After fighting with sleep and losing, aboard the train back to Milan where I leave tomorrow, Jonathan wakes me to view one of the most magnificent sights in the world: Lago di Como. This tranquil mass of water surrounded by mountains is just settling in before sunset, nodding off the light and welcoming the dark. Little fishing boats near shore might make one forget it is January at all. Its sheer brilliance may also make one forget the day’s trials, when all at once the burning in my throat does not.
Just a couple hours ago, after a most unwritable journey down the Alps of Engadin (St. Moritz) on the Bernina Express into the Italian border town of Torino, Jonathan and I strolled our suitcases about a half mile or so from the station to a little restaurant, La Botte, where we were recommended to eat just next to the grand Basilica della Madonna. Here, we would find the ‘tipico’ food from the region, their pasta specialty called pizzoccheri as well as their dried, thin meat called bresaola. A sucker for regional dishes, we were there as soon as our feet hit the Tirano ground. La Botte sadly was closed. But we went to the restaurant next door which seemed promising, Albergo Altavilla. There we saw the travelers who were on board with us down the slope. They were from northern Illinois. Jonathan called that one within 12 seconds of a sharing a panoramic view car with them on the train. He called them ‘my people’. I laughed, because they were very much like me: chatty (I swear, they couldn’t let 2 seconds pass in silence), jolly and hypochondriatic (if that’s even a word). Go ahead and listen to someone in and around northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin just once. With age, we talk about our bodies, illnesses and diseases more each year. We can diagnose better than any doctor around and suggest medicine for it as well. After a couple hours of listening to walleye fishing stories and Barbara’s inevitable looming divorce (with the obligatory ‘I hate to gossip, but…’), we had much fun imitating on the walk to lunch.
We sat down at Albergo Altavilla and ordered the 4-course regional lunch, which would give us our pizzocheri noodles and bresaola (like beef prosciutto). We overheard the midwesterners order pizza, extremely disappointed and shocked to hear that these (northern) Italians hadn’t caught on to what made their country such a great hit. Alas, they ordered regular pasta with red sauce–a safe alternative.
Our demi-bottle of Valtellina Nebbiolo, a wonderfully silky textured, fruity red (nothing at all like Piemonte’s version) seemed a perfect choice with what was to come. We had just seen some vineyards outside town, so the choice was a no brainer (not that there were many more to be honest). We dug into the first course: Chiscioi Tiranesi con Cicoria, a kind of fried breaded cheese patty with a side salad. There were three of them. I wolfed down two in a matter of seconds. I was starving. Meanwhile, I noticed my partner clear his throat and get that look in his eye.
‘What’s wrong?’ I ask with trepidation…
‘Nothing… I think.’ He clears his throat again, heavy in thought.
‘Well,’ he explains, “There may be a little buckwheat in this breading. Probably not, but…My tongue is starting to tingle…”
See, we are both quite allergic to the black, deadly flour. I begin to panic as I look down and see my near demolished plate. We frantically google ‘Tirano buckwheat food’ and there it is. Countless sights discussing this region’s famous Alpine dishes, such as pizzoccheri and chiscioi, made with hearty, buckwheat flour: ‘For hardcore buckwheat lovers ONLY!’
First he goes to, well, rid himself of the infestation in the bathroom before it gets too bad. Then it is my turn. We cancel our order for lethal pizzoccheri and opt instead for plain, potato gnocchi with red sauce, a safe choice. The staff was wonderful and very responsive, confirming that yes indeed there is a lot of buckwheat in their cuisine and of course they would accommodate.
My throat is still suffering from the experience, the black flour having penetrated its sides and swollen it within minutes. We were so fortunate he called it so soon. Even as I write this, I can scarcely swallow well. It is the only allergy I have that is so severe. I break into hives, fall asleep, swell up. And Jonathan is arguably worse. A strange star-crossed syndrome we both somehow share.
Our highly anticipated lunch became sparkling water, Benadryl and gnocchi, followed by a hazy train ride to Milan. But even with that, we found a way to laugh about our high maintenance, wussy allergies, complete with a backdrop of beautiful lake Como.