Travel. Garda Special. The Lake that Thinks it’s a Sea

Dec 21 2015, 15:37 | by Livia Montagnoli

Lake Garda is unique, an immense expanse of water that shapes the ecosystem, climate and culture of a great section of Italy. The province of Brescia and its coast is the part that offers the appetite the most temptations, ranging from wine to fish, from cheese to olive oil.

Garda Bresciano. A record-breaking lake, with flavors to match

Those from the Trento region will tell you quite correctly that Torbole and Riva are jewels inherited from the Austro-Hungarian empire that ruled here until 1918. Manicured towns, after becoming the mecca for windsurfers, they are now the capitals of mountain biking. The people of Verona, on the other hand, point out the elegance of Lazise or Torri del Benaco, the charm of Malcesine and Brenzone, or the joie de vivre you sense in Bardolino, and not only thanks to its wine. They’re right too. But, if we’re talking about the variety and richness of food and wine experiences, the Garda Bresciano zone is ahead of the other two shores of Italy’s largest lake. Within eighty kilometers, along the coast, you pass from towns embraced by the rocks – perforated by the Gardesana, one of the most spectacular roads in the country – such as Limone or Campione, to others that face beaches like those you find at the sea, places like Moniga or Manerba, with the greenest of hinterlands.  From the silence of Gargnano (with fewer than 3,000 residents it has a three-star Michelin restaurant and two five-star hotels – there must be a Guinness record in there somewhere) you can move onto the crowds of conventioneers and tourists in Sirmione. The romantic Isola del Garda and the retro Gardone Riviera, where lake tourism was born at the end of the 19th century, are now hangouts for VIPs in search of relaxation and wellness. Finally, there are the two main centers: Desenzano, historic, closely tied to Milano, but once much livelier than now, when crowds poured into its nightclubs (many say it’s better this way) and Salò, with elegant shops, restaurants, and one of Europe’s most beautiful lakefronts. The two  are bitter rivals. Last year, in an interview in the local newspaper, Il Corriere di Brescia, noted local writer Camilla Baresani defended her Desenzano in the face of the ambitions of Salò. It brought down a storm of angry letters. The debate is open and lively, although, like Rome and Milano, each town needs the other.

Garda: a land of tourism

From the border of Trentino to that of Lombardy, the key word in recent years has been quality tourism. The number of visitors (around ten million in 2014) is important, but is seen differently, although it does contribute, along with the other two provinces to making Garda Italy’s the number one tourism area. Restaurants seem to be a step ahead of hotels, which are too tied to monuments of the past in need of restyling. However, there are two extraordinary places, both in Gargnano: Villa Feltrinelli, run by Stefano Baiocco, which guidebooks consider number one, and the Lefay Resort, which continues to collect international prizes, above all for its spa and its eco-sustainability. These are two aspects that will come into their own in the coming years, perhaps in boutique hotels such as Locanda del Benaco or Bellariva in Gardone. It’s not easy to foresee the future for restaurants, not only because of the enormous size of the market, but also because of the absence of homegrown Garda-born talent. Riccardo Camanini is certainly the best. He started off at Villa Fiordaliso, but when he moved on to Lido 84, also in Gardone, he brought it to the top with cooking that is the most technical, modern, but also enthralling on Lake Garda. He also has lake fish, a very young brigade, a fantastic location, 1960s décor inside and tables at the water’s edge outside. To be absolutely clear: the established restaurants (La Rucola, Capriccio, Esplanade, Al Porto, Tortuga…) are still good, as are the historic trattorias and osterias (Alle Rose, Orologio…) but the zone needs a little fresh breeze, like the one called peler here, that blows over the lake in the morning. Perhaps for young people, the future lies in hotel complexes: Matteo Maenza is doing well at the Grande Limonaia in Lefay Resorts as is Matteo Felter at Fagiano in the  Grand Hotel Fasano and Nicola Morettini at the Locanda del Benaco. Other names to remember are Dino Colantuono (Rolly) and  Saulo Della Valle (L’Osteria H2O), the latter from Garda and a student of  Mauro Uliassi.

