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Saturday, May 5, 2007

Ristorante L'Ortica

The day: 1st May 2007, Lunch.
The place: Piazza Silvia, 1 Manerba del Garda (Brescia), tel: +390365651865
The venue: Ristorante L’Ortica
Closest airports: Brescia (Ryanair), Verona (British Airways)
The food: Fine Italian dining
The drinks: Good list, strong on local offerings

It’s a small world: we came here, on the shores of Lake Garda, upon cheerful Rudra’s recommendation (remember our previous week experience at Quirinale in London?). Driving from Trento just 100Km southwards we moved from an Alpine climate to a Mediterranean one: this is an olive oil area, an interesting variety, delicate and intense at the same time. Let us see how emerging chef Piercarlo Zanotti uses it in his cuisine (we were sure he would).

The dining room is rustic in a sophisticated way, wide, light, spacious and airy, with good sized, well spaced tables, and nice details.

The a la carte list is short but enticing, with dishes such as Astice salad with crispy celery and melon at €20 and Fassona Beef tartare with local extra virgin olice oil at €13 among the starters, parsley chlorophyll risotto with Tremosine cheese (at €26 for two) and Asparagus and crepes millefeuille with Malga cheeses at €13 among the primi, and pan fried scallops with foie gras and baby spinach at €26 among the mains, as well as a humbler roast chicken with lemon and rosemary potatoes at €18.

There are also several set menus, which all look good value for money. Five course surprise meat menu (€50), five course surprise fish menu (€60), four course tradition (€45), raw fish menu (€65). The a la carte menu proposes also vegetarian and gluten free options, as well as a kid menus and a bargain three course lunch menu at €30.

We felt lazy on the warm summery day, so went for a four course surprise fish menu – yes, this is Italy, you can easily negotiate variations without an eyebrow moving…

We also made sure that there would be at least some raw fish, as we had heard that chef Zanotti is keen on it.

Indeed, the amuse bouche was a chunky little cube of salmon sashimi style lightly marinated:

Imagine the best salmon sashimi you’ve had at your favourite Japanese, with a melt in the mouth tenderness, yet nicely firm, doused in a discrete little pool of delicate olive oil, and just a touch of pepper. A delicious start. Unfortunately, no bread yet.

Ah, now the bread comes:

We presume it was homemade, a limited selection, but definitely nice, even Woman had nothing to complain about.

Although we had the bread, we were getting worried because the wine did not arrive. When the first item from the fish menu appeared, the worry turned into panic (especially as we had already gulped down the glass of Chardonnay Costaripa Brut , advertised on the menu as included in the €5 cover charge).

So the first surprise, three “Fin de Clair” oysters:

Not that we are oyster experts, but these were a bite of sea, very good. And the wine finally arrived…

Next up, another tray of raw fish: clearly the chef had got the message

It comprised a tuna tartare, an amberjack (ricciola in Italian) superfine carpaccio, Sicilian prawns and a langoustine from the Adriatic sea. As usual, Man was won over by the presentation

But not only that: on the palate these were all superb. Fantastic raw material, masterfully and discreetly prepared and seasoned, presenting four quite distinct and complementary tastes.

Mmh, did they get we were in a four course variation? Yes, all we had so far was just the first item, we learned afterwards.

The pasta, the next item, turned out to be equally generous:

A linguine type pasta with loads, and we mean loads, of “tartufi di mare” (literally, sea truffles, but the British name should be Venus clam: imagine a clam more resistant to the bite and with a slightly more “meaty” flavour), and courgettes. The sauce was terrific, once more driven by the ingredients, obtained by finishing the cooking of the pasta for two minutes in the pan, with a touch of fish broth. The starch from this semi-artisanal pasta works to reach a wonderful density. The pasta is produced by Setaro from Torre Annunziata, Naples, who claim they dry it for a minimum of 24 hours, up to 120, depending on format.

And now we come to the main course: Scampi catalana with extra virgin olive oil.

What to say: fantastic. Impressive colours on the dark plate, tender, flavoursome, enhanced by the delicate intensity of the oil, and the lightest of cooking. Again, a generous portion of five beautiful animals.

To finish, our fourth and last course, a strawberry and wild berry salad with honey 'cialda' (the wafer thin “thingy” you see in the picture) and vanilla ice cream. We asked for just one to share, but it came in two plates looking a normal portion each:

Very dense and intense strawberry flavour, not too sweet, for Man it was ideal, whereas Woman would have preferred something with a more marked consistency. The ice cream tasted like home made, and it was very good.

Finally, we went for coffee, and with it came the petit fours:

What a cheerful (and generous) display! In the middle some caramelised fruits (including an intriguing cherry tomato), and all around a selection of biscuits and pastries plus two pistachio pannacottas. Excellent, a dessert in its own right, now Woman rejoices!

With a bottle of local Lugana Superiore Selva Capuzza 2004 at €18 and a 0.75 litre bottle of water, the bill surprised us at a ‘mere’ €128: the coffee, water and cover charge disappeared, but you will need a pair of smiles as beautiful as ours to produce the same effect Each (three and a half course, remember) set menu was charged at €55: even at full price, with these raw materials it would have seemed entirely fair.

The service is attentive and still relaxed (led by the quietly competent Stefano Bignotti), and the atmosphere is very pleasant. As for food, we had one of the best fish seafood meals ever at L’Ortica (and we take vacations in Sicily and Sardinia regularly). Chef Zanotti has the self-confidence to take a step back and let the food speak for itself, just helping its expression with the most unobtrusive of treatments. He seems to have adopted a somewhat ‘Japanese’ style to Italian cooking, which focuses on the very essentials, and is still distinctly Italian. We foresee a bright future.

What about meat? Well, in some kind of Freudian slip, once back in Trento Man realised he had left his wallet at the Restaurant. We’ll need to go back soon to pick it up…


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