If you watch too many TV shows that involve Jamie Oliver or Rick Stein travelling abroad, you’d be forgiven for having a certain clichéd view of a typical Italian trattoria: mainly featuring matronly old ladies in stained black aprons presiding over steaming pots of pasta redolent of garlic, fresh tomatoes, and Parmesan; verandas draped with vines; and long tables full of families eating leisurely dinners while children run around merrily. Perhaps a dusty car park outside with the odd Vespa or old Fiat 500, a constant buzz of conversation and music, cheap but delicious wine in earthenware jugs, and food that’s mouth-wateringly delicious, lovingly made according to recipes that haven’t changed for centuries.
Like most clichés, this has a basis in truth, but the reality is somewhat different: these places still exist as a reminder of the old Italy, but a bit like those ageing Fiat 500s they are a distinctly endangered species; threatened by the relentless corporate pursuit of profitability and efficiency. These places don’t make a lot of money, so only those with family ties or a vested legacy are interested in keeping them going in an unmolested state.
If you find one of these hidden gems, it’s a good idea to make the most of them: enjoy the atmosphere, sample as much food as you can from the shakily handwritten menu (if there’s a menu at all) and drink in the dolce vita vibe. Because you never know how long these places will be around for, or where you will find the next one.
One good example can be found tucked right up against the Swiss border: in fact, just walking distance from it, on the outskirts of Como in northern Italy. It’s called Michele, and you won’t find it in any tourist guide. There isn’t a website, nothing has changed for years, and it’s only frequented by locals: from affluent business owners to train drivers. They all eat the same thing, which is the food that they grew up with – or, in other words, whatever classic delight the owner has come up with from inside the tiny, mix and match kitchen.
The formula tends to be the same: pasta, risotto, or something similarly substantial as the first course; meat and vegetables for the second course, dessert to finish off with. Wine and then coffee plus a digestivo – a supposedly medicinal type of local liquor – to wash it down.
During my latest visit (this is a place I keep on going back to) we started with the aubergine parmigiana. A vast slab of it, hacked from a whole tray of the stuff that had been lovingly prepared that afternoon (by special request; yes, they even do requests here). The perfection in the way that they prepare this quintessentially Italian recipe here is hard to put into words. A beautifully singed exterior with a hint of crispiness that gives way to soft layers of pasta and aubergine that collapse like a cloud, unleashing an intense lava of fruitful tomato sauce. It’s one of the most humble dishes you can imagine, but proof that you don’t need a high tech kitchen to produce amazingly authentic results. They don’t need a dishwasher either, because every plate comes back thoroughly scraped. Not a morsel of this deliciousness goes to waste.
Next up for me was liver, cooked with onions. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: school dinners. But this plate of food has as much to do with school dinners as paper planes have to do with rocket science. The calves’ liver is melt-in-the-mouth tender with an extraordinary flavour, the onions that come with it almost caramelised into a jam, delivering a truly memorable sweet and sour experience. Sitting next to the liver is another yellow slab: this time of dense polenta: an ideal sponge to absorb the onion sauce.
Dented metal bowls of rosemary-roast potatoes and roughly chopped greens come with it; this is not a place for dainty tastes or appetites.
In fact, it’s almost an effort to finish the slice of sweet and fruity blackcurrant tart that comes afterwards, optimally balanced by the sharpness of a ball of lemon sorbet. But bravely and selflessly, I manage it. To drink, I had a bottle of Bonarda: fizzy red local wine that sounds almost counterintuitive, but in fact tastes like a sort of gorgeously alcoholic Ribena (an ideal match for the tart, by the way).
I’m fortunate enough to have already been to quite a few places that boast a constellation of Michelin stars. But the absolute truth is that none of them can compete with places like San Michele when it comes to pure authenticity. If you’re ever in the area, don’t miss out on Michele (easily done, as you could walk by without noticing the place). But when it comes to restaurants as well as life, you often don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
Restaurant Michele, Via Bellinzona 241, 22100 Como CO, Italy.
Tel: +39 031 540105
Ristorante Michele is open Sunday to Friday for lunch from midday to 2:30pm and for dinner from 7:00pm to 10:00pm. It is closed all day Saturday.
Type of restaurant: Italian Trattoria
Price Band: Low
Insider Tip: Try out your Italian as nothing is in English.
Reviewer’s Rating: 10/10
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.