My own ridiculous superstitions prevent me from saying too much about travel before it happens. So you may not know that I spent most of September in Italy. (This derelict blog gave no clue. But if you are on Instagram you might have seen some of the many posts I shared once I got there.)
The trip to Italy was two parts work, one part vacation, and all parts wonderful, with stops in Genoa, Tuscany, Abruzzo, Emilia-Romagna, and, finally, Rome. For now I want to focus on Liguria, the destination for my Italian Riviera Culinary Tour next May. I spent the first few days of my trip zipping along the coast with Emanuela, my partner from Beautiful Liguria, meeting with the various food artisans and producers who will be featured on the tour, and checking out our accommodations.
Here’s a shot (looking up in the lobby) of the famous Art Deco elliptical staircase at the Hotel Bristol Palace, our home base in Genoa for the first half of the tour:
And a view of the idyllic agriturismo we’ll be staying at in the hills above Levanto for the second half of the tour:
I shared some tour highlights back in August. Here is a more detailed look at our itinerary, to further whet your appetite:
Day 1: ARRIVAL
* Arrive in Genoa, private transfer from Genoa airport. Check in to boutique hotel in Genoa’s historic center.
* Welcome dinner chez Roberto, Genoa’s pesto ambassador (if you have my book Preserving Italy, you might have read the essay I wrote about Roberto).
Day 2: TOUR GENOA
* Private tour of Genoa’s historic food shops and markets, including the renowned confectioners Pietro Romanengo fu Stefano and the Mercato Orientale, Genoa’s covered market.
* Private pesto lesson followed by lunch.
* Free afternoon and evening in Genoa.
Day 3: GULF OF PORTOFINO
* Private tour of Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure.
* Visit to the terraced gardens and vineyards of a wine and olive oil producer.
* Private cooking class and lunch.
* Return to Genoa for free evening.
Day 4: ITALIAN RIVIERA
* Private tour of medieval hamlets in the Italian Riviera.
* Visit to a Slow Food producer of chinotto, a bitter citrus fruit use to make a variety of preserves, with a tasting lunch.
* Return to Genoa for free evening.
Day 5: CHIAVARI AND LEVANTO
* Visit to the historic center of Chiavari and its artisan food shops. Tasting lunch at Antica Osteria Luchin, famous for its wood oven-fired farinata.
* Transfer to agriturismo in the hills of Levanto, with light dinner under the pergola.
Day 6: CINQUE TERRE
* Private tour of the colorful fishing villages of the Cinque Terre.
* Wine and food tasting at a terraced vineyard.
* Free evening in Levanto.
Day 7: COOKING CLASS AND FAREWELL DINNER
* Free morning to explore the area or go to the beach.
* Cooking class and farewell dinner at the agriturismo.
Day 8: DEPARTURE
* Private transfer to Genoa airport.
So who’s ready to come with me?? If you’d like to know more about logistics and pricing, please contact me directly. I’d also appreciate it if you pass this on to anyone who you think might enjoy this trip, as we would love to fill this inaugural tour.
Parts of Liguria are already well known to travelers ~ the super-chic harbor of Portofino, in which designer boutiques now occupy the sun-washed buildings that were once the homes of fishing families; and the chain of colorful fishing villages collectively known as Cinque Terre, a bucket list destination for hikers. We’ll visit these spots (we would be remiss if we didn’t) but we’ll also be seeking out less crowded places and some hidden gems.
I snapped this shot at the kitchen studio in the hills above Portofino where we’ll be having one of our cooking classes. I’m especially excited for the opportunity to introduce our guests to the cuisine of this crescent-shaped coastal region, which is unlike any other in Italy. In his 1997 cookbook on Ligurian food, Recipes From Paradise: Life and Food on the Italian Riviera, author Fred Plotkin wrote, “The gift of warm weather, sea, air, and mountains that shelter the region from northern cold has created a little paradise where flowers and herbs blossom in astonishing and fragrant profusion and variety, while delicate vegetables, succulent fruits, and outstanding wild mushrooms abound.”
