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Oct 21, 2012 06:09 PM

Eight Days in Liguria, part 1

I need to get my Liguria report up here before I forget the details. We really had a lovely and interesting trip with some fine eating – and we certainly missed a lot more. Sorry for the lack of pics – as my husband commented, I never started taking pics till the dishes were half eaten, which did not result in very appetizing images. I hoped to taste many of the typical dishes of the region, to have some excellent seafood, and to have some wonderful meals; we satisfied the first and the last, but for various reasons, we did not wind up eating the scampi, gambero rosso and top flight fish I had hoped for.

First, the basics – we stayed in two places, Chiavari and Genoa, for this 8 day visit, so the visit only included the Riviera Levante – the portion from Genoa S. toward Tuscany, and not the Riviera Ponente –the portion from Genoa to the French border. In fact, since we did not eat anywhere south/east of Chiavari, it covered even a smaller portion of the map, and given the small number of meals we ate, did not do even this small but fascinating geography justice. The David Downie Terroir Guide to the Itialian Riviera and Genoa was an invaluable resource ) we carried along xeroxed pages) . Fred Plotkin's book and Colman Andrews cookbook, Flavors of the Riviera were also a help - as well as the advice of barberibee and others in this forum.

We reached Chiavari (accent on the second syllable) and Hotel dell’Orte located on a square close to the Station, in the evening. Chiavari was a great for touring and and was charming and interesting in itself. We wound up eating all 3 of our dinners in Chiavari at LUCHIN, which captured our interest on the first night,, and offered a great range of regional dishes at a reasonable price to a lively crowd of locals and tourists. We were also able to snag a table as walk-ins each time - hours earlier than Rome at least at Luchin, where tables started to fill as early as 7 pm. Note, since they also serve lunch and have a takeout business (worth visiting) quite a number of their daily specials can be unavailable by dinnertime. Id recommend trying them for lunch if you want to sample their dishes like stew (they had goat and beef specials on offer when we visited) or coniglio – all were finished by the time we arrived for dinner.
On the first evening at Luchin, husband chose the minestrone, which was much creamier than the emilian version I usually make and was truly outstanding – reputedly these soups are cooked in their wood oven – I had a slice of torta pasqualina. This torta was made by baking a filling of chopped swiss chard, fresh white cheese and some hardboiled egg – fairly austere – in a rather lean dough. As I continued to realize through this visit, I prefer spinach to swiss chard in pasta fillings, so it was good but not great. We both followed with anchovies – he, simply fried, and I the double stuffed version. They were both very tasty and well cooked but not exciting. The young proprietor teased and encouraged us to have some “schnapps” he was a character and made a great parody of the effects of drunkenness, actually they were offering sweet wine with cookies, tried on the last night, excellent.

The following day we visited the wonderful daily market and then headed off with some apples and our water bottles to walk the trail from Levanto to Monterosso, which took around 4 hrs with a lot of halts, beautiful and highly recommended. We were back to Luchin in the evening, after enjoying the extended passagiata in the town, what a terrific custom. This time we were intent on ordering the farinata, which is on display in the front of the restaurant in its huge tin at least 3 feet across and which is cut up and served out to eager eaters almost as soon as it appears. The farinata is an unleavened crepe or pancake made with chickpea flour, olive oil, water and salt – of somewhat variable thickness and doneness – cooked by the an expert farinata-maker in their wood oven. The farinata we got that night was quite crunchy with nicely blackened spots – we liked it tremendously. We followed with an order of another of their specialties, ravioli al tocco which was absolutely delicious; I think the ravioli pasta at La Brinca, a couple days later, was more delicate, but this meat sauce won the prize, with delicious pork and mushroom flavors. We then ordered the cima and Jim stocafisso (a cold salad version, he liked it; Im a bacalao fan but found the stoca, at least in this presentation, not that interesting) along with an order of verdure riepiene, stuffed vegetables. I would say that the cima was good but, like the pasqualina, not exciting, I think I would have liked a more baroque version more – in this case the filling was pretty simple and part of the outer casing meat was a little dry. It was served however with excellent peperonata, peppers in a tomato sauce, and together with the focaccia accompanying the meal, compensated me. By the time we were brought the verdure, we were fairly sated – and found it fairly pedestrian with a minimally seasoned bread crumb stuffing. I think it would have impressed more as a first dish than the last phase of an ample meal.

