The food specialties of Liguria, with the notable exception of pesto, are virtually unheard of outside of Italy. Here are six dishes you must try to get to know this delicious cuisine.
As an Italian, I sometimes chuckle when people from overseas tell me they “love Italian food so much. You know, pasta, pizza, gelato, tiramisu…”
Little do many people know, Italian cuisine is incredibly varied and goes far beyond the dishes served in sidewalk cafes around the country and “Italian” restaurants all over the world. Every single Italian region – no wait, every single Italian town and village – offers traditional produce and specialties, products of the territory, and a history that stretches back millennia.
The wonders of Tuscan, Neapolitan, and Emilia-Romagna cuisine are very well known. But for some reason, the specialties of Liguria – with the notable exception of pesto – are virtually unheard of outside of Italy.
Flavors from Italy’s coast
Liguria is a coastal region in northwestern Italy, long and narrow, stretching from the French border to Tuscany, between mountains and sea. At the western end of Liguria, the popular Taggiasca olive variety is grown and made into a delicate, almost sweet olive oil that’s rich in fruity notes. Vineyards grow on the terraced mountains overlooking the coast, near Levanto and Cinque Terre. These terraces, locally known as fasce, are so steep that most work is still done by hand. The terroir is ideal for the production of Ligurian white wines like Vermentino or the whites of the Colli di Luna DOC denomination, with fruity, herbal, and mineral undertones.
Ligurian cuisine not only makes use of fish, as you would expect from a coastal region, but also of wild herbs, white meat, and locally-made cheese. Delicate flavors abound. As a friend of mine once said, “Ligurian food whispers – it whispers the song of the sea, the song of the wind as it carries the scent of the sea and wild herbs over the mountains.”
6 dishes you must try that exemplify the food of Liguria
Trenette (or Trofie) al Pesto
Well, we had to start with pesto, right? This popular condiment is found in supermarkets and restaurant menus all over the world, but once you taste the real thing in Liguria, you will be spoilt for life!
In Liguria, pesto is made by hand with a mortar and pestle. Only pine nuts, basil, garlic, pecorino, parmesan, and olive oil are used—no arugula, cashew nuts, or walnuts. Sometimes, especially around Genoa, prescinsêua (curd) is added at the end.
Two kinds of pasta are commonly served with pesto – trenette and trofie. Forget spaghetti or penne, and don’t even think about pesto chicken! Trofie are small, corkscrew-shaped dumplings, and trenette are similar to spaghetti, but are almond-shaped rather than circular – perfect for absorbing the pesto.
Focaccia di Recco
If pesto is Liguria’s most popular export, focaccia comes in at a close second. At lunchtime, every Ligurian baker proudly displays slabs of freshly-baked focaccia, glistening with olive oil, sometimes topped with olives, onions, or cheese.
The town of Recco, just east of Genoa, gives its name to a specific kind of focaccia. It is thinner than regular focaccia, and stuffed (not topped) with soft stracchino cheese. Baked fresh, the cheese oozes melted from the crunchy pastry. One piece is definitely not enough. You can find focaccia di Recco at any bakery in Genoa and around, but make sure you eat it when it’s still hot.
This is one of Liguria’s most ancient and sophisticated dishes, once a “poor man’s” specialty that is now considered a real delicacy. The “magro,” which means “lean,” suffix refers to the fact that the dish contains no meat, making it suitable for the Lenten period when people traditionally abstained from eating meat.
Cappon magro is a layered salad made with boiled local vegetables and hardtack biscuits topped with fish, seafood, and a green sauce that is kind of a cross between salsa verde and mayonnaise.
This pasta dish dates back to Etruscan times – some argue it’s the oldest pasta dish in the world. It originates from Lunigiana, a mountainous area straddling the Ligurian-Tuscan border, which was at the center of Etruscan civilization. Testaroli are made with a simple batter of water, flour and salt, cooked on a hot cast-iron pan named testo – hence the name testaroli. The result is a round pancake, cut into triangular slices and served with pesto or dressed with olive oil and grated cheese.
Pansoti in salsa di noci
All over Italy, filled pasta such as ravioli and tortellini typically contains meat – whereas in Liguria, pansoti (the local version of ravioli) has a vegetable-based filling, containing preboggion, a mixture of wild herbs, or beets and borage as an alternative. The word “pansoti” comes from pansa, meaning belly, because of their chunky appearance – even though nowadays triangular pansoti are also popular.
The traditional condiment for pansoti is salsa di noci, a walnut-based condiment made with peeled walnut kernels, garlic, salt and milk-soaked bread blended together with a mortar and pestle.
This is another popular Ligurian export. Farinata is made with a mixture of olive oil, chickpea flour, water, and salt and cooked into a thin layer on a hot griddle pan.
Farinata can be dated back to Greek and Roman times, even though its origin is related to an apocryphal tale. In 1284, the Genoan navy was returning from a battle when it got stuck in a storm. Barrels of chickpea flour and olive oil – the only available food on board – were spilled and got soaked with seawater. The following day, sailors were served a mixture of chickpea/oil/seawater in bowls. Some refused to eat it and poured it all over the deck, where the sun cooked into crispy deliciousness.
Farinata is also found in Nice, where it is called socca, in Pisa where it is known as cecina, as well as Sardinia and Argentina where it is known as fainà.
In Liguria it is usually eaten as is, freshly made, whereas in Pisa it can be found in sandwiches, and in Buenos Aires it is often eaten on top of pizza.