MEZZEGRA, Italy — Would you build your trip to Italy around breakfast? Not likely. Lunch maybe, the aperitifs and wines definitely, and dinner absolutely. But breakfast? Not so much, right? A hard roll with some coffee and warm milk, and you're fine?
Well, it's time to reconsider. If you take a room at Casa del Portico in Mezzegra on Lake Como, you may never travel to Italy for any other reason again. We have twice now stayed at this wonderful, tiny (four bedrooms, one apartment) bed and breakfast, which serves a "collazione" worth traveling for. Think slices of a perfectly butter-browned frittata with fresh herbs and local cheeses melting inside. Think tomato bruschetta with the tomatoes and basil grown in the owners' garden, the bread baked by them, toasted, and sprinkled with olive oil from their own trees. Think ripe figs from their fig tree, cut in half and wrapped in prosciutto. Think slivers of lardo on warm bread. Or sliced apples and oranges sprinkled with walnuts and red peppercorns and another drizzle of their olive oil.
The Italian principle that every meal is a dessert opportunity holds true in the mornings at Casa del Portico, where simpatica co-owner Alice Nastri is up baking at first light. Lemons, raspberries, and hazelnuts, also from the garden, find their way into a rotation of not-too-sweet breakfast cakes. One day a pink slice of fresh raspberry semi-freddo arrives at the table. On another, you can dip into a bowl of ethereal tiramisu, beside which the stuff conventionally served in Italian-American restaurants suddenly seems mere sludge. As you reflect happily on whether to refill your plate, you can continue to sip coffee or cappuccino and look out from Casa's lovely rose-filled patio through the palm and olive trees to the lake.
And breakfast isn't the half of it. In 40 years of travel all over Europe, we've rarely stayed anywhere that pleased us so much or felt so personal. This family is warm, and they love hosting. Alice will write down a regional recipe you've asked about; her husband, Giorgio, will show you around his olive grove; and her mother, who lives upstairs, will explain in perfect English how best to navigate Milan. They know the region inside and out, and they're eager to help you enjoy it.
Lake Como is a first-rate place to spend a week, especially if you can visit during the shoulder seasons — late April through early June, and early September through mid-October — when the sun is inclined to shine, but the place is not overwhelmed by heat or crowds. We flew into Milan's Malpensa airport and picked up a compact rental car. Its compactness made no difference on the Autostrada but, as we knew from our previous trip, was perfect for the lakeside highway, where two narrow lanes must often be shared with wide buses and trucks. The drive from Malpensa to Mezzegra takes a little more than an hour.
The standard attractions of the central lake area are the Villa Carlotta, one town north of Mezzegra and within easy walking distance, and the famous resort Bellagio, reachable by ferry from nearby Lenno. These spots are heavily visited for good reason, and having savored them before we had no hesitation about coming back for a second look. No one who loves gardens should miss the varied and meticulously kept ones at Carlotta, and the walking tour of the grounds at Villa Serbellone in Bellagio offers unparalleled views of Como's three long branches and the mountains that rim them so dramatically. (The name "Bellagio," we learned, derives not from "bella," or beautiful, but from "bi-," or twin: the town sits at the point where the lake's two southern legs come together.)
But the region has much to offer beyond these well-known sights. Ride the ferry one more stop to Varenna on the eastern shore and you can not only enjoy more superb gardens (Villa Cipresse, Villa Monastero) but also, after a strenuous vertical hike that is guaranteed to burn off some tiramisu calories, visit the medieval Castello di Vezio, where we were just in time for a thrilling exhibition of falconry that takes place at 3:30 most afternoons. The birds wheeling in long arcs and the sailboats riding the wind far below created a tableaux of natural freedom that reminded us why the northern European romantic writers felt they had discovered paradise when they first came here in the early 19th century.
Those who prefer to stay off the roads can do a great deal by foot from Mezzegra, for the 14-kilometer Lake Como GreenWay passes 20 feet from Casa del Portico's back gate. From the GreenWay we hiked to Ossuccio and climbed the Sacro Monte, where 14 chapels filled with life-size terracotta figures representing scenes from the life of Christ line the way up to the Church of the Beata Vergine del Soccorso; a wing of the church displays 20th-century paintings in which the Blessed Virgin intervenes to save victims of motorcycle accidents, bridge collapses, and shipwrecks. The ensemble is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Less climbing is required for a visit to the Villa Balbianello, near Lenno. A friend who didn't want to walk caught the water-taxi from town, while we followed the less demanding of two footpaths. The villa is a popular spot for destination weddings and movie shoots. "Star Wars" aficionados will recognize that Annakin and Padme tied the knot here in "Attack of the Clones."
Plans are afoot to add dinner to the services available at Casa del Portico. In the meantime, Alice and Giorgio are glad to pour you a glass of wine, recommend a local restaurant, and make the reservation. You probably skipped lunch, and after what they served you this morning, a light meal would be appropriate even now; but dishes are available in the neighborhood for every appetite, from inventive salads and little lake fish to the rib-sticking polenta uncia, cornmeal improved with vast quantities of cheese. We took advantage of several of these opportunities, one favorite being the tiny trattoria Santo Stefano in Lenno, where the service was charming and the eggplant caponata and the pappardelle with duck ragu were excellent. Always, though, we had to remind ourselves that another breakfast was on the way.
David Smith and Janna Smith can be reached at email@example.com.