Food

Ligurian Food: Head for the Hills!

Simple, Fragrant, Seasonal, Elegant

 

When I floated the idea of moving to Italy as my seven-month work project in Milan was coming to a conclusion, my new steadfast friend and colleague Laurel Evans graciously presented her personal joys and pitfalls as I rattled off questions — practical and less so — about la dolce vita. Laurel, who moved from Texas at 19 years old, had published multiple cookbooks in Italian and became a known food TV personality after 20 years in the country. My eyes opened as she shared her fascinating journey and my mouth opened wider. On her invitation to visit her adoptive home of Moneglia (mo-nail-yah) we ate bowls of tightly twisted trofie al pesto and grilled orata on the beach. A spontaneous dance party followed; I still cherish the memory of dancing with her toddler (now 5) and the smooth grey-and-white striped stones we collected that night. Little did I know, Laurel would introduce me to my future husband. She would also be my 3 month companion as our families formed a pod during Italy’s major covid-19 lockdown.

I have watched in awe at Laurel’s ability to create, especially in the tiny kitchen that our mother-in-laws, who are sisters, grew up in. A master of multicourse feasts of challenging and delicious traditional Ligurian food, she’ll cook, tell jokes and simultaneously fill any empty wine glass with crisp, local Vermentino. If you ask, she’ll take you to meet the winemakers or to one of the dozens of incredible, often hard to reach, trattorias in the Ligurian hills and recount her memories of trying these dishes. Yes, of course there’s special seafood and many places to try fritto misto (mixed fried fish) but Laurel opened my eyes to focaccia, farinata, pastas and the specialties from the hills – Liguria is much more than seafood. Wild boar ragu or braised rabbit will surely hit your table if you’re with Laurel. Her love for classic seasonality and deep knowledge of the experimental Italian scene (she won’t offer it up but she’s been on set and stage with dozens of chefs including Massimo Bottura) is mesmerizing.

Having developed and launched a festival about food and books in Brooklyn, New York, I am proud to be her “book fairy” introducing her to my friend and book editor Caitlin Leffel. Laurel’s first English book, aptly named Liguria: The Cookbook, is coming out next month with Rizzoli and is for anyone curious about Italian food or Italy’s Northern coast.

Elizabeth Jones: You are known primarily in Italy for making American food – and teaching Italians that it is much more than hamburgers. How did you come to write this cookbook?

Laurel Evans: It has been a longtime dream of mine to recount my love of Italian food culture to Americans. The longer I’ve lived here, and the deeper my understanding has become of the place and customs, the more I have become fascinated with the differences in the regional cuisines. My husband’s family is from Liguria and we spend our summers (and most weekends in between) at his home in the beach town of Moneglia. While it is only a 2 hour drive from our home in Milan, the food is completely different. The more time I spent there, observing my mother-in-law and her two sisters cooking local fare, the more fascinated I became with this particular region’s cuisine. I found it baffling that most people outside Italy had never heard of Ligurian cuisine, even though it’s the region that gave us focaccia and pesto, two of Italy’s most popular contributions to the world’s table.

EJ: How would you describe Ligurian food in a few words?

LE: Simple, fragrant, seasonal, flavorful, resourceful… understated elegance.

EJ: Tell us in detail about your cookbook. There is a deep history here, especially in Genova. What other books did you read as a point of reference?

LE: I had a lot of fun reading the historic, Italian-language cookbooks about Ligurian cuisine. Emilio’s aunt loaned me her crumbling, leather-bound, first edition copy of La Cuciniera Genovese from 1863, which was the first printed cookbook about the region. It offered invaluable (though often outdated) information and recipes. La cucina dei genovesi by food historian Paola Lingua was a fascinating deep dive into the history and food culture of Liguria’s fascinating capital, Genoa. English-language books about the region were scarce, though a very dear friend of mine (YOU!) lent me her copy of Fred Plotkin’s encyclopedic cookbook on Ligurian food “Recipes From Paradise: Life and Food on the Italian Riviera.” This proved to be an invaluable resource as well.

EJ: Traveling through Liguria can sometimes feel like a region of secrets. What are your favorite tips for our readers?

LE: Head for the hills! It’s easy to be bewitched by the beaches and coastal views of the riviera, but for the most authentic dining experiences I urge you to head off the beaten path and up the winding roads to the inlands. This is where you’ll find the freshest produce, bountiful gardens, breathtaking views, heroic wineries, beautiful hikes and family-run restaurants well off the tourist track. The beach-sides are often dominated by tourist traps that peddle expensive seafood dishes that, while often delicious, aren’t really exemplary of the local cuisine. Also, you can get everything you need for a delicious picnic at any of the local Forni (literally translates to “oven” but basically means “bakery”). Here you can sample the local savory tarts, farinata, and of course the many flavors of focaccia. Buy early in the morning for the best selection before heading to the beach or countryside!

