The three of us piled into the car one Friday morning in February for a surprise road trip. I tried to guess where my husband would take my three year old and myself, to celebrate my 42nd birthday. I had yet to guess the city after a week of trying. All I knew was that it was less than three hours away from Milan and the city was not Bologna, Modena, Genova, Lucca or La Spezia–my first guesses.
The road sign pointing to Livorno appeared just in time for Felipe to need navigation to the parking lot. I wasn’t too surprised that I hadn’t thought about Livorno–it was easy to forget as no one I knew had been there. As is customary of old Italian cities, we avoided driving into the city center, which was limited to local residents, and pulled into the massive port parking lot. My daughter, in awe of a giant Tweety bird painted on one of the huge, docked cruise ships, asked if we were going on the boat. Tourist masses embark here for island getaways and sea cruises, as was evident by rows of parking spots and not much else. I texted a well-traveled friend in Milan who’d lived on the island of Lipari for a stint. Not even she had been further than Livorno’s hectic port for the daily ferry boat.
We snaked our bags behind us along the old city wall, turning the corner to enter a bright piazza on the edge of Venezia Nuova. After passing the 2018-inaugurated Museo della Città in an old olive oil bottling factory, we traversed the colorful, graffiti-covered bridges over Livorno’s canals. The window from our Airbnb looked out over the small boats parked at the old fish market. The canals once provided a modern transport system for this up-and-coming port city. When Pisa silted up and was no longer easily accessible by boat, Livorno became the trade center of Tuscany. The city recruited Venetian workers to build houses, churches, stores and warehouses along with gorgeous, intersecting canals–the splendor of these buildings remains today. Within a half-hour stroll, you can see the architectural evidence of Livorno’s history as an internationally active port: the Greek and Armenian churches, the Four Moors monument and the beautiful futuristic synagogue, rebuilt in the 1960s after it was destroyed in WWII. While Livorno’s seaside walk is surprisingly less picturesque, it’s worth heading to the spectacular Terrazza Mascagni, the world’s largest checkerboard floor, complete with 34,000 tiles and a view of the faraway islands on a clear day.
Heading inland from the canal district, ready for lunch, we arrived at osteria La Barrocciaia, just in time to get the last outdoor table as the vendors of Piazza Cavallotti’s Friday fruit market closed their stalls. Inside the historic outpost, vibrant vegetables beckoned through the glass display case at the bar. Our white beans, spicy grilled eggplant, peppers sott’olio and fresh arugula on crunchy bread arrived warm, washed down with a few small glasses of Chianti (you’re given a house bottle of red and only pay for what you drink). Although La Barrocciaia’s delicacies satisfied, Felipe was tipped off by a friend in Siena that Gagarin was where we’d find Livorno’s culinary capolavoro (masterpiece), so we headed for a second lunch.
Next to the huge Mercato Delle Vettovaglie, a short line moved quickly at a nameless storefront. Graffiti provided clues: “mi piaci come la torta di ceci.” I like you like a chickpea pancake. The Livornese torta di ceci is an unleavened pancake, almost crêpe-like, made from chickpea flour. Celebrated in towns along the Ligurian Sea, versions of this chickpea pancake go by farinata in Liguria, cecina in Pisa, socca in Nice, France. (I’ve been told that the Livornese came up with a different name for their version in order to distinguish themselves from their rival Pisans.) At Gagarin, you can buy fresh torta di ceci by weight, but it’s the sandwich that keeps people coming back.
The cinque e cinque—five and five—is an insatiable torta di ceci panino, a simple sandwich of the chickpea pancake on bread with a sprinkle of black pepper. Bread is a choice of either a dimpled round of focaccia or a crusty Italian francesino, Italy’s version of a baguette. While the purist cinque e cinque is simple and special, adding Gagarin’s eggplant to the sandwich is transcendent. First, fluffy shards of their torta di ceci, which is baked in peanut oil, are cut straight from the flat steel pan which was pulled moments before from the wood-fired oven. The torta is then topped with eggplant–marinated in what the locals call “ginger,” a mix of vinegar, garlic and olive oil, infused with chili pepper. The name “five and five” hails from the 20th century custom of asking the local tortaio, the cake seller, for five cents worth of bread and five cents worth of cake. Although prices for carbohydrates are no longer that low, Gargrin’s cinque e cinque is only three euros, no doubt another reason why locals flock here. Its proximity to Mercato Delle Vettovaglie, however, is certainly another.
Livorno’s Mercato Delle Vettovaglie’s hosts almost 100 vendors, including butchers, fishmongers, fruit and wine sellers and more. Designed by Italian architect and engineer Angiolo Badaloni in 1894, it was the largest covered market in Italy. Today, it remains one of the largest in Europe. Once intended as a cultural and artistic hub, the market housed the studio of one of the most influential painters and sculptors of the 20th century–Livorno-born Amedeo Modigliani. Today, the space hosts events and rents offices to creatives on the second floor. By the time we finished our two lunches, most of the vendors were closed until the following morning. We planned to go back the next day.
Our evening walk past Modigliani’s statue in front of his childhood home and birthplace was followed by the famous fish dish cacciucco at Il Sottomarino. It was a challenge to finish the pile of fish and seafood, which lay atop bread soaked in spicy tomato based sauce. As it was artichoke season, we also ordered a side of braised carciofi with garlic. The next morning we visited the inspiring Museo della Città and passed by the birthplace of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). Then we headed to the old city fort. Kids played soccer in the overgrown grass and our daughter took to the swings, where we all looked out over the city. Back at Mercato Delle Vettovaglie, our trip ended ceremoniously with one more cinque e cinque, the line even longer on Saturday. With yet another underrated Italian sojourn under my belt, I remember that sometimes even the most unexpected surprises are the best. Livorno can be sure that I’ll be back.