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Lake Como Writing Retreat

  • April 10, 2018

I don’t know about you, but when April comes each year, I start thinking about spring blossoms, new beginnings and travel. In particular, travel to Italy and the beautiful town of Varenna along Lake Como.

April is also a time for spring cleaning, not just of your closets, but a time to reassess all those projects you’ve been meaning to tackle. Maybe one of them is writing down some of those family stories you talk about across the dinner table; a childhood memory that’s starting to fade; or a funny incident that happened in high school. Our writing retreat, “Italy, In Other Words,” is the perfect place to put pen to paper and memorialize those thoughts for future generations. If you don’t write it down, it may be lost forever. And can you imagine a more inspiring place to write than by the shores of dreamy Lake Como?

You don’t have to be an experienced writer to participate. Of course, we’ve had plenty of guests who’ve been teachers or writers or worked in publishing, but we’ve also had participants who were nurses, stay-at-home moms and even a postal worker. You just have to have a desire to learn and a willingness to collaborate. Kathryn Abajian, a college professor of creative writing, will help you craft your thoughts into expressive prose that you can feel proud of by the end of the week.

But we won’t harness you to a desk all week. Oh no, mornings are for workshopping, but afternoons you’re free to wander on your own, read, write or take part in the short excursions I’ve planned for you. Come with us to the internationally renowned gardens and exquisite rooms of the 13th century Villa Monastero, where Nobel prize-winner Enrico Fermi once lectured in physics.

Join me on a jaunt to the ruins of an 11th century castle, high above the town.

Another afternoon, we’ll take a boat across the lake to Bellagio, where you can shop for silks, leather goods or myriad other items with the “made in Italy” label. Stay for dinner and enjoy a delicious meal with us on a patio  shaded by flowering vines, before heading back to Varenna by boat.

Other afternoons, you may just want to sit at one of the many cafes by the lake, waiting for the muse to strike, while enjoying a gelato or a spritz.

Or just meander up and down the cobbled streets soaking in the views:

There is no shortage of beautiful places that can inspire you, like here:

or here:

or here:

And if you’d like to try your hand at watercolor painting (no experience necessary), I know a friendly, talented artist in town who will give you a lesson:

Over the years, I’ve hand picked some favorite restaurants for you to try, where the food is always top notch.

You’ll stay at the beautiful Royal Hotel Victoria, with your own private room and bath. The hotel is conveniently located in the center of town, within easy walking distance of everything and features some lovely outdoor patios for relaxing or grabbing a bite to eat.

If weather permits, take a swim in the pool or the lake.

Bring a friend if you like. Not everyone who comes wants to write, and we have a discount for non-writing participants, although space is limited.

More than anything, you’ll leave with the satisfaction of having made new connections with like-minded people, and you’ll have experienced the food, the culture and the environment of one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Life is short, so what are you waiting for? Registration is underway now for “Italy, In Other Words.” Contact me or Kathryn to register, or visit

Italy, In Other Words – September 30 – October 6, 2018


  • May 8, 2017
 What you’re looking at is one of my favorite vegetables – broccoli raab — topped with lots of toasted garlic cloves.  It’s also got anchovies in the recipe, but honestly if you’re squeamish about them, you’d never know they’re in there. They kind of dissolve into the oil when you’re smashing them with a wooden spoon. But they do add a certain “umami” flavor that kicks up the taste a lot, and leaves you wondering “mmm” what’s that taste in there?
This recipe is similar to the way I’ve been making broccoli raab for decades, and it’s found in a book called “Garlic” by Robin Cherry. It’s an edible biography of the history, politics and mythology behind the world’s most pungent food.
My book group read it recently and gathered to talk about it, as well as prepare food from the 100 recipes included in the book.
Each of us brought a recipe from the book that featured garlic. One of the appetizers couldn’t be more garlic themed if you tried – roasted garlic. After the heads of garlic, drizzled with olive oil, roasted in the oven for 45 minutes, we smeared it on crackers and gobbled it down.

Next we feasted on gambas al ajillo – the classic Spanish tapas dish featuring shrimp, lots of garlic and a generous splash of brandy.

We had a garlic soup course too, a remarkably mild and sweet soup served with strands of vermicelli.

