Liguria is almost as famous as Tuscany in the American traveler’s mind for the magnificent and almost over-heralded Cinque Terre, a stretch of five towns, unreachable by road, along a spectacular stretch of coast well traveled by the college degree-and-backpack-in-hand crowd, located about half an hour south of the famous Portofino and about an hour and a half southeast of the border of France. The food in Liguria is famous for its delicate and floral fragrance. Ligurian oil is among the most delicate in Italy and is also known for its late harvest and release, often in January or February.
The port town of Genova was one of the four most important historic ports in Italy (with Pisa, Venezia, and Amalfi), and the requisite thriftiness of its seafaring populace legendary throughout Italy and Europe. It is said that ravioli were invented here as the way to stretch a small amount of leftover meat or fish into a full meal the next day. Twenty-five miles west of Genoa and 95 miles east of Nice, Savona has long been the area’s industrial hub, a launch point for automobile exports. The city was also the home of Christopher Columbus and many buildings in the area are associated with the famed Italian explorer.
If there is a single color to describe Liguria it is green, the verdant hills and flowery perfumes in the breeze are as much a part of the local flavor as any single dish or ingredient. Pesto Genovese is the famous basil, garlic, pinenut and cheese pesto we recognize here in the US and is tossed with trenette (a thinner version of linguine), green beans, and bits of potato in the traditional dish, or with a squiggly pasta called trofie, often made of chestnut flour.
Focaccia is the bread of the table here, and is lighter and fluffier in Liguria than anywhere else I have eaten it. It is often served as the antipasto with the delicious salame di Sant'Olcese (the real Genova salami) or acciughe marinate, marinated fresh anchovies that rival those of the Amalfi coast. Farinata is a baked chick pea flour crepe sold in friggitorie (fry shops) or bakeries all over, and is simply delicious here as it is in markets as far away as Nice, where it is sold as panissa. Get it early as it tends to sell out before lunch. Corzetti are stamped flat disks of egg pasta, often tossed with butter and herbs or meat sauce. Pansoti are ravioli filled with cooked greens and ricotta and served with a walnut pesto and what looks like broken or curdled milk. A kilometer or two from the beach the landscape shoots nearly straight up to 500 meters. The walls of these cliffs are lined with flower gardens, vegetables, and grapes, leaving virtually no pasture whatsoever. "Local" cheese is therefore generally imported from neighboring Toscana or Piemonte, and non fish dishes of true tradition are based on rabbit, chicken or guinea hen.
In Genova, I have never enjoyed eating in fancy places, but prefer casual trattorie and wine bars and even fry shops or bakeries...in the friggitoria department my fave is Antica Sciamada (vico San Giorgio,14) where you can get tiny fish, baccala, baby vegetables, cuculli (all that a potato should be) and purple artichokes. For fresh focaccia, a walk down via San Vicenzo is like a trip to Balducci used to be. The Paniscio Mario smells like the train station to heaven should and sells a magnificent variety of cloudlike focaccie, some hot from the forno.
Among my sitdown faves are Antica Osteria della Foce (via ruspoli, 72, tel 0105533155) where the farinata is the main event along with a couple of other daily changing dishes, many out of the grand oven in the front. The place is jamming all day. La Cantina di Colombo (via di porta soprano, 57, tel 0102475959 is a 35-seater with simple and delicious primi, including a definitive minestrone, followed by a list of steaks, all served with a great wine by the glass list. There's even an oil list for tasting the local liquid green gold.
Enoteca Infernotto (via macaggi, 64, tel 0105703250) is more of a snack place in a great downtown location with grissini and focaccia worth the trip alone, but also has a discreet list of local salume and wines including the mythic and hard to find sciacchetra from Rollandi by the glass. I love Trattoria del Liberale (via Monte Fasce, 91, tel 010395248) because it is all Genova, all the time; pure Ligurian tradizione, a little hectic, with a capricious tangy "this is how it's supposed to be" attitude. This is where the heavens open for the fritto misto, a glorious mixed fry of chicken, sweetbreads, gizzards, miniscule vegetables, sweet custard, and the odd slightly raisiny grape.
An honest and brilliant experience based more on the moon than the purely Genovese tradition, kind of a mix between Friuli and Liguria, is the very cool Toe Drue (via Carlo Corsi, 44, tel 010815039) the only real tablecloth restaurant on my Genova list. From jota to trofie, from scampi alla busara to capon magro, the dishes from these two incredible regions come together in a melifluous harmony to create an unusual new tradition in this city of sailors. This is not a fancy place but one where the kitchen and the dining room sail on smooth seas, together and in perfect key.
Outside of the Cinque Terre, where the locale can overcome even regular food and transform it into a dream sequence from Bertolucci, there are 3 places (among literally 30 great ones) that I have found outstanding on many levels, the first of which is Paolo e Barbara in San Remo. (via Roma, 47, tel 0184531653) The least imposing of these three locales, it is probably the most subtly brilliant in a way I hope that Babbo can be. Last visit I had a ravioli stuffed with fragrant herbs, tossed in a walnut a ricotta pesto that transcended pasta and became a dream, followed by a plate of calamaretti with salsify and tiny purple artichokes, no bigger than my thumbnail, each difficult dish matched with a glass of wine that spoke of food and wine pairing in the tongues of the charismatics.
icing on the cake. The food and style is something a little unusual in that birds and meat are offered with the same intensity as the fish... I had a quail antipasto with the legs in a crust of herbs and the breast with wild currants that is far more Italiano than it sounds. Gnocchi with tiny mussels, mullet with an eggplant and rosemary and an apple semifreddo and your head is swimming in the deep pool of poetry and life. Grimaldi Inferiore
\r\n On a private bay, just outside of Ventimiglia in Grimaldi Inferiore, is perhaps the most sublime of all of Liguria. Baia Beniamin
(corso Europa, 63, tel 018438002) is more an environment than just a restaurant with a level of food and service that can take your breath a way. There are five spectacular guest rooms for a predinner nap with the sound of the seductive sea just there at all times. Tables on the terrace outside are where I will be and because the menu changes almost daily a 2-day stay is not a bad idea. The wine list is up to the challenge of the menu, which offers two tasting menus for each service. Last lunch, I had a spiedino of scallops with a salad of raw zucchini and lardo, followed by the most delicate of agnolotti, stuffed with mackerel and borage, sauced with tarragon and butter. The filet of San Pietro with white artichokes and basil oil was almost lost in a magnificent bottle of a rose colored wine called Ormeasco "scia-something", so good my notes fade to incomprehensible…