My first trip to Lake Garda was in 1983 three years after opening the first Convito. Paolo and I were making plans for a second Convito in downtown Chicago. Detailed concept discussions for the new location were at the top of our weekend agenda, but tasting the food and wine and a thorough exploration of each new destination were always of equal (or greater!) importance. As with all my journeys, the surprises and the small moments are my favorites and seem to remain with me much longer than the castle tour or the artifact-filled museum. Those are the icing on the cake.
Lake Garda is the largest lake in all of Italy. It is part of the Lombardia region on the west, the Veneto region on the east and its northern tip juts into the Trentino-Alto-Adige region. The landscape is quite diverse with beaches along the southern shores and rocky cliffs above the northern shoreline. Paolo described it as “sweeter” than the other lakes we had visited. I was not sure what that meant but the southern part of the lake where we spent most of our time, was softer with more open spaces and stretches of pebble beaches and lakeside promenades fronting the lake’s clear, deep blue waters.
We arrived in the charming town of Salò just in time for lunch. Salo is situated halfway up the western shore of the lake in the center of a beautiful gulf. It is best known by most Italians as the hometown of the infamous “Il Duce” Benito Mussolini, and was from 1943 to 1945 the capital of the Italian Social Republic. Not surprisingly, evidence of that era was difficult to find those many years later.
All along the promenade restaurants and charming cafes were interspersed with hotels and interesting little boutiques featuring local crafts. Its promenade – built on stilts no less – is the longest in Italy. To our disappointment no outside cafes were open as yet. It had been a chilly spring. So we selected a small intimate restaurant near the Piazza Dal Vittoria. Its interior had a Victorian feel to it with high ceilings, gothic-style windows, walls the color of aged Barolo and an ambience of quiet serenity. It felt a little like church. No one spoke above a whisper. We quietly ordered a glass of Bardolino – a soft pleasant wine from the southeastern shores of Garda. Sufficiently mellowed, we turned our attention to the very simple but lovely lunch menu. Paolo recommended a pasta dish and in a muted voice to match the mood of the restaurant, whispered our order to the waiter who most surely must have whispered it to the chef.
The dish he ordered, Linguine Pescatore, is one I have enjoyed frequently in Italy. The ingredients vary from region to region especially the fish depending on the location. The fish in this dish was a type of lake white fish. I have had similar dishes near the sea with a whole variety of different fish (sometimes with a combination of other seafood like clams and calamari) but always the dish is prepared very simply with a minimum of ingredients.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1-pound sea bass, cut into ¾ inch pieces*
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cup diced fresh Roma tomatoes
½ cup chopped Italian parsley
2 cups dry white wine
Pinch of chili pepper flakes
1 pound imported linguine
Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the sea bass pieces and gently sauté until the sea bass is just cooked. With a slotted spoon, lift the fish pieces out and set aside. Add the garlic to the pan and sauté for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and the parsley and continue sautéing over medium heat for another 2 minutes.
Add the white wine, the salt and the chili peppers. Turn the heat to medium high and cook for 3 – 5 minutes. Add the fish pieces back into the sauce.
In the meantime cook the pasta in abundant boiling salted water until al dente. Quickly drain and add to the fish mixture. Toss well and serve.
*Sea bass is a lean, meaty fish suitable for most types of cooking. If sea bass is not available, ask your local fish merchant for a fish has that a similar consistency.
After lunch we drove up the shoreline to Riva del Garda located in the northwestern corner of the lake at the southern edge of the Italian Alps. The Dolomite Mountains – not far away – loomed dramatically in the background. Here it was not so “sweet”, not so soft and open. Sheer cliffs framed the churches and pastel facades of the old town section of Riva. Still quite cold, we carefully chose a sunny spot away from the wind to enjoy an afternoon coffee. We sat silently for what must have been an hour – perhaps in tribute to the solemnity of the lunch – watching the ferryboats entering and leaving the docks. I also watched Paolo turn brown in that short time. I, however, remained white as the snow with maybe a tinge of pink at the nose. Those Italians!
