I am not sure I want to visit Portovenere in any kind of weather other than on the stormy, ominously dark day when I walked along the edge of the sea down to the very tip of its rocky peninsula. Slate blue waves slammed their fury against the craggy rocks spitting a fine mist onto the faces of the few of us crazy enough to venture out of our warm cozy cars or hotel rooms. The angry roar of the ocean made it almost impossible to hear my partner Paolo’s chronicle of the now eroded grotto we passed by or the grey and black striped church that perched itself precipitously at the rocky end of that chilly promenade.
Later I was to learn more about La Grotto di Byron (named after the English poet Lord Byron) and of the many other writers that were drawn to the drama of this particular region. Byron used to swim and meditate in that very location and – according to rumor – swam across the treacherous waters of the bay to visit his fellow English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelly. He would have entered the water just below the 6th century Church of St. Pietro which had since been restored many times. At the time of my visit it featured traditional Genovese black and grey horizontal stripes created by alternating two varieties of local stone. Today it matched the colors of the sky almost perfectly.
Having missed most of the history of Portovenere due to the howl of the wind and the pummeling of the rain as we walked along the coast, I asked Paolo to repeat the stories for me, this time wrapped in the warmth of his slate-grey Fiat as we made our way toward Genoa, the greatest seaport in all of Italy and the capital of Liguria. We had planned this weekend around the Genoa wine and food exhibition, but also to visit the city itself. Genoa has much to offer in today’s world (volumes have been written about its importance as an economic, architectural, art and music center) but as a former history major and lifelong history buff, I was most interested in its glorious past – especially some of its famous citizens like Christopher Columbus and Niccolo Paganini. Was Columbus introduced to the adventures of the sea while wandering the wharfs along many of the busy Genovese seaports? What were the frenetic concerts of legendary nineteenth century violinist Niccolo Paganini like? Did those audiences really burst into tears from the breathtaking beauty of his performance? As it turned out, I would have to wait for later trips to visit the museums that would answer those questions, but I was able to walk amongst Genoa’s beautiful churches & monuments before we left. It was easy to see that it was a grand city. I would return.
It was February and it was very cold. That is typical for most of northern Italy, but unusual weather for this region whose position on the Mediterranean and the protection provided by the costal mountains generally produced a much milder winter. But despite the lightening and thunder and the need to constantly navigate sheets of rain and strong blustery gusts of wind, we were committed to seeing the wine and food exhibition and refused to miss visiting the enchanting seaside villages along the way. So we recalibrated our expectations and forged ahead.
This was not technically my first visit to Liguria. Years earlier in the mid-seventies I spent a day in Portofino with my family – a detour on our way from Florence to Venice, but as enamored of that iconic Italian port city as we all were at the time, I had really only scratched the surface of this part of the country. Situated in northwestern Italy, Liguria is a complex and lovely coastal region mostly identified by the outside world as the Italian Riviera. Tourists around the world flock to its incredibly picturesque seaside villages like Santa Margherita, San Remo and the Cinque Terre. Mostly they come in search of charm, great food and sun, but once here, it doesn’t take long to realize Liguria is much more than just beaches and seafood (though it certainly does both well!). I was immediately drawn to its dramatic beauty and interesting herbal dishes. Sunny weather was not required to make that much clear to me.
Over the course of our jam-packed three hour drive from Lucca, Tuscany (where we had stayed for one night), Paolo explained the two sections of Liguria – the one we were in – Liguria di Levante (Coast of the Rising Sun) which extends from La Spezia to Genoa and Liguria di Ponente (Coast of the Setting Sun) which stretches from Genoa all the way to the border of France. We entered Levante at La Spezia, its southern most town. It is the wilder of the two sections. Both are smattered with an abundance of picturesque villages and coves, but because Ponente is more developed, its hotels and villas often block seaside views. Levante on the other hand is considered more dramatically beautiful and its coastline wilder. I would come to visit both frequently – in sun and in rain – but for now I concentrated on the view from our rain-streaked windshield, savoring each glimpse of the lovely towns and villages along the way.
On this particular day, the view from Paolo’s car was dominated by the olive trees that lined the rugged rocky coast, their grey-green leaves shimmering even in the dim morning light. Verdant terraces tiered the steep sloops like staircases. Terrace farming is essential to this region since its narrow strip of coastal mountains falls dramatically towards the sea without much in the way of flat land in between. I found it incredibly impressive to see what generations of strong-willed Ligurians have done to farm these cliffs, building up narrow bands of cultivatable soil that are supported by row after row of ancient stone walls. Olive trees, grape vines, basil, fruit trees and flowers seem to magically sprout from this rocky soil – a living testament to the hard work and ingenuity of the locals.
