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Piccolo Lago

Via Filippo Turati, 87, Verbania, 28924, Italy

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Lake Mergozzo is one of the smaller, but prettiest Italian lakes, just a kilometre from Lake Maggiore., to which it is linked via a canal.  A small village is at one end of the lake, but otherwise there is little human habitation on the shore. Piccolo Lago is situated about halfway down the lakeside, opposite an imposing hillside. You can have a drink on the terrace below the restaurant, which has a little garden and gorgeous views across the water. This restaurant has been owned by the same family since 1974 (it was originally established in 1961), with its head chef since 1986 being Marco Sacco, following in the footsteps of his father Bruna Saco. The restaurant won a Michelin star in 2004, and a second in 2007. The dining room has several tables with direct lakeside views and floor to celling windows, creating a striking setting for a meal. Tables are generously spaced, the kitchen partly open to view.

The winelist offers around five hundred choices, around 40% of them from nearby Barolo and Barbaresco. Example wines were Damian Princic Colle Dugat Friulano Colli Gorizia 2011 at €35 for a wine that you can find in a shop for €14, Vintage Tunina Jermann 2010 at €70 for a wine that retails at €45, and Antinori Tiganello 2005 at €110 for a wine that would set you back the equivalent of €86 in the UK.

Nibbles were a spoon of lake fish that had been smoked over cypress wood and garnished with a cream sauce, braised duck breast with creme fraiche, Gorgonzola sandwiched between chestnut biscuits with a chestnut sauce, and a Parmesan cracker with smoked ham from a local farmer. The fish in particular had very good flavour, and these were very enjoyable nibbles (16/20).

A selection for bread was baked in the kitchen and brought out by the chef (Oscar) who had actually baked it. Foccacia had a little onion with it, and there was sun-dried tomato bread with an excellent crust, one seeded and a plain bread as well as grissini and a seeded flatbread. I particularly liked the flatbread and the tomato bread, while the focaccia could have been a touch lighter (17/20).     

Cheese flan used a local cheese and was served with celeriac, red berries and flavoured with a little mustard. This was excellent, the flan light, the berries providing balancing acidity and the hint of mustard lifting the dish (18/20). A dish called "banker's chicken" comprised braised coxcomb served on a purée of potato with liver pate, pea purée and red onion cooked in sugar and vinegar. This was an unusual and enjoyable dish, with the flavour of the peas particularly impressive (17/20).

A deconstructed carbonara had freshly made pasta topped with a smoked local ham, with an egg shell to one side containing a sauce of egg yolk, Parmesan and gin. The pasta was superb, the ham had excellent flavour, and the sauce had just the right level of richness (18/20).

Eel was cooked in two ways, firstly slow-cooked for six-and-a-half hours at 65 degrees, the other conventionally grilled. This was flavoured with garlic and herbs, served with an eel juice and citrus reduction, potato with lemon zest and potato coated in red pepper powder. I preferred the grilled eel to the slow cooked version, but this was an interesting dish, and the garnishes worked quite well (16/20).

Fassone beef was grilled and served with creamy potatoes, foie gras, polenta crumble, spinach and Sichuan pepper. The beef itself had very good flavour and was carefully cooked, the spinach was delicate and the polenta crumble had good texture, but I wondered whether the Sichuan pepper was overly subtle in its application (17/20).

Rum baba is a classic Italian dessert, but this was a lighter take on it. In addition to the baba itself, which was lovely and moist, there were slivers of ripe mango, pink grapefruit, custard cream, cocoa syrup and pineapple sorbet, with a hint of mint. This was an excellent dessert, the fruits extremely good and proving refreshing companions to the rich baba (18/20).

Coffee was very good (Lavazzo Gold Selection). Service throughout the evening was charming, the waiters friendly and attentive and topping up of water, wine and bread was flawless. The bill came to €175 a head. This was a lovely experience all round, with a stunning location, innovative but very enjoyable food and excellent service.  This must be one of the prettiest settings of any restaurant in the world. 

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