Our report on an exquisite Italian-Swiss villa. On Lake Lugano, it's a change of pace from our usual Germanic rambles.

And now, to steal a line from Monty Python's Flying Circus, for something completely different. It's the Italian-influenced Swiss canton of Ticino (te CHEE no), whose southern tip pokes deep into Northern Italy. Not only is a different language spoken here (though less Italian is heard in Ticino than French in Vaud), the architecture, cuisine, climate and vegetation are decidedly Latin instead of Germanic. Ticino is tropical plants, sunshine and red tile roofs. A simple, family-run restaurant is a grotto instead of a gasthof and serves risotto or polenta instead of rösti or dumplings.

Lugano, the canton's largest city and center of tourist activity, sits on the north shore of Lago di Lugano, a wandering lake on whose inlets and isthmuses are found dozens of charming towns and villages.

In one of them, Caslano, about eight kilometers southwest of Lugano, we found Albergo Gardenia (Editor's Choice), a beautifully restored villa with some 25 tastefully decorated and furnished bedrooms.

Those who have come down from Austria or Germany, or even from central Switzerland, will immediately be struck by the hotel's almost tropical setting and how different it is from where they have just been: palm trees fronting a plain, square, white façade relieved only by shuttered windows and a little grey trim. Once inside the hotel, one's eye is immediately drawn to the distinctive contemporary art. It is what set the Gardenia apart. There are pieces in every guestroom and, in fact, the hotel publishes a list of the art and where it can be found in the hotel. In Number 11, for example, is a work by Christo entitled Calle de Serano. Among the other artists displayed are Franz Falch, J. P. Pincemin, Paul Rotterdam, Robert Indermaur, Max Reiser, Peter Frie, Steve Joy and Pierre Terbois.

But even without high-quality art, the Gardenia would be a special hotel. Breakfast in good weather - much of the year in Lugano - is served on a sheltered terrace overlooking the grounds. In very good weather the hotel's excellent Restaurant Bacco sets tables on small, individual patios scattered over the garden. As twilight deepens on a summer night, and candles flicker at each table, it is a lovely place to be. To put a final touch on the evening, stroll to the center of the village, find a table at the water's edge under strings of bare electric bulbs and order coffee, mineral water or something more fortifying. Watch the people and the lights on the other shores. There are only a one or two hotels in Caslano and the crowd will be mostly locals.

But back to the Gardenia. The guestrooms have a sort of minimalist elegance about them and are quite comfortable. All amenities are offered including terrycloth robes. Our black and white marble-tiled bathroom was large, well-lit and had a window overlooking the inviting, rock-lined swimming pool. At night, when no one is in it and the pool lights are on, it looks like all the water has been removed.

This an absolutely first-rate hotel in a fascinating part of the world.

Albergo Gardenia Via Valle, CH-6987 Caslano (Lago di Lugano), telephone 091/711716, fax 091/712642. Singles 120 to 180 Sfr., ($80-$120) doubles 220 to 350 Sfr. ($146-$233). Major cards.
* Albergo Gardenia: IV G

Restaurant Bacco

The best country hotels have outstanding restaurants and the Gardenia's is Restaurant Bacco. On a hot night we dined in the cool garden. We reserved a table in the afternoon and when we presented ourselves for dinner there was no hesitation or referral to a reservations book, we were immediately and graciously ushered to a good table.

Our French waiter (who turned out to be a fanatic NFL football fan who spends several weeks in the U. S. each winter going to games), was friendly and expert.

We started with a mixed salad in a white French dressing that came with the usual combination of items, including a variety of tomatoes one doesn't find at Safeway - the kind that have flavor.

The more impressive of the two entrées was Entenbrust in a raspberry sauce that was first spread on the plate and then the sliced duck breast laid over it. Small onions, sculpted carrots and zucchini accompanied. The plate was finished with potatoes cut to the size of small melon balls and sautéed with chopped bacon and pearl onions.

A lighter dish, scampi salad, was grilled scampi in a bed of greens over which was drizzled an olive oil dressing. Excellent.

For dessert we took a few things from the cheese cart followed by a couple of scoops of house-made sorbet. Our waiter's recommendation was a very good bottle of red, La Minerva, a Cabernet/Merlot from Ticino for 48 Sfr. ($32).

Restaurant Bacco (expensive) and Grotto Valle (inexpensive-moderate), Via Valle, CH-6987 Caslano (Lago di Lugano), telephone 091/711716, fax 091/712642. Major cards.
* Restaurant Bacco: 2 stars

Grotto Valle

Another alfresco dinner was at another of the Gardenia's restaurants, the Grotto Valle, on a hill above the hotel. We ate at an outdoor terrace overlooking the valley.

Mixed salad was served with individual cruets of oil and vinegar.

A divided order of risotto with mushrooms was a wonderful creamy, rich dish, just right as a primi piatti.

Veal steak was cooked like a stew, with the small pieces of steak wrapped in bacon and a broth thick with mushrooms. Also very good. We can only find fault with the rather bland polenta and the fact that we had to toss our own salad. With dinner we drank a bottle of red wine labeled Chateau Bacco from the Merlot grape, a Ticino speciality.

We again finished with refreshing sorbets, this time bathed in ice-cold vodka which kept a warm glow on the evening.

Grotto Valle: very good

Caslano Notes

The lakeside villages of Gandria, Melide and Morcote are of interest. We went to Gandria via boat from Lugano (fare 12.2 Sfr./$8, frequent service) and drove to Melide and Morcote.

In Melide is the Swissminiatur, a park of miniature replicas of Switzerland's main sights. The tiny trains and cable cars all work. Morcote is a Michelin two-star town of considerable charm. Gandria is terraced in several levels above the lake and would be a good place to disembark for lunch, catching a later boat.

A principal Lugano attraction, the private Thyssen-Bornemisza art collection at Villa Favorita, recently lost much of its appeal when most of the collection was moved by the family to Spain.

July 1993