Paolo and I have never been able to drive from one place to another without finding a myriad of excuses to stop and explore along the way and this trip was no different. Our second pit stop (a remarkably accurate description given how Paolo’s driving always made me feel as if he was imagining himself on a Formula 3 race track) was to Lerici the seaside village where Shelly would end his days (literally so) since he died here, drowning in the turbulent waters just below town. We then drove on to Tallaro where we took a quick stroll down the narrow passageways of what is considered the last village of the “Gulf of Poets.”, an area of scalloped bays from San Terenzo to Tallaro. In addition to Byron and Shelly, temporary residents included D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Wolf, Charles Dickens and many others all of whom were driven to put pen to paper in an attempt to express the beauty and the drama that drew so many of them to this spectacular part of the world.
Even though we found ourselves short on time, Paolo insisted we fit in a quick visit to the upper reaches of Cinque Terre (five lands). Our lightening fast visit to Riomaggiore the southern most city of the first of the five villages of the Cinque Terre, was a stop so short that I’m fairly certain the engine of Paolo’s Fiat never cooled off. The rugged beauty of this city would draw me back years later when I would return by train to slowly navigate the rough trails of three of its five charming villages. But for now I had to be satisfied with this small taste.
We decided to stop for a quick lunch in Recco, only 20 kilometers from Genoa. We would have the rest of the afternoon for tasting the commercially marketed foods and wines at the exhibition, but first wanted to sample a typical Ligurian meal. The restaurant Paolo selected was known for burrida (fish soup, also called ciuppin or zuppa di pesce). In Italian dialect the word ciuppin means “to chop” describing the process of preparing the ingredients (typically the fisherman’s leftover catch) for a delicious soup. This particular version was light, brothy and overflowing with flavors of the sea as is the version below.
Chef Noe’s Ciuppin
According to the Genevese, Ciuppin is the inspiration for the San Francisco Cioppino.
1-cup extra virgin olive oil
18 pieces medium shrimp, peeled
24 mussels, cleaned with shell on
24 manila clams, cleaned with shell on
2 ½ pounds fish (he uses snapper, white fish or grouper or any combination of the above) cut into 2 x 2 inch pieces
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 ½ cup white wine
3 cups fish stock
1 ½ cup canned, diced tomatoes
1-teaspoon chili pepper flakes
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
6 slices of bruschetta (grilled bread rubbed with olive oil and garlic)
In a stockpot, heat the olive oil on medium high. Add the shrimp, mussels, clams, fish, parsley and garlic and sauté for approximately 3 – 4 minutes. Add the white wine. Turn heat to high and reduce wine for approximately 2 minutes. Add the fish stock, tomatoes and chili pepper flakes. Simmer on medium for another 5 minutes. Taste broth for salt and pepper. Season accordingly. Portion into 6 soup bowls. Add a slice of bruschetta to each bowl and serve.
I had attended only one other expo thus far in my Italian journeys – VinItaly in Verona (see my 2013 blog – Veneto I “Fashion & Passion in Veneto). That one featured only wine, whereas this exhibition combined both food and wine. Even though we tasted many new wines that day in Genoa (I especially remember a lovely Lungarotti Rosé), I was more anxious to discover what awaited us on the food side of the event and the myriad of new tastes I was about to encounter. I think it was a combination of my continuing Italian adventures with Paolo, the numerous cooking sessions I had with my cooking mentor Wanda in her Milanese kitchen and the firsthand experience I had now that my market had opened its doors that allowed me to more confidently traverse the corridors of olive oil, glistening jars of vegetables, mind-boggling assortment of aged balsamic vinegars and the still virtually unknown (in America at least) wrinkled, flavorful sun-dried tomatoes. The list goes on and on but my newly found confidence deemed me up to the task!
The extra virgin olive oil section was especially enticing. It wasn’t so long ago that most home cooks bought mass produced vegetable oil and used it for any and everything. Around the time I opened Convito, people began to take extra virgin olive oil seriously. It was while visiting Genoa that I discovered how much I enjoyed tasting these amazing olive oils. Having passed many beautiful olive groves on our way to the exhibition, I was most curious to taste this particular region’s oil. Certainly not as famous as its Tuscan neighbors’, it turned out to be one of my favorites, as it is to this day. I love its fruity, sweet, buttery taste; perfect for cooking, as well as combining with great red wine vinegar to dress the ideal salad. More popular at the time (and still today) are the spicy, peppery extra virgin olive oils from Tuscany and Sicily. I also love these but mostly use them as a condiment – a little drizzle – as a final touch to a hearty soup or sauce, adding just the right zest.
