Early Spring in Northern Italy and Venice:
We left New York late in March. Spring had barely “sprung” and we were headed for two weeks in Northern Italy and Venice. The five day, online forecast was a bit “iffy.” We flew Continental to Milan, a smooth, comfortable flight, and picked up our rental car. Arrangements had been made through Auto-Europe in Camden, Maine, our favorite resource for European car rentals. We had requested an intermediate with automatic and were provided with a four door, B-class Mercedes which proved reliable and lively for the next seven days, until we returned it to Europcar’s office in Piazzale Roma in Venice and began a water-borne week in that magical city.
The weather on arrival, as anticipated, was cloudy and occasionally a bit drizzly. First stop, and an easy drive, was little more than two hours from Milan. We found our way to the Villa Fiordalisa in Gardone Riviera, overlooking beautiful Lake Garda. Snow-covered Alpine mountains hovered over the northern aspect of the lake. We had been attracted to the Villa by its Michelin rated one-star restaurant and its history. During the latter years of World War II, Mussolini, the Italian dictator whose tyranny was responsible for the term “fascism,” had frequently visited his mistress, Clara Petacci, in the Villa—and her bedroom was now the “Clara Suite.” We had no idea that we would spend a night in that beautiful suite, with its strange history and its lovely terrace overlooking the lake. The Villa proved an excellent choice, both in terms of location and cuisine. This family managed, small hotel offered great comfort (though be advised that rooms other than suites are small) and a warm welcome. From this location you can, depending upon season, make use of the beach and the lake, explore nearby botanical gardens, take mountain hikes, tour the home and museum of the adventurer-novelist d’Annunzio and visit small churches and chapels (see below).
Our first night’s dinner was served in a beautiful, tastefully appointed dining room. I asked Michele, the sommelier about the house white wine and the culinary adventure began. He offered us a taste of Cantrina, a blend consisting of approximately half Reisling, half Chardonnay with 5% Sauvignon Blanc. The wine was more than delicious, it was exceptional, with good body, a little acidity and a lovely finish. It became richer and more flavorful over the course of the meal.The next day we would visit the winemakers, Christina and Diego at the vineyard, forty minutes from Gardone Riviera.
Carlos, who served as maitre d’ and waiter, brought us an amuse bouche of sliced pigs head (sounds awful, tastes delicious) and cod crème with chips. Breads were unusually tasty. One of us ordered Spaghetti Chittara with Lake sardines, a beautiful preparation, while the second past dish was Risotto with Squid and Broccoli tops. The rice used for the risotto was a numbered, limited edition Carnarolli rice (#313 of 1480) and it made for the best risotto we had ever tasted. The meal continued with a Pike conserve, presented in a jar, moist and flavorful and prepared with onion, garlic, chives, lemon, capers and the bones of carp. The accompanying polenta (not usually our favorite) had been cooked for an hour and again, proved first-rate. The piece de resistance was a mouth-watering Roast Pig, Tuscan, but larger than Suckling Pig. We gave this dish four stars. We sampled the Nepomuceno(100%Merlot) from Cantrina and found it well made and flavorful. For dessert we shared a Fiordilatte Ice Cream, simple, pure, remarkably delicious and fattening; and then a Torta de Rosa. Baked to order in the form of a rose, the Torta was a cross between a soufflé and brioche, dipped in Lemon Zabaglione. Since the restaurant would be closed on our second night, Chef Riccardo Canini sent out a few “tasties”—a tiny Tiramasu, Crème Brulee and Chocalte Tart. The meal was marvelously inventive, yet never went over the top, respecting the great products and bringing out their flavor. Service, preparation and presentation were impeccable. One star in the Michelin, three stars in our book of memories. For our second night’s dining, we had requested “simple preparation”, possibly pizza, and not far from the hotel. We went by taxi to Ristorante La Stella, a lovely local restaurant, where the service was warm and the food first-rate. We sampled the delicious bruschetta, an antipasto of shrimp sautéed in light curry sauce, with very thinly sliced carrots and zucchini, tender octopus and three star risotto with seafood. The wine was a 2006 Trebbiano, pleasnt floral nose, dry with nice flavor. We finished with an excellent Tiramisu.
During our stay at the Villa, we explored the Lake region, with a stop at Azienda Agricola Cantrina in Cantrina, to meet Cristina Inganni and her husband Diego, the makers of that wonderful white wine and excellent Merlots as well. Along the way, visit Desenzano (and be sure to arrive in the morning or late afternoon so that the Church is open). A visit to Sirmione is also well worth the stop, though in season count on large crowds.. The town juts into the lake with wonderful views—and has a medieval castello which you can tour. If you have the time, visit Bergamo for the old city, museum and church and Lake Iseo for its natural beauty. If you are a hiker, enjoy water sports and the outdoors, Lake Garda in season is sure to be your cup of tea.
