The Italian Summer: Golf, Food, and Family at Lake Como

The Italian Summer: Golf, Food, and Family at Lake Como

by Roland Merullo

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780990889885
Publisher: PFP Publishing
Publication date: 09/03/2015
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 1,153,801
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Roland Merullo was born in Boston and raised in the working-class city of Revere, Massachusetts. He had a scholarship to Exeter Academy and graduated in 1971, went to Boston University for two years, transferred to Brown and graduated from Brown in 1975, then earned a Master's there in 1976. Roland has published seven novels and two books of non-fiction, and he and his family have traveled to Italy eight times in the past twelve years. He currently lives in Massachusetts with his wife Amanda and their two daughters, Alexandra and Juliana.

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The Italian Summer

Golf, Food, and Family at Lake Como



By Roland Merullo
Touchstone
Copyright © 2009

Roland Merullo
All right reserved.



ISBN: 9781416563532


1

LA BAITA

From several different sources we had heard about a restaurant called La Baita, and one night in July, when we'd been at the lake for a while, we decided to have dinner there. La Baita was difficult to get to, our sources said, reachable only by a road that was not for the timid, tucked into a high valley above the Menaggio and Cadenabbia Golf Club -- my home course during that summer -- with a view of a piece of Lake Como and of the alpine landscape near the lake's northern end.

We were advised to make reservations and to arrive hungry. We had also been advised to hire a taxi driver to take us to La Baita because we'd heard -- and would later learn firsthand -- that there were roads climbing into those hills that connected to other roads, that turned into dirt tracks with steep drop-offs, no lights, and no guardrails, and wandered so far into the high valleys, so deep into the rugged landscape between Italy and Switzerland, that the idea of heading out in the evening, without a taxi driver leading the way, or an Italian friend familiar with the terrain, with two young children in the car, without provisions, weapons, first-aid kit, or at least a few days' supply of fresh water...

I'm exaggerating, of course. And yet it was true that an American acquaintancewho'd lived on the lake for twenty-five years, and knew we'd have a rental car, had given us the names of several restaurants back in the hills and suggested we let a cabdriver take us to them. Later in the summer, we would discover how easy it was to get lost up there, and how treacherous the roads could be. As we came to know the high country behind our house, we found it surprising that there were any roads up there at all, given the steepness of the grade; and next to unbelievable that people had decided to make their homes in such places and start restaurants in those remote hills and hollows, when there was plenty of perfectly good and much flatter land just a few miles north along the lake.

Still, we wanted to try La Baita and we decided it was worth the risk. On that warm July evening, Amanda and the girls put on nice dresses. I changed from sneakers to shoes, T-shirt into short-sleeve dress shirt. With an old emergency kit and a bottle of water but no weapons or provisions or guide, we headed out, in our rented Renault, in search of dinner.

From our house on the slanted western shore of the lake, we started out north along a side road called Via Pola. This unlined street, with weedy fields and orchards and a few houses to either side, brought us past the spot, marked by a simple black cross, where Benito Mussolini had been killed in 1945, then dropped us down to the statale, the lakeside road. We turned north on the statale, with the lake to our right, and to our left a brief parade of old stone buildings standing shoulder to shoulder. There were shops and small eateries on the street floor of these buildings -- including a place called Bar Roma, where I liked to go for cappuccino before an early-morning round of golf -- shuttered windows and doors above. On the small balconies there you might see a man in a white T-shirt that looked as though it had been carefully washed and ironed, and he would be watering the tomatoes in his flower boxes. Or you might see an elderly woman wearing a flower-print dress, leaning her fleshy arms on the railing and staring down and across the road at men fishing from the promenade with long poles, a few small boats at anchor, then the expanse of blue water, the green hills and gray cliffs beyond.

