Our recent, week-long trip to Lugano was such an unexpected surprise. We didn’t know all that much about the place before going but were quickly won over by it’s beauty, charm, culture, and of course, the food!
Unlike Zurich, Lugano doesn’t have as much Swiss influence in its food. Instead, the restaurants tend to be predominantly Italian. One of the few exceptions to this Italian dominance was flammkuchen. I know what you are thinking, “flamm… what now?”.
Flammkuchen, or tarte flambée, is a thin-crusted, flatbread-style pizza. They are typically topped with a variety of meats, cheeses, and veggies. Early on in the trip we tried a flammkuchen with sausage and cheese, and later had one topped with fresh veggies and herbs. The thin crust made the perfect snack or appetizer. To really have an authentic flammkuchen experience, be sure to wash it down with a Swiss beer.
Italian Food in Lugano
We had already been dreaming about Italian food with our upcoming trip to Florence. So no one had to twist our arm to get started a little early in Lugano. The menus in Lugano focused on a few areas of Italian classics: meat and cheese boards, risotto, pasta, and pizza.
Meat and cheese were often available as an antipasti option in pretty much every restaurant and at the delis and street markets. These are great places to grab groceries or a quick lunch when out and about for the day.
We indulged in our fair share of meat and cheese, but held back a bit since we were heading to the heart of Tuscany soon. We did, however, dive right in to the pastas.
You Had Me at Fresh Pasta
Pasta is essentially the main food group in Lugano, you can find it practically everywhere. I don’t think either of us had a bad bite during our stay.
The dishes ranged from stuffed pastas like ravioli and tortellini, to noodles of spaghetti and pappardelle, and even some gnocchi.
Many of the dishes included fresh herbs like basil, parsley, sage, and rosemary (no thyme though, sorry Garfunkle). Tomatoes, mushrooms, and cheese were also heavily featured along with bolognese options. All pasta needs a wine accompaniment. In Lugano that meant pairing our pasta with a local Ticinese Merlot.
But When You Need a Burger Break…
After several days of eating all the pasta, we really felt like taking a minor break before our trip into Italy. Luckily, the owner of the apartment where we were staying had recommended a place for burgers and beers. At first, I wasn’t sure why I would opt for a burger in Switzerland when we have plenty of that in the US, but our appetites had started to crave some variety.
La Fermata, the place we were recommended, was fairly small but it’s food packed a big punch. We both enjoyed our mammoth burgers, heaped with lettuce, tomato, pickles, pickled onions and a special sauce. IAn unexpected surprise that we were glad we tried out.
Coffee in Lugano
Beyond the food, many of the cultural norms and quirks followed a similar Italian influence. This was most evident to us when it came to coffee and aperitivo. Let’s start with coffee.
For starters, this is Europe we’re talking about so everything is going to be espresso-based. There are not really any standard cups of coffee like you would get in the US. The closest to that would be an Americano, which is a watered down shot of espresso. Instead, the options are a straight espresso, a macchiato (espresso with a dash of frothy steamed milk), a latte (espresso with hot steamed milk), or a cappuccino (espresso with steamed milk foam). Yes, they can be pretty similar to each other but they also have their nuances – i.e. macchiatos are smaller, lattes have more milk, cappuccinos are mostly foam.
These coffee drinks are found at cafes and also offered at the end of any meal, as is traditional in Italy. I would partake in this on occasion and found it as a nice pick-me-up after a bigger meal, as long as it wasn’t too late in the evening.
One other quirk that we saw in Lugano, as well as in Florence, was the use of milk depending on the time of day. Locals only have milk in their espresso (lattes, cappuccinos) during the morning and find it odd to do so later in the day. Don’t get me wrong, you could still order any of these drinks throughout the day. But it would come with some curious looks and was a surefire way to out yourself as a visitor.
Aperitivo, Our New Favorite Thing
Aperitivo is fairly similar to happy hour in the US – it’s not quite dinner time yet and people head out to bars to grab a drink before their meal. In Lugano, the restaurants and bars take this up a notch by offering complimentary snacks and small plates to those who come in for a drink.
We were consistently impressed by the amount of food offered and the overall quality. You would be brought items such as potato chips, meat and cheese boards, small sandwiches, nuts, olives, and more just for ponying up for a glass of wine or cocktail. If you really want to look like a local, order an Aperol sprits or other amaro-based aperitif. These drinks are refreshing, and lower in alcohol than a standard drink, which makes them ideal for an afternoon sipper.
This was one of our favorite parts of the trip as we would hunt for the best aperitivo snacks we could find and the places where the most locals would hang out.
Some of our favorite places to eat and drink in Lugano:
- Sass Cafe – fresh pastas, with an ideal location in the Centro Storico
- Caffé-Bar Coccodrillo – snacks and coffees
- Cucina di Alice – maybe our favorite meal of the trip, delicious pastas and excellent service with a beautiful view of Lake Lugano
- Gabbani – deli sandwiches, a wine and cheese shop and a fun bar for evening aperitvo
- La Lanchetta Lounge Bar & Pinsa – great cocktails and a very generous aperitivo food spread
- La Fermata – burgers and beer (rumor has it the tacos are delicious as well)
- Il Fermento – flammkuchen and beer with lake views (and free wifi)
- Ristorante AnaCapri – fine dining with a great location near the train station and panoramic views
Lugano continued to surprise and delight us throughout the trip and the food was no exception. It was the prefect prelude before heading into Italy and definitely primed our palates for the culinary experiences to come.