A pilgrimage to the most innovative restaurants in Italy's Lake District

Bonnie Tsui takes in the sights and samples the latest creations from two inventive chefs
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The terrace view at Piccolo Lago overlooking Lake Mergozzo in Verbania, Italy

1 / 18 The terrace view at Piccolo Lago overlooking Lake Mergozzo in Verbania, Italy

An apéritif on the terrace at Piccolo Lago

2 / 18 An apéritif on the terrace at Piccolo Lago

A bread and cheese course at Piccolo Lago

3 / 18 A bread and cheese course at Piccolo Lago

Inside Piccolo Lago

4 / 18 Inside Piccolo Lago

A view of the wine cellar, with the lake reflected, at Piccolo Lago

5 / 18 A view of the wine cellar, with the lake reflected, at Piccolo Lago

Inside the kitchen at Piccolo Lago

6 / 18 Inside the kitchen at Piccolo Lago

A chilled watermelon soup at Piccolo Lago

7 / 18 A chilled watermelon soup at Piccolo Lago

A "hamburger" of local smoked trout at Piccolo Lago

8 / 18 A "hamburger" of local smoked trout at Piccolo Lago

Assembling the tagliolini carbonara at the table at Piccolo Lago

9 / 18 Assembling the tagliolini carbonara at the table at Piccolo Lago

A piña colada dessert at Piccolo Lago, topped with crisped cookie

10 / 18 A piña colada dessert at Piccolo Lago, topped with crisped cookie

The bread course, plus spoonfuls of panna cotta, at Villa Crespi

11 / 18 The bread course, plus spoonfuls of panna cotta, at Villa Crespi

Sicilian prawns in a sea of egg yolk, at Villa Crespi

12 / 18 Sicilian prawns in a sea of egg yolk, at Villa Crespi

A Batavian endive "salad," at Villa Crespi

13 / 18 A Batavian endive "salad," at Villa Crespi

Gnocchetti with truffle at Villa Crespi

14 / 18 Gnocchetti with truffle at Villa Crespi

Ombrina served with a layered potato and candied cake at Villa Crespi

15 / 18 Ombrina served with a layered potato and candied cake at Villa Crespi

Cinzia Cannavacciuolo greets guests at Villa Crespi

16 / 18 Cinzia Cannavacciuolo greets guests at Villa Crespi

A cheese course at Villa Crespi

17 / 18 A cheese course at Villa Crespi

A dessert sampler at Villa Crespi

18 / 18 A dessert sampler at Villa Crespi


In northern Italy’s Lake District, there are a remarkable number of innovative young chefs at the helm of Michelin-starred restaurants and historic dining rooms. In the heat of Italian summer, I make a pilgrimage to two notable establishments: Villa Crespi, on tiny Lago d’Orta, where Antonino Cannavacciuolo, formerly of Capri’s Grand Hotel Quisisana, has created such sweet tongue-in-cheek nods to his native Naples as buffalo mozzarella ice cream with tomato sauce and basil granita; and Piccolo Lago, on the even tinier Lago di Mergozzo, where chef Marco Sacco is known for surprising twists on classic Piedmontese dishes, like beef filet with Sichuan peppercorns.

My first stop is lunch at Villa Crespi, an extravagant Moorish architectural fantasy with its own towering minaret, first built in 1879 by an eccentric trader named Cristoforo Benigno Crespi upon his return from travels in the Middle East. Antonino Cannavacciuolo and his wife Cinzia took over the running of the hotel and restaurant in 1999; Cannavacciuolo received his second Michelin star in 2007, and my husband Matt and I got a sense of the evolution of his modern Mediterranean dishes with a tasting menu that traces the Italian route from south to north - in it, Cannavacciuolo shows influences from Naples, and also from the Sorrento coast and his current home in Piedmont.   

From the start, everything including the bread course - tiny, rustic focaccia with sea salt and olive oil, small rolls dotted with seaweed, delicate spoonfuls of panna cotta - is presented in a refined yet natural way, with a conscientious appreciation of fresh product and without fussiness. Prawns from Sicily, swimming with black caviar in a glowing orange sea of savory egg yolk, are a standout. A chilled Batavian endive 'salad' is a similar visual delight: the vivid green is pureed over a layer of creamy buffalo stracciatella, with three raw scampi and a trucioli of crispy bread and anchovies, all of it garnished with edible flowers, salmon roe, and sprigs of mint and rosemary. In aesthetics and flavour, the dish is a joyous celebration of elements both land and sea.

One can only eat so much without losing the subtleties to gluttony, but highlights on the culinary tour include tiny homemade gnocchetti (with Venus clams and just a swipe of truffle, they are wonderfully chewy) and ombrina, a flaky white fish with a crisped skin that Cannavacciuolo serves with a layered potato and candied tomato cake. Paired with a pinot noir from the nearby Valle d’Aosta, the course is beautifully representative of northern Italy.

And despite its decorous air and impeccable service, Villa Crespi is a friendly, family-run place where Cinzia can be seen asking guests about their meal and Cannavacciuolo can be found at the bar taking a breather from the kitchen (I run into him here and am delighted to have a chance to offer my compliments, which he receives in a disarmingly shy manner).  

Thirty minutes away at the two-Michelin-starred Piccolo Lago, with a dining room cantilevered over the glassy, gorgeous waters of Lago di Mergozzo, Marco Sacco turns out startling creations that, while closely dedicated to local products, are all about fusing new flavours together. On a sweltering evening at sunset, Sacco opens our four-course tasting with a refreshing amuse-bouche of watermelon soup with steamed lobster, lime, and mint. 

Sacco’s glass-walled kitchen makes it possible for guests to observe the preparation of his witty, imaginative dishes: the first course is a 'hamburger' of local smoked lake trout over bread soaked in balsamic, served with thinly sliced pickles and dots of curry, paprika, and dill sauces. The dish was inspired by a 2001 visit Sacco made as an ambassador of Italian cuisine to northern California. The cured fish and peppery elements are wonderfully offset by the sweetness of a fresh, fruity riesling from the Alto Adige.

Sacco has a wonderful sense of humor, and it shows in his dishes. Our third course is a fresh tagliolini carbonara; instead of guanciale, Sacco uses a smoked prosciutto from a nearby farm. Here, he asks us to do a little work before consuming the dish: we crumble the prosciutto and accompanying milk biscuit over the noodles before pouring the carbonara sauce from a hollowed out eggshell (which comes in its own bird’s nest, naturally). The result? Food as entertainment, but without drama or pretense. The rich, eggy dish is well complemented by a medium-bodied Dolcetto d’Alba with a sweet nose. 

Inventive chefs often start from a traditional place with local products and techniques, and both chefs here are well grounded in these. In Italy, the grounding is often in the classic cookbook Cucchiaio d'Argento, a.k.a. The Silver Spoon. Do these Michelin chefs acknowledge the influence? Sacco, for one, gives a ringing endorsement: The Silver Spoon is, he says, "a very good guide" for those who want to learn the key foundations of cooking. Learn well, and eat well.

 

Bonnie Tsui lives in San Francisco. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times and the author of American Chinatown.


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