Getting to Piazzaga is not particularly easy.
I stayed for a few days in this tiny village in the hills above Lake Como, and while the place has several wonderful aspects, ease of access isn’t necessarily one of them.
With a four-wheel drive vehicle and nerves of steel, the drive up the narrow, winding dirt road takes about ten minutes from the lakeside town of Torno. Inches to spare on each side, steep inclines and plenty of blind corners make the ride loads of fun. Especially in the dark.
If it’s a sunny day and you’re headed for what is (in my entirely biased opinion) the best restaurant in Lake Como, though, leave the car behind and find a pair of sturdy shoes. It’s time to go for a walk.
The hike takes anywhere from half an hour to significantly longer, depending on both your level of fitness and how often you stop to take photos. I did it in about 35 minutes, but that’s because I had taken most of my pictures on the way down earlier in the day. If you’re not in a hurry, give yourself an hour or so to make the most of the walk and not arrive an exhausted and sweaty mess.
The path is straightforward once you’re on it – just keep going uphill – and starts above five minutes from where the ferry comes into Torno. Just walk up to the main road, follow the red arrows for the “strada regia” and then the signs for Piazzaga/Massi avelli. If in doubt, just ask a local where “Massi avelli” is and if your Italian accent isn’t as incomprehensible as mine they’ll happily point you in the right direction.
The first part of the track winds gently along a narrow cobbled path, with short hedges growing alongside and meadows sloping down towards the lake. I found myself wandering along admiring the view and thinking about all manner of things, not really paying much attention to what I was doing. Which made it all the more surprising when I rounded the corner and ran – almost literally – into a donkey.
He was just standing there, nibbling perfunctorily on the long grass until I came along. I stopped. He stopped. We looked at each other for a while, quietly daring the other to make the first move until I realised that his boredom threshold was undoubtedly far higher than mine.
I awkwardly sidled past, trying to work out which end would do the most damage if Donkey attacked. “Stupid human”, his stoic expression said, as he returned to a particularly tasty patch of foliage.
A few insects buzzed lazily around as I continued to climb, walking through dilapidated Roman arches and over a small river. The sound of water cascading over nearby rapids seemed strangely loud in the near silence of the Italian forest. I hadn’t seen another human in at least twenty minutes.
Past the turn-off to the Massi avelli I went, having checked out the strange ancient rock tombs earlier in the day. As I neared the end the path got noticeably steeper, my laboured breath ringing in my ears. Apparently not only my ears, however, as a small deer suddenly exploded out of the trees towards me, veering away at the last second to bolt headlong down the mountainside.
As my heart rate returned from the stratosphere, I could see why venison featured on the restaurant menus around here.
Finally reaching the village and walking back inside the restaurant, my friend took one look at me and started pouring a beer. Now there’s a man who knows how to assess a situation.
Crotto Piazzaga is run by my friends Katia, Alessandro and Veronica. They specialise in the kind of local dishes that people outside northern Italy have usually never heard of, the kind of home made, slow cooked food that I always look out for – but usually don’t know where to find – whenever I travel somewhere new.
Luckily for me, I didn’t have to seek it out this time around. For five days the amazing food and wine found me.
“Rabbit, Dave?”. Yes please.
“Yellow risotto”? Sure thing.
“Individually-made ravioli parcels with hand rolled pasta?” Sounds great.
“The best damn lasagne you’ve ever tasted?” You don’t need to ask me twice.
“Would you like a glass of red wine to wash it down with while you gaze out over the lake?” Strangely enough, I would.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so well fed – or so well looked after. I ate delicious food all day, sat around with a guitar and a bottle of wine at night, and got outside in the sunshine and fresh air at every possible opportunity. It was wonderful.
So if you ever happen to be in Como and feel like doing something completely different – and getting right off the tourist trail in the process – take the ferry to Torno, get a bit of a sweat up on the walk up to Piazzaga, then reward yourself with whatever happens to be coming out of the kitchen that day. You won’t know in advance what it will be, but based on my lengthy investigation (oh the hardship), I can promise it’ll be good.
Oh, and that second donkey I mentioned?
Let’s just say that wild boar was not the only meat dish on the menu last week…