The main course was a perfectly cooked beef tenderloin, slathered with a mustard-garlic-herb crust before roasting, and served with a garlic horseradish sauce (not pictured here).

We couldn’t forget vegetables, and a few people brought those, including this roasted garlic and quinoa salad that included arugula, olives, cherry tomatoes and feta cheese.

The roasted eggplant with garlic and LOTS of olive oil was so delectable, I had to refrain from eating the whole plate.
The broccoli raab with toasted garlic and anchovies rounded out the vegetables and you can find the recipe below.
If you are a garlic lover, you will love this book, not only for the recipes, which are terrific, but for all the garlic legends and lore you’ll learn about, and how it’s viewed by different cultures around the world.
The book even includes a few dessert recipes featuring garlic, but we decided we’d prefer a little sorbet to cleanse the palate after a night of eating garlic in each course. It didn’t stanch my love of garlic in any way, in fact, eating all that garlic in different courses gave me appreciation of the different flavors garlic can have, from very mild to very pungent, depending on how long you cook it and how much you use.
The book also gives instructions on how to plant garlic, something I did last fall, after a friend of my son’s, who owns McCollum Orchards in upstate New York, gave me some produce from his farm, including several beautiful, big heads of garlic. Most of them we cooked in various recipes, but I saved a couple of bulbs to plant, separating the cloves and putting them in the ground last fall.
They’re coming up beautifully and should be ready to harvest in late June or early July. You can plant them now too, but the bulbs will undoubtedly be smaller than if you had planted them in the fall.
Even if you can’t grow your own garlic, try to find garlic grown locally for the freshest taste and highest quality.
I’m including the recipe for the broccoli raab, but you’ll have to buy the book for the other recipes pictured above. It’s well worth the read.
News Flash: We’re almost sold out for our memoir writing workshop on beautiful Lake Como. Hurry if you’d like the chance to learn how to improve your writing, eat memorable meals and have this view from your bedroom at Villa Monastero in Varenna each morning. For more information, contact me by email or go to
 Want more Ciao Chow Linda? Check out my Instagram page here to see more of what I’m cooking up each day.

You can also connect with Ciao Chow Linda here on Facebook, here for Pinterest or  here for Twitter.

Broccoli raab with toasted garlic and anchovies
from “Garlic” by Robin Cherry
makes 4 servings
1 1/2 lb. broccoli raab, stems peeled
3 tbsp olive oil
8 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 anchovy fillets, drained and chopped
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes, or more to taste
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the broccoli raab and cook it until it is bright green and barely tender, about 3 minutes. Immediately transfer it to a colander and rinse it with cold water to stop the cooking. Let the broccoli raab drain well.
Combine the oil and garlic in a sauté pan and heat it gently over medium heat until the garlic is golden brown and crisp. Lift the toasted garlic from the oil and set aside.
Add the anchovy fillets and red pepper flakes and sauté, smashing the anchovy with the back of a spoon until it dissolves. Add the drained broccoli raab and continue to sauté, tossing or stirring until it is evenly coated and very hot, 2 to 3 minutes. Season the dish with salt and pepper.
Serve the broccoli raab at once, topped with the toasted garlic.

A Writing Retreat On Lake Como

  • February 9, 2017

Join me for a week on Lake Como, to write about that childhood memory, travel experience, or any other event you’ve been wanting to capture in print.  Spend the mornings in writing instruction, and afternoons in leisure touring the area, eating exquisite foods and pinching yourself that it’s real.

Kathryn Abajian and I hold the writing retreat at Villa Monastero (pictured above) in Varenna, on the banks of Lake Como, Italy. We’re scheduled to repeat it September 24-30., 2017.

Come along with me for an armchair visit to learn about the villa and its origins. Maybe you’ll decide you’d like to spend a week here with us too, improving your writing skills, and partaking of the region’s foods, wines and nearby sights.

