Hotel Suisse Bellagio: History, charm, and fine dining in Lake Como
BELLAGIO, LAKE COMO, ITALY: Hotel Suisse Bellagio is a wonderfully unique boutique hotel set in the heart of the gorgeous town of Bellagio on the shores of Lake Como. Filled with history and a legacy going back over 100 years, it is today the symbol of all that the serenity and stunning views of Bellagio can offer. Its restaurant is one of the best in all of Lake Como, combining exquisite cuisine with a casual atmosphere in a space that is a modernist retreat from the tourist restaurants that surround it.
Hotel Suisse: The historic cultural center of Bellagio
Owner Guido Santafini has been the designated curator of Hotel Suisse for the past 31 years. A tall, confident presence with Italian movie star good looks. Guido has made Hotel Suisse the centerpiece of his own unique take on hospitality and fine dining. He succeeds magnificently.
Hotel Suisse is the historical bohemian retreat that captures the history of its Italian heritage. It combines both an authentic experience for its hotel guests with an appreciation for Haute Cuisine that transcends the ordinary without pomp and circumstance. It is the great hidden secret known to the discerning visitor to Bellagio and Lake Como.
Hotel Suisse: Traditional, but completely unique
A truly boutique hotel, with only 9 rooms and suites, Hotel Suisse is one of the oldest hotels in Bellagio. The building was built in the 1800’s. It has been a hotel since the late 1890’s. When Guido took the reins in 1988, he transformed a sleepy property with an ordinary restaurant into an exceptional gourmet experience. He has brought Hotel Suisse into the modern age without sacrificing its historical nature.
It has long had a heritage as a refuge for artists, writers, intellectuals, as well as long term regular guests. The poet Vincenzo Carderelli. The painter Carlo Carra. The novelist and Garbibaldian hero Ippolito Nievo. Most notably philosopher Frederick Nietzsche. All used to stay here for weeks on end. It was a regular stop on the grand tour of Europe for aristocrats, international glitterati, and notable artists.
Today it is not unusual for returning regular guests to book a room or apartment suite for weeks or months on end. It is one of the last bastions of the destination heritage hotel that is known to the discerning glitterati, while waiting for the rest of us to catch up with it.
Hotel Suisse: The second floor apartment
The second floor apartment suite is an Italian dream. Step in through ancient doors to a foyer of porcelain tile. The expansive living room has gorgeous parquet wooden floors from the early 1900’s with chevron patterns. The elegant 12 foot ceilings have the original plaster moldings like something out of an Italian counts residence.
The walls are a creamy gold colored plaster. Antiques fill the room including a large China hutch and marble topped dresser in the corner. Furnishings are comfortable, with a sturdy wooden dining table, loveseat, and rattan chairs. A chandelier hangs from the plaster centerpiece of the ceiling.
Hotel susses – The Apartment: Elegance and charm
Elegant white French doors topped with an elaborate plaster crest lead to the spacious bedroom. It is a small step up onto the original patterned tiled floors from the 1880’s of an elegant corner room. An antique armoire is in one corner. A sumptuous king size bed fills the center of the room.
A crystal chandelier hangs from the center of the ceiling. A ribbon of patterned wallpaper outlines the top of the walls and around the door frames, lending a delicate air to atmosphere. A rose marble topped side table is next to the bed and a rattan writing desk is in the corner. Light floods in from the corner window and the glass doorway leading to the outside balcony.
Hotel Suisse – The Apartment: stunning views
Stunning floor to ceiling glass French doors with carved wooden bottoms open up to the balcony from both the bedroom and the living room. They lead to a fabulous balcony overlooking the lake and the central square of Bellagio. Sturdy ornately styled wrought iron railings surrounds the balcony.
From the window and the balcony the shimmering Lake Como and the snow capped mountains to the west are like something from a dream. The entire apartment is an immersion into an authentic Italian experience. This is a hotel that understands tradition, la dolce vita, and the preservation of a sophisticated bohemian way of life.
Hotel Suisse: the soul of Bellagio
The apartment has a small second bedroom, a fully stocked kitchen, and a casual but elegant ambiance. Many of the remaining rooms on the upper floors each have their own balcony, parquet wooden floors, and an atmosphere that cries out to be indulged. The Junior suite features a four-poster bed, porcelain tile floors, and a steam room in the bathroom.
Hotel Suisse is an immersion into a style of travel that is fast being replaced by overly homogenized hotel rooms that lack character or originality. To stay here is to feel like you are a part of a glorious past that still lives in the heart and soul of Bellagio, “the pearl of Lake Como”. It is a one of kind unique experience, courtesy of the vision and commitment of Guido Santafini.
Dinner at The Suisse restaurant
The Suisse restaurant is on the ground floor of the hotel, both under the arches on the outdoor patio, and in an elegant dining room inside the hotel. It features both magnificent Italian Haute Cuisine and an extensive wine list that surprises with its sophistication and depth of character.
It is easily the finest restaurant in Bellagio, with an emphasis on originality, sumptuous cuisine, attention to detail, all without being pretentious or overly stuffy. The menu changes regularly, with daily specials emphasizing its farm to table philosophy of the freshest fish and the finest meats. Its pasta dishes are especially impressive, impeccably crafted, homemade, and a delight to the senses.