It was just after seven p.m. Though it would still be several hours before darkness settled around the lake, the sun had already fallen behind the hills on the western shore, our shore, and huge, looping shadows were reaching across toward the famous resort town of Bellagio on the other side. As always, Bellagio sparkled in the last sunlight, as if it were proud of itself, set apart there on the triangular spit of land that separated Como's two spindly legs. And as always the more plebeian statale was lively with evening traffic: blue German tour buses with pale-complected retirees gazing out the windows at the chaotic Italian roadway. Driving like that, how can they survive long enough to raise a family? you imagined the Germans and Swiss and Dutch visitors asking themselves, because, like so many Italian roads, the statale was a crazy Roller Derby of motorcycles cutting from lane to lane with the drivers leaning hard into the curves and the passengers holding on tight; BMWs, Porsches, Fiats, and Peugeots zipping along so fast you would have thought the ancient road were lined, or wide, or straight; cyclists in professional-looking shirts and shorts pumping the pedals in a bright yellow or blue line with a foot or so to spare between their knees and the buses' big wheels. How do they do it? Why do they do it? We'd asked ourselves the same thing so many times and come up with a dozen answers: for fun, to show off, to test the machines they drove, to test their own nerve, because they did everything else in such a relaxed fashion. After a while, we stopped asking and started having some fun ourselves.

Past the row of tourist hotels we went, past an elegant villa set back behind a grand lawn of palms and flower gardens, past another sprinkling of restaurants, a ferry dock, a favorite swimming spot, then into the shadows and through a short tunnel that spilled us out on the edges of the town of Menaggio. At the Bank of San Paolo, where the road split, we took the left fork, away from downtown, away from the lake, made the hairpin turn in front of Pizzeria Lugano, then started to climb the switchback road that led, if you followed it farther than we would on that night, across the border and into Switzerland.

This was a true mountain road, a test of nerves, skill, and patience. On the first mile alone, there were eight hairpin turns. Between those turns lay straight stretches where the Italians liked to pass with great stylishness and daring. Once we had successfully navigated this first winding uphill stretch, we reached the village of Croce, near the Caff è Peace. There a sign on the wall said simply golf, and we cut across the highway, carefully, choosing our moment, and zigged and zagged up a much narrower road -- Level II of the La Baita driving test -- in first gear mostly, sounding the horn three times as we neared each corner and watching for whatever might be coming the other way. Bicycles, Audi Quattros, cement mixers. Seven more harrowing turns and we arrived at the edge of the golf course property, which called to me, as always. But on that evening, instead of passing through the tall wrought-iron gates and up toward the clubhouse restaurant, we veered left, onto a road wide enough for a single car -- Level III. This road soon turned to rutted dirt and offered, every fifty yards or so, like a series of apologies, small cutouts where you could pull over and let another vehicle squeeze past.

Up and up we went, dust powdering the roadside leaves behind us. And then, at the crest of a hill, the climb abruptly ended and we turned sharply right, and down, following two dirt tracks that snaked through the trees. No cutouts here, no guardrails, no streetlamps, no signs. In another minute this road cast us forward into a gravel parking lot next to a two-and-a-half-story, white stucco and gray stone house that seemed to have been set there, on its small promontory, by helicopter. There was nothing to indicate we had arrived at a restaurant. No sign. Apparently no entrance door. I brought the Renault to a stop, turned off the engine, and looked across the seat at Amanda. "The food must be spectacular here," I said in a hopeful way, "or else who would ever come?"

It took us a minute to figure out how to gain entrance to La Baita -- up a set of stone steps at the side of the house, then onto a covered porch that looked out over treetops to a fresh view of the folding mountains and a small piece of the lake. A fluttering of buona seras filled the air around us, as if, in crossing the threshold that separated the stone landing from the wooden porch, we had startled a small covey of happy birds and they were brushing our ears with their soft, warm wings. This feathery greeting came from the owner of the place, a sturdy, middle-aged woman named Marissa, who had reddish blond hair and a smile like sunlight.

A warm welcome is the first step in eating well away from home. The Italians understand this principle of the culinary science in the same way they seem instinctively to understand everything else that has to do with food: growing it, preparing it, serving it, accompanying it with the proper wine, eating and digesting it, and talking about it: You can't expect to fully enjoy a meal, they seem to say, if your first moments in a dining establishment consist of a welcome that is short on eye contact and long on surliness. In the chain restaurants back home (Italy has yet to be overrun by them) this essential first step has not been forgotten, but it has mutated into a standardized greeting: Good evening and welcome to Mickleford's. Hi, I'm Brent and I'll be your server tonight. Can I start you folks off with something to drink? As sincere as some of these pleasant offerings might be, you still have the feelingthey've been written up by a management consultant somewhere in Orlando or San Jose, and that they're delivered under I-might-lose-my-job duress.

