Every city in Italy has its unique characteristics when it comes to eating. Although not the most popular destination on the tourist track, Genoa is certainly no exception.
After living in Bologna aka ‘La Grassa’ (“the fat one”) for three years and getting my fill of carnivorous dishes such as tortellini, meaty ragù and mounds of mortadella, Genoese cuisine – which is almost vegetarian – has been a pretty big change for me. However with the best pesto in the world at my fingertips, I can’t say I’m complaining!
Genoa’s cuisine is very much confined by its terrain. The rocky mountains of Liguria mean that farming is difficult and livestock is scarce. Of course that doesn’t mean the food is bland or limited. Locally grown herbs such as basil, majoram, and sage add a punch of flavor to many typical dishes, while preserved grains and cheese give sustenance despite an almost meatless diet. Ligurian olives are an important export, as well as olive oil. Naturally the sea also provides lots of fish and seafood, even though much of what is caught in Genoa is shipped off directly to Milan.
So what do you get from all these ingredients? What will you find on the menus of typical Genoese restaurants? Probably a lot more than you’d think. If you’re like me and plan your vacation around food, then this post is for you!
Eating in Genoa: Typical Dishes
1. Pesto alla Genovese
Everybody knows and loves pesto – that green, basil nutty cheesy sauce. It’s a fool-proof sauce, always a hit with everyone at the party. Even when storebought in a jar comes out great. In short it’s pretty hard to mess up pesto.
Yet pesto from Genoa is in whole other league. It’s like a drug…like ‘crack cocaine’ as Nicholas Watson said in Genoa La Superba (great read for anyone visiting Genoa). In Genoa it’s not just green, it’s NEON green. Liquid, neon-green gold I tell ya! The Genoese know best – pesto should be made fresh, with basil grown locally (the best is basilico from Prà).
Unlike my mother and thousands of others who like to mix pesto with millions of other ingredients, the Genoese like it plain and simple: with pasta (usually ‘le trofie’, little worm-like pasta) or with pasta, potatoes and green beans (sounds strange but it’s actually tasty and very filling). Occassionally you’ll see a thin layer of pesto on top of a piece of focaccia, but that’s as pretty much as far as pesto goes. It’s the Italian mindset of ‘Why mess with a good thing?’.
By the way, if you’re looking to make your own pesto, I’ve got some secret tips from a pesto world champion in this post.
If pesto is Genoa’s crack cocaine, focaccia is their heroin. This savory, oily leavened bread known as ‘fugassa’ to the Genoese is enjoyed at all hours of the day, but more often than not you’ll find it alongside a cappuccino for breakfast or wrapped up in bakery paper as a mid-morning take away snack. Of course there are many types of focaccia, but the most popular are plain, focaccia with onions, or focaccia al formaggio (with cheese) which originates from Recco, a little town a few kilometers south of Genoa. Try Forno di Ghia (Via Galata 39) or Panificio Mario (Via San Vincenzo 59) for the best.
Farinata is one of those foods that’s so different it doesn’t even seem Italian. Farinata, meaning ‘made of flour’, is a chickpea flatbread (100% gluten free!) made with chickpea flour, olive oil and salt. The ingredients are first mixed together and left to rest for several hours before being poured into a large, flat round pan and baked in the oven at a high temperature until golden and crispy. The result is a sort of potatoless hashbrown flatbread that’s good enough to be eaten all on its own or as a savory appetizer.
4. Pansotti con Salsa alle Noci
While there’s always fresh pesto on the menu, it’s certainly one of the more desired dishes of spring and summer when basil is at its freshest. In the cooler months I prefer something a bit richer and creamier. That’s where salsa alle noci – a creamy, walnut sauce – comes into plauy. For me salsa alle noci is kind of like a pesto in and of itself – made by mashing up a bunch of walnuts, breadcrumbs, milk, parmesan cheese, garlic, majoram and a bit of olive oil. It’s typically served with pansotti – little tortellini-like pasta stuffed with chard, majoram, and cheese. You might also find salsa alle noci served with chestnut trofie.
4. Cima alla genovese
Thanks to one of my English students I learned about this very strange but interesting looking dish the other day. It’s the first Genoese meat dish I’ve heard of, evidence that its not an entirely vegetarian menu here (not that I don’t love vegetarian food, see my Vegetarian Ragù Recipe if you don’t believe me). Cima alla genovese is what happens when you take veal, stuff it with eggs, cheese, and peas, roll it all up and boil it in broth. It’s then refigerated overnight and served as a gelatinous secondo. Don’t diss it until you’ve tried it, right?!
5. Torte, torte, torte
Any place that specializes in focaccia or farinata (usually called ‘focacceria‘) will probably also specialize in one other thing: savory vegetable pies. You’ll find lots of different types here including Torta Pasqualina (Easter Pie) – made with chard, ricotta, majoram and hardboiled eggs, Torta di Patate (potato pie), Torta di Riso (rice pie), Torta di Bietole (chard pie), Torta di Cipolla (onion pie) and recently I’ve even seen Torta di Zucca (squash pie). Ostaja San Vincenzo is a great eatery where you can try all different types of pies on one plate and still have your pasta al pesto too!
You can fry just about anything and it will taste good, right? How about frying….lettuce? That’s exactly what the Genoese do and you know what? It actually turns about pretty great. Frisceu – little fried dough balls with bits of lettuce inside – are a typical snack or appetizer. They’re tasty and they remind me a lot of hushpuppies from back home. You’ll also find small fried fish, calamari and fried vegetables in many places.
Although it’s typically eaten at Christmas time, you’ll find this cake in bakeries all year round in Genoa. It’s a leavened sweet bread made with butter, yeast, flour, raisins, orange peel, anice seed, sugar, egg, pine nuts and other dried fruits. If this doens’t sound good to you, don’t worry there’s also canestrelli – flower shaped biscuits full of butter and sugar. They’re deceivingly light. :D