There were so many beautiful products we tasted that day, Since we couldn’t possibly taste everything (we barely scratched the surface), we concentrated on items we thought might be of the most interest to our Convito customers. Over the years I would unfortunately learn that I wasn’t always correct in my predictions. It was – and still is – a learning curve filled with hits and misses. For instance, some of the marvelous jarred vegetables that we saw in Genoa – like porcini mushrooms in oil – proved to be way too expensive. Not only was the product itself expensive but the import costs sometimes made the price ridiculous and they would sadly sit on the shelf and do nothing but collect dust. Not that they weren’t delicious (they were!) but our customers didn’t feel they offered value for money. However, those very same customers would spend fifty dollars for an incredible aged balsamic vinegar probably deciding that a jar of porcini would be consumed quickly in one meal whereas a bottle of balsamic could enhance many a dish over a much longer period of time.
I also learned the importance of labeling at this exhibition. Beautiful or interesting labels always caught my attention. If the contents weren’t good, however, forget it. The product might sell initially, but repeat sales would drop to nothing once the sub-par product revealed itself to the disappointed customer. The opposite occurs with what my daughter (my partner and Convito manager) calls a UL (ugly label). No matter how fantastic the contents, the UL doesn’t draw the customer’s attention and it just takes up space on the shelf as a dust-drawer (or a DuD if you’re an insider).
Though I hadn’t expected to get excited about the jarred foods in Genoa, I found myself astonished at the quality I encountered. But genuinely tasty pesto…in jars?! I was shocked! We were, after all, in the region where pesto was invented and I was in the habit of tasting it at its freshest. At certain times of the year, the aroma of basil fills every corner of Liguria permeating even into the cities. Because of the combination of the sun and the salty air, the hills surrounding Genoa are said to be ideal for growing the most flavorful basil in the world. Almost any Italian will tell you that pesto is one of the easiest sauces to make – just pull out a food processor or the traditional mortar and pestle; grind the fresh basil with pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and parmesan and pecorino cheeses; and presto, you have one of the most distinctive sauces in the world. So why jar it? It seemed somehow sacrilegious. However, we did taste several jars of pesto from different producers and decided they were not nearly as bad as we thought they would be. That said, we also agreed we would only recommend using them as an addition to a soup or sauce as opposed to the sole accompaniment to a pasta dish. In that case the “real” pesto – the kind you make from scratch – should always be the choice. Despite the fact that we sell a few varieties of the jarred versions, we still advise our customers to make their own when possible or take advantage of what I’ve always thought of as a happy medium: Convito’s frozen pesto – made from scratch in our kitchen – which is a perennial customer favorite!
As Paolo I and wandered the aisles that day, I met hundreds of different producers and salesmen with thousands of enticing products. Things like the superbly aged balsamic vinegars that were so thick and syrupy that with just a drop they could change the whole complexion of a dish; Italian condiments like the one called mostarda (fruits and mustard) perfect as an accompaniment to boiled meats; a multitude of different honeys from acacia, chestnut to wildflower; biscotti in every size, shape and flavor; endless panettones, pastas, risotto and interesting grains like the ancient Tuscan farro. It was mind-boggling!
I was at first surprised to find that all of those salesmen and producers were as interested in me as an American as I was in their products. What I soon learned was that they were looking for importers, which meant most all of these beautifully packaged and jarred products were still not available in the states. Could I import? Could I find someone who could? On occasion I took their cards and later gave them to a few suppliers back in Chicago, but most of Convito’s importers did their own sleuthing. However, it wouldn’t be long before many of the products I saw in Genoa were picked up by American importers and we would be able to buy them for our market. It was the beginning of the Italian explosion in the US and Convito would soon welcome them all.
Though both of our palates were severely taxed by way too many tastes that day, Paolo and I never let an opportunity to eat well pass us by. That night after a rest back at our hotel, we strolled the streets of Genoa’s old city where cobblestone streets are so incredibly narrow that even walking side by side was difficult. Eventually, we found a rustic trattoria whose menu offered traditional regional fare. Naturally, we wanted to enjoy more Ligurian dishes so we decided that pesto would be the theme for the evening. We began with Minestrone alla Genovese so called because it contained pesto as a final addition to the soup. It also contained pancetta and prosciutto sautéed with the vegetables, which added a wonderful savory flavor. Thick and succulent it was the perfect dish for this cold wintery weekend. The Minestrone alla Genovese we serve today at Convito is based on the soup I had that night.
We followed with a bowl of trenette (narrow flat pasta) simply tossed with pesto and a glass of local dry white Cinque Terre wine. Mid meal I remember Paolo looking up from his plate and remarking how nothing – nothing – can replicate the taste of fresh Ligurian pesto. I became a believer.