Wine and extra-virgin olive oi: the pride of Garda's cuisine

Today, made-in-Garda products are not just the focus of the innumerable local festivals. More respected than ever, especially in northern Europe, thanks to the internet, Garda’s olive oil and wine, jewels that were once a little rough and ready, are now showcased by real artists of the trade (see box). Extra-virgin from the Garda zone, praised enthusiastically by writers in ancient Rome, now is recognized with the Bresciano DOP denomination (the others are Orientale DOP and Trentino DOP). Naturally, the olive growers of the west coast of the lake – 125 of them, all told – claim that theirs is the best. The problem for the entire zone, of course, is that the total quantity equals only  one percent of national production. Particularly light and delicate, the oil is perfect on all fish, not only freshwater fish, as some think, and especially on raw fish. As for wines, Lugana DOC is growing rapidly – some of the wineries, we must mention, are in the Verona province – selling close to 14 million bottles yearly. (A possible problem in the future – a high speed train with tracks crossing and marring the area.) Wineries such as Cà dei Frati, Provenza-Cà Majol, Cà Lojera and Tenuta Roveglia stand out for their excellence. The new-born Valtenesi DOC has absorbed the virtues of Chiaretto to make a product with great potential for growth, as we see in wineries such as Costaripa, Avanzi and Le Sincette. Garda, Garda Bresciano, Garda Classico, San Martino della Battaglia and Benaco Bresciano IGT are also DOC denominations. Wine is not the only game in town. Alta Garda is also known for its cheeses, ranging from those from Tremosine (aged Garda, Formaggella ‘normal’ and with truffles, and the rare Casat that ages in olive oil) to Tombea from Valvestino. Honey, which is more and more organic, is often produced by olive oil and wine estates.

Lake fish

And now we come to lake fish, the pride of Garda and now in a golden age, thanks, above all, to the few fishermen remaining, who have also been convinced to respect seasonality. Quantities are such that supplies can reach Milano. Pike, whitefish, freshwater sardines, perch and chub are popular, and in recent years, native trout have returned. Fisherman are hoping to see carp one day soon. For reasons no one understands, carp live only in this lake and in the Caspian Sea. Carp were sought after by the Venetians for their banquets in their city’s golden age, transported from the lake to the palaces on Piazza San Marco. Many food historians believe that the origin of a technique known as fish “in carpione”, in which fried fish is layered in terracotta containers and preserved in vinegar and wine, originated with the need to preserve carp for the market. It is still a favorite recipe on the Lombard lakes. Carp flesh is so delicate that it is generally served briefly simmered (10 minutes) with a drizzle of olive oil. Even raw, it is memorable. Since overfishing has made carp rare and extremely expensive (as much as 70 euros a kilo), the only road now is to resort to artificial reproduction, and local universities have been called in for research. Carp farming has not been successful. Gianni Briarava of Slow Food, is a native of the Garda zone and owner of Trattoria alle Rose in Salò. He has been following the issue closely. “We’ll know in a few years,” he says, “but I am optimistic and dream about new carp, perhaps born elsewhere but brought to Garda to grow. The lake is returning to the beautiful, clean state it was in during the 1970s.” Thank you, Mr. Briariava, for a perfect closing note.

Mister Vino Vezzola, the Bellavista guru, now studies rosé

He had to give up his veterinary studies, pressured by his father, Bruno, in order to lead the family business. But since that first vintage in Valtenesi – at the start of the 1970s – Mattia Vezzola, born in Moniga del Garda, has written important pages in the history of wine. In 1981, Vittorio Moretti entrusted him with the leadership of Bellavista, that at the time was almost a hobby for the entrepreneur from Brescia. It’s clear how well that went, thanks also to Vezzola. But last year, one of the gurus of Franciacorta DOCG limited himself to curating the high quality of Bellavista and went back to his native Garda, where he spends most of his time. “I took over the firm from my brother in 2009 and want to dedicate the rest of my life to making Valtenesi Rosé in general great, and obviously, that includes the one we make at Costaripa. It is the right moment for the one-time Chiaretto to enter the market in an innovative way, as a quality wine at the correct price and not as a bargain, above all in restaurants. In Italy, twenty million bottles of rosati wines are sold, and our DOC mustn’t limit itself to the one million, three hundred thousand of today.” Devoted to his territory in a lucid, not ideological way, Vezzola’s successful winery sells 500,000 bottles between Valtenesi Rosé and Rosso, a Lugana and a dessert wine, Palmargentina. The stand-outs are the metodo classico bottles, a story that began in 1973 and became his passion: 200,000 bottles. His project for the DOC? “I’m aiming for twenty million bottles annually. The 800 hectares of vineyard in Valtenesi should become 2,000. Few people know that in 1972, there were 1,200 that were used poorly for decades, with the result of undermining the entire variety. It’s crucial that 85% of the production in Valtenesi be for Rosé wines, because that is what will make the difference.” The numbers are huge, almost incredible. Vezzola smiles. “I know what many of my colleagues think. But I’m hearing the same warnings and the same old things said about Valtenesi Rosé that I heard said in the early 80s about Franciacorta. So it doesn’t frighten me at all.”

