The typical auto traveler headed for Ticino, Switzerland's Italian-speaking canton, emerges from the Gotthard Tunnel or drives the Pass road and then blows down the Autostrada to the lakeside resort cities of Lugano, Locarno and Ascona. For most, Airolo, the first town south of the tunnel, is remembered—if at all—as a sign on the Autostrada. For the majority of train travelers it's just another short stop on the way to the lakes.
Perhaps that is as it should be. This village of 1,800 inhabitants, slate roofs and narrow streets, which lies on the western slope of the Leventina, a steep, rocky upper Ticino valley, will probably never be a recommended Michelin destination.
For us, however, it was a quiet haven for two days and three nights recently. Having spent a long and fruitless Saturday, first combing Locarno for a vacation rental or hotel, and then Bellinzona for just a place to stay overnight, we turned tail in the late afternoon and retraced our steps north. About 35 miles up the Autostrada we realized it might be as late as 8 pm before we had gone back through the tunnel and found a place to stay. Wherever we were, it was time to stop.
In Airolo, the last town before entering the long tunnel, the 2003 Michelin Red Guide for Switzerland lists two hotel possibilities. We chose the first on the list.
Airolo's Hotel Motta
A typical, modern business hotel - Best Western - but rooms are clean, comfortable and management is pleasant and helpful. Room Number 101—CHF 170—has hardwood floors, white walls, light wood furnishings and colorful duvet covers. It lacks a couch or soft chair, but the bathroom has a real shower and good lighting. The somewhat skimpy breakfasts are in the attractive, sunny dining room.
On our first night at the Motta we ate in its restaurant. Though not distinguished, the food was acceptable. Salads were of fresh greens and vegetables, and entrées of veal piccata with saffron risotto, and spaghetti with porcini mushrooms and ham, were ample and edible. After that came cheese and then sorbets. Dinner for two with beer and wine came to CHF 110.
While by no means memorable in any sense, the Motta is a solid choice.
Daily Rates: CH 115 to CH 190. Free parking.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20
Airolo's Hotel-Restaurant Forni
The restaurant in the Hotel Forni—across from the rail station—is perhaps the biggest reason we call Airolo a "hidden treasure." A member of the dependable, moderately-priced MinOtel chain, the hotel offers good value, but is not special. It is its kitchen that gets our hearts racing.
There are two dining areas; one a typical Stübli with bare-wood tables and a bar with beer taps, but the other, divided into smoking and nonsmoking spaces, is a bright, inviting space of granite floors, light wood-slat ceilings, and perhaps 15 white cloth-covered tables, each lit by elegant halogen lights descending from a ceiling track.
Unusual for a restaurant with aspirations to create imaginative dishes, Forni offers a menu that ranges from simple, traditional dishes as inexpensive as a pasta for CHF 8 to an innovative four-course "menu complete" for CHF 46.
The latter began with a fine salad Mista, followed by a mini-sandwich of coaster-sized squares of feathery, flaky, filo pastry enclosing sautéed, wild mushrooms whose untamed, earthy tastes exploded in the mouth—the dish of the evening. Next came four of the tenderest, tastiest, least gamey, venison filets we've ever encountered. Prepared medium rare and spread with a tablespoon or two of reduced, thickened pan juices, their richness was wonderfully offset by polenta and a crunchy, fresh mound of diced celery and pears in a small pastry cup.
The big finish was a light but complicated-sounding dessert that featured passion fruit. On a large dinner plate dusted with a powder of semisweet chocolate, were arranged small portions each of passion fruit ice cream, passion fruit mousse, and passion fruit roulade, all drizzled with a sauce of, yep, passion fruit. Along for the ride were dainty, grilled skewers of fresh mango and pineapple pieces. Glorious.
Charged with selecting a half-liter of "local red wine, not too expensive" our waiter/major domo brought us a fine Ticinese merlot bottled in Losone, a suburb of Locarno. A steal at CHF 28. In fact, over two nights, this large, serious but affable man never steered us wrong. Case in point is his urging upon us a glass of an absolutely luscious Sauterne-style dessert wine—1997 Juracon Mölleux—for a mere CHF 5.50. With the latter we kept looking at the wine list to make sure we hadn't got our language wires crossed and were quaffing some $15 per thimble-full of prize-winning, late-harvest, vintage-of-the-century, 99.9-on-the-Robert-Parker-scale, nectar. Perhaps it wasn't quite that good, but where we come from there are no dessert wines in good restaurants at less than about $7 per glass and those are invariably some cloyingly sweet domestic liquid candy.
Without beverages, dinner for two was CHF 108.
The next night, dressed in blue jeans and in no mood for haut cuisine, we settled into the spare Stübli with visions of a fast salad, a plate of pasta and early bed. No problem says the major domo (who was not the owner, by the way), but please join us in the nicer room. We demurred, he insisted. We could, he said, order whatever we wanted, no matter where we sat. Since it seemed important, we followed our man to the same table we had occupied the previous night and dined on an extraordinary porcini mushroom ravioli (CHF 22) and a more than serviceable veal piccata (CH 36). With salads and a shared dessert of house-made mango ice cream the price for two without beverages was 81 CHF.
In a month-long trip we never had better food or wine at any price, even in Michelin-starred restaurants.
Contact: Hotel Forni, CH-6780 Airolo, tel. +41/0918/691 270, fax 691 523. Proprietors: Marzio and Hanni Forni
Daily Rates: Single CHF 80 to CHF 120, doubles CHF 140 to CHF 180
Hotel Ratings: Quality 12/20, Value 14/20
Restaurant Ratings: Quality 17/20, Value 18/20
Traveling Ticino: Things to See and Do Near Airolo
Airolo is not an unattractive town and there is enough to keep one busy for two or three days. On a Sunday, we spent a few minutes watching the town band lead a main street procession of churchgoers carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary.
• North of the Airolo is the St. Gotthard Hospice Fort Museum from whose site the southern approach to the Gotthard was defended. Those who came to Ticino via the tunnel may want to drive up the Pass road to the museum and to the summit for spectacular views.
• About 20 minutes by car, south of town, is Piotta and the Ritom. It surely has to be ranked among the great Switzerland funiculars. Not a cog wheel, it instead rides on tracks and is pulled by a cable. The ascent takes 12 minutes and portions of it are near vertical, an 88.7% grade. At the top, a 25-minute walk leads to a lake formed by a dam. Further walking leads to more lakes in this mainly treeless landscape.
To serve the many hikers and walkers that pass this way there is a restaurant by the dam where the Osso Buco looks promising.
Roundtrip fare on the Ritom is CHF 15 for adults and 10 CHF for kids under 16.
• A bit further south is the Michelin one-star town of Giornico with its 12th century church (don't confuse it with the newer church virtually on the same site).
Throughout this region one sees unique uses of granite, such as being cut into stakes and used to support grape vines that hang five to six feet off the ground. Granite slabs are also used for fencing and sometimes to edge roadways.
• You may wish to continue south to Biasca and then northeast toward Lukmanieer Pass. Lottingna is another one-star town.
• Activities for another day might include a train trip into Lugano for a boat ride on the lake, perhaps disembarking for lunch at Gandria, a quaint but tourist-ridden hamlet built on the steep cliffside overlooking the lake. We had a forgettable meal of salad and flavorless pasta at Ristorante Roccabella.
Drivers leaving Ticino via the Gotthard Tunnel will often encounter rush-hour type slowdowns on the Autostrada. Here's a tip that may save some time. Exit at Quinta and follow the red road to Airolo where you return to the Autostrada just prior to entering the tunnel.