Minestrone alla Genovese
Vegetable Soup with Pesto
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 ounces pancetta, diced (1/2 cup)
3 ounces prosciutto, dices (1/2 cup)
1 ½ cup onions, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 ½ cup carrots, diced
1 ½ cup celery, diced
1 ½ cups zucchini, diced
1 ½ cups potatoes, diced
3 cups cabbage, chopped
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
pinch of chili peppers
1 – 14 ounce can of great northern beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup canned diced tomatoes
8 cups chicken stock
salt & fresh ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon pesto*
¼ pound cooked tubetti (or other small pasta)
In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil over high heat. Add the pancetta and prosciutto and sauté for approximately 5 minutes until browned. Add the onions and garlic and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the carrots, celery, zucchini, potatoes, cabbage, parsley, rosemary, chili peppers, northern beans and tomatoes. Sauté for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the chicken stock and simmer for 35 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add pesto and mix well. When ready to serve add the cooked pasta.
2 cups fresh basil leaves packed
2 medium-sized cloves of garlic
1/3 cup pine nuts
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup freshly grated pecorino or parmesan cheese (some recipes use ¼ of each)
Combine the basil, garlic and pine nuts in a food processor and pulsate until coarsely chopped. Slowly add the olive oil and again process until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer pesto to a bowl and add the grated cheese.
The next day we headed towards Santa Margherita – gorgeous even in the dreary weather – then stopped for a quick lunch at a farinata stand in Camogli, a small fishing village located on the west side of the peninsula of Portofino. Farinata is a thin unleavened pancake made from chickpea flour. It is typical Ligurian street food – simple and delicious. Many Ligurian bakeshops even post signs in their windows announcing the time the farinata will be ready so that the locals know when to pop in to get it at its freshest. Usually it is offered plain – a simple combination of chickpea flour, olive oil and salt – then baked in a copper pan in a very hot oven. Even though the surface and the edges get crispy the inside stays moist – a very comforting and earthy food. Sometimes rosemary or mushrooms are added but my favorite is just plain old farinata.
I have traveled to this part of Liguria many times, returning again with Paolo and then later with family and with friends. (The other end of Liguria – Liguria di Ponente – I will describe in an upcoming chapter). What a diverse and fantastic region it is. Cooking here is often more complicated than in other regions. Herbs grown in the Ligurian soil are used in almost everything. It is an herb region – not a spice region like many other regions in Italy. Dishes are often elaborate, but the end result is usually clean and fresh and most important, delicious.
One of my favorites is the regionally popular Sugo di Noci, a sauce with a lovely subtle flavor. My most abiding memory of this dish (which I have had at many restaurants and in several variations throughout Liguria) was when I ordered it at Ca’ Peo, a charming converted farmhouse in the hills behind Chiavari not far from Genoa. I visited there with my sister, Karen, the artist, and my then partner, Colleen Houlahan. The combination of this delicious dish, stunning views of the Ligurian hills and a breathtaking sunset brought another amazing Ligurian day to a perfect conclusion.
Salsa di Noci
Ligurian Walnut Sauce
For 6 servings of pasta
36 pieces of spinach and ricotta ravioli (6 per person) which is approximately 2 – 2 ½ pounds)
1 cup walnut pieces*
1 cup day-old country bread cut into 1/2 inch cubes and soaked in ¼ cup milk then dreained and squeezed
¾ teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground pepper
½ cup parmesan
2 teaspoons fresh marjoram, chopped
1 clove of garlic
½ cup ricotta
¼ cup Greek yogurt
1/3 plus 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
In a blender combine the walnuts, the bread, salt, pepper, parmesan and fresh marjoram and garlic. Process until the mixture is smooth. (It becomes a paste but not too fine.) Slowly drizzle in the 1/3 cup of olive oil (reserving the 2 tablespoons) processing and mixing to incorporate all the oil. Transfer mixture to a bowl and fold in the ricotta, the yogurt and the remaining olive oil. Mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. The sauce will be thick.
*Several Italian recipes recommend that the walnuts be peeled to cut down on the bitterness of the nut.
Cook ravioli or other pasta. Reserve pasta water. When mixing pasta with sauce you may need some of the pasta water to thin out the sauce if it looks too thick. Toss then garnish with more chopped walnuts and minced fresh marjoram.
Once again I ended this particular Ligurian journey in Portofino, a heavenly place to spend a few hours or a few weeks. The town is crowded into a small harbor whose curved enclave of warmly colorful buildings has provided the backdrop for many a family snapshot – or on a grander scale, for the Andrea Bocelli “Love in Portofino” concert in 2013. Like the rest of this magical region Portofino is just so…damn picturesque