Cara De Silva's A Fork in the Road:
Letters on Traveling and Dining
Liguria, part II
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
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
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.
Till then, see you down the road.
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
Liguria, part I
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