Bardolino suggestions, please
We're staying in Bardolino for 10 nights in September. We've had a similar holiday there a year or so back and know that most restaurants are nothing particularly special (although we didnt have a bad meal there).
But are we missing a hidden gem in the town, or in nearby Garda? As the previous holiday, we won't have a car so it needs to be easily walkable, or short taxi ride.
I'm sure we'll catch the ferry over to Sirmione for lunch once or twice during the stay (Rucola & Speranzina)
Dinner was a disappointing start to our holidays. Staying at the Parc Germano and arriving in the evening, it was the obvious choice of places to eat on our first night, not least because they bill themselves as one of the best restaurants in the area.
They weren’t busy, nor did they appear short of staff. It’s difficult to know, therefore, why we waited for the best part of half an hour before even drinks orders were taken. And once a food order was finally taken, there was another long delay before the starters arrived. The wrong starters! So they had to go back and another age passed by. By this time, we had drunk our drinks and ordered some more. They came quite quickly. And then they came again, several minutes later. It really is a long time since we’ve seen such disorganised service in a restaurant.
The food, when it eventually came, was pretty good. We’d both gone with the same starter – a light pancake enclosing a vegetable mix and served with a tasty tomato sauce. Perhaps a little under-seasoned, but not bad at all.
For main courses, suckling pig came in the form of two chops. They were accompanied by a light meaty sauce and a little stack of boulangere potatoes, wrapped in bacon. The potatoes were excellent. The other plate was from the day’s “specials” – fillets of sea bass with a cherry tomato and olive sauce. Fish was well cooked; sauce was fresh and light. All in all, two good plates of food. We both took an extra side order of griddled vegetables – aubergine, courgette and chicory, which worked well with both dishes – the chicory in particular adding a nice bit of bitterness.
We passed on dessert – frankly too much time had passed by – but did have good espresso to finish.
In the usual course of events, we wouldn’t have been going back to the restaurant after the poor service. But, one night, the rain was so bad it was the only practical choice. And, yep, another long delay before starters arrived. And, yep, wrong starters again. And it wasn’t just us. You could see wrong dishes going to other tables as well. And, at one point in the evening, I could see ten occupied tables – and not a single one had food on them.
These really are issues the hotel’s senior management needs to get to grips with.
Well, with no help from this board, Plan B was needed.
That involved some research on Trip Advisor where there were reviews of most of the town's restaurants (mainly by German, British and Italian diners). That gave me some starting points. It was then a matter of spending a little time wandering round the streets looking at menus - discounting some as being bog standard touristy places (of which there are, unsurprisingly, many), including some as looking very promising, including others that seemed to have some interesting dishes worth trying. It worked - we didnt have a bad meal in the 10 dinners we ate there (although there were service issues on a couple of evenings)
IL GIARDINO DELLE ESPERIDI
The only restaurant in Bardolino listed by the Michelin Guide. And, to my mind, rightly included. The cooking here is just a cut above everywhere else where we ate. There are few concessions to the many tourists from northern Europe, beyond translating the short menu into German and English. And, in that short menu, you’ll see nothing of the bog standard tourist dishes that you can find, repetitively, in almost every other restaurant in town. There are several options for an antipasti of cheese, ham or salami, but we passed on these, going straight for the primi piatti. Perhaps just as well, as there was a freebie of salami and a slice of fig. A lovely little introduction to what was going to be a lovely meal. The bread basket on the table was also particularly good – normal grissini, a black version and a couple of breads.
Small gnocchi came with vegetables – chard and courgette – and were dressed with a butter and sage sauce. A real homey sort of dish that I might have a try at cooking. The other starter was a bit more cheffy. Four large ravioli stuffed with ricotta and herbs and dressed simply with a splash of olive oil, a scattering of pine nuts and a little salad. Both of these were generous portions.
For mains, I had fish from the lake. An unknown white-ish fish, delicately flavoured. It came on skewers, lightly breaded and perfectly grilled. A small salad garnish was all that was needed to accompany it. The other dish – cubes of grilled pork, perhaps a little pink for some people’s tastes but absolutely fine to eat. They sat on a potato cake, which was surrounded by a light jus, enhanced with capers.
