Let’s play a game of word association. The theme: la dolce vita.
Pasta? Pizza. (Have both, you’re in Italy.)
Lake Como? George Clooney.
If you don’t associate the actor and longtime frequenter of “sexiest man alive” lists with Lake Como, consider yourself one of the unsullied few. Tabloids zealously chronicle his comings and goings from two lakeside estates in the town of Laglio. (Contrary to popular belief, dozens of towns ring the 106-mile perimeter of the lake, not just Como.) Whether or not Mr. Clooney is there, his name is on the lips of local cabdrivers, boat captains and business owners who dine out on stories about how they once, say, held a door open for him.
The specter of the Hollywood star and the turquoise lake’s litany of notable visitors — it’s served as an oasis for aristocrats since Roman times; current villa owners include Richard Branson and Madonna — can make the place seem exclusive and stuffy for travelers more accustomed to food trucks than restaurants that require a jacket and tie for dinner. But recently, new hotels, restaurants and happenings have emerged to court a younger, more freewheeling crowd.
In 2016, Il Sereno, a boutique hotel of 30 suites, opened in the tiny town of Torno, about five miles from downtown Como. Rendered in perpendicular planks of walnut wood, warm stone and blackened steel, the blocky building stands out like a Mondrian in a museum of Monets.
“The first decision was, ‘We’re not going to make a building that’s fake old’,” said Luis Contreras, Il Sereno’s owner.
Brought to life by the famed Milan interior designer Patricia Urquiola, who had a hand in everything from the lobby’s Jenga-ish staircase to the copper ice buckets behind the bar, Il Sereno appeals to travelers invested in now rather than yesteryear.
It’s the first new lakeside property in decades, and Mr. Contreras spent four years convincing Lake Como’s historic preservation board to let him break ground. He also enlivened the lakeside dining scene: Il Sereno’s restaurant, Berton Al Lago, is helmed by Andrea Berton, a Milan-bred chef who has won five Michelin stars, including a star for Berton Al Lago.
The restaurant elevates the classics and debuts delicious experiments like a seven-course tasting menu that might open with a pizza “sponge” and smoked mozzarella. It, like the rest of the hotel, is closed for the winter and will reopen in March, just in time to host sun-starved scenesters.
Trendy tasting menus can also be had across the lake in the municipality of Cernobbio, where the young chef Davide Caranchini presides over the spare restaurant Materia. In this province of meat-rich pastas and salty fish, Mr. Caranchini, a Como native, has done something radical: created a five-course vegetarian tasting menu that includes things besides leaves and seeds.
“Most restaurants in Europe, they have beef with the garnish, they take off the beef, that’s the vegetarian dish,” Mr. Caranchini said. Instead, Materia’s “green power” assortment (about $59) includes inspired dishes like turnip carpaccio, tomatoes in ponzu sauce and yuzu panna cotta.
There’s a non-vegetarian tasting menu too (about $65), and the prices are designed to attract a younger crowd — a four glass pairing of local wines costs about $29. Materia eschews fancy plates and tablecloths in the interest of making food more affordable.
“We would like to do fine dining but a bit different — pop fine dining,” Mr. Caranchini said. That explains his signature dessert, called Banksy: a thin film of smoked yogurt and chamomile cream in the shape of the famous street artist (yes, it’s made with a stencil).
After hours, Mr. Caranchini and his crew often gather at 100 Lire, a bar in downtown Como.
While the lake district has never been big on night life (parties at private celebrity villas notwithstanding), the towns of Menaggio and Blevio in recent summers have hosted night markets rife with food stalls and live music to give the young and the restless something to do.
During the day, speedboats crisscross the lake, and chatting up their captains, like 30-year-old Bradley Cooper look-alike Duilio Reina, is a reliable way to find out where the locals like to unwind.
Mr. Reina favors Osteria Cantinafrasca, a Cernobbio wine shop that serves a menu of homey Italian food. Cantinafrasca’s owner, Delfo Carnevali, who owned a larger restaurant for many years before he opened this wine shop and restaurant, shares something in common with America’s current business idols, a resolve to cater to the masses, sometimes scrappily.
“The thing that’s popular right now, what is it called, that all the young people want to do?” he asked. Start-ups? “Yes! They only want start-ups.”
In August 2016, The Spotify chief executive Daniel Ek married Sofia Levander at Villa Pliniana, a marvel of frescoed ceilings and stone passageways that was built in 1573. Mark Zuckerberg attended; Bruno Mars crooned next to a waterfall that reportedly captivated past guests like Leonardo da Vinci. Despite the addition of shiny new things, the lake’s older charms endure.