Our Culinary Guide to the Italian Lakes is all about helping you eat well on the delicious shores and lush surrounds of this enchanting part of Italy, whether you’re tucking into a hearty pasta at a simple trattoria or savouring a cavalcade of dishes on a degustation menu.
Our Culinary Guide to the Italian Lakes – Eating Well on The Lakes’ Delicious Shores
The food you eat will be a memorable part of your Italian Lakes travels. Trust us. It’s been a very memorable part of our travels around the lakes. There’s a reason that Italy was the second country we visited after we moved abroad from Australia to the UAE 18 years ago (Lebanon was the first country).
Okay, there are probably a dozen reasons we went to Italy but I have to confess that for me, the number one reason was the food. That’s why we accepted so many guidebooks on Italy. The chance to immerse ourselves in the culture and cuisine for a few months to write or update a book – who’d say no to that? After the Middle East, Italy was the country we most wrote on. Can we speak Italian? You bet: menu Italian.
By no means comprehensive, our Culinary Guide to the Italian Lakes is intended to be just that, a guide to the food of the region that we love, where we love to eat, and what we think you should try when you’re there.
Culinary Guide to the Italian Lakes
Dining and imbibing around the lakes areas is an absolute delight, with interesting local dishes dotted throughout the region, and wonderfully distinctive wines.
Just like the rest of Italy, you don’t have to haunt haute cuisine restaurants to have a great meal on the Italian Lakes – often the simplest dish at the most basic enoteca (wine bar) can provide a memorable experience. As can a picnic by the water. Although the Michelin-starred joints are pretty special…
Where to Eat on the Italian Lakes
In Italy, an enoteca can serve up just as satisfying a meal as a white-tablecloth restaurant. But let’s be clear about what’s what first. An enoteca is a wine bar that might only offer a few dishes or simply serve platters or plates of local cheeses and cold cuts – which is fantastic for dinner if you’re still struggling after a big, long lunch.
The one with the linen tablecloths, formal waiters, no prices on the menus for the ‘ladies’ and hefty prices on the menu for the blokes, is a ristorante. A trattoria is more casual than a ristorante and usually has a seasonal menu with local specialities and might often pan-Italian favourites. Both are usually open for lunch and dinner.
An osteria is a small eatery with a short, focussed menu and wine list, generally featuring local specialities and is usually only open for dinner. A café serves coffee, drinks and sandwiches, as does the more pared-back, unpretentious bar, which generally relies on local clientele rather than tourists. A pizzeria, of course, sells pizza, but a guide to a good one will be the words ‘forno a legna’ (wood-fired oven) on its sign.
The Italian Lakes Michelin Starred Restaurants
The Italian Lakes are also home to some highly creative chefs in restaurants that are destinations in themselves.
Make a beeline for enchanting Lake Orta and the Moorish-themed Villa Crespi. If you rub your eyes in disbelief when you first see the exotic-looking building, the cuisine of chef Antonino Cannavacciuolo, above, will have you repeating the gesture when each course of his perfectly crafted dishes arrives at your table. The interior of this sumptuous restaurant (our favourite on the Italian Lakes) may be understated, but the daring culinary fireworks of this two-star Michelin chef are not.
At Hotel Villa Serbelloni at Bellagio, Michelin-starred chef Ettore Bocchia watches over both hotel restaurants, but the one you want to book a table at is Mistral, where Bocchia has been allowed to spread his gastronomic wings. Mistral is his laboratory of molecular gastronomy and even though Bocchia isn’t afraid of flashy presentation, the flavour is firmly on the plate – right up until his innovative ice-cream.
On Lake Garda, La Rucola at Sirmione serves up refined seafood dishes and whimsical desserts that are beautifully created and presented by the Bignotti family who also have a great wine cellar as well as a Michelin star to their name.
On the western shore of the lake, elegant neoclassical Villa Fiordaliso is a wonderful setting for a romantic dinner overlooking the water, but your attention will be drawn to the beautiful plates, which had earned the restaurant a very worthy Michelin star when we ate here last. The chef Riccardo Camanini, whose seafood dishes were impeccable, was at the helm, but he’s now at Restaurant Lido 84, which has a star. We’re told the food at Fiordaliso is still superb.
Apart from La Rucola, all the restaurants have accommodation – perfect if you need to stagger upstairs after a full degustation menu with accompanying wines.
When to Eat on the Italian Lakes
In the Italian Lakes area, as in the rest of Italy, breakfast (la colazione) for locals, generally involves little more than a pastry, such as a cornetto (like a croissant), and a short strong coffee (espresso or macchiato), quickly consumed while standing at a coffee bar, anytime between 7am and 10.30am.
For many, the most important meal of the day is lunch (il pranzo), which might run from noon until 2pm or 3pm and might also be the biggest meal of the day. We’ve never understood how Italians can go back to an office after lunch and often wondered if they do. If they miss breakfast or lunch, Italians might head to a café or bar for a toasted sandwich (panini) – sometimes washed down with a spritz.
In the evening, dinner (la cena) might be anytime between 7.30 until 10.30pm and is often kicked off even earlier with drinks (aperitivo), which will usually involve some nibbling and snacking to tide people over until dinner.
