Postcard from Genoa, Italy: A seafood-lover’s paradise

The sounds woke me up Monday through Saturday in Genoa. The way-too-early alarm echoed from two doors and two floors down the steep 10-foot-wide street, actually only a pedestrian passageway. The fish monger hurling up the metal shutter, hauling out the trough and filling it with ice to hold the fresh catch of the day. Those jarring noises were followed shortly by the first customers, evidently all friends as interested in exchanging pleasantries, amplified by the four-story buildings, as purchasing seafood.

But the morning sounds quickly reminded me of a meal ahead and what always is central to menus in this port city – an abundance of fresh seafood. Mussels, squid, octopus, shrimp, butterflied fried sardines. The Mister often has remarked that Italians frown upon mixing seafood with cheese, but Genoa breaks that rule. Several restaurants feature striking black and white squares of ravioli filled with fish and ricotta cheese.

Also, Genoa is the home of pesto. Demanding Ligurians expect pesto alla Genovese to be made with D.O.P. basil, found only in the immediate region and terroir-dependent for its flavor. A favorite Ligurian pasta often paired with pesto is trofie, rolled out by hand on a flat surface to taper its ends and then twisted. Another regional specialty sold like pizza by the slice is farinata, made from a mixture of chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt. The baked-until-golden, somewhat floppy slices are most commonly offered and consumed unadorned .

Almost every guidebook or travel feature tells you to head to Eataly on the harbor. We ventured inside, as we did in Rome, and tried to talk ourselves into eating there. The food did indeed look amazingly good and the display of high quality, authentic Italian food products were enticing. But the atmosphere felt manufactured. The customer base appeared composed of  passengers recently disgorged from the massive cruise ships docked there. Disneyland for foodies. A place to avoid crossing paths with any of the immigrant population now calling the center of Genoa home. We declined to dine. And for shopping? The alleyways in the historic center of Genoa are packed with charming and pristine specialty cheese and pasta shops and meat markets – the places where the locals go.

Instead, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at Locanda Spinola, so popular with locals on a Saturday afternoon that we felt fortunate to get a table. Parents pushed strollers in and out of an upscale cheese shop and a deli across the narrow pedestrian-only street. And now for the gritty side of a port city that keeps many tourists unnecessarily clustered near their cruise ships: a prostitute was standing on the corner. When an interested party approached, the pair subtly would disappear up the street somewhere to take care of business. Another woman immediately took up the station. But Genovesi, young and old alike, were unfazed by their presence. The prostitutes were not harassing or blatantly soliciting passersby, and most locals walking by took no more notice than they would a door of a shop selling products they did not want. The only gawker was me, albeit screened from being caught by the restaurant’s curtained window.

We enjoyed the slow-rise gourmet pizza topped with seared tuna at Savo Pizza Gourmet, and the Mandarin shrimp at Pesciolino were tasty. The casual Le Piastre di Emma is always packed; expect waiting lines. Contributing to the bustling confusion inside is one of the flamboyant owners who dramatically scurries about like a mother hen, perhaps almost to the point of flapping like a chicken with its head cut off. But the place that kept drawing us back was the family-run Trattoria le Maschere. The almost-homely décor fails to draw in many tourists and leaves the tables with their inexpensive platters full of perfectly prepared fresh seafood and classic pesto to the locals. And us.

 

 

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Finally, a food break for you

This blog has been dragging you through museum after museum and church after church in Rome, even through my museum meltdown, without one food break. Time to forget art and culture and be honest about why we really travel to Italy. To eat.

This first food post represents an unusual grouping of what ended up being our favorite spots. Even though we traipsed miles across Rome every day, three of these were within three blocks of our apartment.

Let’s get right to a full confession. Our absolute favorite restaurant in Rome is a vegetarian one, Arancia Blu. That luscious stuffed red onion above, roasted until sweet and tender and resting in a pool of red pepper sauce, is among the offerings that seduced us back for repeat visits. Whether a warm bean salad, a crispy radicchio lasagna, chickpea with walnut ravioli, pumpkin ravioli, creamy risotto topped with fried artichoke or pistachio sorbet with caramelized pear – we loved everything we tried. The inside of Arancia Blu is like sitting in a friend’s personal library; outside tables are perched on a side street with little traffic.