     The villa was founded as a Cistercian monastery in 1208, but its mission foundered in 1667, when the nuns left for Lecco, a city to the south. After three years, the villa was sold to the Mornico family, whose weath came from the iron mining industry in the area. The family converted the monastery to a noble residence, renaming it Villa Leliana. It was held by the Mornico family for nearly three centuries, when it was sold at the end of the 1800s to the German sheep owner Walter Kaas.
     But in the lead up to World War II, Kaas was declared an enemy of the state and was sent back to Germany, while Italy took over the villa. The villa was then used by the elite mountaineering unit of the Italy military called the Alpini, until it was sold in 1955 to biologist Marco de Marchi, who converted the villa into a scientific conference center.
     Marchi had no heirs however, and left the villa to the Italian government with the proviso that it be used for conferences of a scientific or artistic nature.        

     We hold daily sessions in a sun-filled conference room overlooking the lake, surrounded by beautiful artwork created by local artists. 
      The villa also has a larger conference room that served as a chapel when the nuns occupied the villa, and is the place where Nobel prize winner Enrico Fermi taught his last lesson.
     You can see evidence of a religious fresco is a small niche there, dating to the 13th century.
        Other rooms in the villa highlight both the Germanic artistic taste of Walter Kaas, as well as highly decorative furnishings bought by de Marchi.
      The villa’s extensive gardens, containing thousands of species of plants, are open to the public, but at night, we writers have the beauty of the grounds and the silence of the lake to ourselves.
        Most bedrooms have modern furnishings, some with views of the lake, and a few have balconies facing the lake. Sign up early to get priority for one of these.
     Writing instruction is in the morning, and you can set up your laptop by the lake in the afternoons to soak in some inspiration from the peaceful and lush surroundings.
     If you need a break from writing, the town of Varenna has a lot to offer, with inviting shops and cafes.
Can you picture yourself seated along the lake sipping a cappuccino, or a glass of Prosecco?
     Come with us if you like, on an afternoon visit to Vezio, and step back to the 11th century and a castle that was once home to Teodolinda, queen of the Lombards.
       From the castle, you get a magnificent view of the lake and the rooftops of Varenna below.
     We also eat well on our retreats, and taste local wines and cheeses, like this taleggio.
    Dinners are all special, and we try different restaurants each night.
     If you’d like to go further afield one afternoon, we’ll take you on the ferry to Bellagio, where the streets are as quaint as the shops are prolific.
     You can even try your hand at watercolor, whether you’ve got experience or not. We can arrange a lesson for you.
     It’s not to soon to start thinking about reserving a spot for next year’s retreat at Villa Monastero – September 24-30, 2017. Check out our website at for more details.
How many times have you heard the phrase “Life is short?” Well, it’s not just a saying, it’s true.
Live the dream. Now.
It’s a week you’ll never forget.


Pizzoccheri in Bellagio

  • October 2, 2015
 Bellagio is just one of the many beautiful towns along Italy’s Lake Como, but it’s the biggest and the one that most tourists come to by boat from other destinations along the lake. Although the crowds can be overwhelming, there’s good reason that it’s so popular.  With narrow streets that are really stone staircases, lined with shops on either side, it’s ridiculously picturesque.

There are plenty of shops selling inexpensive trinkets but lots more selling high quality leather goods, jewelry and luxury clothing, including scarves and ties made of silk. This part of Italy was known for decades for its silk trade, a sector that still continues, but to a much lesser degree than in the past.


If shopping is not your thing, you can relax for a drink at one of the cafes by the waterfront or on the terrace of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, where you can sip a prosecco and enjoy the view of the mountains, the swanky hotel and the hotel’s inviting swimming pool. Thanks Rhonda Callaway, for the great photo of the drink.


While you’re there, take a peek inside the hotel too, to get a gander at old world-style elegance.


You’re bound to get hungry while you’re in Bellagio, and there are many good choices. One of my favorites is Bilacus restaurant. The name means “two lakes” in Latin, since Lake Como splits into two legs at Bellagio. Get a table on the outside patio if you can, where flowers are abundant. Everything is delicious, but I’m partial to the fish caught in the lake, including trout, or choose lavarello, a delicate white fish I’ve never eaten anywhere else.


Another specialty of this region of Lombardy is pizzoccheri – flat noodles made using buckwheat flour. I had never eaten them before, and was eager to try them when I saw them on the menu of “La Punta,” a restaurant at the farthest promontory of Bellagio. They were served in the traditional way, with boiled potatoes and cabbage, bathed in a sauce using the local Valtellina cheeses. – oh, so delicious, but not exactly diet food.