Mister Extravergine Comincioli. The guardian of olive oil

Gianfranco Comincioli says he thinks of himself as a peasant-entrepreneur. He has headed the family business since 1978, the fifteenth generation. But in reality, he is the guru of Garda’s olive oil and one of the lords of the Valtenesi zone. In 2007 he was able to turn around totally the profile of the wines that had been the backbone of his winery. “I was tired of working the same way as everyone. During a vacation in Spain, I saw how they made Rioja, and I decided to change. Never stop.” His extra-virgin olive oils collect prizes in Italy and abroad. Gianfranco opened a new frontier for oils: an extra-virgin made from pitted olives, with obsessive care for the fruit from harvesting to bottling, never taking more than eight hours, avoiding every kind of oxidation and impurity. From his 2,600 trees he harvests 600-700 quintals of olives for an average yield of 5,400 liters of oil. Maximum quality requires a yield among the lowest anywhere – in recent years it has been about 7%, half a normal extra-virgin. “We constantly try to do better than the year before,” he explains, “without craziness, but by studying and working hard. When you make oil, for 20 days you live it 24 hours a day. Our methods are unique in Italy: hand selecting the olives together with respecting the cultivar and having the ideal climate in this zone make the difference in the final product.” The liquid gold ends up in three glass flacons, similar to those used for perfume, called Leccino, Casaliva and Numero Uno (a blend of eight cultivars with picturesque names like Favarol, Rossanel and Gargnà). They are cult items for those who love olive oi.



Where to stay

Lefay Resort | Gargnano (BS)| via Feltrinelli 163 | tel. 0365 241800 |

This five star hotel above Gargnano dominates the lake. It is famous for its internationally-known Spa and its infinity pool. The good cucina in the restaurant is curated by Matteo Maenza.

Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli | Gargnano (BS) | via Rimembranza 38/40 | tel. 0365 798000 |

The Russian owner has enhanced a hotel that was already beautiful, surrounded by green. Among its virtues are the absolutely elegant dishes, above all vegetarian, turned out by chef Stefano Baiocco.

Locanda del Benaco mit Caffè | Salò (BS) | lungolago Zanardelli 44 | tel. 0365 20308 |
A recently renovated boutique hotel in a privileged position along the lake. On the ground floor, with a charming terrace in the summer, is the restaurant managed by expert Gianni Briarava.

Hotel Bellariva | Gardone Riviera (BS) | via Mario Podini 12 | tel. 0365 540773 |

110 years of history and an enviable location have made this one of the most famous of the small hotels on Garda. 23 rooms and 8 suites, of modern and haute design, tucked into a building that is practically intact seen from the outside.

Grand Hotel Fasano | Gardone Riviera (BS) | corso Zanardelli 190 | tel. 0365 290220 |

An historic hunting lodge belonging to the Austro-Hungarian emperors has been one of the best hotels on the lake for a while. Elegant rooms, Aveda spa, various restaurants among which is the Fagiano, curated by Matteo Felter.

Where to eat

Cantina del Baffo | Limone sul Garda (BS) | via Caldogno 1 | tel. 0365 914061 |

Isidoro Consolini, expert chef from Verona, switched from one side of the lake to the other to manage this lively bistrot – complete with live music – where he interprets brilliantly the local products of lake and mountain.

La Tortuga | Gargnano (BS) | via XXIV Maggio | tel. 0365 71251 |

More than a pirate’s cove, this is a romantic candy box in the port of Gargnano. The menu delights both Italians and foreigners (many), with bravura especially in the fresh pasta dishes.

Antica Trattoria alle Rose | Salò (BS) | via Gasparo da Salò 33 | tel. 0365 43220 |

The whole history of Lake Garda’s and Brescia’s cooking: lake fish, kid, mushrooms, cheese. Top quality ingredients, seasonality, dishes that are never banal. Excellent wines in the cellar.

Osteria dell’ Orologio | Salò (BS) | via Mattia Butturini | tel. 0365 290158 | www.osteriadellorologiosalò.it

The reign of those who love classic, informal osterias: the huge counter, the blackboard listing the wines of the day by the glass, the competence of the owner, the wine fanatics. From the kitchen, prevalently dishes from the territory: simple, meticulous, abundant.