What to Eat on the Italian Lakes
The Italian Lakes sprawl mostly throughout the region of Lombardy, but also creep into Piemonte and Veneto. The region is marked by mountains, valleys and plains and the dishes tend to be heavier, with more use of butter over olive oil.
Many of the most memorable dishes come from Milan and surrounds. One of the dishes that defines the region is the Milanese dish Ossobucco (slow braised veal shanks) served with Risotto alla Milanese (slow cooked rice with saffron threads). Another, breaded veal cutlets (Cotoletta alla Milanese), which many believe was influenced by the Austrians’Wiener schnitzel was in fact created much earlier.
Vegetarians are in luck in this part of Italy, with plenty of wonderful vegetable-focused pasta dishes and pizzas on menus that don’t contain meat, as well as brilliant grilled vegetables. Salads, polenta, beans and risottos are excellent without carne (meat) as well.
Where to Shop for Food on the Italian Lakes
Shopping the Markets
Stalls laden with freshly picked fruit and vegetables, specialist vans selling cheeses and meats, cases of table wines sold off the back of a truck… market shopping on the Italian Lakes is our idea of heaven.
With fruit and vegetables, if it’s in season it’s in stock, if it’s not then you’re out of luck. Salamis, most cheeses, and breads, of course, are never out of season. The same goes for wonderful wines and preserves – all perfect for a picnic.
Specialty Shops for Picnic Supplies and Snacks
There are so many wonderful picnic spots on all of the lakes that you can’t spend time on the lake without having a picnic. Many of the villas and gardens allow picnics, although some don’t, so best to check their websites before packing a basket.
On Lake Maggiore, Stresa has mouth-watering shops where you can fill a hamper with cheeses, cold cuts and grilled vegetables. Buy a hot chicken from Gastronomia da Piero di Belli Lorenzo on Via Anna Maria Bolongaro and visit Salumeria Musso di Bianchetti Augusto at Via Mazzini 1 for the best selection of regional salamis.
Stresa also boasts brilliant bakeries. The local specialty is Margheritine Panettoni – wonderful for afternoon tea. Try Pasticceria Marcolini on Via de Vit 14 or Pasticceria Gigi on Corso Italia 30, in the business for 40 years.
Where to Participate in Italian Eating and Drinking Rituals
On Lake Maggiore, Cannobio must have more al fresco cafés with tables overlooking the lake than any other lakeside town, and many excellent gelato bars, conveniently located near the waterfront. For the best handmade gelato try Gelateria Bar La Piazza on Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II or Gelatiere Di Zaccheo Dario on Via Magistris.
No matter which lake you’re on, the thing to do in the late afternoon after going for gelato is to meet friends for aperitivo – a drink at a lakeside café-bar. On the Lakes, complimentary nibbles and snacks are often provided, as they are in Milan.
Where to Taste Local Wines on the Italian Lakes
In Italy, it’s impossible to enjoy a meal without wine, so what should you drink on the Italian Lakes?
The western shore of Lake Maggiore marks the border of the Piedmont region, which produces Italy’s superstar wine Barolo, a big red made from Nebbiolo grapes. It’s one that’s best left to age as it can drink well for up to twenty years and beyond. Barbaresco, the less famous sibling of Barolo, drinks well at an earlier age and is less expensive than Barolo.
While much of the wine production in Lombardy is dedicated to table wines (vina da tavola), there are some really special grapes grown here too. On the shores of Lake Iseo, you can sample the sparking wines of Franciacorta, arguably the best bubblies in Italy, while Nebbiolo grapes are grown on the steep slopes of the Valtellina region not far from Lake Como.
Home to Lake Garda, the Veneto region produces the most wine in Italy and is notable for Soave, a popular dry white. Two light reds, Bardolino and Valpolicella, are grown on Lake Garda’s eastern shores. An interesting wine from here is Amarone della Valpolicella, made with air-dried grapes.
Italian Lakes Food and Wine Tours
A Glass of History
The Sirmione ProLoco tourist office has a number of engaging guided tours in Sirmione and around Lake Garda, including A Glass of History Wine Tour which visits the best wineries in the area.
Taste of the Mountains
The Il Gusto è a Monte or ‘Taste of the Mountains’ programme organised by Verbano Ossola Province tourist office, offers 25 food and wine-themed excursions, providing a chance to taste local flavours and learn about the produce. Specialties from the area include cured meats such as violino di capra (cured goat leg ham), local Alpine goats cheeses like Bettelmatt, wild game, including roe deer and boar, Ossolano wine from Nebbiolo grapes, chestnuts, and apples. If you speak Italian and prefer self-guided tours, they produce a brochure with contact details for food producers in the area.
Tipping and Cover Charges
We don’t normally cover tipping on Grantourismo, because we believe it should be discretionary and dependent on great service, however, we want to clarify a couple of things that non-Italian speaking travellers often get confused about.
A cover charge (coperto) may be included on your bill (il conto), however, this is not a tip calculated into the bill. It’s meant to cover the water and bread included with the meal.
If you see servizio on the bill, then that’s for service and a tip isn’t necessary, unless you’re feeling generous. If you wish to leave a tip for good service, it’s appreciated. Italians will generally round up the bill and leave change at cafes, osterias, enotecas, etc, however, for fancier restaurants 10% of the bill is welcome.