Lake Como has been enchanting holidaymakers since Roman times, but Gino D’Acampo didn’t have high hopes.
“I don’t like lakes generally,” explains the chef, who lives on the island of Sardinia when he’s not cooking on ITV’s This Morning. “It’s a glorified pond, isn’t it? I live by the sea, so for me I need to taste salt. I prefer the mystery, the majesty of the sea.”
This particular pond is Italy’s third biggest lake and sits in the shadow of the snow-capped Rhaetian Alps near the Swiss border.
“Well, I was shocked because it was such a beautiful place,” says D’Acampo. “The pond didn’t look like a pond. It looked like the sea. The water was clean and clear, all the colourful houses on the shore, the mountains all around, the bars… It’s incredible. And you can do anything you would do in the sea except taste the salt. People fish, water-ski, surf if there is wind, there are beaches, boats everywhere. I can see why those American stars are all going to Lago di Como now.”
The picture-perfect town of Bellagio sits on the shores of Lake Como
Apparently Madonna, Sylvester Stallone and Richard Branson have all bought holiday homes here, but its most famous resident is George Clooney, who owns an 18th-century villa in the lakeside village of Laglio. Clooney wasn’t at home to show him around, but D’Acampo gaily confesses to borrowing his speedboat.
Does Clooney know? “I don’t think he does actually. I met the guy that drives his boat at Harry’s Bar in Cernobbio, where they do the famous bellini cocktail – the one with prosecco and peach. We start to drink and [he says], ‘Would you like to see George Clooney’s boat tomorrow? It’s fine, he’s not here.’”
So how was it? “Let’s just say that I’ve got a bigger boat!”
George Clooney’s speedboat
It wasn’t just Lake Como that surprised him. Northern Italy proved more of an adventure than he’d anticipated. “It’s like another country. The landscape is completely different. The food is completely different. The dialect is completely different. I had no idea what some of them were talking about, even when they were speaking Italian. It was like talking with someone from Liverpool or Newcastle!”
After you’ve hiked in the alps and sipped bellinis on Lake Como, D’Acampo recommends sating your appetite at farm-restaurants known as agriturismo. “Go to the mountains. There are so many little farms where they have a licence to be called agriturismo because they can only serve what they produce on the farm. So you won’t find Coca-Cola or sparkling water there. It’s water from the wells. Wine that they produce. Pork that they breed. Eggs from their hens.”
Don’t expect the typical Mediterranean diet, though. “The weather is colder there, so they tend to eat food that is heavier: stodgy hams, wild boar. They use more butter and cream.
“For example, I didn’t know that northern Italian people do strudel. I thought it was an Austrian thing. I was like: ‘Guys, I need to do something Italian. English people rely on me to show them Italian food, not strudel!’ They said, ‘Gino, strudel has been in our culture for centuries.’ So they showed me how to make this beautiful strudel with the apples that they have, amaretto liqueur and raisins.”
Italy has more than 500 kinds of pasta and D’Acampo found a new favourite. “I discovered a shape called chitarra, which means guitar. You make this kind of spaghetti through a guitar that looks like a mandolin. In the old days, the guitar was helping them to make pasta because they didn’t have machines. I begged the guy on my knees: ‘Can I please have one? I’ll pay whatever you want.’ But he wouldn’t sell one because these guitars have been in the family for so long and nobody can make them any more.”
As well as the northern regions of Lombardy and Trentino-Alto Adige, D’Acampo explores Umbria, Tuscany, Liguria, Piemonte and Abruzzo in his new series, Gino’s Hidden Italy. What they all have in common is a fierce pride in local ingredients and recipes. “Italian people are so proud to show off. A little bit too much, I have to say. Wherever you go, they prepare a buffet and they get offended if you don’t try things. I gained five or six kilos!”
Fortunately, there was no shortage of excellent local vino to wash it all down. Lombardy is known for its sparkling wines and strong reds, which D’Acampo can vouch for.
“Don’t trust the wine. Two or three glasses and I was hammered!”
Gino’s Italian Escape: Hidden Italy is on Mondays ITV 8pm
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Radio Times holidays
Lake Como, St Moritz and the Bernina Express, from £699pp. Based on the shores of Italy’s most picturesque lake, with its elegant villas and gardens, this holiday combines rest and relaxation with some wonderful included and optional excursions, including a journey on the scenic Bernina Express Railway to fabled St Moritz, and the chance to discover stylish Milan and idyllic Lugano. Click here for the full itinerary and to book.
Lake Garda, Venice and Verona, from £619pp. Italy is blessed with some fantastic scenery and some of the finest is to be found as you approach the Alps around Lake Garda, with the stunning snow-capped Alps in the background, interspersed by picturesque villages. All the photographs and pictures you have seen of St. Mark’s Square and Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and the Grand Canal have simply been telling the extraordinary truth that Venice is a stunning city! Verona too is without doubt one of the most attractive cities you will ever see and appropriately famous as the setting for the legendary story of Romeo and Juliet. Click here for the full itinerary and to book.