Loving the Lake Fish in Italy Jack Montgomery | Posted: 10 March 2016
SlowMotion journeys in Italy
SlowMotion journeys in Italy
SlowMotion journeys in Italy

Arriving on the picturesque shores of Lake Garda, Jack Montgomery finds himself transported back to the 'Golden Age' of Hollywood...

Everything should be in black and white. It should be in black and a white and a wooden motor launch should pull up at a jetty, dropping off a young Sophia Loren wearing a curve-hugging black number and looking slightly sleepy but still drop dead gorgeous after a night of drinking prosecco with Cary Grant.

Gargnano on Lake Garda looks as though it is forever set in a 1950s movie. It's a location which encourages time-travelling flights of fancy and exactly what I'd hoped a town on the Italian Lakes would look like. My flight of fancy isn't so far-fetched. As we walk to Osteria del Restauro beside the picturesque harbour, an open-topped classic car growls past. Not only that, a wooden launch does actually pull up at the jetty protruding into the petrol waters in front of one of the hotels. No Sophia Loren though.

The Lake Fish
The Osteria del Restauro is where Cary and Sophia might have chosen to dine – intimate, homely, a handful of tables, and with golden linen napkins adding that touch of class. The menu is bewildering (thanks to a lack of Italian on our part) but concise so we are able to negotiate our way through it with the help of the waitress. In the end it's a case of going with recommendations which include the most sublime tasting fish that has had the misfortune to end up in my mouth.

The meal is our introduction to Italian lake fish, and what a triumphant introduction it is. Antipasti of paté di cavedano (chub) with tapenade on toast is creamily delicious but it's what follows that really makes the taste buds sit up and shout 'encore'.

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My pan-fried salmerino (char) is excellent; however, Andrea's rombo (turbot) in a bread and cuttlefish ink crust is not only one of the best fish dishes I've tried, it's one of the tastiest dishes full stop. And I, regretfully, only have one bite.

From then, our journey through the Italian Lakes brings us into contact with other freshwater specialities: sun-dried sardines on a polenta bed from the biggest lake island in Europe, Monte Isola; battered perch from Lake Iseo paired with creamy risotto; turbot with truffles; roulades of moist shad and the most unusual of the lot, pike burgers.

The Lake Fisherman
On tiny but perfectly formed Isola dei Pescatori, an island on Lake Maggiore barely 400 metres long, we meet one of the men responsible for the ingredients of the gastronomic revelations we've ravished over the previous few days, Stefano Ruffoni.

Stefano is charming, handsome and instantly likeable. Fisherman by night, restaurateur by day, he runs the Ristorante Italia. But his heart floats dreamily on the lake waters he's fished since he was a boy.

As we work our way through a who's who of lake stars – mixed fish salad, perch risotto, trout ravioli and a selection of grilled fish – Stefano tells us about life on the fishermen's island. Catching a boat to get to school in Stresa as a boy; night fishing on the lake before bringing his catch back to the island's fishmongers at dawn; showing anyone who's interested how to cook the lake's offerings and taking small groups on nocturnal fishing trips. He also reveals what his favourite lake fish are – perch followed by lavaret.

It sounds idyllic. But I grew up on a Scottish island; I know the life of a fisherman is a hard one. I mention this to Stefano. I don't get the response I expect.

“This is hard work,” he laughs, an arm indicating the busy restaurant. “Sitting on a boat in the middle of this beautiful lake on a moonlit night isn't hard work.”

Who needs retro movie fantasies when your reality looks like Stefano's world? No wonder he has a smile fixed permanently to his face.

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