“But you still have room for dessert, right?” asks Raffaella.
“Only if it’s very small,” I plead. “Just a little taste would be perfect.”
It’s not like me to be asking for a small portion of dessert, my favourite course of a meal and one that I only indulge when I eat out. But having waved the white napkin of defeat over our tasting menu, even my special compartment reserved for puddings has been usurped.
The waitress places a bowl in front of Jack which looks like a white chocolate egg that has been cracked to reveal an ice cream, cream and fruit centre. In front of me she places the same white bowl, empty except for an X spread in caramel in the centre. I start laughing, loving the fact that Raffaella has taken me literally at my word. That will teach me to plead for small portions.
Just as I turn to congratulate the waitress on the joke, a white chocolate egg whizzes past my eyes and splats onto the X that marks the spot in the centre of the plate.
“Banana Splash!” says the tall, young chef, grinning behind me.
When the hilarity finally dies down and I sink my teeth into the Banana Splash, it’s a creamy, dreamy dish of banana and caramel ice cream with raspberries; banoffee’s rich and handsome cousin in a white tuxedo.
The Banana Splash finale is indicative of the entire dining experience at Piccolo Lago, the two Michelin Star restaurant that nestles on the shore of little Lake Mergozzo in Verbania, a short drive from Lake Maggiore in the Italian Lakes. Unlike many Michelin Star restaurants I’ve dined in, there’s nothing stuffy or affected about the atmosphere. Here, dining is the pleasurable experience it’s meant to be.
Protected from the winds of Lake Maggiore by the mountains that separate them, the surface of Lake Mergozzo, viewed through the glass fronted dining room, is mirror-still. It’s a serenity that extends to the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant; to the diners who chat at tables where space, privacy and the view are more important than maximising numbers; to the demeanour of the staff who deal with diners as if they were guests in their home, and it even extends to the open plan kitchen where the harmony is positively unnerving.
The antipathy of Kitchen Nightmares, chef Marco Sacco and his team go about their work with quiet calm, happy to have us wander in and out at leisure to observe preparations and to photograph the maestro at work. This ethos of sharing is one that sits easily with top Italian chefs who regularly meet to share best practice and to find new innovation.
“It’s like a family,” Raffaella, Executive Assistant and Marco’s wife, tells us. “We travel to food summits all over the world to find new ingredients, recipes and inspiration. It might be a look, a smell, a colour – everything inspires.”
The thing that most clearly inspires Marco’s work at Piccolo Lago is his passion for showcasing local ingredients. Fresh fish from the lake; fassone beef from Piedmontese cattle; Carnaroli rice, and Bettelmatt cheese are all regular guests on his menu. The plating creations are inspirational too. Not every dish is dropped from the sky, most arrive like works of fine art with a whimsical touch, like the linguini carbonara where the accompanying sauce is served in an egg shell, and the petit fours on their wooden board complete with egg whisk.
Lulled by a gentle soundtrack of Jazz and the quiet hum of conversation, dishes arrive at a leisurely pace, always accompanied by the aroma of freshly baked bread emanating from the hot stone on our table on which the mouth watering selection of breads sits.
Highlights of a star studded menu are Marco’s signature dish of Bettamell cheese flan with candied pears and spiced mountain blueberry which is intensely flavoursome and aromatic, the richness of the mountain cheese tempered with the sweetness of the pears and the julienne of celeriac.
Other favourites are a linguini carbonara which is light, rich and smoky, a perfect blend of colour, texture and taste; and slow cooked eel in a citrus and eel reduction with potato coated in red pepper powder and a candied lemon palate cleanser. The eel is the biggest surprise of the evening, apart from the Banana Splash of course, the fish is tender and succulent and is beautifully balanced by the citrus undertones and the creamy, peppery potato.
Sitting on the outside terrace, sipping a glass of champagne, specially bottled for the restaurant’s 40th anniversary this year, and watching the sun setting behind the snow-capped peak of Monte Orfano, its adieu turning the lake crimson, I reflect on what it is that makes Piccolo Lago so special. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting; for another, I feel more relaxed than I have in any other Michelin starred establishment and for a third, I have enjoyed the finest ingredients of the region in dishes that pleased the eye and the palate in equal measure. Lastly, I have laughed, a lot. What more could anyone want from a restaurant?
Main courses average €32, desserts average €18; tastings menus are €90 for five courses, €130 for eight courses, add €10 per glass for accompanying wines; a bottle of 40th anniversary, Philipponnat non dosé champagne is €55.
Piccolo Lago, Via Filippo Turati 87, Verbania; (+39) 0323 586792; open every evening from Tuesday to Sunday and for lunch on Saturday and Sunday.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+