Work off some of the calories another day by walking to Pescallo, a charming small fishing village nearby. Stay for lunch, and you’ll eat fish fresh off the boat. Avoid Monday though, when the restaurants are closed.
If you’ve still got energy, continue walking until you get to the hamlet of St. Giovanni, where you’ll see examples of a boat called a Lucia, a traditional boat used in the 18th century along the lake region.  The curved wooden frames held fabric that allowed for protection against rain and inclement weather. The boats are named for one of the main characters in Alessandro Manzoni’s book “I Promessi Sposi,” (The Betrothed), partially set in the region. It’s the most widely read book in Italy, and required reading for school students. It’s not only a love story betweem Lucia and Renzo, but about a struggle for power, foreign domination, religion, plague, famine and more – topics that are as relevant today as in the 1800s, when the book was written.
Head back to Bellagio as twilight descends though, so you can pull up a chair, enjoy a digestivo and a spectacular sunset after a well-spent day.
If you’d like to try your hand at making pizzoccheri, here’s a website that shows you how:

Grilled Swordfish in Lemon Caper Cream Sauce

  • July 20, 2015

People sometimes ask me where I get my inspiration for the recipes on this blog and the answer is, it comes from various sources, like family recipes, meals I eat in restaurants, and from other food bloggers. In this case, it came from Roz, who writes a wonderful blog called “La Bella Vita Cucina”. She lives in South Carolina, but has family in Emilia Romagna, the same region where my mother was born and where I still have relatives.

Swordfish is one of my favorite seafoods but it’s frequently overcooked by home cooks. It doesn’t take long before it’s dried out and tasteless. Roz’ instructions to grill it for two minutes on each side are spot on. The fish will be perfectly moist and tender.
Roz’ recipe calls for smearing olive oil over the swordfish, but I also brush on some soy sauce, grated garlic and minced thyme. Let it sit for a few minutes, then dredge it in the bread crumbs and grill.
Don’t worry if some of the breadcrumbs fall off on the grill. You’re bound to lose some, even if you grease the grates.
 The delicious lemon caper sauce covers up any spots that stuck to the grill, and  delivers such a flavor punch, you’ll be tempted to lick the plate.
See more of what goes in Ciao Chow Linda’s kitchen on my Instagram feed. Just click here to connect with me there: Ciao Chow Linda on Instagram 
And for all you last minute wanna-be travelers to Italy: There are still a couple of spots available in  the memoir writing retreat Kathryn Abajian and I are leading in September in dreamy Lake Como. You don’t have to have any writing experience, just a desire to learn. Come write, eat, and meander through Varenna – one of the most beautiful places on earth. You’ll be lodged here at Villa Monastero, with gorgeous views of the lake and mountains, and world-famous gardens to explore. For more info, click here, on “Italy In Other Words.”

Grilled Swordfish with Lemon Caper Cream Sauce
From “La Bella Vita Cucina” 
printable recipe here

  • 8 Tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 4 Swordfish Steaks, cut 1″ thick
  • 4 T. soy sauce
  • a few sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 cup Italian-seasoned bread crumbs
  • 1 cup Italian-seasoned panko crumbs
  • Garnish: Fresh-cut sprigs of Italian parsley
  • Garnish: Sliced lemons
  • Creamy Lemon Caper Sauce:
  • 8 Tablespoons Olive Oil
  • ½ stick of high quality butter
  • ½ cup of heavy cream
  • Juice of 1 medium-sized lemons
  • Zest of 1 small lemon
  • 1-½ cups minced fresh-cut Italian parsley
  • 4 cloves of fresh garlic, finely chopped
  • 4 Tablespoons fresh-cut oregano, finely chopped
  • ½ small jar of capers (if salted, rinse thoroughly)
  1. Drizzle each swordfish steak with olive oil and spread the oil evenly over each steak on all sides. (I also drizzled some soy sauce on top and spread some minced garlic and thyme over it all)
  2. Using a shallow mid-size bowl, pour in the Italian seasoned bread crumbs and panko crumbs.
  3. Place each oiled swordfish steak onto the bread crumbs and panko crumbsand then turn over, making sure that the steak is covered on all sides.
  4. Get the grill heated.
  5. Prepare the sauce:
  6. While grill is warming up, heat all of the sauce ingredients in a saucepan.
  7. Place on a very low simmer to keep the sauce warm while grilling the swordfish steaks.
  8. Grill the steaks on a medium-low heat for 2 minutes on each side until the bread crumb coating is a nice gold-brown color.
  9. The thicker the steak, the longer the time necessary to cook through, keeping in mind that the steaks should not be cooked to the point of being dry, but rather they should be moist and tender inside.
  10. Pour a little bit (about a tablespoon) of the creamy lemon caper sauce on top of each steak.
  11. Garnish with sprigs of fresh-cut Italian parsley and slices of lemons.
  12. Pass the remainder of the sauce around to guests.

