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Aug 24, 2013 12:37 PM

Seeking Suggestions and Advice For Sestri Levante

(Note to Barbarinibee and Allende: This is an attempt to relocate and broaden participation in our discussion on another thread I started about Parma but that somehow wandered far, far away from that):

We'll be 5 nights in Sestri Levante in early October, as a base for the Cinque Terre and Genova. Duly noted are the recommendations for Mario Polpo; for Luchin in Chiavari; for Brinca and Mosto further inland; and for Nonna Nina in San Rocco (on the other side of Portofino). But in Sestri itself, are there additional choices worth trying?

There's a post somewhere here that mentions two sister restaurants of Mario Polpo (Polpino, and Cantina di Polpo if I remember right). Other than those, I've seen nothing else mentioned. We'd welcome hearing about actual experience with these and with any others in Sestri itself.

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  1. We've been going to Luchin for 25 years. A wonderful osteria for Liguria. We've been many times to La Brinca, Mosto (but not since Il Signore died) and Nonna Nina. We like them all, for what they are... decent ( in the case of La Brinca and Mosto very decent) trattorie (La Brinca's wine list is very good, much better than the food). We didn't care for Mario Polpo the two times we were there.

    When you're in Sestri Levante are you willing to travel south for an hour or northwest for an hour and a half for great seafood meals?

    4 Replies
    1. re: allende


      Suspecting that if you saw this you'd suggest Conchiglia d'Oro in Varigotti, I have already looked at the feasibility of coming down from Alba that way and stopping for lunch en route to Sestri. What's the place NW of Sestri?

      The problem with Varigotti may be the closing day. We'll be traveling on a Tuesday. ViaMichelin says the closing day is Wednesday, but an Italian wine blog the name of which I can't recall exactly (want to say Luciano Pavarotti but I know that's not right) says both Tuesday and Wednesday. Can't find a website, so I've just written to the email address given on ViaMichelin. But I'm hopeful.

      1. re: chowtraveler

        Conchiglia d"Oro was the place I was referring to (northwest of Sestri; actually not north because of the lay of the land; but you have to go north and then south).

        Makes perfect sense coming from Alba. We do it all the time (from Alba to our home in Tuscany).

        1. re: chowtraveler

          luciano pignataro wineblog

          great resource, though not much on dining in the north and the opening info in their articles may be out of date - I really enjoy their restaurant info and recipes in my facebook feed, much more than many "friends"

          1. re: jen kalb

            I think that in winter Conchiglia d'Oro adds closure days, and may limit how often it is open for lunch, which shouldn't be an issue in early October. But as with all these small Ligurian restaurants, often operated by just one couple, best to confirm everything by phone on the day before if that is the only reason you are going to that area.

      2. I hadn't noticed your Parma thread had wandered much. It is only a 2 hour drive!

        Polpo Mario specializes in octopus and that is all I ever eat there (and I have not eaten in their cantina). Polpo Mario's plain steamed octopus, dressed with olive oil, nothing else, has been memorably fresh and lovely and lovely in its simplicity when I've had it -- but I often travel just to eat octopus, to places like Galicia or parts of Sicily, so factor that in if you are not an octopus completist. You can walk by and see if it appeals to you. I wouldn't eat pasta there.

        I frequently hear nice things about the quite pricey El Pescador in Sestri Levante, right at fish market dock, but can't pull myself away from eating octopus when I am in town. You are unlikely to find much about eating in Sestri Levante unless you buy David Downie's book, and you might want it for guidance about le Cinque Terre as well. There is a totally quirky small family hotel away from the seafront in Sestri Levante called Albergo Marina that also runs a small family restaurant, and I am curious to eat there -- but it is easy for me to conduct experiments like that. You could be taking your life into your hands, or tossing away one of your precious few meals in the region.

        If you are going to Genova. it is much more fun to plan your visit to the city so that you can stop by the Mercato Orientale and the neighboring market streets on your way back to the Brignole train station, and pick up food to eat for a makeshift dinner. I like to pick up a roasted chicken (just because it is simple) and whatever looks great when it comes to fruit. In October, huge abate pears are exquisite. One will last you more than a few days, unrefrigeratedd. Pair it with some gorgonzola, a couple of ounces of shelled walnuts. You might also still be able to get fantastic green grapes (from Sicily). Again, David Downie's book is good on directing you to eateries and small shops in the neighborhood (a good wine store in the piazza Colombo, various vegetable torte, including pumpkin in October, by the slice from Ostaja on the via San Vicenzo). Jen Kalb's not-very-old thread about Genova had a recommendation for tasty simple restaurant near the Mercato and the train station which I recently tried and liked, and whose name I now forget. Just skip the pesto there. Eat the fried antipasti!

        I just came back from dinner at Luchin, taking friends who declared it their favorite meal in Italy. We also stopped by Bocchia for coffee and Defilla for their little handmade chocolate sorrisi and some lovely cornetti they sell flavored with orange. Their gelati looked wonderful, but we were too full. Defilla makes the best shakerato I have ever tasted. Chiavari has a good market and many wonderful food shops. (As does Rapallo.)

        Atmospheric Sarzana, which is inland, has 2 slow food restaurants (and I love their locally famous town cake, spongata). If you are up for excursions, I think it is a treat to drive deeper into the entroterra, to the teeny towns around Varese Ligure, but that is not seafood (great cheese and chestnut or mushroom dishes in October).

