The glitches are still not all worked out, but I am almost there, so I am finally able to resume posting regularly and begin catching up with all that I have to share with you. As promised, I am first taking you to Switzerland, to the lovely lakeside town of Lugano, a place that bridges the Italian and German/French cultures that all represent this small but beautiful country. It is also a town rich in lovely shops, good cafes and restaurants, aaaaand…. banks! Oh yes, banking is possibly Switzerland’s first business, followed by watches, chocolate and alpine tourism.
I have not photographed the lake because we happened to go there on one of those muggy, dreary grey-sky days, and the lake – usually stunning – looked blah, so I passed. There is always another time, and besides, a visit to the lake and the nearby gardens warrants a post of its own. What you see above and below is the main piazza, where the Municipio (Town Hall) is located, along with lovely cafes and restaurants.
The place I am taking you to, Grand Cafe Al Porto can be found tucked just behind this lovely building in the image above, along Via Pessina.
As we got there on my most recent visit, I noticed a group of people stopping by to look at the window and realized they were actually part of a guided tour. Indeed, Ristorante Grand Cafe Al Porto is a historical landmark. Founded in 1803 as a meeting place for politicians, artists, writers and other notables, it soon became known as Lugano’s living room. The history is quite interesting, and can be found on their website at this page, but alas, only in Italian and German. So I will translate and summarize it for you here.
Not a lot is known of its history in the 1800, other than what mentioned above. 1900’s history shows the Biaggi Family, from the nearby village of Viganello, managing the café (then also hotel) until 1942. That year, Ettore and Clelia Biaggi-Luvini handed it over to Alberto Bianchi, who had recently moved to Lugano from the nearby Italian town of Como, where he had managed the renown Hotel & Restaurant Barchetta. Given the year, all of this occurred smack in the middle of WWII, which is what makes it interesting.
Like during the previous century, several were the Italian exiles – many with names of importance – staying in the rooms above the café, (alas, the names are not listed in the article). This is the time during which the café’s prestige is cemented.
On March 3, 1945, in the “Cenacolo” room on the first floor, within the area then known as Ristorante Bianchi – today the headquarters of Grand Café Al Porto – took place the very first secret meeting between German officers and representatives of the Allies, right at the apex of the greatest tragedy in European history. It was during this meeting that the German commanders were persuaded to not enact the “scorched-earth” campaign in Northern Italy.
Operation Sunrise, by Swiss Major Max Waibel, at the time part of Swiss army intelligence, and contacted by Italian Baron Luigi Parrilli, provided a valid and crucial help in creating the important premises that brought to the Surrender signed in Caserta on April 29, 1945. With that signature and the unconditional surrender of the German army, a ferocious war was finally brought to a close, sparing Northern Italy not just from widespread mourning, but also from the horrible destruction that the “scorched-earth” order would have caused.
As written in “La Resa degli Ottocentomila” (The Surrender of the Eight-hundred-thousand), by Ferruccio Lanfranchi, published by Rizzoli in 1948:
“… as we waited, we prepared for lunch. In spite of the restrictions imposed by rationing, Alberto Bianchi, the owner of Ristorante Bianchi, created a miracle. He had not even a glimmer of suspicion that he was hosting conspirators and an international gathering of historical importance. However, thanks to that extraordinarily fine tuned intuition of Swiss hoteliers, he had discerned he was dealing with important people.”
The jewel of Grand Café Al Porto is the Cenacolo Fiorentino, that is an upstairs dining room that once used to be the refectory of an ancient convent. The coffered ceiling is the original one from the 1500s and is enhanced by frescoes attributed to Florentine painter Bonafedi. (I was unable to sneak up for a photo of this because there was an event going on at the time, but you can view it here – do scroll down, the café’s website is rather redundant in large images).
Over two centuries, this historic café has hosted mani famous people, among whom were Carlo Cattaneo, Giuseppe Mazzini, Prince Vittorio Emanuele, Sir Joseph Austen Chamberlain, Henri Guisan, Gustave Stresemann, Giuseppe Prezzolini, Clark Gable, Giulietta Masina, the Aga Khan, and Sophia Loren with husband Carlo Ponti.
Grand Café Al Porto is currently a “corresponding member” of the prestigious “Locali Storici d’Italia” (Historical Places of Italy). This is a non-profit cultural Association with the aim of preserving and adding value to historical places such as hotels, restaurants, patisseries, literary cafés that have achieved fame and historical renown thanks to events that have occurred there and the historical and famous people who frequented them. Founded in 1975, the Association currently includes almost 200 among the most ancient and historical places of this kind in Italy. Among these are only 6 “corresponding members”, that is historical places (businesses) of great prestige and tradition that are located outside of Italy. Grand Café Al Porto is one of these six.
For as beautiful as the café is, as you enter you will be inevitably drawn to the right towards the bakery counter, where you will find yourself mentally selecting all the desserts you are going to eat even before having lunch. The display was rich and enticing on that June day we were there, but I know for a fact that, as the season changes to the cooler temperatures of fall and winter, the selection is even larger, and the window display will have you mesmerized already from outside.
The selection includes mini desserts, cookies, chocolates, macarons, pralines, sweet brioche-type breads (relatives of the famous panettone), as well as a small selection of breads. It is indeed one of those places where you want to buy one of everything, which is what we try to do each time we visit.
The café is spectacular, and offers an intimate feel which is enhanced by the low light, especially on an overcast day. The servers are very professional and friendly.
The menu changes every day, though the selection is limited. Like most restaurants in Lugano, the imprint of the cuisine is unavoidably Italian. Did I tell you I went there with my aunt? Maybe not. She is the one who introduced me to the place. Anyway, in view of enjoying dessert, we both decided to order the same thing, a light Octopus and Shrimp Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette. The salad was fresh and delicate, and the perfect pre-dessert dish.
Photographing food here was a challenge because of the low light; photographing anything really, but I managed it well enough, though there was quite a bit of tone correction in Photoshop to get rid of the yellow tones of the lamps on the food. That is why I also picked up another one of our desserts to take home so I could photograph them in better lighting. I would have anyway, but the excuse of the photos was reason enough to buy extra. Besides, bringing extra goodies home is never a problem in my family, as there is always someone willing to help share the calories.
Above is my aunt’s favorite dessert in the foreground: Tarte Tatin, with my selection in the back to the left: Mango Entremet, a set of layers that started with a thin biscuit, topped by mango mousse, topped by panna cotta, topped by a layer of light sponge, topped by Italian meringue. Heaven in a bite. To the side on the right is one of those sweet brioche-style breads that are related to panettone, and also known as Veneziana (literally, Venetian). This is a mini one, and it contained candied cherries, and was topped with sugar granules. Oh-so-good!
Image above: Passion Fruit and Raspberry Tartlet, the one I then recreated myself and you can find the recipe here.
Image below: Chocolate Mousse Mini Cake.
Image above: another mini Tarte Tatin in the foreground, and the most amazing Apple Strudels (in mini format) I have ever had, ever, in the background. Those I have yet to recreate, but they are embedded in my taste/texture memory forever!
Image below: a loaf of their Spelt Bread. I could not resist, and had to buy one of these as well just because it looked so beautiful. It tasted just as delicious.
Which of these desserts would you have picked?
Are you still drooling?
Via Pessina 3, 6900 Lugano (Ti), Switzerland | phone +41-91-910-5130 | e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org | website
closed on Sundays