We stumbled almost directly off the plane to set our forks twirling in our first plate of that Roman classic pasta dish, cacio e pepe. The rich sauce is the result of few ingredients – aged Pecorino Romano cheese, water from the pasta and a proper dose of freshly ground black pepper. We lucked out because our neighborhood Caffe Vergnano 1882 on Piazzale Flaminio turned out some of the best we tried.

Yes, you can find Caffe Vergnano affiliated coffee spots numerous places, but this location has a chef hidden inside. There is no printed menu, only a blackboard outside listing a couple of pastas and no prices. Reasonable enough in pricing to attract locals, the contemporary spot generally is bustling, which offers a chance to peer at the regulars’ tables and realize there are more dishes than the server recites. Spying is how we discovered one of the best vegetable platters in Rome for us to share with our pasta dishes. More roasted fennel, please.

And, when we were not too overstuffed from lunch, we would swing by Mondo Arancina Flaminio for Sicilian-style arancini to-go. The freshly made balls of rice were filled with things like spinach, prosciutto and cheese, mozzarella and peas or eggplant ragout before frying. Okay, another confession. We were always overstuffed but would grab some for the approaching wine hour anyway.

The final place in this post was way off the beaten tourist track; TripAdvisor only has seven reviews in English posted. We only made the trek once to La Gallina Capricciosa, but the meal was memorable. We barely snagged two seats in the packed family-run, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. The Mister’s Spanish worked fine here, as we were probably the only customers without Peruvian blood running in our veins. We way over-ordered, and the waiter was nice enough to eliminate one of our dishes. We started with fried yucca and an inexpensive, extremely generous serving of fresh ceviche in leche de tigre with the traditional corn and sweet potato on the side. We scarcely made a dent in our shared order of seafood rice.

I promise, more Italian dishes later.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: We did eat at more than one restaurant

Rightfully, Bologna is renowned for its food. And, although this postcard is a bit belated, I’d hate to leave one with the impression our only recommendation for those traveling there is E’ Cucina Leopardi. We truly did venture away from our favorite spot… sometimes.

The lack of pretension accompanied by a comfortable, casual hospitality made the small farm-to-table Osteria Marsalino a favorite. Bruschetta and daily pastas were ever-changing based on what was fresh and the chef’s mood. Our food always was perfect, and the complimentary aperitif at the end of the meal contributed to our loyalty.

Fresh organic products are stressed at the always bustling Alce Nero Berbere. One lunchtime option is to order the daily vegetable assortment, consisting of five or six separate small plates of varying salads, greens, beans and/or roasted seasonal fare. There is a movement afoot among chefs in Italy, which we first encountered at Borgo 20 in Parma, to fret about digesting pizza dough. Although we never have noticed this to be a problem, we certainly again enjoyed the results at Berbere.

This is Berbere’s complex explanation of what makes the restaurant’s pizzas so “light” and good:

One of the principal characteristics of Berberè pizza is the substitution of leavening with natural maturation: we don’t use chemical yeast, but rather living sourdough. This maturation process lasts at least 24 hours at room temperature and not in the refrigerator (hence it is “slow” pizza). Thanks to the skill of our pizzaioli and their passion for what they do, the quality of the base dough obtained with the starter and semi-whole grain stone-ground flours guarantees a high digestibility and a distinctive flavor, while the selection and mixture of flours other than wheat (spelt, enkir, kamut) offers alternatives that are interesting and diverse from an organoleptic point of view. Berberè’s pizza is therefore lighter, healthier, and better. And to optimize the digestibility of the pizza, the chefs at Berberè have successfully experimented with an innovative fermentation method, completely free of yeast, based on the physical process of starch hydrolysis.

We followed a herd of locals to get the prosciutto in which residents of Emilia-Romagna take such pride. After ordering an appetizer plate laden with the thinly sliced ham, we ordered what we thought was a plate of grilled vegetables at Pane Vino e San Daniele. What we didn’t realize is that bountiful servings of prosciutto cover everything on almost every dish, including the vegetables.

Of course, we enjoyed many pizzas, grilled vegetables, pastas, risottos and panini elsewhere in our wanderings throughout our month-long stay. But, not to offend the Bolognese, we did break away from the regional cuisine several times. For Indian food. Ristorante Indiano Taj Mahal rewarded us well for it. The Indian dishes were much better than what we have encountered in San Antonio and, as a bonus, represented an incredible bargain. And the owner was so friendly and gracious for our patronage.

Jumping back now to our task at hand, figuring out where we want to eat lunch in Campeche. A whole different world.