The second day, please with our hiking success, we headed off to Monte Portofino (thanks, barberinibee for the Ruta bus advice) but it was too moist to attempt the mountain trails so we walked on the roads, eventually reaching San Rocco and NONNA NINA where we were able to make a lunch reservation. After a visit to the bakery to snag some galleti marinari we returned for our lunch. They were still offering their summer seasonal menu, and we had a lovely, leisurely meal. First I have to commend their excellent bread with a delicate crunchy crust, surely the best we experienced in the region. Then, we greatly enjoyed the bottle of Bisson Bianchetta DOP , sprightly and flavorful, with a tiny bit of spritz. For our firsts, Jim ordered the fish-filled ravioli with a seafood sauce, and I had the mixed plate of (land) appetizers – the mixed seafood appetizers served to an adjoining table looked wonderful. The ravioli was very delicate, the sauce, full flavored but light, Id say made with white wine, olive oil, a little tomatoes and odori in addition to the seafood. My mixed plate was ample, including several samples of torta, one with greens and cheese, another with a rich cheesy potato gratin mixture, also fried chickpea strips (I think panisses), vegetable fritters and, most impressive, delicate fried versions of focaccia col formaggio. The dough was gossamer, the cheese inside flavorful (they said stracchino)- it even had a flavor of blue cheese), wonderful, the work of an expert. Our secondi were coniglio alla ligure and totani ripieni, and both were excellent, rich and full of flavor. I thought the totani, which was served with some extra filling/sauce over potato rounds (were these the quarantine???, though very simple, were one of the most enjoyable dishes I have ever eaten – I ate as slowly as possible to prolong the experience. The simple excellence of these two dishes made me reflect on the importance of top flight ingredients and long experience in cooking them to a point of perfection in producing really fine cooking. Here, clearly, they were doing both of these things, and doing it well. We finished with a plum tart, that was quite excellent – usually we skip the desserts in Italy, preferring a different style (and usually we are too full!) but this was worth having. A walk down the 900 steps to Camogli, through olives groves ended our excursion. Too stuffed to consider a dinner in Chiavari, we enjoyed the passagiata, finally settled in for aperitivi at old-fashioned DEFILLA, where the 7euro price of a drink brought you a comfortable table and chair to watch the passing scene and a fairly ample selection of savory snacks including a plate of fried potatoes and carrot and celery sticks with a tasty dip. (Note we didn’t get to sample their gelato, which looked good, their winebar/restaurant, which had an enticing small menu or their pianobar (too late for us, but we liked this place, and purchased some wines for our onward trip from their knowledgeable staff

Our final night, we returned to Luchin for our goodbye meal – again after a beautiful downhill hike from Montallegra to Chiavari, recommended. We had checked out several other restaurants (Il Portico, Boccon Divino,DeFILLA wine bar) in town by this time – but we were hungry, they were empty, and we were drawn back by Luchin which was starting to fill. This time Jim ordered a homemade tubular pasta in salsa di muscoli (tasty but a couple of steps down in flavor from Nonna Nina’s quite different sauce) and their version of capponada (a composed cold dish related to capon magro – the bite I had included white fish,onion, capers, and a refreshing vinegar flavor , I had another plate of the farinata ( good but a bit moister than the first, I do recommend asking for well done), an insalata tepida of octopus and potatoes (very nice, typical presentation with good olive oil, lemon and herbs, and a full order of the peperonata. We were seated with a cultured German couple Luchin doubles up their 4tops) so it was pretty convivial as well. Interesting how much more difficult it was to remember the food when we were talking all the time! Our last visit ended with the zibibbo (sweet wine) and almond cookie (cantucci I think) we had been craving, perfect. Just to note we drank the house wines at Luchin, white and red, acceptable, both light and a bit spritzy. They do have a quality wine list which I recommend consulting –it includes the good regional houses at reasonable prices - we just didn’t want any more than a ½ liter on those evenings.

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  1. Yes, yes, yes, to the peperonata at Luchin! I really must try their minestrone some time. Friends I have taken there really loved their roasted short ribs, but I'm not sure that is on the menu all the time. I cannot blame you in the slightest for choosing to dine at Luchin every single night, which is what I would do, although I must admit that, selfishly, I was hoping you would go eat at all those other places and tell me if any of them were worth breaking my own habit of only dining in Luchin whenever I am in Chiavari.