Desserts were absolutely bang-on. A crisp pastry case, enclosing cooked rice and topped with peaches. Interesting textures and really tasty. A small ball of ice cream was a good flavour contrast. On the other plate, a light sponge topped with soft pears. Here, ice cream was flavoured with Gorgonzola. This was a superb dessert and a perfect take on the Gorgonzola/pear combo which pretty much always works.
And, with that, we left to brave the torrential rain which we thought we’d left behind in the UK.
I understand the restaurant has been around for many years under the ownership of the same family. Certainly the inside probably looked the same 100 or so years ago. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the menu is pretty much unchanged in that time. It’s a fairly short one of generally traditional sounding dishes – which, we hoped, meant the kitchen could concentrate on doing the small number of things well. We weren’t disappointed.
My partner’s starter was a dish of macaroni dressed with cherry tomatoes, capers, mozzarella, olives, a little dried chilli and a little rocket. Nice and light with the pasta bang-on for al dente. My own starter, a Caprese salad, was a bit underwhelming. There was good mozzarella, a scattering of basil and rocket. But it was let down by the tomatoes – these need to be perfectly ripe and juicy but, as almost everywhere else on this trip, they were under ripe, tasteless, crunchy things.
A light main course was the ideal choice for my partner. A bed of rocket, thin strips of beef fillet and some shavings of Parmesan. Absolutely delicious, although it’s worth noting that this is one of those places where you’re not asked how you want your steak. In most Italian places, this dish comes with the meat medium rare to medium, but here it was very rare which may not suit some customers.
My own choice was the reason we’d decided to eat here. “Spag Donk”, if you will – actually tagliatelle with a donkey sauce. Perfectly cooked pasta with the meat served almost dry, with next to no sauce. I’ve never eaten donkey before and, in truth, couldn’t detect much difference in flavour from a beef ragu, but it somehow wasn’t quite the same – perhaps a little fattier. I was going to tell you that the ass had been a pet called Hotey – but then you’ve all heard of Donkey Hotey, havn’t you?
The restaurant has a number of dishes featuring donkey or horse (as does the next door restaurant – the Biri). Seems it’s the part of town you need to visit for something a bit out of the ordinary. Unless of course, you’re from part of the world where donkey and horse are also regularly eaten.
This really is one of those restaurants you hope to come across when you’re in an unfamiliar area. Great service. And great food – the menu playing heavily to fish from the lake and other local ingredients. The sort of place where you want to give it the full works. So we did – antipasto, primi, secondi and dolci.
There were substantial antipasti. On one plate, pike. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that on a menu before, let alone eaten it. I know some folk say the fish can have a muddy flavour and there is a sort of mild earthiness to it, but only in the background flavours. I wouldn’t necessarily be in a rush to order it again. The other starter was the northern Italian classic of sarde e saour – sweet and sour sardines. We were unsure what lake fish had been used to replace the usual saltwater ones but they were very similar in look and taste. Meltingly soft onions and wine vinegar provided the sour and a scattering of raisins provided the sweet. Both dishes were substantial offerings as a couple of slices of grilled polenta were included.
For the pasta course, macceroncini came with tiny prawns (not from the lake), a little rocket and lots of tomato. The pasta is made on the premises and made very well. These were big fat things – larger than the macaroni I’m used to seeing – perfectly cooked to al dente. Another bit of perfect pasta cookery was with the agnoletti – here stuffed with a beetroot mousse and covered with Mount Veronese cheese and a reduced balsamic vinegar sauce. The sauce was intended to be sweet and, in truth, only just managed to be on the right side of “too sweet” – the owner told us that some customers do in fact find it overly sweet.
For mains, fegato alla Veneziana was a classic version of the regional dish. Thin slices of calves liver, flash fried so that it was still pink. A delicious sauce based on thinly sliced onions, cooked long and slow. A handful of boiled potatoes added yet another carb to my dinner. A fried lavarello (no, me neither – the best translation I can find is “common whitefish”) was the other dish, garnished with pink peppercorns which gave it a nice little kick. Simple, no nonsense cooking here. It needed nothing more – although we had taken an order of vegetables.
