“Shaken, not stirred”
Sometimes the best way to explore Italy is to pretend that you're a spy, as in “I spy this” and “I spy that”. All kidding aside, we followed in the wake of 007 as he was seen in the movie Quantum of Solace. Remember the high-speed chase in the first few minutes of the film? That was shot at Lago di Garda, less than 80 miles east from the environs of Lago di Como/Lecco where I call home. Lake Garda is a massive fresh water oasis in the easternmost part of the Lombardy region, but it also partially belongs to the regions of Veneto and Trentino on the north and eastern shores. Dotted by old limonaie (lemon farms), lush olive groves, and gorgeous lakeside resorts, I knew that it would make the ideal setting for our weekend agenda.
Riva del Garda
This agenda involved making stops along the route where Bond's Aston Martin might have heated up the asphalt, as there is no way for him to end up at the marble quarries in Carrara (160+ miles south) without driving through some of the most loveliest towns this side of Italy. By following in his wake, we were able to slow the pace down, portraying Lake Garda and its postcard-perfect villages in the best way I know how - through food and drink. A visit to Pasticceria Vassalli, a well-known pastry/chocolate shop in the town of Salò, was first on the list, as well as a mandatory stop at a notable cheese shop in Gavardo. These, however, would precede the ultimate target: lunch at Trattoria Agli Angeli in Gardone Riviera. The whole idea for this mission was to explore lakefish cuisine as the menu saw fit, putting ourselves at the mercy of whatever the fishermen caught that day.
Pasticceria Vassalli in the town of Salò
Dessert before lunch? It had to be, especially after stumbling across an interesting post by World Foodie Guide. I was only going to walk in there and buy a bagful of chocolates and walk right out, but what kind of fool would want to pass up tantalizing desserts? We still had a couple of hours until noon, so an order of a lighter-than-air ricotta cheesecake and an almond-studded cookie basket filled with fresh custard and fruit were set before us. They were both excellent on all counts - flavor, texture contrast between filling/crust, with the right amount of sweetness. But together with a glass of shakerato each, the whole sugar rush got to be a bit too much, and off we went to a Slow Food-recognized cheese shop nearby, with the intent to counter the sweet high with something aged and strongly-flavored.
Borders and language are no barriers where cheese is concerned, and this was clearly evident with the german license plates lined up next to Al Mercato Coperto dei Formaggi, a nondescript cheese store in Gavardo. The selection offered by the proprietors are primarily from Brescia's environs, with every square, round and wedge exuding the most mesmerizing of scents. We purchased a flavorful Stracchino di Bagolino (made from goat's milk), of which the proprietor suggested drizzling with olive oil from Lake Garda, and opted for a mild cow's milk cheese (for the life of me I can't remember the name). Both are great table cheese to be enjoyed with a good crusty loaf of bread and a glass of red wine.
Display case at Al Mercato Coperto dei Formaggi (At the covered cheese market)
Stracchino di Bagolino
Trattoria Agli Angeli
Finally, Trattoria Agli Angeli, a Slow Food-listed restaurant set in an intimate little square in Gardone Riviera. It must have been in the high 80's on Saturday, and with only a faint breeze occasionally wafting through, I'll admit that while everything was wonderful, the dessert (again!) at the end really hit the spot, but I'll get to that eventually. We immediately reviewed the fish secondi (second plates) and honed in on the coregone (common whitefish) done simpy over the grill, and panfried sarde, which was coated with breadcrumbs and served with herbed olive oil. Fish, from what I've experienced in Italy, is usually done without a lot of fussy ingredients and elaborate presentations. Together with the local cheeses, local wines and unique ambience, we've already got it in our heads to hop into our imaginary Aston Martin (no harm in pretending) and visit the lake again soon.
An appetizer teaser compliments of the chef: local polenta with braised red bell pepper. Housemade breadsticks and olive rolls. A bottle of chilled Lugana.
Grilled coregone (common whitefish) being filleted and plated by our server.
Breaded and fried sarde topped with datterino tomatoes, served with polenta.
Local cheeses served with nuts and fruit conserves.
Housemade cantaloupe gelato, sambuca sorbet topped with coffee-flavored whipped cream and ground coffee (this was SO unbelievably good!!!!), the local olive oil from Gargnano.