    I'll also immediately confess that I was hoping you'd come back and tell me that you ate the autumn menu at Nonna Nina, because I've been wanting to know if I should head over for pumpkin-stuffed pasta. Nonetheless, I am glad you found their totani ripiene so wonderful. I hope you don't mind my tacking onto this thread that I would advise others headed to Nonna Nina to order the mixed seafood antipasta -- it is one of the enduring stars of their show (pricey!) -- and I also think they serve one of the very best pestos in the region. I could eat it every day, so it is an outstanding example of the form.

    Like you, I favor Bisson Bianchetta with the local seafood and have found that Bianchetta from anybody else is just miles beneath.

    Did you get a chance to have at DeFilla bar in Chiavari one of their handmade chocolates called a "sorriso"? They are roughly a pyramid-shell of thin chocolate enrobing a very light and rummy chocolate mousse. In summer, a cold coffee "shakerato" is also something they do well. I hoped you noticed all those Chiavari chairs inside DeFilla. What wines did the staff recommend to you and what did they cost? I've never bought wine there.

    I am most pleased that you switched your location from Lavagna to Chiavari, because you obviously got the point of that evening passeggiata, which is so very enjoyable to join.

    I agre with you about torta pasqualina, which is usually just layers of dull dough no matter who does it. It's possible that if you didn't like the cima at Luchin, you wouldn't like it better anyplace else. Farinata "ben cotto" is the way to go. I stick with things roasted at Luchin, so I've never had their fried anchovies, but fried anchovies are something of a quest along the coast. You have to track down a personal fave, and I know a few places where the ONLY thing they do well is fried anchovies and everything else is awful, so I never recommend others go there.

    Looking forward to the rest.

    13 Replies
    1. re: barberinibee

      We had hoped Nonna Nina would have their autumn menu too! I would go over regardless, but call first to see if they have shifted. YOu know, it was so hard to choose and I wanted to try the the regional specialties prepared by good regional cooks.. Im not sorry I ordered the "land" appetizer place because of the two outstanding items - the potato torta and the amazing fried focaccietta col formaggio, or whatever it was called, but when I glimpsed the seafood app come out I did have some regret. Boccon Divino has a less regional perhaps more refined cooking, judging by their menu - after walking by it and looking at it (empty) on the first night at 8 we tried to find it again on night 3 - but without the address and a map, we did not go quite far south enough to find it. Il Portico was closed with no menu posted til our last night. and DeFilla was only offering three dishes on their blackboard. In the end I wanted that farinata and atmosphere again. I would recommend ordering from the winelist though at Luchin the house wine is not much.

      the thing that disappointed me the most was the stuffing in the stuffed veg and anchovies at Luchin - it was just too plain and unseasoned. I would have liked some more parsley, oil or herbs. As a result we did not look out for these dishes again - maybe a mistake.

      1. re: jen kalb

        I once was surprised that stuffed mussels at Luchin were good. A dinner companion ordered them, and I wouldn't have thought to order anything from the sea at Luchin. But these were good. However, that experience encouraged me to later try the stuffed anchovies (or sardines) at Luchin, and I was underwhelmed. I tend to think in general that Luchin is not a precision place.

        Stuffed vegetables are a really crap shoot everywhere I go. La Primula, the all-purpose alwaysopen tourist cafe in the dead center of the Camogli Lungomare, dishes out the single best version of stuffed vegetables I've yet to eat in a restaurant along the Riviera (there are several gastronomie and bakeries that have good ones). Mostly in restaurants it's a disappointing dish to order, with an imbalance of ingredients. La Primula also does the only Ligurian dried cod dish that I have ever liked, a tepid summer insalata of cod. But otherwise, La Primula's food is just utilitarian, and their pizze are downright awful.

        If you can remember, I would like to know what wines were recommended to you by the owners of DeFilla.

        Good idea to call Nonna Nina ahead because the weather is so unexpectedly summery and beautiful this week, they may be serving tomatoes. (Hope the rain while you were here wasn't too much of a negatvie for your stay). Focaccetta is what you so enjoyed there:

        and I'm guessing Nonna Nina's potato pie was polpettone

        1. re: barberinibee

          I actually think it was probably torta baccioca, which is one of their specialties - and the potatoes on the plate with the totani were also magnificent.

