Our next stop was the lakeside town of Bardolino. The town is known for a very light red wine that shares its name with the town. The wine is similar to Beaujolais and is fresh tasting enough sip in hot weather because of its light body and low alcohol content.
The regions best wine however is Amarone. The wine is made from partially dried grapes which gives it a very deep slightly 'pruny' flavor and an extraordinarily rich body. This is one of my favorite wines and it's often prohibitively expensive for us here in the US. Restaurants rarely sell Amarone for less than $75 per bottle but the price comes way down when you're dining 10 minutes away from the vineyards.
A friend recommended Il Giardino Delle Esperidi and it ended up being one of the best meals of the entire trip. The place is on a slightly unpleasant strip of restaurants, bars, and beachwear shops but the restaurant itself is quiet and very beautiful with fresh flowers and an elegant display of after dinner liquors. We ordered our Amarone first and the bottle was decanted immediately and very nice glasses were brought out. Many wines benefit from the oxygen in the decanting process but huge wines like this really change drastically as their tannins soften and the nose opens up. This wine was full of dark fruit and as well as some earthiness. Imagine a cherry with a small piece of dark chocolate. We learned at a tasting that Amarone is often served with the final savory course of a meal and then again with cheese and dessert. It has a deep sweetness that really makes the wine appropriate for any rich food be it sweet or savory.
We started with a dish of baked parmesan and truffle. Despite the fancy ingredients, this was actually the most rustic dish of the entire meal. The cheese and truffles were baked in a ramekin and looked almost like the delicious bits of cheese one sometimes finds in the pan after cooking a grilled cheese sandwich. The cheese was salty and the truffle earthy and wonderful. Rich indeed but a very small serving.
The pasta was an unusual dish of farfalle (bowties) with fresh blueberries. We were there in berry season and the fruit brought out the berry flavors in the wine. Then we had a seared duck breast with peaches. This was also very good. The breast was cooked to a bit under medium and the peaches sweet without every becoming cloying. A nicely balanced dish. We also shared a poached 'lakefish' served over black rice. The fish was mild and not particularly exciting and the rice had an almost black-bean-like flavor that I had never tasted in a starch before.
Next we had the best cheese plate I have ever seen. The plate included about a dozen cheeses with about half fresh and the others aged or very aged. The Northern Italian cheeses can be very intense and many had a strong raw milk flavor which I love but many do not. The cheeses were so varied that each seemed to be a new pairing with the Amarone. The wine cut through the creaminess of the fresher cheeses and went head to head with the sharp almost butterscotch flavors of the more aged ones.
We finished with a chocolate cake with sauteed cherries on top. Yes we were still sipping the wine. By the time we looked at our watches, we realized we had been eating for more than 3 hours. Not very many dishes but lots of time to enjoy the ambiance and the wine. That's a nice way to eat.
Our second to last meal in Italy was a casual lunch in Vago di Lavagno at a charming restaurant called Dai Tommasi. Pastas were simple and perfect. We shared the mozzarella di buffala, a fresh cheese made from buffalo milk that was served with basil and a little olive oil. We also shared a plate of bresaola, or sliced dried beef. The first pasta was a tortolini with butter and sage. Very simple and actually light tasting despite the butter based sauce. When this dish is done well, it is very good. I have only found one place in NYC that seems to come close to the real deal and that's at Al Di La in Park Slope Brooklyn but that's another post for another time. The second pasta was also both a classic and wonderfully prepared. Ravioli with tomato and basil. Fresh and very light, this is a great pasta to have at lunch. Summery with a great herb taste. I'm always amazed at how lightly the Italians sauce their pasta yet the flavors are almost always clearer and more balanced than their American counterparts. Maybe better ingredients.
One more meal in Italy and then onto France.