The Suisse: A grand fine dining experience
The indoor dining room at The Suisse restaurant is particularly wonderful. Casual but elegant, sophisticated but warmly friendly. Settle in for a truly fabulous dining experience. The cream colored walls are filled with understated modern art. The extensive and quite sensational wine collection adorns the walls like a three dimensional wine list.
The staff is personable, extremely knowledgable, and works together like a synchronized Swiss watch. Our server tonight, Alberto Saronni, is from Bellagio, grew up here, married a Bellagio girl, and has been with the restaurant for three years.
A witty, genial man, he guides us through the menu and wine choices with precision and sophistication. When asking about one dish or another he replies without hesitation. When choosing one wine, he suggests another he is certain will be more pleasing. At all times throughout the meal he was not only correct. He helps create an evening that is memorably unforgettable.
Hotel Suisse: A Guido Santafini production
Guido Santafini presides over the evening like a maestro conducting a room filled with an orchestra of diners. He stops at each table, greets returning guests like family. Guido has made a discernable mark on the tone and culture of Bellagio over these last 31 years.
His brother Angelo Santasani, is the chef in the kitchen. Angelo has also been here for three years, and he turns out cuisine that is brilliantly conceived, beautifully executed, and delightful to taste. This is no ordinary bistro or tourist pasta joint.
From appetizers, to pasta dishes to incredible meat dishes, Chef Santasini is a remarkable presence whose culinary talents transcend the ordinary. A genial man with the same sparkling personality as his brother, he also lets his kitchen do the talking. It is an international conversation well worth listening to.
The Suisse: Dinner begins
A duck terrine, cooked twice, filled with sun dried figs, and served with port wine reduction and pears flavored with cinnamon is a wonderful opening course. The foie gras terrine is beautifully done, an innovative take on a traditional duck liver dish.
Grilled octopus served with burrata cheese sauce, olives and crispy bacon is sensational. The octopus is tender and meaty, perfectly cooked, juicy and succulent. Its intense flavor is a revelation as it melts in the mouth and warms across the palette. Perhaps the best rendition of octopus I have ever tasted.
The Pasta courses: Pacherri and Scialatielli
Gragnano paccheri sautéed with a light pesto and served with seafood and tomatoes is a revelation of perfection. A pastiche of succulent lobster tail, shrimp, clams, calamari and octopus is blended seamlessly with amazing tubes of perfectly cooked pacchieri. It is a tour de force of Italian cooking.
Scialatielli pasta in broccoli and clams sauce is ethereally wonderful. Here again, a simple traditional dish is made magnificent. The pasta is almost like pici, thick strands wrapped around a delicate sauce of broccoli and filled with tasty clams in the shell. Its sings across the taste buds in an explosion of flavor.
The evening is accompanied by a sensational Tiefenbrunner 2015 Chardonnay. Crisp, fruity, with an edge of dryness, it is a perfect counterpoint to both the seafood and meat dishes. We were steered to this selection by Alberto, who has shown himself to be flawless in his suggestions of both food and wine.
The main courses: the specials of the day
The main courses are two specials of the day. Short ribs slow cooked for 16 hours and served with a side of polenta is a phenomenal dish and a fine expression of Chef Santafini’s talents. Succulently tender, it melts off the bone and into the mouth like a fever dream. Cooked with patience and skill, it is still slightly red on the inside, juicy and powerful, without being at all dry. A fabulous choice.
Fresh caught grouper served with asparagus is an example of simplicity as perfection. The grouper is meaty and tender, firm, but flaky. After endless restaurants serving sea bass and turbot, the grouper is a fresh take on seafood that delivers something out of the ordinary. It delights and enthralls and is a grand finale to a sensational meal.
Dessert and greetings from the Chef Santasani
Lavender crème brullee is a fabulous first dessert. Not too sweet, with an effervescent lavender undertone, it is the first of two wonderful closing dishes. The star of desert is the homemade tiramisu served in a jelly jar. A self-contained thing of beauty, it goes well beyond ordinary tiramisu to leave its stamp indelibly imprinted in the memory. It is the perfect ending to a wondrous dining experience.
Angelo Santasani comes out of the kitchen to greet us. It is a remarkable combination between his brother Guido, the perfect proprietor, and Angelo, a remarkable chef with a transcendent touch with fine Italian cuisine. Together they make the experience at Hotel Suisse a one of a kind collaboration.
Two days in paradise at Hotel Suisse pass all too quickly. The beauty and comfort of our Italian apartment is like it is already our second home. The combined experience of authentic living quarters, historical significance, palpable ambience, and magnificent fine dining is hard to leave behind.
Hotel Suisse Bellagio: A truly special experience
Guido Santafini has created an experience at Hotel Suisse that cannot be replicated. It is an indelible part of Bellagio that must be lived to be truly appreciated. The grand tour of Europe for modern sophisticated travelers in Lake Como must include a stop in Bellagio, and a stay at Hotel Suisse.
Authenticity is the most rare of experiences. The most treasured. And the most memorable. Not everyone can stay for a week or a month. Not everyone is Frederick Neitzsche, an austere intellectual, or an Italian aristocrat. But everyone can indulge in a stay of a couple of nights at Hotel Suisse.
Rub shoulders with the past while indulging the present. Enjoy incredible fine dining and immerse themselves into the bohemian presence Guido Santafini has created. It will grant a new perspective on the true meaning of living la dolce vita, without regret or compromise.
Joel Berliner is a travel writer based in Los Angeles @JoelBerliner
All Photos by Alison Reynolds @BigAlPeoplesPal