Eating out in Italy is both leisurely and expensive, but it pays dividends in the freshest seafood and seasonal vegetables. Even if you're avoiding poultry and meat as I am, you'll still find a warm welcome and plenty of choices on menus.
This past Sunday, my last full day in Italy, I took a train from Gallarate, a bustling commercial center where I was staying, to Arona, a town on Lake Maggiore, in the lake country north of Milan. A five-minute ferry ride to the other side of the lake deposited me in Angera, where I began the long walk up to a hilltop fortress with a doll museum and gardens.
As I walked and walked and walked on this warm, sunny day, the town's name, Angera, reminded me of the word angina.
When I saw a small farm, I stopped to photograph the view and a couple of ponies. A dozen sheep were nearby. I began walking again and saw a sign that said "Agriturismo," and realized the farm took overnight guests or at least served lunch.
It was 11:45 in the morning, but if I waited until 12:30, I would be seated for lunch, a young woman in the restaurant said. I walked around, photographing chickens, grape vines, and an old oxen yoke.
The woman directed me to a table on the terrace, and soon the place was full, including a second level. She rattled off what was available -- antipasti, a starch course and entrees of fish and meat. I thought it was a set meal for a set price, but as it turned out, I was ordering a la carte and could have skipped the tagliatelle I ordered (photo).
In Italy, portion size varies with the restaurant. I often ordered three courses, fearing there would be too little food with two dishes. But sometimes, portions were big enough to share.
It was a wonderful meal, among the best I had. There were a dozen appetizers "della casa," only two of which were meat. I went back for seconds.
I enjoyed grilled eggplant, vegetable fritters, a plain omelet, fresh goat cheese, roasted red peppers; small, sweet onions; polenta with tomato sauce and anchovies, and then I enjoyed them again.
Risotto, gnocchi and pasta were offered, but I chose the tagliatelle with zucchini and zucchini flowers. An elderly server brought me an oval platter with enough pasta for two, asked me if I wanted grated cheese and then forgot to bring me any. The noodles, which could have been hotter, were dressed in cream and butter, which I never eat, yet I polished them off, and tried not to feel too guilty.
My entree were oven-baked salmon trout fillets from the lake I had just crossed, roasted potatoes and a sauteed green that resembled a cross between escarole and celery. I washed down my meal with a quarter-liter of wine and sparkling mineral water. Espresso was included, but wine, water and bread were extra.
The lunch took an hour and a half, and the Italians around me happily chatted away between courses. My bill came to 28 euros or $40 (the U.S. dollar was worth 78 cents when I left on Sept. 8, but fell to 70 cents a few days before I flew home on Sept. 20).
Societa Agricola La Rocca, Via Rocca Castello, 1,
Angera (Varese), Italy; 0331-930338.