          The only wine I remember the name of from the DeFilla shop was a Santa Caterina Colli di Luni red (the only one of those they had) - it was a full wine but IMO a little rough to drink, I was sorry not to have more time to taste the regional wines.

          Glad the weather is beautiful again - We actually didnt have a single day of rain, tho it came down in buckets as we were getting on the plane to leave from Genova - and there may have been a little at night. including for the walk on Monte Portofino, which was also fogged in that morning. We felt lucky to get in at Nonna Nina - it was a beautiful day, ultimately and was semi-full - but Camogli was quite dead and I think Nonna Nina's relative remoteness (a very small proportion of people get there other than by car) probably makes lunchtime tables more of an issue on weekends.than on off-season weekdays.

          1. re: jen kalb

            BB, im not going to knock Luchin for their stuffed stuff - they do so many things well, and I am really sorry we missed their stews and more soups - I skipped the pasta fagiole on the last night. But,, on the second visit I left my purse there by mistake,,,the next morning I went back to see if they had it (they did and the older guy even got a little friendly) They were making huge trays of the stuffed items - when you think how much business they do, its no surprise that maybe they dont finetune generic dishes like this.

            1. re: jen kalb

              jen - sorry I missed this posting before. The Santa Caterina wines are often organic, which gives them some cachet, so I'm not surprised it was recommended to you as a specifically local wine to try as a visitor. The regional wines of Liguria are largely poor. Italians in other regions often comment to me that they are surprised Liguria still does so little to improve its wines. In just about every annual survey of Italian wines, Liguria ranks dead last.

          2. re: jen kalb

            @ jen kalb
            We went to Boccon Divino last year. It was full, all Italian except for us. The service was very good. The food was very mediocre. You didn't miss anything.

            1. re: allende

              thanks, youve relieved my mind! The menu seemed neither particularly regional nor fish oriented. At the point we saw it,,, those two things were what we were looking for.

              Maybe if there had been a room full of convivial groups we would have been swayed. but after a tough day (replacing a lost passport, then two train tripsand touring in pisa) I think we needed something simpler and more stimulating,

              Im actually more sorry we did not try Il Portico, the fish place recommended by Downie - we justified it by the fact we were heading on to Genoa and would have opportunities for top flight fish there, but it did not play out that way, on such a short visit.

              1. re: jen kalb

                The next time you go you should try Conchiglia D'Oro in Varigotti. We've had more than 30 meals there over the last 20 years and, for us, it is by far the best fish restaurant in Liguria. Nothing comes close. Not quite Lorenzo, but really excellent.

                Am curious to hear about La Brinca. As mentioned before, we've been there several times, but no one else has written about it on this site.

                1. re: allende

                  We usually go to Noli for a day's trip to Liguria, will have to check out Conchiglia d'Oro next door in Varigotti.

                  1. re: allende


                    I am planning to drive to France sometime in the next six weeks and was thinking about either lunch at Conchiglia d'Oro or having dinner and spending the night. Does it matter greatly which I choose, and do you have any specific recommendations regarding the menu?

                    1. re: barberinibee

                      The menu changes every day really! Depending on what fish is available.

                      Everything is great, but particularly the pastas, whether things like trenette alle cozze or trenette al polpo e peperoni... and, of course, the etherial stuffed pastas. The pasta selection also changes every day. For a main course fish whether Enzo's from the grill or his wife's from the kitchen. They are all wonderful, but particularly whatever fish they have that day "alle ligure."

                      In this case, doesn't really matter whether lunch or dinner. We like dinner a bit better but we've had numerous lunches and everything is the same.

                      1. re: allende

                        Thanks, allende. It seems at this time of year, Tuesday and Wednesday are days of closure, and the timing of when I need to be in Vence is out of my hands-- However, since we'll be passing by Varigotti twice, I'm hopeful we'll have a meal there. We'll make sure we arrive hungry, whether for lunch or dinner.

          3. Thanks Jen (as always) for a comprehensive post that I'll no doubt use if we get to Liguria when we're back in Italy this coming year (attending a wedding of some Bklynites in Florence next summer, after which we'll roam around Italy again). Now, if we can only keep barberinibee out of NYC hamburger trouble (especially with some of my Outer Borough friends) :-)

            2 Replies
            1. re: Steve R

              Don't worry. I'm far away from hamburgers. In fact, I am going to Nonna Nina tonight.