Now, pretty much stuffed to bursting, we managed to share a dessert – by which I mean I ordered one and my companion in life grabbed a couple of spoonfuls. The panna cotta was spot-on, with just the right hint of wobble and served with a lovely rich caramel sauce.
It doesn’t look much of a place, even when you look inside but it’s a place I can unreservedly recommend to anyone who loves good food.
PIZZERIA BARDOLINO, VIA FOSSE (name may be wrong - but it's hard to miss)
When we were last in Bardolino, perhaps five or six years ago, we had lunch here one day. We had pizza, of course. And I rated it the best pizza I’d ever eaten – the one against which all others were to be judged. Now I’ve no idea if the cooking here has slipped or, perhaps, my recollection of that lunch is flawed. Either way, I wouldn’t regard the 2012 pizza as “best ever”, although it’s still definitely “really good”. A thin crisp base, with just a little charring on the crust. A rich tomato sauce. And the toppings were “just right” – not overloaded but enough to make each mouthful enjoyable to eat. Alongside, there’s good bread. And there’s a “free” aperitif and digestif as well.
Towards the back of town, on the Via Fosse, it’s one to seek out.
Frying fish is pretty much all they do here. And they proudly proclaim they’ve been doing it for over 50 years.
There’s a short menu of main courses – fired lake fish and fried seafood. And there’s a short menu of starters – nothing complex or anything that’s going to get in the way of the simplicity of the main courses. So, a couple of assembly jobs for starters. Prawn cocktail was pretty much as you’d expect of the 1970s classic – defrosted prawns, lettuce, a tangy Marie Rose sauce. Melon and prosciutto crudo was even more straightforward. Salty ham, sweet ripe melon. Simples.
If my companion in life had been whisked back to the 70s by the prawn cocktail, I joined her with my main course of scampi. And chips, of course. But not in a basket. Delicious seafood, in a light crisp batter. On the other plate, two small sole had been dipped in flour and fried until slightly crisp but with the fish still flaking nicely. Neither dish needed more than a squeeze of lemon, although we did share a bowl of salad.
Simple Italian fish cookery at its finest.
A really nice little place, tucked away up one of the quieter streets. There’s a limited menu – always a good thing, IMO – it means the kitchen can concentrate on doing it all well. And they do seem to do it all well.
We both started with pasta. Macaroni on both plates. One with just a simple but delicious tomato sauce. The other with chunks of a sweetish squash or pumpkin and chunks of a rich earthy porcini and dressed with a garlic/herb butter sauce. Now those are exactly the sort of dishes we might make at home – but we’d never cook them as well as this.
For a main course, fillet steak was cooked perfectly to medium rare (another place where you’re not asked how you’d like it). There was an Amarone based sauce that was, erm, “industrial strength” and overly salty. A pity as it’s such a good Valpolicella.
Pork fillet came with a much better sauce. Again, wine based – tasted like one of the fortified wines, like Marsala – but the addition of chopped walnuts added an interesting texture and an element of slight sweetness. It really was very, very good. We shared a portion of vegetables – all perfectly cooked – aubergine, peppers, carrots, courgettes, cabbage and chicory.
We passed on dessert (intending to get an ice cream after a bit of a walk round town), but had some good espresso to finish.
A decent enough one-course lunch in the “tourist central” lakeside area of town. Luganeghe con polenta – Italian sausage and mash, if you will. Well flavoured “wet” polenta and some chunks of a flavoursome sausage. Cannelloni stuffed with ricotta and spinach was a generous portion across the table – a little bowl of tomato sauce was served separately so you could decide just how liquid a lunch you wanted.
A side salad complemented the plates well – mainly oak leaf lettuce and tomatoes which, somewhat gob-smackingly, managed to be ripe and fairly tasty – unlike the nasty, crunchy things most places are serving up.
Simple but delicious was the name of the game here. Tucked in amongst the list of tourist staples are some interesting dishes (often involving horse or donkey) and it seemed as though it was going to be a place where the kitchen knew what it was about. And it did.
