Thursday, May 3, 2012

Pesto on the Italian Riviera

Renowned for its mild Mediterranean winters, the Italian Riviera runs all along the rocky Ligurian coastline. It represents old-fashioned glamour, and its romantic resorts – such as Portofino and San Remo – have long attracted the world’s elite. But from the palaces of Genoa to the tumbling fishermen’s houses of Cinque Terre, one simple sauce reigns supreme: pesto alla genovese.

The marvelous region of Liguria, in northwest Italy, is remarkably varied. It boasts landscapes stretching from the snowbound Alps to the dramatic coastline of the Mediterranean, where soaring cliffs rise from secluded bays and long beaches of yellow sand. At its heart stands the sprawling capital city of Genoa, a strategic port for more than 2,000 years and a supreme example of old-world capitalism from its heyday in the 16th century. The region retains much of its old appeal, easily enchanting visitors who wander the charming fishing settlements or medieval city streets. Elegant resorts dot the coast in both directions from Genoa: to the west, the Riviera di Ponente runs quickly to the star of the 1900s, San Remo; while to the east, the Riviera di Levante glories in upmarket Portofino and the pretty clifftop villages of Cinque Terre.
Genoa has produced many extraordinary people, from the 15th-century explorer Christopher Columbus to the 20th century’s wondrous architect Renzo Piano, and the countryside around it produces equally famous food. Olives – such as the tiny, flavorsome Taggiasco variety – grow everywhere, flourishing on the sun-soaked terraced hillsides. They are pressed to make a superb, delicate extra-virgin oil, which then forms the basis of the area’s best-known pasta sauce, pesto alla genovese. “Pesto” simply means “crushed,” referring to the way that the basic raw ingredient, fresh basil, is traditionally pounded by hand using a mortar and pestle, along with pine nuts and (sometimes) garlic. Many cooks today crush the ingredients in an electric blender, before adding the finishing touches – olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese. A little water may be added if the paste is too thick, and then it is carried triumphantly to the table, where it silkily coats pasta or gnocchi with rich Ligurian flavors.
Pesto has spawned a huge number of variations, from the common Ligurian version with runner beans and potatoes to an exotic Sicilian one enriched with tomatoes and almonds. Chefs in other countries play with it freely, even trying other herbs and vegetables in place of basil. It seems that the basic mix – of leaf, oil, and nuts – is so fine that nothing is able to spoil it.

Above: Manarola, one of the five picturesque Cinque Terre villages on the Ligurian coast
The Best Places to Eat Pesto
Ristorante Da Genio
Having reliably served up delicious traditional Ligurian cuisine for over 50 years, this restaurant has a devoted following of diners from both Genoa and farther afield. It is well worth the baffling walk through a warren of old streets to find the place. The decor is 1950s Italian, and the walls are lined with paintings by local artists. The signature dish is a classic pesto, freshly made in-house using a special variety of small-leaved Genoa basil blended with pine nuts and Parmesan. The resulting bright green, oily cream is tossed with hot troffiette – squiggles of pale, tender pasta – and sprinkled with grated Parmesan. They also serve pesto on trenette, a type of flat spaghetti, and as corzetti con sugo di pinoli, an ancient dish and a rarity these days in Liguria – flat pasta medallions in a pine nut dressing. Second courses focus on fish, notably a stew of stoccafisso (cod) with black olives and pine nuts. There’s a great selection of Ligurian wines, too.
Salita San Leonardo 61r, Genoa; open 12:30–3 PM & 7:30–10 PM Mon–Sat, Sept–July;
Also in Liguria
The tiny, friendly eatery of Il Portico Spaghetteria (; inexpensive) in Camogli is tucked under the archways facing the beachfront. Aromatic pesto is served with ricotta on a crostino for antipasto, then with trenette as a first course. Try the good intingolo di mare dip of mussels and bread too.
Also in Italy
Trattoria Cantina Siciliana (www.; moderate) is a friendly Slow Food restaurant in Trapani, Sicily, that serves some memorable Sicilian food. One of the stand-out dishes is busiate, strips of fresh pasta curled into spirals around a knitting needle.
They are dished up with delicious pesto trapanese, which is a superlative blend of finely chopped tomato, basil, garlic, and almonds with pecorino cheese.
Around the World
In New York, the “food temple” that is Eataly (; inexpensive) consists of several restaurants and small food stores; it resembles a giant food exhibition. This is the first member of the chain outside northern Italy, and they make a great pasta al forno al pesto, Ligurian-style pesto spread on top of lasagna pasta sheets that have been layered with a cheesy béchamel sauce. The final touch is a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts and cracked black peppercorns.
Three Days in Liguria
The Italian Riviera is an easy place to spend time, whether you want to sightsee, hike, or relax in a spectacularly beautiful setting.
DAY ONE : Genoa’s spectacular aquarium, designed by architect Renzo Piano, is an excellent start to any visit. Then take a short stroll downtown to explore the medieval streets and visit the Duomo.
DAY TWO : Pack your swimsuit and set out along the spectacular 7-mile (12-km) Sentiero Azzurro path that links the picture-postcard villages of the Cinque Terre. Begin at Monterosso al Mare and go southeast along the cliffs dotted with medieval watchtowers and through the fishing settlements, all the way to Riomaggiore. If you get tired, jump on a train or a ferry.
DAY THREE : A rocky wooded peninsula east of Genoa is the stunning setting for “impossibly beautiful” Portofino, with its pastel houses and luxury yachts. From there, catch a ferry to the exquisite abbey of San Fruttuoso, which sits on the beachfront in a secluded bay.
Continue on to hospitable Camogli either on foot or by ferry.

Getting to towns of the Italian Riviera

Genoa’s Cristoforo Colombo airport has flights from most European cities. There are buses every half-hour to the downtown, 4 miles (6 km) away. Extensive bus and train networks link the towns of the Italian Riviera.

Where to stay in towns of the Italian Riviera

 Hotel Agnello D’Oro (inexpensive) is a quiet converted monastery close to the train station in Genoa.
Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi (moderate) in Camogli is a beautiful seafront hotel in a refurbished 17th-century villa.
Hotel Splendido Mare (expensive) provides unabashed luxury in the heart of fabulous Portofino.
Ligurian Food Festivals
The pretty Cinque Terre village of Monterosso al Mare is the place to go if you love lemons; every spring it holds the Sagra del Limone, a fair celebrating lemons and everything made from them. The whole village is adorned in yellow, and a myriad products – from marmalade and lemon cakes to the alcoholic Limoncello – can be tasted and bought. Every May the village of Camogli hosts a unique Sagra del Pesce, a fish fair first held by local fishermen in 1952. A truly gigantic frying pan, rated as the world’s biggest, is set up in the seafront square and plates of fried fish are handed out to all and sundry during festivities for the patron saint San Fortunato. Also in May, neighboring Recco celebrates another Ligurian specialty, the delicious focaccia con formaggio, a thin, fragrant bread spread with soft fresh cheese and baked quickly in a very hot oven.

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