The Washington Times - September 1, 2008, 12:45PM

By Linda Mensinga, Editor, Culinary Trends Magazine. (Reprinted with permission by Culinary Trends Magazine.)

The radiant waters of Lake Como surrounded by mountains has long attracted visitors who find the stunning vistas and agreeable weather irresistible.

The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, in the Lombardia region of northern Italy, could win every award just by its location, but the staff, food, rooms and service are equally wonderful.

Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni (Photo courtesy of Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni)

The white-jacketed waiter rolled out a table with martini glasses partially filled with a layer of clear gelee and layer of cream-colored foam. Also on the table was a large empty bowl, a pitcher filled with a creamy liquid and a metal canister.

As his assistant joined him, the waiter poured the contents of the pitcher into the bowl. She tilted the canister over the same bowl and poured as he energetically whipped the custard. Smoky clouds of liquid nitrogen wafted out and down the sides of the bowl, then mysteriously vaporized.

“Oohs” and “ahhs” from the guests followed. The waiter’s arm slowed somewhat as mixture in the bowl began to thicken.

A few more turns of the whisk and ecco! Ice cream-cantucci gelato-with the smoothest consistency imaginable was done.

One scoop topped the apple gelee with vin santo foam already in the martini glass. Delighted guests polished off the dessert, even though it was the 7th course of a prix-fixe menu.

An international clientele have long favored the hotel with its elegant, timeless charm. Built originally as a vacation home in 1850, it became a hotel in 1872 and was purchased by a Swiss hotel firm in 1907.

Gianfranco Bucher is the third generation of the family to own and run the hotel.

The final course is a highlight of Executive Chef Ettore Bocchia’s innovative molecular menu served in Mistral Ristorante at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni

Terraz Serb, The Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni (Photo courtesy of Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni)
The dessert is Bocchia’s twist on the classic Italian tradition of cantucci, a crispy hazelnut biscotti, with vin santo, dessert wine. The tireless, free-spirited chef travels the world to dine and to cook as guest chef. He loves to experiment and learn.

His idea of molecular food?

“It’s made with only natural ingredients and has the clean taste of the food<” said Chef Bocchia.

“I’m not exactly changing anything but it’s a new texture, a new approach. A different way to fry or make mayonnaise or make something healthier.” he said.

His ice cream is a delicious example. The ice cream freezes quickly with very few ice crystals because the liquid nitrogen’s temperature is 200∞ C below zero. Nitrogen, which makes up about 80% of our atmosphere, is harmless but very cold. *

Chef Bocchia believes understanding the science behind food makes for better results.

“There are chemical and physical changes when you work with food,” Chef Bocchia says. “When I know more I can resolve any problems and have answers for the guys in the kitchen. I know this needs fat, or acid, or it’s too dry,” he explained. “We started molecular concepts 3 years ago after studying it for a year. Some dishes we tried 10 or 12 times to find the best way.”

The work has paid off.

“Last year we got no complaints,” he said.

The molecular menu has met with approval from guests and food critics alike. In 2005 Mistral was awarded its first Michelin star, an honor repeated in 2006.

Interior Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni (Photo courtesy of Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni)

Grand is an accurate description of the hotel, from the chandeliers, painted ceilings, mirrored walls, and columns to the individually decorated rooms with lake or park views.

Every modern amenity is here in an atmosphere of sumptuous splendor. An indoor and outdoor pool, 2 tennis courts, dock, fitness center, spa and private beach provide recreational activity. Sailing, canoeing, horseback riding, hiking and mountain biking are nearby, as is golf.

Less strenuous pastimes include sipping a cocktail or aperitif while taking in the splendid view of mountain, lake and sky from the hotel terrace or sun bathing by the pool.

Mr. Bucher took over management of the hotel from his father in 1990 and began renovating the hotel. The number of rooms was reduced from 95 to 81, including 20 suites.
Air conditioning was installed and the phone system upgraded, costly investments in such an old villa. The spa was added and Mistral opened.

“With the money he spent, you could open a new hotel,” said Giuseppe Spinelli, hotel director. “Remodeling is not an easy task in Italy. City, province and central governments have to approve any changes and are never in a hurry.”

They’re very protective. You can only change the inside. The facade has to stay the same,” Spinelli said.

Frustrating for hotel owners, but the classic architecture is timeless and an experience not duplicated elsewhere.

Spinelli himself has worked at the hotel since 1981. He believes,

“You should work in a place you like. You can’t find anywhere better [than the Vialla Serbelloni].”

Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni
22021 Bellagio ñ Como ñ Italy
Via Roma, 1
++ 39 031 950216
Fax ++39 031 951529

*If you do try making ice cream using liquid nitrogen, practice safety tips, wear gloves, goggles and be careful to not touch the liquid nitrogen.  It will cause severe burns and should not be used around children.  It is important that users have all safety information and use knowledge before working with liquid nitrogene.

Linda Mensing is editor emeritus for Culinary Trends Magazine.  We are delighted to welcome Linda as a contributing editor to Donne Tempo Magazine and contribute to Donne Travels!