Pijei | Salò (BS) | via Europa 9 |  tel. 0365 42111

A new place in the hills, managed by the Leali family. The kitchen is very expert and full of ideas, from liquid bruschetta to sbrisolona pastry, with lake sardines from Montisola in the dough.

Lido 84 | Gardone Riviera (BS) | corso Zanardelli 196 | tel. 0365 20019 |

Riccardo Camanini’s talent and endless drive to do even better, the cordiality of the service and an enchanting location have made this place famous in only two seasons. And it will continue to grow.

Villa Fiordaliso | Gardone Riviera (BS) | corso Zanardelli 196 | tel. 0365 20158|

Legendary elegance and silence. The restaurant is in one of the most beautiful landscapes in Garda, with a menu of the classic Fiordaliso dishes as well as new ones, often based on lake fish.

Capriccio | Manerba (BS) | piazza San Bernardo 6 | tel. 0365 551124 |

A theater of good cucina – both surf and turf – with a staircase and spectacular veranda on Garda. It is more informal today, in both its manners and its dishes, but the charm it has had for half a century is unchanged.

Rolly | Manerba (BS) | via Repubblica 4 | tel. 0365 651159 |

Here on a terrace practically in the lake, Wanda Perotti has carried forward the banner of modern lake cooking, with elegant menus. Other specialties are now available, but the quality is unvaried.

Osteria H2O | Moniga (BS)| via Pergola 10 | tel. 0365 503225 |

Saulo Della Valle’s new venture, together with Manuel Lombardi. The onc-time student of famed chef Mauro Uliassi left Suer & Garbino for this modern ambience and innovative cucina.

La Dispensa | San Felice del Benaco (BS) | piazza Municipio 10 | tel. 0365 557023

Focus on products from the Garda zone, as well as from Italian regions (one of the classics is Sardinian lamb cooked three ways), and from other countries. Premium cured meats, fresh fish and much, much more.

Aquariva | Padenghe (BS) | viale Guglielmo Marconi 57 | tel. 030 9908899 |

Trendy ambience with a spacious outdoor terrace and the excellent cooking of Paolo Favalli; menu ranging from local specialties to seafood. Wine cellar specialized in champagne, the passion of Paolo’s brother Ivan.

Esplanade | Desenzano (BS)| via Lario 3 | tel. 030 9143361|

Great charm, great indoor and outdoor spaces in Emanuele Signorini and Massimo Fezzardi’s restaurant.  Wide-ranging, technically skilled and intense food, with emphasis on seafood and a vegetarian menu. Top-ranking wine cellar.

La Rucola | Sirmione (BS) | passaggio Strentelle 7 | tel. 030 916326 |

A sure thing among Garda’s restaurants. Gionata Bignotti continues to surprise his fans with technically skilled and imaginative dishes in which the chef’s love for Asia exalts Italian ingredients.

Where to shop

Cooperativa Alpe del Garda | Tremosine (BS) | via Provinciale 1 | tel. 0365 953050 |

In the cooperative’s own shop, all the best cheeses from the Alto Garda Bresciano. Don’t miss Formagella di Tremosina, offered in various versions.

B-Wine | Manerba (BS) | via Campagnola 52D | tel. 0365 550117

400 labels from about 40 wineries, not only in the Garda territory, in Silvano Vezzola’s wine bar. Also, one special olive oil, Garda Bresciano DOP made by his father, Paolo.

Pasticceria Di Novo | Manerba (BS) | via Campagnola 10 | tel. 0365 651743

This is the place to sample Torta delle rose, a favorite Garda yeast cake. Besides the traditional recipe, in various sizes, there is a savory and filled version.

Il Campo dell’Asino | Puegnago (BS) | via Monteacuto 8 |  tel. 0365 651841

This company’s star product is its organic jam, but they also produce tisanes made wih herbs and leaves as well as a good extra-virgin DOP.

Podere dei Folli | Polpenazze (BS) | via Borrine 4 | tel. 0365 674776

This farm has been organic since the 1970s. The result is a great honey based on local flowering: acacia, wild flowers, chestnut and honey dew. Good wine and local olive oil.

Best wines

Lugana Molin ‘14 | Cà Maiol | via dei Colli Storici | Desenzano del Garda (BS) | tel. 030 9910006 |

Best extra-virgin olive oils

Monocultivar Casaliva | Comincioli | Puegnago sul Garda (BS) | via Roma, 10 | tel. 0365 651141 |



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