Bruschetta was light and fresh. A toasted slice topped with chopped cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, garlic and basil. Tasted fine, although the quantity of the topping was a bit miserly.
Fried porcini were the centrepiece of the other plate, topped with shavings of Parmesan. Alongside, a good dollop of a stiffish polenta. As always here, the polenta was served plainer than I would cook it at home ( where lashing of butter and cheese would go in). An easy dish. And absolutely superb – the earthiness of the mushrooms and the saltiness of cheese balancing with the bland polenta (so what do I know about cooking it, eh?).
For mains, sea bass split open; the central skeletal bone removed and the fish quickly grilled. On the other plate, two thin slices of veal escalope, dressed with a little Marsala sauce. Served as contorni, a plate of grilled vegetables and another of peperonata (the latter perhaps being the most delicious thing we ate – with the rich sweetness of tomato fully complementing the peppers.
I don't know about it being a "thing", but there was certainly a handful of places offering donkey & horse. They were the places that seemed to want to convey a more traditional feel.
The place where I had it had something on its menu about TripAdvisor. I don't have the language to fully understand it but I think a rough translation was that they didnt care at all about what North European tourists said about the place, they were going to do things their way. The funny thing is that the TA posts are generally good.
CORTE SAN GIOVANNI
It’s probable that the restaurant is the largest in Bardolino. And, on the evening we ate there, virtually every seat had a bum on it. Needless to say, like ours, most bums were those of North Europeans, not Italian.
The menu hardly strays from the standard tourist offerings that repetitively fill the menus of many of Bardolino’s restaurants. So, we had no high hopes of particularly good food. And, it will be fair to say, we didn’t get particularly good food, but it was OK.
Melon with prosciutto was certainly only OK – the melon ripe and sweet, but the ham was insipid in flavour. My partner had the much better choice with a vegetable soup. A good broth with potatoes, carrots, green and borlotti beans.
The reason we’d come to eat here was in the main course. Fiorentina was a thick (75mm) T-bone steak, served for two. In its home city of Florence, it’s delivered to the table very rare and so it was here. The waiter hacks bits off, leaving them to finish on the hot griddle plate. This does mean that you can let it finish to exactly how you like it – although you have to like it no more than medium rare, as the hot plate quickly cools (or cut it into thinner slices, of course). Medium rare was absolutely fine with us – this was good beef and, to our taste, you’d ruin it by overcooking.
We took a portion of chips which were overly salty. We’d also ordered a green salad which, when it came, was no more than sliced iceberg lettuce. And, at €4 a pop, they really see you coming with this one.
Desserts were nothing to write home about – a panna cotta and a tiramisu. They tasted of nothing more than “sweet” and lacked the flavours that you’d expect in a better made product.
On a busy Saturday night, it seemed to be the only place which had free tables. Perhaps locals know its service is chaotic and give it a wide berth. It’s chaotic in that there’s an age before anyone takes an order. And another age before food arrives. And there’s a constant procession of waiters carrying food round the restaurant , with no idea which table it’s for – and then eventually they just give up and wander back to the kitchen with it. It’s a wonder anyone gets fed!. And then, when you come to want to pay, you’re told there’s a 20 minute wait for the bill. WTF?
It’s such a shame because the pizza are damn good. A lovely thin crisp base , a good crust, nicely charred and a deep and rich tomato sauce and a generous hand with the toppings. It is almost worth the delays. Almost.
what a great report! you really ferreted out some good stuff for future chowhound visitors. I havent tried donkey yet (a lot of donkey and pony eaten in lombardia and veneto) though I liked the horse ragu I had in verona a few years ago very much, so your report encourages me when I get a chance again.
Also glad to see you got some good specimens of the garda lake fish - which we enjoyed on the west side of the lake in our visits.
There is a major tourist impact in these lake towns, so close to the brennera and Gardaworld and its wonderful that you sifted out some worthy choices from what can be undiscerning reviews. . (I need to check the slowfood guide - I believe one of the Bardolino places is in it ). So glad Italy came through for you.