Besides the stunning scenery and majestic clear-blue lakes, Ticino has something else to offer visitors—cuisine. This Italian-speaking region of Switzerland brings together north and south to achieve a culinary perfection all its own. From Michelin-starred restaurants to rustic local grotti, gastronomy runs the gamut here in Ticino. Based on fresh vegetables, grains, and simple flavourings, Ticinese cuisine channels its Italian roots—with a dose of the delicious dairy that Switzerland does best.
Grotto full throttle
Despite the abundance of fine food and gourmet cuisine, traditional local staples are still favoured by young and old. The best way to taste them is to visit a grotto. These cave-like restaurants decorated in traditional style serve local specialities and are dotted all over Ticino.
You might think of pizza and pasta as classic Italian food, but here in Ticino, you’d be wrong – Ticinese are most fond of polenta, their main grain. It has even earned them a nickname—“polentone”, polenta-eaters. The thick porridge is made from corn grown in nearby Magadino and ground buckwheat is often added to the mix, bringing a slightly earthy, nutty taste.
In autumn or winter, order a steaming bowlful straight from a large pot on a crackling fire at La Baita in Magadino across the lake from Locarno. Top it with a hefty portion of local mountain cheeses like Valmaggia and Piora, which boast a PDO, “Protected Designation of Origin”. In the mood for something softer and creamier? Go for goat’s-milk Zincarlin rolled in Alpine herbs or black pepper.
If you’re headed out of Ascona toward the Centovalli, you won’t be able to resist a stop at Grotto du Rii. With flower boxes galore beckoning passers-by, this gem is equally as unique inside as outside. Sip a glass of rosemary-infused wine while scouring the mounted stuffed animals and carriage-wheel lamps, where tasty Ticinese braised beef called brasato, is served alongside some of area’s famously creamy risotto. If luck prevails, you might be there on an evening that features live local music.
Fine food at its finest
When you’ve sampled all the traditional gastronomy that Ticino has to offer, it may be time to try a fine meal at an upscale restaurant. At Gallery Arté al Lago the Michelin-starred location that is housed in an art gallery at the historic Villa Castagnola hotel in Lugano. The walls are dotted in virtuosic paintings and sculptures line the halls, featuring a variety of artists with the exhibitions changing twice a year. Chef Frank Oerthle might recommend scallops with miso and wasabi infusion, steamed oysters and caramelized spring onion, or one of the other carefully prepared house specialities. Desserts are not to be missed—if you visit in springtime, this could include a crispy rhubarb tartlet “Arté style” when the tangy vegetable is in season.
Just down the road is Al Portone, a name synonymous with fine food for several decades. Stucco and stone add a certain charm and authenticity to the setting here, with a large terrazza out back for al fresco dining. Chef Francis Carre blends French and Italian cuisine with melt-in-your mouth creations like cardamom-poached pears with Gorgonzola mousse. In addition to a wide selection for carnivores, Al Portone has a special meat-free menu that makes it a boon for vegetarians and vegans.
Enjoying a meal in one of Bellinzona’s three UNESCO-listed castles is a rare treat. The oldest of the bunch, Castegrande, is home to an eponymous kitchen that serves chic, modern Mediterranean dishes. The décor is cooler than cool, with the sophistication continuing onto your plate. Sample the pan-fried duck liver with cocoa nibs or the roasted lamb shoulder with fresh herbs, washed down with one of a vast selection (over 70!) of local Merlots.
Keep walking another 40 minutes uphill to arrive at Osteria SassoCorbaro, where guests are rewarded with spectacular food—and even more spectacular views. Tables can be had both inside the restored castle hall and a walled-in, shaded courtyard if weather permits. Order the lighter side with spaghetti with fresh prawns and sweet peas to save room for a rotating dessert menu and what is perhaps the region’s best tiramisu.
The flow of Merlot
They say that Merlot is mother’s milk to Ticino, and the vineyards covering the steep mountainsides are all the proof needed. These grapes, like 85% of others in Ticino, produce much-loved Merlot. Formerly unknown outside Switzerland, this excellent wine-producing region is burgeoning amongst wine connoisseurs looking for unusual blends. Merlot here comes in white as well as traditional red varieties. Ticino doesn’t have the hot summer days that many Merlot-growing regions have, and its cool nights result in a wine that is drier and less fruity than others.
All restaurants serve a selection of local wines, but for a real vinologue experience, head to Agriloro. A guided visit includes a tour of the fermentation facilities and giant aging barrels, with an interesting look into how Ticinese wine is made. A tasting then follow with six wines, featuring Merlot, Casimiro, and Sauvignon Bianco, amongst others. Many more are available for purchase, including their gold-medal winning Merlot assemblage of five different grapes. ◼
© This article was first published in June-July 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.