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May 29, 2008

Renaissance Man: Lake Como's Tasty Fish

The fish of Lake Como.


Conde Nast Traveler stuntman Mark Schatzker is on a mad quest to make himself into a modern-day Da Vinci during a month's stay in Europe. So far Mark has "mastered" golf in Scotland, "excelled" at gardening in England, "ruled" the kitchens of Paris, and tinkled the ivories in Vienna.  His next task: Painting beside Lake Como.

Before I unveil my painterly masterpiece, let me take a moment to discuss the pressing issue of the culinary status of freshwater fish. Most people tend to think fishes that come out of oceans taste better. That explains why you can buy canned tuna and salmon, but not canned crappie or goldfish. Only the Chinese, so far as I know--or knew--have a preference for river and lake fish.

There is a restaurant in Bellagio called Silvio that could well change the way you and everyone else thinks about freshwater fish. It's run by Christian Ponzini, who is half restaurateur, half fisherman. Yesterday evening, the two of us, along with his dog, Aaron, putted out into Lake Como to set some nets. This morning, I met him down at the dock to take an inventory of the night's haul. Christian wasn't impressed, but I walked away firm in my new belief that nets catch way more fish than rods. (The first thing I'm going to do when I get back home is buy some fishing nets.)

Aaron on Lake Como
Aaron has built-in sonar.

There are a total of 28 species of fish living in Lake Como, and all you have to do is peer in the lake to see a school of minnows darting this way or that as a big fish cruises in from the deep to swipe at them. For a cold, deep lake bounded by snow-capped mountains, it's surprisingly fertile. When Christian isn't netting one or more of said 28 species, he runs a restaurant that has come up with ingenious ways of preparing them.

I sat down on the veranda this evening and counted almost all 28 species. What follows is a list of the appetizer course:

Lavarello Pâté
Agone Liver Pâté
Filet of Lavarello in Parsley Sauce
Filet of Agone
Cubed Pike Salad
Lake and Mountain Salad (featuring three kinds of fish)
Pike Boiled in Aromatic Salt Water
Filet of Cavedano
Filet of Cavedano with Lemon Juice
Vegetable Terrine with Fish
Sun Perch in Mustard Sauce
Agone Marinated in Vinegar, White Wine, Onion and Wild Thyme
Filet of Pigo with Sweet Red Sauce
Filet of Savitta with Green Peppercorn Sauce

Oropilla brandy

There followed pasta. Three different kinds, one of which included a local specialty called missoltino, which is a fish called agone that's salted and pressed for an alarming number of months.

Finally, it was time for a non-fish course, for which I chose tiramisu. No Italian meal is complete, of course, without a digestif, and Chistian poured me a glass of an extinct Italian brandy called Oropilla. His father bought an entire truckload of the stuff 40 years ago. It came with a free laundry machine and Polaroid camera.

The laundry machine and Polaroid camera are history. The brandy is, too--the brand went out of business shortly after Christian's father made his big buy. The wine cellar, however, still has many bottles sitting dusty on shelves. So you'll be able to have a glass of your very own when you visit Silvio. You'll just have to eat plenty of fish first.


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