Admittedly, it’s nothing like the golden, pillowy, dimpled focaccia you associate with the name. This delicacy is something entirely different, unleavened, hardly even focaccia at all in the traditional sense of the word. Yet it is the most decadent version of them all. If you’ve never been to Liguria, specifically to the area around Recco, you’ve most likely never tasted the stuff, or anything remotely close to it.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Focaccia di Recco col Formaggio. Two flakey, golden, impossibly thin layers of dough encase an oozing, tangy, melted cheese filling that inevitably dribbles down the chin. It’s impossible to stop after just one slice. In 1997, food writer Fred Plotkin called it “the most addictive food on the planet.”
To find out more about the dish, I went directly to the source: a small seaside village about 30 minutes from Genoa. Recco, sadly, is not the most beautiful of Ligurian towns. It was almost completely leveled by allied bombings in World War II and posseses little of the antique charm of the colorful, postcard-like, neighboring villages. Yet Recco has become world famous for its particular recipe for cheese focaccia, for which people travel from distant lands to experience first-hand.
Focaccia di Recco col Formaggio is protected by European PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status, which means that the authentic product can only come from the Recco, Avegno, Sori and Camogli municipalities, using specific ingredients and following strict regulations. So basically, if you want to eat the real stuff, you have to go there. And that’s exactly what I do, every chance I get.
Named after the family matriarch who started the business in 1885, Recco’s famous Focacceria Manuelina is credited with popularizing the now-famous recipe and is run by the fourth generation of the same family today.
I was greeted by energetic and enthusiastic Cesare, Manuelina’s great-grandson, whose love for focaccia col formaggio is only matched by his love for playing tennis–the only plausible explanation for his slim build and springy step, considering the pure quantity of the flatbread he eats. “It’s the only thing in the world I just can’t resist. I never get sick of it. Ask anybody, if there’s a piece laying around, even cold, I’ll snatch it up,” he told me. It was a sleepy Saturday morning in Liguria’s off-season, but Cesare was in full preparation mode for what would be a very busy day. “Weekends are always busy for us, even during the winter. We’ll serve around 500 focaccias on a good Saturday.”
I peeked into the kitchen, where the baker was rolling a ball of dough into a thin sheet. He deftly flipped it onto the back of his hands and began rapidly stretching and flipping the disk, which became larger and thinner with each expert turn. When he was finished, the sheet was perfectly round, about a meter wide, and so gossamer-thin that I could nearly see through it. The secret, Cesare explained to me, was to use a higher-protein bread flour which provides adequate elasticity. After stretching it over a huge, round focaccia pan, he began scattering golf-ball sized, sticky chunks of creamy cheese over the surface. Early recipes for this focaccia called for a local cheese called Molana, which over the decades has been replaced by stracchino, or crescenza, from nearby Lombardy. This fresh, rindless cow’s milk cheese has a slightly tangy flavor, and a soft and creamy texture that melts into an irresistible velvety puddle when baked.
After covering the dollops of cheese with another paper-thin layer of stretched dough, he pinched holes in the surface, allowing steam to escape and cheese to bubble through, and then sealed the edges, trimming away the excess dough. Before sliding it into the searing oven (300°C / 570°F, to be exact), the focaccia di Recco was drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled generously with salt.
Eight minutes later, the golden, steaming tray emerged, cheese bubbling over, the aroma irresistible. Cesare slid the enormous focaccia onto a large table, sliced it into pieces that he transferred, dripping, onto plates. “Let’s eat.”
“I’m really not a glutton,” he said, reaching for another slice. “I rarely stuff my face with other foods. But I just can’t pass up a hot tray of our focaccia. It never gets old.” In a matter of minutes, the three of us had nearly polished off the tray of focaccia meant to serve six. I was starting to agree with that Plotkin quote, which Cesare had translated into Italian and printed on the wall of the restaurant: “the most addictive food on the planet.”
While it’s impossible to replicate the exact taste and consistency of Recco’s focaccia col formaggio at home, the following recipe comes pretty close. The most difficult part, if you’re outside Italy, will be getting your hands on crescenza or stracchino cheese; there is really no appropriate substitute. If you have access to a wood fired pizza oven, the results will be even better, but keep a close eye on it because it can burn quite easily.
Focaccia col Formaggio
Recipe from Liguria, The Cookbook (Rizzoli, NYC)
- 4 2⁄3 cups (600 g) bread flour
- 1 1⁄2 cups (350 ml) lukewarm water
- 1⁄4 cup (55 g) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing pans and brushing
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 1⁄4 pounds (1 kg) crescenza or stracchino cheese
Makes two 11-by-17inch trays of focaccia
- Combine flour and water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Knead on medium-low speed until a shaggy dough forms, about 5 minutes. Add olive oil and salt and continue kneading until dough is soft, smooth, and elastic, about another 7 minutes. Remove from mixer, form a ball, and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes. Unwrap dough, cut into 4 equal-sized pieces, cover with a clean dish cloth, and let rest for 10 more minutes.
- Preheat oven to 450°F and generously grease two 11-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheets with olive oil; set aside.
- Place a piece of dough on a lightly floured work surface and roll into a disk with a flour-dusted rolling pin. Contrary to rolling out typical pie dough, you will want to roll out the edges first, rather than starting from the center of the disk, since the edges tend to shrink back as you roll. Begin rolling out the edges of the dough, turning the disk in a clockwise motion until it is large, round, and thin. Dust your hands with flour, gently pick up the disk, and drape over the backs of closed fists. Carefully stretch the dough, moving your fists away from each other and rotating the dough in order to stretch evenly. When dough is very thin and translucent, lay it over one of the prepared pans; there should be plenty of overlap.
- Distribute half of the cheese evenly over the sheet of dough in rounded, tablespoon-sized dollops; there is no need to spread it. Roll and stretch another sheet of dough, following the instructions above, then lay it over the baking sheet on top of the cheese. Press firmly around the edges of the pan with your hands to seal the two sheets of dough together. Set aside assembled focaccia to rest for 10 minutes. Meanwhile repeat this entire process to assemble another focaccia in the other pan, using remaining dough and cheese.
- Cut excess dough from the edges of the first focaccia with a sharp knife. Alternatively, you can roll a large rolling pin over the pan, which will cut away the excess dough. Crimp the top and bottom layers together around the edges if they become unsealed. Using your thumb and forefinger, pinch the top layer of dough, ripping a quarter-sized hole in the sheet (you may also use a small knife if you prefer). Repeat this process, pinching about 10 holes around the surface of the focaccia; this will release the air trapped inside and let the cheese ooze out over the focaccia’s surface. Brush the focaccia with olive oil, place directly on the lowest oven rack, and cook until it is golden brown and cheese is bubbling, 8 to 10 minutes. Repeat with second pan of focaccia. Cut focaccia into large squares and serve hot.