One last thing, you can’t leave Liguria until you’ve tried the most authentic breakfast treat: a slice of focaccia dipped in a cappuccino!

EJ: What is Ligurian wine like? What are your favorite wineries to visit?

LE: Winemaking in Liguria could best be described as heroic. Rugged, mountainous terrain, poor, rocky soil and steep hillsides that fall directly into the sea make for an inhospitable landscape. In many local vineyards, the steep inclines are entirely inaccessible to machinery, and harvesting must be done by hand. Some vineyards are accessible only by boat. Paradoxically, Liguria’s problematic terrain is also what makes its winemaking successful. The hillsides protect seaside vineyards from cold northern winds, exposing the grapes to the warm sea breeze and mild climate. This all results in unique and delicious wines. Vermentino is the most common Ligurian white wine. It is persistent, fruity, and dry, pairing well with appetizers, seafood, and nuts. I personally love a Pigato della Riviera Ligure di Ponente. The Pigato grape grows almost exclusively in this area and is considered to be more refined and elegant than vermentino. Pigato goes well with savory vegetable tarts, seafood dishes, and pesto.

EJ: What are your favorite restaurants?

LE: It depends which area I’m visiting. If I’m looking for a lovely dining experience close to Moneglia with fresh ingredients, a passionate chef and a fantastic wine list, I head for La Brinca. For family friendly, low key, trattoria settings even closer to home I love the family run, multigenerational Trattoria Pagliettini in Comeglio, or Trattoria Ou Settembrin in Carasco.  For an authentic taste of the elusive Cucina Bianca, or “white cuisine” of the mountainous, northeast corner of Liguria, you can’t miss Osteria Del Rododendro in Montegrosso Pian Latte. Their local ravioli, called Raviore, are stuffed with close to 40 freshly foraged wild herbs. For more of a fine dining experience that reinvents traditional dishes with a contemporary twist, I loved Cantine Cattaneo in Sestri Levante Il Genovese and Il Marin in Genoa. Trattoria dell’Acciughetta in Genoa is also fun. You absolutely must not miss out on the original Focaccia di Recco col Formaggio (cheese focaccia from Recco) at Da Ö Vittorio or La Manuelina. I’m curious to try Carlo Cracco’s new place that just opened in Portofino, but haven’t made it there yet. The menu includes the famous chef’s take on local classics, which could be fun, but for first-time visitors I would recommend first trying some of the more historic and authentic dining experiences first.

EJ: Would you mind sharing a recipe with us (and perhaps some photos?)

 

Farinata (Chickpea Flatbread) on Page 181 

While it’s often described as a “chickpea pancake” or “tart,” neither of those terms adequately describes the texture and consistency of this popular and ancient Ligurian street food. When made correctly, it should be thinner than a pancake, with a crisp, flakey exterior and a soft, almost custardy center. Naturally vegan and gluten-free, the recipe appears deceptively simple thanks to its short ingredient list: water, chickpea flour, salt, and oil. Don’t be fooled; the devil is in the details when it comes to making farinata. It’s traditionally cooked in a piping-hot, wood-fired oven in wide, round copper pans, so adapting the recipe to a home kitchen required quite some tweaking. The exact proportions of water to flour are fundamental here, as is the long rest time and, most of all, the thickness of the batter in the pan, which should never exceed ¼ of an inch (6 millimeters). Therefore, it is not advised to double the recipe or use a different size pan than the one indicated here.

INGREDIENTS

Makes one 11 x 17-inch tray of farinata

  • 2 cups (7 ounces) chickpea flour
  • 2 1/2 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

 

  1. Pour the chickpea flour into a large bowl and toss with a fork to loosen. Slowly add lukewarm water, a little at a time, whisking until smooth. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rest at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours.Every 2 hours stir the mixture and skim the surface to remove any foam that forms on top.
  2. Place an oven rack in the lowest position and one in the highest position and preheat to 500°F. Place a rectangular 11-by-17-inch sheet pan or jelly roll pan on either rack in the oven while it preheats.
  3. Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Do not let it come to a simmer; it should be hot but not smoking.
  4. Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool until it is warm to the touch but not scalding. Add the salt to the farinata batter and stir to combine. Slowly pour the warm olive oil directly into the pan, swirling to coat. Pour the batter swiftly into the center of the pan. Bake on the bottom rack of oven for 20 minutes, or until the farinata is light golden. If your oven permits, you may also bake it directly on the floor of the oven for this step.
  5. Turn on the broiler to high and move the farinata to the top rack. Broil, watching closely, until a light brown crust forms on the surface, 2 to 4 minutes.
  6. Remove from oven and let cool in pan for 5 minutes. Cut into 12 rectangles and serve hot.

La Brinca

Trattoria Pagliettini

Trattoria Ou Settembrin

Osteria Del Rododendro

Cantine Cattaneo

Il Genovese

Il Marin

Trattoria dell’Acciughetta

Da Ö Vittorio

La Manuelina