July 8, 2011
When I say Liguria, I’m talking about the Ligurian coast in the Italian Riviera. Topographically different from the rest of Italy, the coastline is scattered with mountainous cliffs that drop straight down into the ocean, and hidden beaches are nestled away in unspoiled coves. Idyllic Santa Margherita and Portofino were the two stops for us in the region. Cinque Terre was also on the list but our attempt to visit the popular cluster of fishing towns embedded into the cliffside was thwarted by a train strike and no ferry service.
The Ligurian region is responsible for two particularly well-known foodstuffs: pesto and cioppino. Yeah, yeah, “Cioppino was invented in San Francisco”, but it really was the work of Italian fishermen that brought the concept over from Genova, after a long-standing tradition of using bits from the day’s leftover catch to make their lunch right on the boat.
A regional dish most of us are far less familiar with is called trofiette liguri, a hand-rolled pasta coated with Genovese pesto.
The trofiette noodle is made by pulling off a small bit of pasta dough and then rolling it along the counter once with your palm. I had this dish at a popular restaurant called Da Michele in Santa Margherita although let it be said that the town itself is very small and most of the restaurants are casual, family-run eateries. You’ll find the same in Portofino except at a much higher price point.
Portofino is one of the most exceptional places I have ever visited. While extremely small and private, it’s a popular getaway for the beyond-affluent. Only a few miles away from Santa Margherita, it’s easy to catch a small ferry for a quick ride along the peninsula.
There isn’t much to do there but walk around, drink, eat, drink some more, enjoy the view, and then get back on the ferry or take a cab back to Santa Margherita. The first place we stopped to have drinks was at La Gritta where they had a small, floating platform tied to the dock.
I think one of my favorite things about Italy in general is that every time you sit down to have a drink, they automatically hand you bowls of snacks like chips, olives, and nuts. The nicer the place, the better the offerings. Keep in mind, if you’re wondering what the coperto is on your check, it means a cover charge just for occupying a seat so I loosely refer to the snacks as copertos. Every time I paid the bill throughout Italy I would say “damn copertos.”
After drinks and snacks at La Gritta, we moved down further along the dock for lunch at O Magazín for the linguini con vongole (clams) because what better place could you have this?
Fresh, light, buttery and seasoned with fresh herbs, it was a perfectly executed dish.
I did have gelato after this but dropped the entire thing on the ground like an idiot. However, while walking around gelato-less, we noticed this bag of bread outside a restaurant door.
We learned that this is the way restaurants pick up the bread they’re going to serve for the evening. The bread makers put the bread in the bags and leave it outside for restaurateurs to pick up.
During our last night in Santa Margherita, we went to L’insolita Zuppa, another small, family-owned eatery. It was packed. We started with a yellowtail appetizer because the menu led us to believe it was going to be a crudo with a hint of citrus. The fish was actually completely cured and served with blood orange and fennel. It looked completely unappetizing but was incredibly delicate and light in flavor.
The rest of the food served was good enough but had some really odd presentations, not completely unlike some places I’ve gone to in Russian River (Chez Marie’s, anyone?). One example would be the soup served in the fishbowl. Surprisingly delicious albeit, um… avant-garde in plating.
Our time in Liguria was short, and because of the train strike and lack of ferries, our exposure to unique local specialties was limited. After walking miles and miles across the cobblestones of ancient cities throughout Italy, these sleepy port towns of Liguria were a welcome respite. Don’t plan on doing much if you ever visit, but do plan on visiting if you can.
Largo Amendola 17, 16038
T: (+39) 0185283660
Calata Marconi, 18
T: (+39) 0185 269126
34 Calata Marconi, Portofino
T: (+39) 0185 269 178
Via Romana, 7