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where to find the best italian food outside Italy

Battle of the Best - Lugano

Normally Italian food is enjoyed in more casual circumstances: the neighborhood trattoria, the enoteca, the osteria, the cafe, the pizzeria. But occasionally, one gets to enjoy the finer elements of Italian cuisine. In Lugano, just north of the Italian border separating Italy and Switzerland, there are two such restaurants, famed for their awards as much as their wine and food.

In comparison to the ruling gourmet Italian restaurant of Florence, Enoteca Pinchiorri, both Principe Leopoldo and Santabbondio hold their own. Recipients of Michelin Guide, Gault Millieu, and countless other prizes, these restaurants present Italian cuisine as if in a 3 star French restaurant: minimum of four waiters per table, a maitre de la salle who explains everything and a menu of five or more courses that, with wine, could finance a small village. This being Switzerland, luxury and cost is a given. But what I hate, and often experience in such places, is paying for much more than it is worth.

However, these two establishments are more than deserving of their success. I had the chance, when conducting the wonderful Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana, to dine in both.

Principe Leopoldo is the first class hotel in the hills above Lugano. The restaurant is filled with the congnoscenti and the ruling class. Bentleys, Rolls, Ferraris all line up outside. It explains the high prices. But this was a costello d'agnello from new Zealand and a costello di vitello from Gruyére so tender and so delicious that one would be willing to simply trade in the cars for the lamb and cow. The primi of tortelloni with butter and salvia melts in your mouth. Their famous risotto al carciofi is as soft as the heart of the artichoke without any vegetal flavor. And the chocolate tasting dolce was a chocoholic's fantasy: of white mousse,sorbet, and a ganache with a delicious morellino di scansano made for the perfect meal.

Santabbiondo did its best to compete. The tartar with white truffles from Alba, though a bit chewy, and a thin taglioni al burro with more truffles gave a great feeling of northern Italian flavor. The vitello with foie gras poelé on top was decadent, soft and juicy, with a touch of marsala. The mousse du chocolate for dessert had a hint of chestnuts to make Christmas season feel that much nearer. And one cannot dine in Ticino without trying one of the award winning Merlot, in this case a 2006 Rovére. And the intimate dining room with fireplace and only six tables created an atmosphere of eating in someone's elegant home.

But the winner, I would have to say is the Principe Leopoldo. It is not only about the choice of meat and its Slow Food preparation, cooked in a low temperature and soaked in juices, it is about consistency. Though Santabbondio is a fantastic restaurant, with each course delicious in its own way, the chef at Principe Leopoldo, Dario Ranza, is a genius, an artist, who can take the authenticity of Italian cooking, and make it into a sum greater than any individual part. This made the meal feel like a symphony, the beginning leading to the end, and each ingredient necessary to make the experience whole. Bravissimo!

Ristorante Principe Leopoldo, Chef Dario Ranza
Via Montalbano 5
6900 Lugano, Switzerland
091 985 88 55

Santabbondio Martin Dalsass, chef.
Via Fomelino 10
6924 SORENGO-LUGANO, Switzerland
Tel. +41 (0)91 993 23 88