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).
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 including Antica Sciamada. (For a more extensive list of Mario’s Genova picks, click here.)
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.
Mse Tutta (via Garibaldi, 8, tel 01979647) in Calizzano is located in an ex monastery dating back to the 13th century is 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.
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…