Marissa had no management consultants and was in no danger of being fired. She seemed genuinely happy to see us, and, a minute later, to welcome our friends Andrus and Elsa. She had started La Baita twenty-one years earlier after the sudden death of her husband, turning the family home into a restaurant as a means of making a living. Now she kept it open six days a week, year-round, serving mainly tourists and vacation-home owners in the warmer months, and mainly locals in winter, when the cool rains came, the tops of the surrounding mountains were clothed in white, and the menu tilted in the direction of heavy stews, polenta, and the richer red wines.

She motioned us toward a rustic table set for six, with that wonderful view over the treetops -- Lake Como held in a basin by steep mountains to either side. There were four other tables on the porch. Near the back wall sat a man with tattooed biceps that were wrapped around a squirmy, pretty, year-old daughter dressed in pink. And beside us sat a party of eight. For most of the evening, one of the members of that party fixed her eyes on our younger daughter, Juliana. I could not tell if it was desperate longing for a child (something I'd seen more than once in Italian women, living, as they did, in a country that was known for its familial affections and yet had one of the lowest birthrates in Europe) or if her persistent visual attention was a kind of reprimand, a signal that she expected our ebullient six-year-old to sit perfectly still with a napkin on her lap, her eyes forward, her attention given completely to the task of eating. Had the woman asked, we could have told her that we sometimes cherished the same hope, that we were often advising Juliana as to the joys of stillness, encouraging her to eat sitting down rather than standing up, suggesting she move slowly and deliberately instead of scooting, racing, zooming, and banging into things. Had the woman asked, we could have told her that certain personal characteristics cannot easily be changed by the admonitions of parents, or the stern looks of strangers.

Marissa moved among us in a deliberate fashion, with an understated graciousness that came, I suppose, from so many years of encouraging guests to feel at home. She made sure Alexandra and Juliana were comfortably seated -- at least for a few seconds; she complimented them on their dresses, asked their names, smiled and noted that they were Italian names, in short, she gave them the required amount of attention, making them feel as if they were full souls, not merely miniature accompaniments to the paying guests. That having been done, our hostess asked how many of us would be interested in the antipasto, and if -- you are their parents, you would know best -- the girls might be happier with a simple penne al pomodoro. She inquired about our preference for wine. And then, as if it were a two-woman act they had practiced many times, she stepped aside and let Nadya, our waitress, take over.

There was no menu at La Baita. Or, more accurately, there was an unwritten nightly menu of ten small courses from antipasto to dessert. We could, Nadya told us, choose as many or as few of these courses as we liked. I noticed that the tattooed father and his little child had come only for drinks and something sweet. They disappeared shortly after we'd begun. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I had skipped lunch in anticipation of La Baita, had enjoyed an active day of golf and swimming, and was prepared to do battle with the forces of dietary caution.

Nadya, I suspected, had been witness to many world-class eaters in her career; after her first few inquiries, she seemed to understand that my answer would always be the same: Yes, I would like some of that. Yes to that, also. Yes, again. Sì, sì, sì certo. She ducked into the kitchen for a few minutes, then reappeared carrying a wooden platter on which glistening pieces of salami and strips of thin-sliced prosciutto had been arranged in circular patterns. With her other hand she set down a bowl of roasted onions. While we were admiring them, she brought a mélange of vegetables -- roasted red peppers, olives, pickles -- accompanied by a crusty peasant bread. Because Amanda suffers from an unfortunate allergic reaction to red wine, Marissa had recommended a pinot grigio, and once that was opened and poured, we started in on the food in earnest. A piece of prosciutto, a whole onion, sweet as honey, a forkful of the vegetables, a bite of bread (with the rich, cold butter we always have to ask for in Italy because it is assumed you take your bread with olive oil), a sip of wine, some talk, an olive, a soft, succulent pepper, more wine.

