Let’s put it this way: You just finished a visit to the legendary Grottoes of Catullus on the very tip of the Sirmione peninsula. With your own eyes, in the shade of the white marble columns and ancient colonnades, you saw the rooms where the ancients held their banquets, fresh out of their baths. In these very places, amidst music and the fragrance of pungent oils, the diners would enjoy the wonders of comfort in company with their guests.
Best of all is the fact that Sirmione, with its wide choice of taverns and small restaurants, can still offer you an unforgettable evening among the gentle aromas of lake fish and the tickling bubbles of rare sparkling wines. Not only do you have everything the ancient Romans did, but nobody will ask you to wear a toga and lie on a triclinium.
Of all the fish you might enjoy from the lakes that dot Italy, there is one that only swims the waters of Garda: the carpione, a kind of salmon with tender, rosy flesh. According to legend, this specimen originates with the god Saturn, who transformed a greedy and dishonest fisherman named Carpio into a fish and condemned him to scour the muddy bottom of the lake in eternal search for the gold coins he himself threw away in a fit of anger.
So why not stop in at the La Rucola restaurant, in the quiet street called Strentelle, beside the imposing Scaliger walls and enjoy Mediterranean cuisine in an extraordinary setting?
If you care to add a glass of wine to your meal, you will have an abundance of choices. Franciacorta, for example, is a sparkling wine famous around the world, made from grapes grown in vineyards between Brescia and Iseo Lake, using a special fermentation that produces bubbles in the most natural way. Enough said – at the first sip you will realize the goodness of this wine, as soon as the fine foam touches your palate and quenches your thirst.
There is more than fish on the tables of Sirmione, too. Among the local specialties you can try in the numerous taverns in the historic centre, there are some delectable first courses and an endless series of exquisite sweets that will be hard to resist. Don’t miss La Speranzina Restaurant on Via Dante, an historical tavern with an ivory-coloured interior and a breath-taking view of the west side of Scaliger Castle.
And now, notebook in hand, you start to take notes. Because if there is something you must avoid, it is leaving Sirmione without having savoured the grains of vialone rice, grown in the spring waters that flow over the Veronese plains. When cooked, the starch in these dwarf grains, smaller than common rice, forms an especially creamy risotto with unexpected flavours, even better if enjoyed with fresh scampi and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil extracted from the juicy olives in nearby oil mills.
Not to mention ravioli, made with traditional egg dough, filled with meat and served in a hot broth, which will provide welcome warmth in the coldest weather, or perhaps prepared with butter and sage under the reddening sky of the first summer evenings. From a gastronomical point of view, Sirmione presents an irresistible mix of novelty and tradition, while the fishing boats sail off to drop their nets for the old practice of lake fishing carried on by a few families who directly supply the restaurants when their boats dock.
Depending on where you are staying, you might look out the window in the morning a little before dawn to see the small vessels set sail, looking for gold coins as in the legend of the carpione. With the certainty that upon their return you will enjoy the lake’s best fish, seated at a restaurant table, your gaze follows the ripples on the mirror of the water, and a wish to stay grows in your heart and makes you reluctant to leave the tiny jewel that is Sirmione.