Cara De Silva
is an award-winning journalist who specializes in writing about food, travel, culture, and ethnicity.

[More about Cara]


A Fork in the Road is Cara's regular feature on traveling and dining. She will also list any culinary points of interest in the featured region.

San Remo
Royal Hotel Corso Imperatrice 80 (tel) 0184/5391 (fax) 0184/661445


Rapallo
Hotel Excelsior Via San Michele di Pagana 8 (tel) 0185/230666 (fax) 0185/230214

Da Luca Via Langano 32 (tel) 0185/60323


Recco
Manuelina Via Roma 278 (tel) 0185/75364


Camogli
Bar Primula Via Garibaldi 140


Castelnuovo Magra
Enoteca Liguria e della Lunigiana Palazzo Comunale (tel) 0187/675166 (fax) 0187/670102


Genoa
Museo dalla Navigazione Padiglione Millo Port of Genoa

Cara De Silva's A Fork in the Road: Letters on Traveling and Dining

Liguria, part II
Italy


Most people consider Christopher Columbus Liguria's most famous export (he was born in its capital city of Genoa in 1451), but to those of us who care about food, he has a strong competitor--pesto. But not just pesto in the limited way that we know it here, pesto in many varieties. (Recipes from Paradise, Fred Plotkin's book on the Italian Riviera, offers more than sixteen, among them a sweet pesto and a pesto made with tomatoes.)

Not surprisingly, then, this irresistible basil sauce was one of the constants on the trip through Liguria that I and a number of other writers took a few months ago with Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, a Cambridge, Massachusetts organization that advocates for traditional and healthful foodways. But because pesto varies from one Ligurian town to another, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, and because it is also served in a variety of ways, it was never the same twice throughout our journey. Yet, prepared with the Ligurian basil without which, says purists, it cannot be properly made, it was consistently captivating.

At the Royal Hotel in San Remo, we had it tossed with trenette, the dried, flat strips of pasta that are its traditional foil. In the lovely seaside city of Rapallo we had a cooking class at the Hotel Excelsior that included a lasagnette avvaniagiate made with chestnut flour. We landed in Vernazza during a ravishing boat trip along the Cinqueterre, a wild area of Liguria in which the houses seem to totter on cliffs, and had pesto-topped focaccia. And we stopped in Recco, at Manuelina, for a late lunch that included a glistening dish of potatoes, fava beans, and trofie (the other pasta with which pesto is traditionally served). In Sarzana, this vibrant green sauce coated testarolli, a pancake-like bread cut into strips. And at lunch in Genoa, it raised a simple lasagne to celestial heights.

Does that sound like hyperbole? Well, it isn't. Does that sound like a lot? Well, it wasn't. We could have gone on and on. And the way we felt about pesto was the way we felt about Liguria. This beautiful region of Italy--bordered by Emilia-Romagna on the East, Tuscany on the South, Piedmont and Lombardy on the North, and Provence on the West--seduced us all.

Flavor and place frequently entwine in our memories and that is how I remember Liguria. There are the crusty diced potatoes tossed with tiny olives, rosemary, and pine nuts eaten at Rapallo's Da Luca and followed by our sail across the shining Bay of La Spezia the morning after. There is the cappuccino--drunk outside of Bar Primula in the beautiful seaside town of Camogli--that may well be the best cup of coffee I have ever had. But when I think of it I will also be hearing the soughing sound of the fishing boats tossing in the water nearby. We were hosted in the enoteca (wine library) in the medieval town of Castelnuovo Magra, and fed marvelous salt pork, pancetta di limone (pancetta stuffed with lemon rind), and torta di verdure of artichoke. But the scarlet camelia tree that I found in a deserted garden there remains an equally powerful remembrance. And though I can still taste the grilled lamb prepared for us at Il Loggiati one night in Sarzana, the graceful shapes of the 17th century Teatro dei Impavidi, where we had a seminar earlier in the day, remain equally in my mind.

But two of my memories of Liguria are ones in which place and food divide.

Genoa stands alone for me--without any reference to its famed kitchen and market-- as the most enticing of all the places we visited. We didn't have nearly enough time to explore it, yet the spirit of this throbbing seaport city, once the greatest port in the Mediterranean, was immediately apparent--and intriguing.

The remnants of Genoa's days of seagoing power captured my imagination most. They remain visible in the great Maritime Museum, the Museo dalla Navigazione, in Padiglione Millo; in the container ships in the port; in the carruggi, warrens of houses that once housed the wealthiest of Genoese families, in the Porto Antico, the touristy, but still evocative, arcades along the waterfront; and in the city's elaborate buildings (among them the Palazzo dei Principe, which contains the apartment of Admiral Andrea Doria, a contemporary of Columbus ). To me, the illustrious history of La Superba, the Superb One, as the city is called, seems to rise off every stone. Even if I never experience Genoa again, I will never forget it.

I have no sense of Recco, on the other hand, but for me its focaccia col formaggio was perhaps the most memorable dish of the journey.

As prepared at the city's Manuelina Restaurant, which dates back to the late 19th century, it is exceptional. Recco we were told by Fred Plotkin is a place that takes its food--and especially its focaccia col formaggio--very seriously. Badly bombed during the war, it became aware of the great importance of protecting its culture since it couldn't protect its buildings. Children are educated to preserve it, too, and taught about the city's food traditions in school. Therefore, the art of focaccia is well guarded here. There is even a brotherhood of focaccia makers and a focaccia col formaggio festival held annually on the fourth Sunday in May.

I had stopped at Manuelina once several years ago while traveling from Tuscany to the French Riviera and I could hardly wait to get there again. To understand this dish you have to erase from your mind everything you think you know about focaccia, for this unimaginably delicious preparation bears no resemblance to any focaccia you have ever had before.

First, a round of phyllo-like dough rolled so thin that you can almost see through it, is draped across a flat pan more than two feet in diameter. Then it is dotted with small mounds of a tangy cheese called crecenza, topped with an even thinner round of dough, and baked in a wood-fired oven. Its humble appearance when it emerges gives no hint of the pleasures that await. But when the focaccia col formaggio is cut into wedges and you take your first bite, the luscious counterpoint of texture and flavor make everything instantly clear. The cheese flows into your mouth amid crunchy splinters of crust--and you sigh.

Next, London.

Till then, see you down the road.

Cara


Signposts

If you are planning to be in or near Rome between November 15 and December 8 of this year, consider going to Sapore di Roma, a Festival of Roman Food. Part of a larger event that celebrates the city, it is sponsored by the City government of Rome, the region of Lazio, and the food and wine magazine called Gambero Rosso. Those attending will receive a free Gambero Rosso guide to the city that includes four food-focused walks, two excursions into the countryside, a list of restaurants, and a discount-card for all city run museums. There will also be a number of restaurants offering prix fixe meals that feature Roman specialties, many of them little known. For more information, contact Fabio Parasecoli at 212-253-5653 (phone), 212-253-8349 (fax), or by e-mail at gamberousa@aol.com.

Liguria, part I
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