De Silva's A Fork in the Road: Letters on Traveling and
Twilight. The Mediterranean shining silver far beneath
me. A lavender-washed breeze stroking my face. And set out in
the piazza in which I am scribbling these notes, a platter of
delicate, purple-black fritters. Made with a paste of Taggiasca
olives, the only variety native to this area, and shaped like
plump little bolsters, they dissolve in my mouth as if air is
the only other ingredient they contain. Nearby, a platter of
soft squares of farinata, earthy chick-pea flour pancakes, competes
for my attention.
I have been to the Italian Riviera--also called Liguria--before,
but only to the best-known parts of it like Portofino. Beautiful,
yes. But too trendy for me. This is something else. Standing
here in the medieval hilltown of Cervo I feel lost in pure pleasure.
And I find myself wondering yet again, why we Americans are
so caught up in Tuscan fever. Tuscany is magnificent, of course.
But much of the rest of Italy is, too, including this graceful
piazza and the foods so kindly set out here for us.
"Us" is a group of journalists and cookbook authors--among them
several estimable experts on the region, Fred Plotkin, the author
of Recipes from Paradise: Life and Food on the Italian Riviera
(Little, Brown: $32.50) and David Downie and Alison Harris,
authors of Enchanted Liguria (Rizzoli: $40).
We are here with Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a food
think tank based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that devotes itself
to maintaining traditional foodways and propagating healthful
models of eating--the Mediterranean Diet, for example. Because
the cuisine of Liguria is not only distinctive and delicious,
but also so salutary that the region boasts the longest-lived
people in Italy, it is a particularly appropriate destination.
Nonetheless, when we sit down to dinner at San Giorgio, a restaurant
in Cervo that is among the very best in Liguria, the indisputable
healthfulness of the meal is the last thing on our minds.
Cooked by the charming owner, Caterina, the fare is simple,
but matchless. Among the dishes she serves up is an insalata
di frutti di mare, a mix of briny seafoods poached gently,
tossed with slivers of tomato and herbs, dressed with a mixture
of garlic and Ligurian olive oil (some say the lightest and
most fragrant in Italy), and ladled over gallette del marinaio
(sea biscuits) spread with a puree of fava beans. Equally notable
is a homemade pasta crowned with crayfish, turbot, local potatoes,
and artichokes. All in all, the meal is a perfect demonstration
of why eating local and seasonal food is not only better for
the planet, but better for the mouth. Dinner here is bliss.
It is also a harbinger of what is to come as we explore this
region of good eating. From the Mediterranean coast to the entroterra,
Liguria's less well known--and ravishingly beautiful--inland
areas, and from the Ponente, the West side of the Italian Riviera
to the Levante, its East side, we find a profusion of appealing,
and often distinctive, dishes.
We also discover that this narrow rainbow-shaped region is the
source of a number of food specialties that are already familiar
to Americans (as well as of a fabric called blu di Genova,
which became our blue jeans).
Liguria is the home of ravioli; minestrone; focaccia; sun-dried
tomatoes; cioppino (San Francisco's famous fish stew originated
here as ciuppin); the sponge cake known as genoise (the
name comes from Genoa, the region's capital city); amaretti;
and perhaps most famously pesto, which appears here not just
in the basic form in which we are most familiar with it in the
United States, but in an infinity of variations. (More information
about this beguiling basil sauce next time).
But pesto is just one of many herb preparations that characterize
the cooking of Liguria, which uses more herbs than any other
region in Italy. In fact, the fare here is so redolent of them
that locals often refer to their cuisine as "the perfumed kitchen."
Some suggest that the centuries-old reason for this culinary
preference is the role Genoa played in the spice trade, to which
she was once as important as Venice. By the time Ligurian ships
arrived home, sailors had grown so sick of the smell of their
cargo that they came to favor herbs in their food instead.
Liguria's history as a great maritime nation also had numerous
other effects on its gastronomy. As Fred Plotkin explains in
his book, this is Italy's chief region of sauces, condiments,
and spreads, created out of the bounty of the land to complement
the bounty of the sea, and intended also to provide the fresh
flavors of herbs, vegetables, and fruits for mariners on long
It is these vegetables and fruits (along with nuts and grains)
that dominate the table of the Italian Riviera, which highlights
them even more than protein. Whether you are in Imperia, Savona,
La Spezia, or Genoa, Liguria's four provinces, they can be seen
in huge and beautiful profusion in markets and restaurants.
