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Ristorante Brissago: ‘The Next Best Thing’ to Dining in Italy

This high-class restaurant at Grand Geneva Resort goes out of its way to bring an authentic taste of Italy. Meet the culinary brains behind this operation, and savor some delicious dishes.

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“If you can’t make it to Northern Italy for a great meal, this is the next best thing.”

That’s the marketing message chefs at Ristoranté Brissago must live up to, and they’ve been doing so since 1994, when Marcus Corp. re-opened the former Playboy Club as Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, in Lake Geneva. Both Brissago and Geneva Chophouse, the property’s two signature fine dining restaurants, have stood the test of time. There are seven other eateries on the property, as well.

Overseeing all nine restaurants is Executive Chef Michael Sawin, a Chicagoland native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., who’s worked with luminary chefs like Bernard Cretier at Le Vichyssois in Lakemoor, Ill., and Jean Banchet at Le Francais in Wheeling, Ill. Sawin joined Grand Geneva in 2009 as sous chef and was promoted to his current position in December.

“Finding and using the best possible ingredients is a big part of our success,” he says. “We grow fresh herbs – rosemary, chives, basil, oregano, lemon thyme – right here in our own chef’s garden, along with tomatoes, peppers, beans and other produce.”

Pastas, prosciutto, olive oils, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, desserts, wines and cheeses arrive weekly from Italy. The buffalo mozzarella comes from Campania, the Parmigiano-Reggiano from Regia Amelia. “I order handmade burrata from Northern Italy [a pouch of fresh, soft mozzarella filled with a special cream] on Sunday, and we have them by Friday.”

Still other ingredients grow on farms nestled in the rolling countryside surrounding the resort. “I have one local guy who hand-makes fresh Italian pork sausage,” says the chef.

Even the finest ingredients demand skilled hands to produce a dish that makes the palate swoon, and Sawin can’t say enough about his talented team, which includes eager beavers from the resort’s chefs-in-training program. “I recently had four students graduate from Pennsylvania Culinary Institute,” he says. “They returned to me with diplomas in hand and have earned well-deserved raises.”

Named for a small town near Lake Maggiori in Northern Italy, Ristoranté Brissago features authentic dishes such as Pappardelle con Pollo (grilled chicken with artichoke, sun-dried tomato, lemon olive oil and Pecorina cheese) and Tonno alla Griglia (grilled tuna with tomato, olive, thyme and white polenta.)

“We consider the food to be elegant and upscale, with full flavor,” says Sawin. “We just freshened up the menu this spring, adding more vegetarian and gluten-free dishes, such as asparagus risotto with lemon and truffles. We also have a new seafood dish, Tipo di Dentice Grigliato, Atlantic red snapper served with a saffron risotto. Of course, we also prepare classics like Osso Buco alla Milanaise, a seared veal shank that’s slow roasted with vegetables.”

One of Sawin’s personal favorites is Filetto di Manzo al Gorgonzola, beef tenderloin with Gorgonzola crust served with barolo wine sauce and whipped parmesan potatoes.

Among desserts: tiramisu, frozen fruit, fresh berries with Sauvignon, and a house favorite called Baked Chocolate and Cocoa Mousse. There are also several flavors of freshly made gelato, including Sawin’s pick, roasted pistachio.

The wine list is carefully selected to complement Brissago’s cuisine. “We mostly order Italian wines, but we’ve added some good American selections in recent years, in response to customer requests,” Sawin says.

Like the cuisine, the atmosphere at Brissago is inviting and elegant, but not intimidating, with white tablecloths, romantic lighting and spectacular views of lush golf course greens against a backdrop of verdant hills.

The restaurant and resort draw patrons from Chicago, Rockford, Madison and Milwaukee.

Elegant dishes made with simple, high-quality ingredients; warm hospitality and attentive service; expansive and serene views. Indeed, Ristoranté Brissago is much like Northern Italy, minus the 10-hour flight.

Hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.