He’s right; tender herbs, leafy greens, and seasonal vegetables find their way into all sorts of preparations. Often they are cooked plainly and served with a swish of good Ligurian olive oil. But they are also the main ingredient in soups, stuffed pastas, and herb-spiked savory pies, as well as a wonderfully rustic dish known as polpettone.
In the rest of Italy, polpettone means meatloaf, from the word ‘polpa,’ meaning ‘flesh’ or ‘pulp.’ But the word can also mean ‘mishmash,’ and in Liguria, polpettone is a baked mishmash of vegetables ~ artichokes, green beans, zucchini ~ usually combined with potatoes, eggs, cheese, and herbs. Look for large, shallow pans of already-baked polpettone on display at osterie and food shops, their tops decoratively scored with the tines of a fork and beautifully browned from being cooked in a wood-fire oven. You can buy a slice of polpettone as a snack, or to take on a hike or picnic. It’s definitely casual food.
But it occurred to me as I was writing this post, and as October slid into November, that polpettone would make an excellent Thanksgiving side dish. Bake it ahead of time and serve it at room temperature ~ or warm it up right before dinner. String beans, which are plentiful right now at the farmers’ markets, and happen to be a mainstay at many Thanksgiving tables, make a really good polpettone; they go well with the potatoes in the dish and contribute an appealing meaty texture.
By the way, on my last day in Genoa, I met up with Enrica, an Instagram friend and author of the blog A Small Kitchen in Genoa. We spent the morning wandering around the carruggi, sampling chocolates and sweets from the city’s famous confectioners, and talking about the region’s traditional foods. Enrica’s blog offers a true taste of Liguria, so be sure to pop over for a virtual visit.
Baked vegetable dishes are popular in Ligurian cuisine, and this casserole of sorts, combining green beans and mashed potatoes, is among the most popular. There are many variations, and should feel confident in switching out the beans for something else if you like ~ artichokes, chard, zucchini, etc. Just use the same quantity (measured by weight).
Before baking, use a fork to draw a decorative pattern on the surface, which is how you'll see polpettone displayed in food shops throughout Genoa and the region.
- 1 pound yellow potatoes
- Fine sea salt
- 1 pound tender green beans
- 1 small yellow onion
- 1 clove garlic
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh marjoram
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 3 to 4 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Put the potatoes in a pot with cold water to cover by 2 inches and salt generously. Cover and Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat slightly to prevent sputtering and boil until the potatoes are very tender and can be easily pierced with a cake tester, about 30 minutes. Drain and let them cool until you can hold them without burning your fingers. Peel them and rice them into a bowl.
Snap the stem end off the beans. Arrange them in a steam basket set in a pot of water, making sure the water does not reach the bottom of the basket. Cover and place on medium-high heat. Cook until the beans are tender and have lost their bright green color, about 10 minutes. Let them cool briefly, then cut them crosswise into small pieces.
Heat the oven to 350F.
Finely dice the onion and mince the garlic. Put them in a skillet with 3 tablespoons olive oil. Cook on medium-low until they are soft and translucent. Sprinkle in the marjoram, then add the beans, tossing them to coat them with the oil. Season with about 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook for a minute or two to mingle the flavors. Scrape the bean mixture into the bowl with the riced potatoes. Season with a few grindings of pepper and a pinch more salt, then add the eggs and Parmigiano cheese. Fold everything together with a spatula until thoroughly combined.
Lightly coat an oven-proof baking dish (I've used a 9x9-inch and an 8x11-inch) with a little of the butter. Sprinkle the bottom and sides with 1 to 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs to form a thin coating. Dollop the bean and potato filling into the dish and spread it out evenly with a spatula. Sprinkle the rest of the breadcrumbs on top. Drag the tines of a dinner fork in diagonal rows through the surface of the polpettone to form a diamond pattern. Dot the top with the remaining butter.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until well browned on top and you can hear it bubbling throughout. Let it sit for a few minutes before cutting into squares. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.