by Emilia Crippa
State highway 36, Lake Como and Spluga (SS 36), is a favorite with motorcyclists in Lombardy. But before they climb up the hill, they know a good coffee is in order. So in Chiavenna, they stop at Pasticceria Mastai, right there on the left before the fork in the road leading to Val Bregaglia, up to Maloja and St. Moritz on one side, or to the Splügen Pass on the other. Today, we’ll take the latter and discover the beautiful Valchiavenna.
Mastai serves croissants in a range of flavors, sweet pastries and delicious cakes; if the sight of these is not enough, a court of young barmen and waiters will lure you into temptation. It is a siren song, impossible to resist, and you will hear it again on your way back through town: by evening, Mastai transforms into a wonderful wine bar. The challenges of the new millennium’s entertainment market have not spared this valley, at the foot of the so-called Giant’s Pot (‘Marmitte dei Giganti’, well worth the visit), known for the typical natural caves called “crotti”, but Mastai seems to have found the right concept to attract any visitor in the area, from bikers to tourists arriving to see the “Pace di Chiavenna”, a precious evangelistary cover in gold and gems, on exhibit at the Jewelry Museum of the Collegiate Church of Saint Lawrence.
The highlight of a stop at Mastai, however, is tied to its loyalty to tradition: its specialty is the must-try “biscioela”, a typical cake of the area of Valtellina and Valchiavenna. This ancient sweet bread with raisins, figs, and nuts is the epitome of tradition, resulting from the union of farmers’ timeless wisdom and bakers’ fine skills, and becomes more enjoyable with every bite. Some say Mastai’s is the best of the valley. Others prefer to hike up towards the Splügen Pass, to Campodolcino, right past Prestone’s lake: as soon as you enter the town, on the right you will see Zizzi, a baker/newsagent’s/greengrocer’s/wine shop. It is the typical village store, which can be seen either as a forerunner of large cities’ “general stores”, or as the legacy of a past that is still alive in Italy’s smaller communities. Zizzi’s “biscioela” has a stronger, more intense, more rustic flavor than Mastai’s: deciding which one is your favorite may be the most delicious challenge you’ll ever face.
Before we go on towards Madesimo, or start on the rockier road towards the pass, even before we cross the center of Campodolcino, you will see a road on the right, right after the church: it is the beginning of thirteen hairpin turns leading to Fraciscio – houses, a church, a store, a hotel, and a tourist home dedicated to Saint Luigi Guanella, who was born in this mountain hamlet.
Next on our itinerary, a sign bears one of the most common names you could think of in Lombardy’s mountains: “La Genzianella” (literally, “The dwarf gentian”). But in Fraciscio’s case the plant is not a symbol of dullness, but a guarantee of substance: the first room you walk into may remind you of a 1970s bar, with the counter, few tables, and pictures on the walls; the second, however, reveals the real soul of the place: tables crammed between beadboard walls, decorated with pictures of friends and local personalities who came here… to prove their appetite! As soon as you hear the menu from the kind and jolly Walter, or his brother-in-law (this is a family business, after all), their valley accent will make you feel at ease. Small ravioli or tagliolini with herbs, polenta taragna (which includes buckwheat flour) with pork ribs – so small and delicate they seem carved in wood… it took years for us to have the owners reveal they come from a farm down in the valley – and then perfect Chiavenna-style pizzoccheri, a kind of small gnocchi covered in butter, garlic and cheese (an alternative to the more famous ‘pizzoccheri valtellinesi’). And then deer or roe meat, homemade cake or sorbet, and grappa, or should we say grappas… including one viper-flavored variety, bottled with a whole mountain viper! Finally, the check arrives: just 24 euros for everything we just listed, coffee and wine included. Just don’t dream of coming here without making a reservation first: the restaurant is full every holiday, on the weekends, for lunch and for dinner. Groups, families, bikers with their girlfriends, and even people form the larger cities nearby come here year-round…