              1. re: barberinibee

                Just to add on, for those interested in eating at Nonna Nina:

                Ran over to eat there tonight before heavens opened up for the next 2 days and the restaurant closed (after tomorrow) for its 3 weeks holiday. The autumn menu I had hoped jenkalb would scout for me was indeed on offer. We followed our antipasti of seafoods with tender ravioli stuffed with pumpkin, tossed into a milky pine nut sauce (a variation of the heavier walnut + milk sauce that is ubiquitous in the region). I had seppie (a squid) with delicious porcini for my main entree. My dining partner had a grilled orata. We drank a Gavi wine (Nonna Nina's wine list will never set the world on fire.) No room for dessert, so we didn't even ask what they were offering, even though their desserts are often excellent. (I saw something like panna cotta and fruit tortes -- perhaps pear or apple -- headed to other tables, and they always offer sorbetti). Bill for 2 was 99e, all inclusive. Our dining companions at other tables on this very off-season evening were a French couple, a group of Japanese visitors, 2 elderly Italian ladies who stuck to pasta and dessert, an Italian couple on a romantic night out.

                Once again I was reminded how extremely simple this food is. What grows on me is the high quality of the olive oil, the delicacy of the pastas, just the wonderful lightness of the food, so pleasant even on a misty night in November ahead of the storms. In any season, one should go to Nonna Nina for its simplicity, the care taken with every diner's order, and respect for local ingredients, not to be entertained by tricks or inventions on the plate.

            2. Hi jen, wonderful report you've got there. Just wondering - what particular reasons prevented you from trying the gambero rossos of the area? I am in the midst of researching a possible trip to that area in search of seafood just like that!

              8 Replies
              1. re: deadstroke86

                Are you talking about the crustaceans or the guidebooks?

                You know, I really wanted to try those red shrimp as well as elaborate version of cappon magro dressed up with scampi, etc that you see pictures of. However, they were not offered at the best restaurants we went to, and we wound up not going to any upscale or seafood specialist places where they might have been on the menu,I dont remember even seeing any in the markets - but there was such an abundance I might possibly have missed them (or they may have been out of season)

                You will see when I finally report on our eating in Genoa that we stuck with more moderate dining choices, and these are really luxury items, Will have to wait for the next trip,

                Hope you are more successful in this regard. Im sure if Allende or barberinibee come by and see your question one of them can give some recommendations on how to satisfy a desire for gamberi rossi.

                1. re: deadstroke86

                  In our opinion, if you want the best in seafood in Liguria, the special place to go is Conchiglia d'Oro in Varigotti. I've written about it above and on other blogs here. Second place would be Paolo e Barbara in San Remo, but these days Paolo is straying a bit from traditional Ligurian preparations.

                  1. re: allende

                    can you tell me, are the red shrimp of San Remo commonly available through the region or only seasonally or locally?

                    1. re: jen kalb

                      seasonally, but can be found at certain great fish stores, even outside of Liguria. You just have to have a store that really cares about what it sells, and has a clientele that is willing to pay for the genuine article.

                      1. re: allende

                        Allende, what seiason would that be? I will be in the area probably in July. In Spain, I believe the Gambas Rojas are available all year round and not particularly too hard to find. That is the exact same species as the Italian equivalent, no? How do I search for your blog? I frequently roam around the Spain and France boards but this is my first foray to the Italian side of Chowhound.

                        Also, do you have any recommendations to the west of Genoa?

                        1. re: deadstroke86

                          The red shrimp from San Remo are usually not available in July.

                          Search for my blog on Chowhound under allende.

                          West of Genova is what I mentioned, particularly Muraglia Conchglia d'Oro in Varigotti (not far from Savona). Here is a review in Italian. My friend Enzo, the owner, is in the first photo and the fish (that you choose) is in the baskets to the left (his right) in the photo. The photos are the translators, if you don't read Italian. If the photos don't encourage people to go, I don't know what will. The food tastes even better than the photos look.


                          1. re: allende

                            Oh dear, I meant the east! I got my directions mixed up. I've already read that review - looks delicious indeed!

                        2. re: allende

                          Allende, what season would that be? I will be in the area probably in July. In Spain, I believe the Gambas Rojas are available all year round and not particularly too hard to find. That is the exact same species as the Italian equivalent, no? How do you search for your blog? I frequently road around the Spain and France boards but this is my first foray to the Italian side of Chowhound.