We were staying at the remarkable Villa Fiordaliso in northern Italy. Though the hotel has its own magnificent kitchen, I had booked a table for lunch at Dal Pescatore (these pages, 5 July) before embarking on our four-day trip. As we set off for the restaurant, the villa's proprietors, the Tosettis, seemed thrilled to hear where we were going. They insisted on telling us the very route they take when they treat themselves to Sunday lunch at Pescatore.
The Tosetti family consists of mother Rosa, father Giuseppe and son Max, who have owned Villa Fiordaliso since 1990. The hotel sits on the shores of Lake Garda and has its own jetty. As settings go, it is one of the most idyllic I have ever seen.
The building is a miniature palazzo with a dusty pink facade and traditional arched marble fenestration. It was finally completed, after 24 painstaking years, in 1903. It was mainly owned by rich countesses and, at one point, was leased to Mussolini's mistress[, Claretta Petacci. She lived there for the last two years of the war, and today the hotel's sumptuous main suite bears her Christian name.
In Claretta's day, Villa Fiordaliso may have been as comfortable as it is now, but I doubt that its food was quite as wonderful. Though who knows? Her lover might have been able to swing the delivery of the odd white truffle and to track down a small amount of caviar. But I bet there wasn't a cook as fine as Signora Tosetti in the house, to stir an exquisite risotto of peas and tiny eels fished from the lake.
The Tosettis now employ a talented chef, although Mama still keeps a kind - but, I imagine, beady - eye on la cucina. And what a kitchen! The range and quality of the cooking suggests that Villa Fiordaliso is more of a restaurant with rooms. But to see it that way is to deny the particular charm and serenity of the house itself, with its richly marbled stairways and hall, its stylish and comfortable bedrooms and its fine taste throughout.
Good table settings are something I consider very important - they often say more about a place than the chicest decor. At Villa Fiordaliso, for instance, the water beakers, made in Venice, are as thin as spectacle lenses, wide-based and light as can be. The fine-linen napkins are equally generous in size.
On our first evening, the hotel's handsome director, Max Tosetti, eagerly talked us through the menu. A passionate enthusiast about wine and food, he seems to have all the time in the world - for everyone. He is particularly proud of local produce, most of which comes out of the lake: eels, sardines, frogs, chub, pike and perch. And he has every reason to be proud.
The chub fillets were lightly cooked to a melting softness, their whiskery bones melted into submission. The fish is dressed with vinegar from Groppello grapes and fruity olive oil - fine quality and, unusually, produced locally. Slices of warm potato make a brilliant combination (the chub is also served with a gorgeously smooth celery puree). The famed culatello (fine prosciutto made from one particular rumpy muscle in the leg) arrives sliced wafer- thin and accompanied by superb home-made apple mostarda.
Frog's legs are a favourite of mine and the ones served here were really, really good - better than the ones at Pescatore, if I am to be a connoisseur of such things. Crusted and piled with crisp, deep-fried herbs, they exuded juiciness and a freshness of flavour that confirmed their hop-and-a-leap proximity from lake to table. And the risotto of eels and peas was quite possibly the finest dish of rice I have yet enjoyed.
Diverting from the lake for a moment, it was imperative for me to have a dish of tripe. I will eat tripe anywhere - some of the very best I have tasted was from the tripe stall in a corner of the piazza in Florence. The tripe which the Tosettis cook with mashed borlotti beans is from a calf, so is particularly tender and almost creamy in texture. Heaven.
Roasted kid came with its skin crisp, its meat succulent. It was served with a polenta of such flavour and silky texture that it would win round anyone inclined to scoff at such humble food.
In good Italian cooking, in fact, no ingredient is considered less important than any other. Vegetables, for instance, are properly revered. The villa's local asparagus, cooked with a poached egg and showered with shavings of truffle, was so good that one of us felt the need to eat it two nights running.
During our two-day stay we ate so many savoury courses that we only had room for one dessert - a lemon cake with raspberry sauce. Pigged-out though I was, I wanted to try it. A mistake, perhaps. It wasn't my kind of thing and it wasn't very good.
There will always be something to whinge about, particularly when everything else has been so good. Nowhere is absolutely perfect, after all. But Villa Fiordaliso comes closer than many to achieving perfection - and feels no need to adorn its risotto with gold leaf.
Villa Fiordaliso, Via Zanardelli 132, 25083 Gardone Riviera, Italy (tel from UK 0039 365 20158/fax 0039 365 290011). Rooms from lire 300,000. Dinner from lire 75,000. Restaurant closed Monday and Tuesday lunch. Annual closure 1 January-7 March. (Information gleaned from Relais & Chateaux Guide, 1997)
The recipe for raspberry or strawberry pots de creme in the issue of 19 June should have read "scald the cream and stir in the sugar", not "scald the milk". Many apologies for the confusion.Reuse content