At the end of our afternoon drive we arrived at the outskirts of Sirmione where we planned to have dinner and stay the night. Sirmione is an important resort known since the beginning of this century as a spa. It is famous for its thermal springs. Near the end of a long peninsula which juts out into the lake from the southern shoreline are the rocky remains of a vast Roman villa said to have belonged to the poet Catullus. But getting there, especially on a late sunny Saturday afternoon, was challenging. Despite the fact that the city limits permission to enter the city in a vehicle to residents and hotel guests, long lines of cars stuffed with frustrated drivers turned what couldn’t have been more than a mile-long drive into and inch-by-inch slog that took way more than an hour.
Once we passed through the town’s ancient gates, driving on its narrow streets was equally frustrating. Groups of people oblivious to the presence of cars clustered together all over the road or stepped out of the shops right in front of vehicles that were all desperately trying to make their way to one of the few parking places. Paolo’s main objective at this point was to rid himself of our car, which was beginning to feel more and more like a hazardous weapon.
We walked to the Roman villa. At the excavation site known as the Grotte di Catullo, it was possible to distinguish the remains of buildings. It is said to be the most striking example of a Roman private edifice in northern Italy. There is some controversy as to whether or not Catullus ever lived here but ruins of any sort always stimulate my imagination. I could just see toga-clad Romans coming and going, enjoying the beauty and the riches of Lake Garda. Whoever lived here, however, had one hell of a view.
We next visited a small church with amazing 15th century frescos then onto Rocca Scaliera, a 13th Century castle, whose presence looms over this small picturesque town reminding visitors of the once important strategic position Sirmione occupied. Its turbulent history is filled with waves of invasions especially after the fall of the Roman Empire. The town’s position on the lake – though very beautiful – also left it extremely vulnerable.
Time for a cocktail and dinner, we found ourselves on an olive tree shaded terrace facing the oncoming sunset. One aperitivo later, Paolo still agitated from our tedious entry into this city, began a short dissertation on “the decline of humanity”. “Everything has changed! “ he said. “Everyone has money now! So everyone can enjoy Sirmione! But because everyone can enjoy Sirmione, no one now enjoys Sirmione. It’s too crowded! It’s too crazy! The world has changed!”
Obviously, in his opinion, not for the better.
I on the other hand, was at the precipice of great and positives changes in my life. I felt lucky that the world was changing, that the world was becoming more accepting of women in business, that female independence was no longer unusual. And the fact that we were living in an age where money was available to more than just the aristocrats, was a fact that most certainly had benefitted me.
I thought it best to steer the conversation in another direction. Rather I brought up subjects less overtly frustrating like objectives and goals for the new Convito. The frustrations of opening another location would come later but for the moment they were pleasant distractions – the menu, the look of a new Convito, all the fun details of opening a new location.
Our meal was delicious as were most of my meals in Italy. I especially loved the antipasti course. A variety of salamis and salads were displayed in white platters and bowls on a long rustic table in the center of the restaurant. My favorite was a cannellini bean, olive and herring salad. When I came back to Chicago I immediately tried to duplicate the recipe. I think I pretty much nailed it.
Cannellini Bean, Olive and Herring Salad
½ pound herring in vinegar
2 cups cooked cannelloni beans (or Great Northern beans)
¼ cup thinly sliced red onion
¼ cup Calamata olives roughly chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Rinse the herring under cold running water. Drain well. Mix the herring with the beans, onions and olives. Add the olive oil, vinegar and parsley. Mix well. Salt and pepper to taste.
The sun had set over Lake Garda by the time we finished our meal. Our bottle of Pieropan Soave, considered one of the best producers of Soave in the region, was empty. Conversation had thankfully become lighter and more congenial. “Never,” Paolo said, “did I think I would be sitting in Italy with my partner – an American and a woman no less – discussing the look of salt and pepper shakers we would use for the next Convito! You never know what changes life can bring!” We both had a good laugh. I chose not to remind Paolo of our earlier negative conversation about change. I just smiled and silently thanked my lucky stars for being on this lovely peninsula in the middle of this amazing lake in a country I had so grown to love.