The municipal beach at Lago di Chiusi has seen better days. A crumbling concrete jetty worthy of Robert Smithson curves into the weed-choked lake, flanked by dozens of dilapidated rowboats mired in mud. A handful of fishermen from the adjacent trailer park cast lines into murky green water, seemingly oblivious to the sunlit landscape around them: Grapevines and olive trees climb the low hills in neat rows, vast patches of sunflowers make yellow smudges on the horizon, while stone farmhouses that were already old when your grandfather’s grandfather was born punctuate the panorama.
Behind the beach parking lot lurks Pesce D’Oro (“Gold Fish”), a restaurant specializing in lake fish. I’ve been circumnavigating lakes Trasimeno and Chiusi—the first in Umbria, the second just across the Tuscan border—seeking out a regional cuisine that has eluded American cookbook authors and chefs. Though the shallow muddy waters of these lakes aren’t much good for swimming, they teem with pike, bass, perch, tench, trout, and, especially, eels. Known mainly to the locals, Pesce D’Oro boasts a working-class clientele whose sunburned faces and brawny arms tell you they’ve either been fishing or working the fields, though an occasional table looks like it just blew in from Rome, 150 kilometers to the south. The dining room is brightly lit, the floor linoleum, and the decorations mostly plastic flowers and painted landscapes.
Lined with tall cedars like a column of invading legionnaires, the road to Pesce d’Oro descends past several Etruscan tombs, and their legacy, rather than the Roman one, largely informs the food. Il brusco (5.5 euros) originated with the Etruscans: small fish brushed with olive oil and thrust into the hottest part of a lake-cane fire. After the skin blackens, they’re split, gutted, and dumped into a clay vessel sizzling with hot oil and garlic. The other appetizers are similarly rudimentary, and similarly delicious: One variety of bruschetta (2 euros) features slices of the area’s strikingly saltless bread (some say because of a salt tax imposed by a medieval pope), which is roasted in the fire, then deposited in an olive oil bath heaped with garlic and coarse sea salt. Each slice becomes so saturated that the pungent green oil dribbles down your chin.
Most of the diners eat the three-course meal favored by Italians, in which appetizers like melon and local ham are followed by big plates of pasta. My favorite second course is potato gnocchi, a dish more often associated with northern Italy. The excellent sauce, made with intense tidbits of smoked tench and miniature white legumes called, rather cryptically, “beans of the lake,” helps you forget that the gnocchi are on the mushy side. A signature of freshwater fish cuisine, found on the menu at nearly all of the 20 or so similar restaurants found around the two lakes, is pici al persico (6 euros), hand-rolled pasta straws laced with perch in a simple tomato sauce.
Perch reappears among the main courses, including a heaped plate of battered and fried fillets, looking just like a Wisconsin fish fry. Teggamacio (8 euros) is another lake-district classic, the Umbrian answer to bouillabaisse. Toasts are smeared with garlic and inundated with a thick red catch-of-the-day stew, which on one visit included eel, perch, and pike. Though wrestling with the tiny bones is no fun, the taste is right on. While smallish eels are thrown into the teggamacio, the larger specimens are served as fillets that are, not surprisingly, brushed with oil and roasted in the wood-burning fire. The rich white flesh is smoky and oily and tastes engagingly of mud. One bite and you’ll never crave sushi-bar eel again.