dishes. The meal could not be considered as gourmet, but rather as true homestyle cooking.

When things calmed down a bit we were able to chat briefly with the daughter of the owners who told us that the Osteria was named for her, her sister, and her brother - Virginia, Vittorio, and I've forgotten the third V. We were also a little nervous when she couldn't remember the English word for the mystery meat. She put her fingers to her head like long ears. When we said "horse", she said "no" and lowered her hand to indicate smaller and repeated the Italian word. If I remembered the word correctly, we had donkey for dinner! While the food was not the best I've ever eaten, the experience of a popular, indeed beloved Italian home-cooking restaurant was worth the drive and the price 27E!

May 10, Monday This promises to be a busy day. Natalino and Guliana advised us that we must visit all three islands, so we drove the five minutes into Stresa and hopped aboard the ferry for Isola Bella, a small island with a big palace and formal gardens. The palace was interesting and the gardens and statuary quite impressive. One of the beautiful white peacocks strutting around in the garden showed off for us.

From Isola Bella we ferried to Isola Pescatori (fisherman island) a fascinating village with streets so narrow you could stretch out your arms and touch the buildings on either side. Lunch at the Ristorante Italia. Lavorella straight from the lake and mixed salad for both of us. Although the fish were fried, they were fresh and delicious.

From there another ferry ride took us to what became our favorite island, Isola Madre. Here the gardens were extensive, informal, and at this time of year ablaze with huge azealeas and rhododendron. Some were as tall as buildings The palace here was more interesting. Someone had a great interest in puppetry, so there were two puppet theaters with dozens of intricate puppets. Since the island trips took about 5 hours we decided to hang out in Stresa and eat dinner there before we returned to Villa Ruscello.

Okay, so this is what I love about Italy. Rothenburg and Reutte and Murren were great, beautiful scenery, interesting sights, friendly people, but Italy....here we sit in the main piazza in Stresa, an old town which was once a resort only for royals and the rich. There are a number of grand hotels where the rich and important stayed. There is an air of elegance in the town, but also a sense of today's Italy. Sitting there in the piazza we saw old ladies walking home with their groceries, young adults apparently going home from work. On one side of the piazza young girls were playing soccer and on the other side, boys were doing the same. No one seems to mind if occasionally the ball bounces into a table of one of the outside cafes. No one comes out to yell at the boys.

I practiced my Italian on the waitress who both encouraged and corrected me. She suggested La Botta as a good restaurant and when I said I've heard Degli Amici is good she says,"Oh yes, my not "marito", but "buon amico" works there.

We decided to eat at La Botta for two reasons: it opened earlier and they served cinghiale. Jim had tagliatelle with cinghiale ragout and I had caprese and tagliatelle witih porcini, very good. We spent some time next door in the liquor store chatting with the owner who had visited the western US a number of times. Jim bought his first grappa of the trip.

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