Alla Stella, Desenzano (Lake Garda, Italy)

We were looking for somewhere to eat on our last night in Lake Garda, and had a couple of places in mind. Some of the TripAdvisor reviews of Alla Stella were a little mixed, so we weren’t initially sure, but after sticking our heads round the door, we didn’t even bother looking at the rest of the places on our list. It smelled fantastic, and the ambience was spot on.

Crushed potatoes with anchovies and tomatoes

Alla Stella is jammed into a side street, a narrow building with a couple of rooms and a little covered courtyard. Embracing the bare-stone vaulted ceilings, but steering clearly away from twee stucco tourist tat, there’s a modern bar vibe with eclectic furniture. There’s glass and metal, and a really nifty fireplace. Basically, it’s what my living room would look like if I had money; right down to the giant hams hanging in a niche near the bar.

The menu is reasonably simple, with some great antipasti options, and some slightly off-piste pizza alternatives in the form of stuffed focaccia. That’s not really what caught my eye though. The primi piatti were almost all home-made fresh pasta, and in just the kind of configurations I love. This isn’t an oddity in Italy, of course, but we’d not done so well with some of our other meals out on this trip, so we went with two antipasti to share, and a pasta dish each, plus a bottle of prosecco. This all came in at a fairly reasonable €68, including in some mineral water and the standard small cover charge.

Alla Stella menuOnce they brought over some little amuse bouche nibbles,we knew we’d made a good choice. Succulent little meatballs served – unaccountably – on long metal screws, and slivers of fresh, ham-stuffed focaccia. Delicious, and the odd-but-awesome presentation carried on through the meal. As we got our antipasti, the next table were served a “warm carpaccio” in what looked like a large paella pan. It smelled amazing.

The anchovies came with crushed potatoes moulded into a little star, perhaps sliding a little too far into kooky. I forgave this as soon as I tried the tomatoes on the side. The anchovies themselves were tender and flavourful, not over salty. The potatoes had a perfect crushed-not-mashed texture, and had a little good oil worked through them. But the tomatoes? Wow. They were little cherry tomatoes slow-roasted with a little balsamic, nothing out of the ordinary, but they were fantastic. Like the potatoes they were just warm, and they were insanely piquant and intense – not too sharp, not over sweetened.

Kit went with a plate of bresaola, served with steamed vegetables. This, like the anchovies and potatoes, was more than enough as a meal. Alla Stella did not stint on the portions.

The bresaola was incredibly tender, almost meltingly so, and lightly wood-smoked. The veg on the side was barely steamed, and tossed in oil. It retained buckets of flavour and bite. I think that might have been the single best Brussels sprout I’ve ever eaten. There was just a lot of attention to detail behind something like that – perfectly timed little things, presented together well.

It helped that the ingredients were fresh and delicious – the mozzarella on the side of the anchovies was rich and creamy, with some deep savoury intensity on the outside edge.

Bigoli with mackerellThis was the motif for the pasta, too. Very fresh, just al dente, with good simple things worked through it. Mine was bigoli tossed with mackerel, more of those little tomatoes, huge capers, and little green olives. The mackerel was soft and rich, not too oily, and the capers kept a zesty saltiness zinging through the whole thing. Kit’s tagliatelle was bound in a light, heavily-reduced ragout of (I think) pork and maybe veal, cooked down in a little white wine

It had something at the back, too, that I couldn’t quite identify; something wine-ish but fresher and sharper. Vermouth maybe? Either way, this was some good, well-balanced shit. Like the bigoli, the pasta was homemade. It had the slightly rough edging that really holds sauce and makes very fresh pasta so worthwhile.

We could not face dessert after that. We’d basically had two meals each.

I’d like to have gone back to Alla Stella and tried a couple of the other dishes. The horse tagliata sounded fascinating, and I basically wanted to eat everything on the antipasti menu. If you happen to be in Desenzano (which is not a bad place to be) the I recommend you do so.

…and lardo

LardoOh, I also may have bought half a kilo of lardo in Verona. Anyone got any good lardo recipes? Traditionally, I believe the serving suggestion is “goes in face”, but I’m well up for anything more nuanced. Thin slices on warm toasted bread will work for sure, but I wonder if it’ll toss through pasta. I’ll blog the hell out of it if it does.

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