Grotto? Great-o! summer in Ticino wouldn't be complete without visiting a grotto. These stone-built, rustic restaurants are found throughout the canton and are the perfect place to grab some shade and a bite to eat. And if you're fortunate, a memorable view is thrown in for free.
Virtually unique to Ticino--though there is a handful of 'crotti' found over the border in Lombardy and Piedmont--the name grotto comes from the Italian word for cave, grotta.
Long before every home had a fridge, the Ticinesi kept perishables cool near granite rocks, and with so much good food and wine stored in the one place, it naturally became a meeting point for the locals who gathered to chat, eat local cheeses and salame, and drink a glass or two of merlot.
Today grottos appear in many guises, thanks in part to tourism and the availability of electricity in all but the most inaccessible of places. At one end of the spectrum, there are grottos in name only, serving everything you might expect in a restaurant. Credit cards are accepted, the menus are extensive and children's dishes are offered.
At the other end, are the tiny, stone buildings 1,000 metres up, with a perfunctory kitchen powered by a rumbling generator, serving wine that'll strip the enamel off your teeth. Here, cash is the only currency.
However they differ, one thing all grottos have in common are the granite benches and tables, sometimes big enough to seat more than a dozen people. No granite? Not a grotto, insist the purists.
In the spring and summer grottos are frequently a riot of floral colour and vines grow on pergolas above the tables. The grape harvest in late September often signals the imminent closure of grottos for another year: the season can last just seven months, from March/April to October. Others keep going until Christmas, closing for only the first two or three months of the year.
Grotto Pedemonte in Verscio, some ten minutes outside of Locarno, is a personal favourite. Set back from the road, with vines, a mature fig tree and even a banana plant to complement the natural scenery, it's a first-class grotto.
Ugo Beretta has been running the place for more than 16 years, serving up seasonal dishes such as polenta with funghi porcini, coniglio (rabbit) and lake fish alongside grilled meat, pasta dishes, the ever-present cheeses and piatto ticinese: cured meats, mortadella nostrana and salami.
At Grotto Pedemonte, service always comes with a smile, prices are very reasonable, portions are generous (the bread basket is stuffed with man-sized chunks), the piatto ticinese is one of the best around and the short wine list has been chosen with care, often including a number of local producers.
Come for a lazy lunch, a glass of wine mid-afternoon, or book for dinner--and booking is highly recommended. Take time out to stroll round the village if you can: it's one of the prettiest in the area and the location of the famous Dimitri theatre school (www.teatrodimitri.ch).
You'll find grottos all across Canton Ticino--just keep your eyes peeled for signs--and the adventure involved in reaching some of them can give you quite an appetite.
Grotto La Ginestra lies around 900 metres up, en route to Monte di Ronco, above the pretty village of Ronca sopra Ascona. You can follow the marked footpaths or drive here; driving will take around ten minutes from the village of Ronco, while walking is considerably longer.
Run by husband and wife team, Loretta and Elio, La Ginestra has a down home vibe, and is particularly atmospheric towards the end of the season, when the cold, October air finds you huddled in a tiny, stone room warmed by the wood fire from the adjoining kitchen.
Great for hearty meat and polenta dishes, I highly recommend the cinghiale (wild boar) with polenta. There's nothing fancy on this menu, though you will find authentic dishes that rarely appear elsewhere: lumache for example--that's snails to you and me.
If La Ginestra is full, drive a little further up the mountain road to Grotto da Peo. Run by Piero (Peo) Martinoli, with his nephew in the kitchen, all the traditional elements of the grotto are there: the rustic, laidback atmosphere and the big wooden and granite tables. The particular draw here is the breathtaking view over Lake Maggiore.
The food at da Peo is traditional but often with a twist: polenta appears with the standard gorgonzola, though it also comes shaped as a fagottino (a bit like a sausage or croquette) flavoured with cheese and rolled in a dried fruit crust. Meat lovers can try the free-range cockerel or the lamb chops served with wild garlic-flavoured risotto--aglio orsino in Italian. The wine list is short, mainly with merlots from a few local producers.
It's often said that wine tastes best from a boccalino--the small, earthenware jug found in grottos--and many visitors to Ticino assume that this is the traditional drinking vessel in the canton. As it happens, the boccalino looks like a jug because it is a jug: most locals prefer their tipple from a glass or a small ceramic bowl.
Around 90 per cent of the canton's wine is merlot, a hardy grape most suitable for the Ticinese soil and climate. Consider spending a little more than you might usually do: good Ticino merlots are very good indeed, but the cheapest are only for the brave.
Once dinner is done and the coffee drunk, finish your night with a nocino, the digestivo made from walnuts. Produced in Italy and Ticino, the nuts are picked when unripe, traditionally on the feast of San Giovanni on June 24. The crushed nuts are steeped in alcohol for 40 days--usually in grappa made from the Americano grape--at which point sugar and secret spices are added to produce this delightful conclusion to the typical grotto experience.
A grotto tour
Half the fun of grottos is finding one unexpectedly, particularly when you've a thirst on. The following, however, have been tried and tested and come highly recommended.
Lugano and Mendrisiotto
Grotto Morchino, 6912 Pazzallo, www.morchino.ch--A favourite of the writer Hermann Hesse, Grotto Morchino is immersed in a wooded area close to Lake Lugano. It's a very charming place and one well known for the quality of its food.
Grotto Fossatti, 6866 Meride, http://grottofossati.pagine.ch--Locals say it's one of the best around--and the foodie guidebooks agree.
Grotto Eremo 8.Nicolao, 6872 Somazzo--Fascinating location--this grotto forms part of the Hermitage of S. Nicolas. Views over the Mendrisiotto are great, and the food is too.
Lake Maggiore area
Grotto La Baita, 6573 Orgnana-Magadino, www.baita.ch--Very traditional menu here--and the place to come if you love polenta. Great views of Lake Maggiore.
Grotto La Froda, 6690 Foroglio (in Val Bavona), www.foroglio.ch--Splendid location close to the Foroglio waterfall and in business since 1928. No mains electricity here, though plenty of good food.
Grotto Pozzasc, 6695 Peccia, (in Val Lavizzare, off Valle Maggia)--Very attractive place in an old watermill alongside the Maggia River. A favourite with walkers.
Grotto Efra, 6637 Sonogno (in Val Verzasca)--Right at the end of Val Verzasca, at the foot of the mountains of Valle Redorta. The mountain views are stunning and the traditional food is good--particularly its cheeses and bread. This is one grotto that closes from October.
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|Author:||Golini, Catherine Richards|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2008|
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