From Abracadabra to Zombies
Exorcism on Lake Como
Robert T. Carroll
Comacina is Lake Como's only island. Perhaps you have heard of Locanda dell'Isola Comacina, where since 1947 at the end of the meal the proprietor has performed an exorcism to rid the island of a 12th-century curse. Or perhaps you've heard of how the Holy Grail (a chalice with some drops of blood from Jesus) made its way in the 6th century to Comacina. Or maybe you've read in a guide book or on the WWW of the menu served at the Locanda. The menu hasn't changed for over fifty years: "tomato & lemon, antipasto vegetables (onions baked in their jackets, sweet peppers basking in olive oil, purple beetroots, fagiole, carrots"), prosciutto, Bresaola della Valtellina, trout, chicken, a hunk of parmesan placed in your hand, rich ice cream with fresh fruit, white wine, bread, and brandy with coffee. It all sounds wonderful, but I don't think it could compare with the best meal I had in Italy. The date was September 30, 2008. The place was Varenna, Italy, on Lake Como.
At a modest salumeria in Varenna my wife and I picked up some peanuts, bread, chunks of several cheeses, slices of salami, and some red wine. We drove back to our hotel in the hills overlooking both the village and the lake.
My Italian is very spirit-like; it is nearly non-existent. When I opened my grocery bag back in the room I discovered a chunk of cheese that must have weighed a kilo. I thought I'd ordered un etto but the lady taking my order must have mistaken my finger-pointing to mean "give me the whole block of cheese there." My shopping was mostly successful, however, because I did get un etto of creamy gorgonzola, a nice chunk of parmesan, some lovely bread, and a delicious bottle of wine. Oh, and the mystery cheese was delicious, too. There was so much of it we were able to share it with friends at our next stop in Tellaro, just south of the famous Cinque Terre.
Until I went to Italy, I did not realize that the perfect appetizer does not have to be a gourmet spread of fish eggs, exotic cheese, or the mashed organ of an overfed goose. Peanuts, salted in the can, is the perfect accompaniment to a bottle of inexpensive Italian red wine. The two seem a perfect marriage when sitting on a little balcony overlooking Lake Como or in your room looking across the Arno river at the Duomo in Florence.
As I sat on our little balcony in Varenna, I wondered what the rich people were doing on Comacina. We munched on our peanuts for awhile before switching to the main course of bread and cheese, taking in the slow-moving boats on the lake as they made their way to and from Varenna to Bellagio or Menaggio. For dessert, we had another bottle of wine and watched the light of day disappear into the mist of dusk.
There was no need for any exorcism that night. But the next morning we noticed something strange on the tables in the breakfast area. The beauty of the place was marred by the presence of a garish yellow napkin holder on each table.
When we sat down, the scene got even uglier. Written in red letters across each napkin holder in bright red letters was the word "Dianetics." An address in Rome, along with fax and phone number, also adorned the annoying little advertisement for the "Bible" of the Church of Scientology.
I wondered if I should perform an exorcism and rid the hotel of this 21st century curse. First, however, I needed a cup of steaming cappuccino to help me process the situation.
I had a flashback of the night before of the deep purple of the wine, the lovely blue specks in the gorgonzola, and our room with a view of the misty lake. I thought of the sun rising, the day getting warmer, my duty to the people of Bellagio and Menaggio who depend on the tourist euro. I sipped another cup of cappuccino and thought of the day and evening ahead. A boat ride awaited, a stroll through Bellagio, then lunch on the lake in Menaggio. Should I mess with perfection?
By lunchtime, I had forgotten about the Scientology connection to our hotel. I enjoyed the boat ride and the view of the villages. A quiet lunch of wine, bread, and cheese was the perfect repast before the short, pleasant boat journey across the lake. A nap was in order to prepare for the evening stroll and lakeside snack of pizza margherita and vino rosso.
That evening we strolled along the lakefront promenade in Varenna and stopped at a little osteria on the water's edge.
This region was where Byron, Shelly, and Keats had gone to get revitalized. George Clooney lives in Como. Movie stars come here to relax. Maybe Tom Cruise has a secret place in these hills. Maybe he owns the hotel we were staying in. Should I investigate?
Yes, I think I should investigate the Scientology connection. And I will. The next time I visit Italy I'll snoop around and find out where those napkin holders came from, what they mean, and what secrets they conceal. Perhaps the key to this mystery lies on Comacina at the Locanda. I'll have to make the Locanda my second stop when I return to solve this mystery.
My first stop will be at the salumeria in Varenna for some peanuts and wine.
February 9, 2009.
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