We moved on to Verona, a pleasant drive, where we were in for an exciting surprise. The Byblos Arts Hotel Villa Amista is located in Corrubio, just 7 kilometers from the heart of Verona, with a regular shuttle service to and from that city. It is a feast for the eyes. The fashion company has carried out an impeccable architectural restoration of this Venetian style Villa and then, made it a venue for beautiful contemporary art, by such masters as Vanessa Beecroft, Anish Kapoor, Sol Lewitt, Indiana, Paladino and Cindy
Sherman, to name but a few. At first you will be surprised—and then dazzled by the vibrant contrast of old and new. Your hotel room or suite is furnished in colorful—and tasteful post-modern furnishings. We’ve never seen a hotel quite like it. Spa services are available, the staff is most helpful and there is a restaurant on the premises.We dined there the first night and enjoyed a carpaccio of sea bass and an outstanding risotto with raw fish. Mauro, in Peter’s Bar makes an excellent extra dry martini. During the warm months, there is a lovely pool available in the midst of a terraced garden. And then there is Verona, a jewel of a city. It is home to the Casa Juliet. The crowds flock there to see where the young Capulet teenager lived—yes, the adolescent girl who fell in love with Romeo, and whom Shakespeare immortalized. The Arena (Roman vintage) is host to theatre, dance and concert in season. A walk along the river, the museums (we saw sculpture lent by the Peggy Guggenheim Museum (which we would later visit in Venice).
Try dining at the Le Cantine de L’Arena, a short walk from the Arena. We sampled a delicious pizza, fresh grilled Orata and a bottle of wine. Service was friendly and prices modest.
From Verona we headed for Ferrara. We attempted a stop in Padua to re-visit the magnificent Giottos in the Scrivegni Chapel, but the public garages were shut down, apparently by a strike, and it was impossible to find a parking place. Ferrara is a lovely city, a city of bicyclists. We stayed at the Duchessa Isabella, found in the Relais and Chateau. The first rooms that we were shown were very small and though we gulped at the price, we opted for the comfort of a suite. The hotel is well located, and there is a paucity of choices in Ferrara. We checked out the menu in the dining room and found it too “French-ified” for our taste. We did discover a terrific show at one of the local museums, “Symbolism: Moreau to Klimt”. The Boldini Museum is also nearby and worth a look., and the Castello is well worth a visit. There was a Jewish presence in Ferrara at one time and you can find an active Jewish synagogue near the center of the city. Another culinary high point was dinner at Il Don Giovanni (Di Diego). Be careful! Our taxi driver, in error, took us to “Big Night-Da Giovanni”, a few blocks from our actual destination. Only because I had noticed with amusement in deciding where we would dine, that the name of the restaurant was a play on the wonderful film by Stanley Tucci “The Big Night” was I able to make a course correction. I chased after the cab, he came back, and embarrassed by the error, took us to our intended destination--Il Don Giovanni (Di Diego). The restaurant is very small (6 or 7 tables) and you must reserve. We had a tasting menu, a number of small courses, each accompanied by a tasting of a different wine. Their fish is purchased from small boats, out and back same day, guaranteeing freshness. A Riesling 2005 accompanied Bufalo Ricotta with red onions and orange tropical fruit, raw shrimp with a confit of sundried tomato and three pestos (basil, tomato and olive). Among the dishes was Canneloni with eel, onions and pine nuts, servied with a 2002 Morgon from Marcel Lapieere, fruit and spice, biodynamic. Spaghetti chittara with wild clams, cabbage and parsley. The Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2005 had alnmoist zero sulfur and low fat alcohol, less work for the liver. Mineral chalky nose and broad note of pineapple-like fruit. Wild turbot was accompanied by a Vernaccia di San Gimignano. This was a truly memorable meal. The restaurant has one Michelin star, but it has three in our hearts (and on our palates). Pier Luigi di Diego, the chef and Mark Merighi, host and sommelier, opened the restaurant in 1998, in a beautiful Ferrarese courtyard. There is a wine bar and outdoor tables as well. They call their effort, loosely translated, a “Kitchen for Passion.” It is, indeed. Go to their website and read more about their passionate devotion to culinary art (available in English): www.ildongiovanni.com. Next day was rainy—our great good luck. We decided to set off in the car and to visit the Abbaziale di Pomposa in Codigoro, about an hour drive from Ferrara. You will find a beautiful bell tower, monastery, “Palace of Reason” and magnificent frescos. Its origins are from the 9th to 14th centuries and within these walls, Guido of Arezzo invented modern musical notes. Rain or shine, don’t miss it.
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Where to Stay:
Villa Fiordaliso, Gardone Riviera, Tel: 39-036-52-01-58; Fax: 39-03-65-29-00-11;
Byblos Art Hotel Villa Amista, Negarine, Verona. Tel: 39-045-685-5555; Fax: 39-045-685-5500;
www.byblosarthotel.com (a terrific web site; check it out)
Hotel Duchessa Isabella, Ferrara, Tel: 39-0532-202121; Fax: 39-0532-20-26-38;
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Where to Dine:
- Villa Fiordaliso. A must dine! As above
- Restaurant La Stalla, via dei Colle 14, Gardone Riviera, Tel: 0365-21038;
- Byblos Art Hotel (see above)
- Le Cantine de L’Arena, Piazzetta Scalette Rubiani, 1, Tel:045-8032849;
- Il Don Giovanni (Di Diego), Corso Ercole, 1 D’este; Tel or Fax: 05-322463;
A must dine! Closed Sunday evening and Monday
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