Andrus and Elsa, our dinner companions on that evening, were retirees who had been born and raised and still lived in the Netherlands, but owned a vacation home on another hillside not far from where we sat. They made several long visits to Lake Como every year, driving nine hours across Europe with golf clubs in the trunk of their Mercedes. He was tall and trim, with bright blue eyes that beamed out of a florid, northern-European complexion, and she was brown-haired and classically pretty, with a direct gaze and a manner that was at once dignified and blunt. We had met them watching golf in the clubhouse at Menaggio and Cadenabbia and had become friends playing golf there, and had decided to try La Baita for the first time together as a way of deepening our acquaintance. They were accompanied by Max, their long-in-the-tooth, long-haired dachshund, who found a comfortable place on top of one of Andrus's shined loafers and didn't let out so much as a squeak of complaint when the girls ducked under the table and fondled him half to death.

When the papery slices of meat and the bread and onions and pickles and olives and peppers had been eaten up, slowly, and with the greatest of appreciation, and when most of the pinot grigio had been consumed, Nadya arrived with a freshly made carrot-and-celery coleslaw, dressed in oil, then a plate of grilled eggplant and zucchini, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and a light pastry that bore a close resemblance to spanakopita. The girls' pasta arrived in huge platters. Amanda and I exchanged a glance that said something like Good thing we skipped lunch.

As the meal moved slowly along and the last hours of daylight thinned, as the adults were served the next course -- two pastas, arrabbiata and boscaiola ("Yes, I'll have both," I told Nadya, Sì, sì, tutti e due) -- the conversation turned, naturally enough, to golf. You come to know people quickly if you drink with them or go through something difficult with them, and, as every golfer knows, at least as well and quickly if you play golf with them. Andrus played to an 11, with a smooth swing that accelerated smartly just as the clubhead reached the ball. Elsa, having played since she was a young girl, carried a handicap of 6 and had one of the sweetest, most perfectly rhythmical swings I'd ever seen. ("She often beats me, you know," Andrus said, after I watched Elsa hit her first tee shot.) They played a precise style of golf, and they played at a smart pace, like people who were expert at the complicated dance of the game: how to have your club chosen when it's your turn to hit; when to help a playing partner search for an errant tee shot and when to go find your own ball first, in the rough on the opposite side; how long you can reasonably (and legally) look for a ball; how to mark your ball on the green and let the other person putt undistracted; how to say "I'll wait" if you are waiting, or "I'll finish" if you aren't; all the unwritten rules that made the game move along at a brisk but comfortable tempo.

They were gracious, too, in the small touches that had nothing to do with speed: bringing an extra bottle of water in case I forgot that there is rarely drinking water on Italian courses; fixing someone else's ball mark without being asked and without making a fuss of it; retrieving a divot; lifting a wedge off the green and handing it to another player after he'd finished putting out; tending the flag, standing still on the tee box, raking a bunker.

And they were gracious with each other, too, a spousal courtesy you don't always see on the course. Once, after we'd made the long downhill walk from the eighth green to the ninth tee at Menaggio and Cadenabbia, Andrus realized he'd left a headcover back on the eighth, and Elsa hustled up and over the hill and brought it back to him without having been asked. They were complimentary without being saccharine, not afraid to tell each other when one had hit a poor shot, not timid about sharing swing advice. Far from being tour-level players, they were nevertheless world-class companions on the course, and they enjoyed good food as much as we did.

Arrabbiarsi means "to lose one's temper" (something I did not see Andrus or Elsa do, even when their games faltered), so pasta arrabbiata is "angry pasta," I suppose, though "hot," with its dual associations of anger and spiciness, might serve as a better English translation. It's one of my favorite dishes, the small prickle of pepper working nicely against the solid ordinariness of the pasta itself. On that night at La Baita, it was paired with pasta boscaiola, which is likely linked to the word bosco, or "woods," because the creamy sauce is rich with porcini mushrooms. Set together on the same dish, they made a perfect pair, something like a fiery Italian-American husband and his calm WASP wife, for example, or like the mix of emotional elements you need to play golf well: hot enough to care, to try; smooth and creamy and cool enough to stay calm amid the quick explosions of success and failure the game throws at you.