Bay Leaf Pound Cake

  • April 1, 2015

 Bay leaves are one of the unsung heroes on the spice/herb shelf. They sit there in jars turning paler and paler with each passing year, and find their way into the occasional stew or soup. When they reach that point, where they’re insipid in taste, it’s time to throw them out and buy new ones.

I’ve had a fascination with bay leaves since the year I lived in Italy, where I encountered hedges of bay leaf plants everywhere, tempting me to pluck a leaf or two whenever I needed it for a recipe.
 If you’re in Italy during college graduation season, it’s common to see newly minted graduates around town wearing laurel wreaths encircling their heads, a tradition started at the University of Padua, one of the world’s oldest universities.
For you word nerds out there: The Italian word for graduation is “laurea.”
Ovid with a laurel wreath
I’ve since bought my own bay leaf plant, although it’s not hardy in the harsh New Jersey winters. Instead, I’ve pampered it indoors for a few years and reluctantly used its leaves the first year or two. Mostly, I just admired it and drew of a sketch of it in my “nature journal.”
I have used some of the leaves in the past for a wonderful appetizer with ricotta cheese, but when I saw this bay leaf pound cake from David Leibovitz’ “My Paris Kitchen,”  I knew my now thriving, four-year old bay leaf plant was in for a pruning.
David says you can use either dried or fresh bay leaves for this recipe, but since I had the fresh, I thought, “why not?”
 There are at least two types of bay leaf plants by the way – California and Turkish. What you find in spice racks at grocery stores is mostly the dried Turkish variety. Each of the varieties is highly aromatic, but from what I’ve read the Turkish, or Mediterranean variety (my plant) has a subtler flavor, with floral overtones. Some sites even claim that the California bay leaf has a “medicinal” taste and is more suited to making wreaths (or crowning Olympic champions) than to culinary purposes because of its strong flavor. If any of you readers has ever cooked with a California bay leaf, let me know.
For this recipe, start by buttering a 9″ x 5 ” loaf pan, and place a piece of parchment paper to fit the bottom. Butter the parchment paper. Line the bottom of the pan with bay leaves.
As part of the recipe, more bay leaves are steeped in melted butter for an infusion, lending even more herbal flavor.
Pour in the batter (I tucked a bay leaf into each of the long sides of the pan also) and dot with butter across the top.
Bake until a toothpick inserted in the thickest part comes out clean. The recipe says to bake 45 to 50 minutes, but I had to leave mine in closer to 55 minutes.
It’s done when the cake releases slightly from the sides of the pan and is golden.
Flip it over and admire the bottom of the cake (that no one will see, but the flavor the leaves impart is definitely perceptible).
I used a bay leaf and small branch to decorate, but a lemon or orange glaze would be nice too.
Dust heavily with powdered sugar and carefully remove the leaf.
Slice and serve, being careful to remove the bay leaves on the bottom and sides before eating.
The cake has a tender crumb and a subtle, aromatic flavor that’s hard to pinpoint. It’s a nuanced, perfumed taste that would also pair well with a tumble of berries, or a bit of whipped cream.

Or just enjoy as is.