And they are memorable.
Rossetto Kasper and I will never forget the broccoletti
da cavolo that we discovered in San Remo, a lovely city
on the Riviera dei Fiori famous for growing flowers sold all
over the world. While wandering, hungry and curious, in La Pigna,
the old town, intuition drew us to the modest Da Franco, where
we sat at a tiny outdoor table and ate a totally enjoyable meal.
Of all the dishes, however, the choicest was a luscious vegetable
neither of us had ever seen before. A tangle of thin, verdant-green
heads, leaves, and stems tossed in olive oil and garlic, it
looked like a skinny version of broccoli rape and we expected
it to be bitter. Instead, natural sweetness abounded in every
mouthful. It was uncommonly good.
And so were the verdura ripiene, stuffed vegetables,
and torte di verdura, savory vegetable "tarts" that we
had everywhere. The main ingredients are combined with cheese,
and sometimes herbs, rice, or potatoes and, according to David
Downie, these tarts have been eaten here for hundreds of years.
There are many kinds. In the shops of Badalucco, an engaging
market town in the entroterra famous for the modern murals painted
on its stone walls, there were torte di verdura made with zucca
(a pumpkin-like squash), artichoke, onion, and zucchini.
If you go there, however, be sure to look, too, for the crusty,
anise-flavored polenta bread found in some shops. Very special.
And visit the little Roi olive oil manufactory where you can
watch Ligurian olive oil being made and purchase bottles of
it to lug home with you.
Then walk up the street to Il Giardino. If you are lucky, the
restaurant will be serving the meaty, beige beans of Badalucco,
heavenly topped with some of that local olive oil. Or rabbit
in the style of the Argentina Valley (named for the silvery
look of the leaves on its myriad olive trees). The dish, a fricassee
made with garlic, ground almonds and pine nuts, rosemary, juniper
berries, and olive oil, is delectable.
Not far away from Badalucco is Molini di Triora, where 23 mills
once ground wheat for its famous bread. While there, stop at
the Bottega di Angelamaria, a tightly jammed little store that
offers a variety of local food products, among them cheese,
sausage, bread, and honey. You will also find books on the history
of witches in Triora, the town just above. There was a purge
there in the 16th century and the style the beautiful owner
of this bottega has adopted suggests that she wants to look
like she is carrying on despite it.
Right next door, the Ristorante Santo Spirito, now celebrating
its 100th year, offers typical dishes like dried cinghiale
(wild boar) with greens. And paniccia fritta, here a
mash of chickpeas formed into a layer, chilled, cut into pieces,
fried and then mouth-wateringly topped with sauteed scallion
bulbs dressed with oil and lemon. Or ravioli filled with borage
(an herb that is very popular in Liguria) and completed with
a sauce of butter and sage.
Finally, make the trip up to Triora, a few kilometers away.
Although there are modern houses here now, the older town can
still be seen on the steep and winding main street where a number
of buildings appear to have been abandoned for decades. Fortify
yourself with a snack from Strega di Triora (Witch of Triora),
the local gourmet store, and climb to the top, where you will
have a heart-stirring view of the rocky hinterland of the Italian
In my next letter, I will complete the tale of my journey through
Liguria. In the meantime, see you down the road.
of A Fork in the Road:
Italy; part II
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. All the towns listed below are in the province of Imperia.
Ristorante-Bar San Giorgio, Via A. Volta 19, Cervo Alto, tel 0183/400.175
Il Museo Etnografico del Ponente Ligure, Cervo, tel 0183/408.197.
small but wonderful ethnographic museum, located near the castle,
exhibits about local traditions, including gastronomic ones.
Da Franca, Pizza Eroi Sanremesi 51, San Remo, tel 0184/ 502.082.
Frantoio Roi, Via Argentina 1, 18010, Badalucco, tel 0184/ 40.80..04
Il Giardino, Badalucco, tel 0184/408.015
Molini di Triora
La Bottega de Angelamaria, 18010 Molini di Triora, tel 0184/94.021
Ristorante Santo Spirito, Molini di Triora, tel 0184/940.92 or 940.19
Strega di Triora, Courso Italia, 50--Triora, Imperia, tel 0184/94.278