As always, Amanda stopped drinking after the first glass, but once the pinot grigio was finished, Andrus, Elsa, and I moved on with enthusiasm to a bottle Marissa suggested, a weighty Veneto merlot that went well with the arrabbiata. The girls moved on from sitting at the table and eating, to scrambling around somewhere under the table and tickling Max's ears. They were already inquiring about dessert options, which would have been perfectly reasonable at any other meal. "It looks like we still have a ways to go before dessert," I told them, and they said, "Really, Dad?" as if I were making a joke.

Clearing away the empty pasta dishes, Nadya asked about the meat course, and I said yes to all of it, yes to the pork, and yes to the beef, and even yes to the veal, which I don't normally eat at home. In his working days, Andrus had been an executive with a large food wholesaler in Holland, and he told us about a European Union law that controlled the treatment of veal calves and let them run free. So I said yes to the veal and pork and beef in a light wine sauce, and yes to the garnish of carrots and greens, and yes and yes and yes to anything and everything that came out of the kitchen on that summer night.

The girls had given up on eating by that point and were lavishing all their affection on Max the long-haired dachshund...whether he liked it or not. At the far end of the table, Amanda and Elsa had fallen into an animated conversation and were nibbling away at the slices of meat, cutting off pieces of the nicely browned potatoes that had been served with it, and sampling the vinegar peppers. We were doing a decent job on the Veneto merlot, too, and with his typical enthusiasm for things Italian (and perhaps for things in general) Andrus was telling me about some local friends of theirs he wanted us to meet. "Fine, fine people," he said. "He's a world-class painter, she's a writer. I know you'd like them," and giving me his impressions of other golf courses nearby -- Monticello, Lanzo, Villa d'Este.

When the larger plates had been cleaned, Marissa swung by with a selection of cheeses -- a Parmesan, a Tarleggio, and a cheese they made there, at La Baita, which she claimed did not have a name. "It's just our cheese," she said. In taste it fell somewhere between blue and Brie, a dry, crumbly cheese you wanted to let melt on the tongue. Dusk was settling over the hills. The tempo of the meal had changed the way the tempo of a day changes, from the busyness of the working hours to the contemplative mood of evening. After the cheese and another glass of wine, I did not think I could put any more food or drink into my body. But then Nadya brought chocolate mousse and a torta di frutta di bosco that I'd had my eye on since we walked in, and drawn by those sugary delights, the girls returned to their places as if the magnets that had once held them there had been turned back on, and I found myself with room for a few forkfuls of sugared pastry and various berries. Cream, butter, flour, chocolate -- how could something with these ingredients be in any way detrimental to one's health?

Darkness had not yet fallen over the view from the porch, so when we were finished eating, at last, really finished this time, we sat back, ran our hands across our midsections, sighed, looked at the pattern of crumbs and the last drops of wine, and then Andrus suggested we pose for a family picture. We assembled ourselves at the porch railing, and the photo sits in our home now. You can see that all of us were well fed, but my face in particular bears an expression almost of shock. Pleasant shock. But shock all the same. Could I have eaten that much, really?

We walked out through the kitchen for some reason -- to meet the chef, to pay homage to the pots and pans, I don't remember -- kissed Marissa good-bye there, went through a different door and down a different set of stone steps, then shook hands in the parking lot and wished each other a solemn good luck on the dark ride home. "We'll see you tomorrow at the course," Andrus said.

"Either that or come looking for us up here in these hills."

But once we had navigated the dirt track that led from La Baita down toward the gates of Menaggio and Cadenabbia, the rest of the winding ride into town and then back along the lake felt like child's play. It was late, the girls were tired. The first discomfort of overeating had passed. We got them home and into bed, then I took one of the chaise lounges out into the front yard, lay there and looked at the stars, and occupied myself with the art of digestion.Copyright © 2009 by Roland Merullo

Continues...



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