No doubt there is a place in the world that owns your heart, as Italy owns mine. Most of my heart (as we all know) belongs to Abruzzo. But I have a feeling I’m about to leave a piece of it in Liguria, where I’m headed for a few days of R&R&R (research and rest and relaxation).
This rocky, bow-shaped region, on Italy’s northern Mediterranean coast, is home to the Italian Riviera and the Cinque Terre hiking trails. Pesto is undoubtedly its most famous culinary contribution. But as with the rest of Italy, there is much more to Liguria than these few (though spectacular) highlights.
In putting together the itinerary for my trip, I’ve been in touch with Emanuela Raggio and Anna Merulla, the team that runs Beautiful Liguria, a custom tour company. Like my friends Nancy and Michael at Abruzzo Presto, Emanuela and Anna are interested in sustainable tourism, and in showing people their region from the local perspective.
I’m hoping to post from Liguria while I’m there. In the mean time, Emanuela answered a few questions about her native region. She also kindly gave me permission to post these photos from the Beautiful Liguria website.
DM: Many travelers to Italy are familiar with the Italian Riviera, and with adventures such as hiking in Cinque Terre. But what about the rest of Liguria? Can you describe the region and tell us what sets it apart from other regions of Italy?
ER: In essence, Liguria is a region still to be discovered. It’s a region that distinguishes itself because it offers a perfect mix of nature and culture and, in terms of nature, of sea and the mountains. In this one place, it is possible to visit historic fishing villages; the famous Palazzi dei Rolli [a set of grand palaces and mansions in the heart of Genoa]; take in the sun on beautiful beaches; and hike along incredible coastal paths. But more than anything, Liguria is special because it is still an authentic region, offL the beaten path of tourism.
DM: Genova is the capital of Liguria and the heart of the region. Most Americans know it as the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. What sights would you recommend to a first-time traveler in Genova?
ER: Genoa is a city that leaves everyone speechless with awe. It is an antique port, with the largest medieval historic center in all of Europe. But above all, Genoa is a multi-layered city, where within a few steps you can go from noble palaces and museums to antique shops where you will find ancient crafts to places where you can taste typical street food. It’s a city of contrasts that has maintained its authenticity; nothing is artificial, nothing has been contrived for tourists. Here you can be in contact with the true soul of the territory.
DM: I’ve been reading about the food of Liguria, which seems quite different than the food of any other Italian region. Beyond pesto, what are some of Liguria’s famous dishes?
ER: Ligurian cuisine also has yet to be discovered. It’s Mediterranean “poor man’s” cuisine, based on ingredients that were available in this hard territory: lots of vegetables, aromatic herbs, oil. Besides pesto, I would advise you not to miss Genovese focaccia, savory tortes filled with greens, “pansotti,” (pasta stuffed with field greens) with nut sauce. Then, of course, there is local fish such as anchovies, also a “poor man’s” ingredient, which are preserved in salt or cooked in many ways. Another specialty not to be missed is rabbit braised with olives.
DM: Where there is good food there must also be good wine. What kinds of wine does Liguria produce?
ER: Ligurian wines tell a story of hard work and passion, because in a land without much space, the vineyards are terraced on the sides of the mountains. It is not possible to use machinery, and so everything is still done by hand, as in the old days. Production is limited, but of excellent quality. Among the white wines of Cinque Terre is Sciacchetra’, a sweet, highly valued wine. Towards the west, a wine called Rossese.
DM: Finally, where is the best place to go in Liguria for an aperitivo and for people-watching?
ER: Here there’s an embarrassment of choices. One wonderful and little-known place to enjoy the sunset on the beach while sipping Ligurian white wine is the tiny village of Tellaro, in the far east of Liguria, near La Spezia and Cinque Terre. If, on the other hand, you are looking for something more worldly, more sophisticated, there is, of course, Portofino, with its famous piazetta, where you will always find VIPs.
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I’ll be in Liguria for Easter, where I’m looking forward to trying a slice of “torta pasqualina,” a traditional savory pie filled with greens or artichokes and eggs. Traditionally, the pie has 33 layers of pastry, to commemorate the number of years Jesus walked the earth. Clicking around, I found this simplified version by David Tanis in The New York Times. I haven’t had a chance to test the recipe yet, but I did have a good laugh at the paper’s translation of “torta pasqualina” to “Giant Green Pie.”
Buona Pasqua a tutti!
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Italy is calling you. Join our Abruzzo Presto-Domenica Cooks Culinary Tour in Abruzzo, September 20-27!