Bay Leaf Pound Cake
from David Leibovitz’ “My Paris Kitchen”
printable recipe here


  1. 1 stick plus 1 tablespoon butter, sliced; at room temperature
  2. 8 – 10 small to medium sized bay laurel leaves, fresh or dried
  3. 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
  4. 1 cup granulated sugar
  5. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  6. ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
  7. 3 eggs, at room temperature
  8. ½ cup crème fraiche (or sour cream)
  9. Powdered sugar
  1. Melt 6 tablespoons of the butter in a small saucepan. Take the pan off the heat and add 3 bay leaves. Let steep 1 hour; remove bay leaves and discard.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a standard loaf pan with some butter; dust the pan evenly with flour and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper (easiest way to do this is to place the pan on the paper and trace all around the bottom edge with a pencil; use scissors to cut it out).
  3. Dab one side of the remaining bay leaves in a bit of butter and lay them evenly along the bottom of the loaf pan, buttered side down.
  4. Whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl.
  5. Combine the eggs, crème fraiche, and melted butter in a medium bowl; gently stir into the flour mixture just until the batter is smooth, without over-mixing.
  6. Scrape batter into the pan carefully over the bay leaves. Put the remaining butter in a small zip-top bag and snip off one corner. Pipe the butter in a line down the center of the batter; bake 45 – 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  7. Remove from the oven and cool 10 minutes; run a knife around the edge of the pan, then turn the cake out onto a rack to cool completely. Dust top with powdered sugar.
Join us for a writing retreat in September in one of the most beautiful places on Earth – along the shores of Italy’s Lake Como. Click here for more information.

A Writing Retreat on Lake Como

  • February 6, 2015

 Have you ever wanted to write down that memory of your mom making jam from backyard berries, or the time you went deep sea fishing with dad? Maybe it’s not a food memory, but a travel adventure, or a life-changing event that you’ve been thinking about getting down on paper. Now, how about doing just that in beautiful Varenna, Italy this fall, with expert guidance from a talented writing coach and author (Kathryn Abajian) and afternoon excursions by none other than me, Ciao Chow Linda?

Sound tempting? Then come join us this September 20-26 in Varenna,  a picturesque town on Lake Como, surrounded by the foothills of the Alps.
Its narrow streets will beckon you to meander and explore. Maybe you’ll get inspiration from its picturesque charm and come up with ideas you hadn’t thought of before.
You can stroll down to the water and enjoy a drink or a meal at one of many restaurants and cafés overlooking the lake, while waiting for the muse to strike.
We’ll be staying right in town, at the Villa Monastero, a noteworthy attraction in its own right,  that dates back to before the 12th century when it was founded as a nunnery. It later fell into private hands and today is the setting for international scientific conferences — and this year, our conference — “Italy, In Other Words.”
Some of the rooms are open to public viewing, and visitors walk among the spectacular botanic gardens that you will have all to yourself after hours.
As a participant in our writing workshop, you’ll feel like lady or lord of the manor, overlooking the lake and mountains in the distance.
Inspiration is bound to strike you in this unforgettable setting.
The writing and instruction workshop is held for five mornings, and also includes two personal consultations, all conducted by Kathryn, a retired college professor.  She has given writing workshops in California and in Abruzzo, Italy, and is also the author of a book entitled “First Sight of the Desert.”
Bedroom furnishings vary, from modern to rooms furnished with antiques. Those who sign up first will be offered priority. Most rooms have a view of the lake.
Afternoons are free for writing or exploring. For those interested, I’ll take you to a few places of interest, including the ruins of this 12th century castle nearby.
The area is known for its taleggio and gorgonzola cheese, so we’ll most likely take a short trip to visit someplace where it’s made, or aged (and sample some, of course.)
You might want to join me for a boat trip across the lake to Bellagio, a scenic village oozing with charm, and a great place for some shopping.
You’ll find lots of restaurants tucked into the little streets and staircases in the town.
  For those interested in watercolor or cooking lessons, they’re optional, but can be arranged too.
We can’t talk about Italy without mentioning its food, and the food in Varenna is top notch. Here are a few samples from my visit last year – eggplant parmigiana:
 Fresh trout from the lake:
 And torta della nonna (recipe here on Ciao Chow Linda)
Want more information? Go to or contact Kathryn at for more details. Hope to see you in September.