        1. chowtraveler,

          Can't remember if this has been mentioned before, but eating at Luchin is all about farinata, just to be sure you know. I like some other dishes they have there, like peperonata or their cima (which I recall jen doesn't), so palates vary, but farinata is very filling and most people make a meal of it with a spare ordering of other foods if they are very hungry. In October, I'd be hoping they had chestnut torte for dessert and would save room for it. Maybe Allende will tell you what he has been drinking there for 25 years. I haven't much liked their wine offerings.

          9 Replies
          1. re: barberinibee

            you exaggerate a bit. The farinata is great, I wouldnt miss it but they have other very good dishes, some among the tastiest best we have had in Italy (recorded in my old report).

            We had farinata as a first course twice for dinners. I think they have more of their stewy and soupy specialties (also cooked in the oven) at lunch time.

            I think its definitely worth ordering from the wine list since the carafe wines served were on the very mild/light side

            1. re: jen kalb

              I'll try to be more precise, but I just re-read your previous report, and you were lukewarm about at least half the dishes you ate Luchin. I too would give a miss to the stuffed anchovies and stuffed vegetables (in favor of the stuffed mussels if they have them). Like you, I also would pass on the torta pasqualina (anywhere in Liguria) and wouldn't bother with Luchin's stoccafisso, although I quite like Luchin's cima and you were not so impressed. But I wouldn't leave Sestri Levante to eat octopus in Chiavari.

              We seem to agree farinata and peporanata are not be missed at Luchin. I find farinata filling so I couldn't put away an order of farinata plus a pasta or a soup in the same meal. So if I wasn't staying in Chiavari and only had one meal at Luchin, I would choose farinata. I have never drunk the carafe wines at Luchin and have not liked the bottled wines recommended to me there, but maybe allende has a recommendation.

              I only emphasized (exaggerated?) the farinata because I've read trip reports where people went to various places on the recommendation of Chowhounders without realizing that people were just assuming they knew the house draw, so they didn't order it (and then complained about their meal!). I also note that sometimes people hesitate to order from a menu in Italy any dish they don't recognize, so given the obscurity of farinata to most people, that is why I emphasized ordering it at Luchin specifically as a heads up.

              Well, I hope we have aroused chowtraveler's curiosity about farinata and Luchin enough she/he gives it a try!


              I just remembered that Genova's huge boat show is Oct 2-6 this year, which is a good thing because it keeps seafood restaurants up and down the coast running at full throttle, but it also means that around those dates, if you want to eat at oft-recommended restaurants, best to hedge your bets with a reservation.

            2. re: barberinibee

              Chowtraveler here, returning to the fray.

              Renewed thanks to all three posters for these additional comments and suggestions. We definitely do plan on getting to Luchin, probably for dinner. The tentative plan is 1 day in the Cinque Terre, 1 day in Genova, 1 day to see Portofino and lunch at Nonna Nina, and our last day, a Saturday, for the street market in Sestri followed by a drive to somewhere inland for lunch.

              Still have not heard back from Conchiglia d'Oro in Varigotti re closing day, but maybe they're still on holiday.

              As to Nonna Nina, apparently it would be best to drive there. As this will be In early October, could we count in finding parking en route in Sta. Margherita Ligure while we walk or bus down to Portofino? (As far as I can tell, the ferry services shut down in mid-September.)

              And as to Luchin, is it feasible to drive over from Sestri and find parking near the restaurant, on a weeknight in early October?

              (I do not mean to start a big fight here on driving vs. trains generally -- have just finished reading an epic thread on that subject featuring all three of the present participants, along with several others.)

              @Barbarinibee,good point about the boat show, which we already were aware of and unfortunately is exactly when we'll be there. This is why we're obsessing over restaurants now, so we can book before we leave home.

              1. re: chowtraveler


                Don't worry about the boat show. Overall it is a plus for you. Regarding Conchiglia d'Oro, it is more likely they are just swamped, since right now is the very peak of the holiday season on their doorstep, and likely their phone is ringing off the hook.

                I recommend taking the train to Chiavari (since parking can be a nuisance) provided you look at the return train schedule and plan accordingly. If you don't see a convenient train back, then drive. It can truly kill the mood of a nice meal if you get stuck waiting at the train station. (I would recommend the faster trains in and out of Genova as well.)

                La Cucina di Nonna Nina is near the very top of the very high Portofino promontory. The town of Portofino is at the very bottom, at sea level. I recommend you drive to Portofino (it is thrilling) and bite the bullet on the cost of parking in Portofino's town garage. Then drive up to Nonna Nina, where you can park right in front of the restaurant UNLESS IT IS A SUNDAY. Then you must park at the first huge parking lot you see when you reach the Portofino park (it has pay meters) and walk 10 minutes to the restaurant. Or have lunch first and visit Portofino after lunch, in which case you can park in Santa Margherita Ligure and walk or bus to Portofino.

                If you end up in Santa Margherita Ligure on a weekday, it can be fun to stop in Pestarino (via Palestro, 10) and have that pastry or gelato you rightly refused to buy in Portofino because it cost a fortune (and it would have awful anway).

                You might want to look at the menu of Nonna Nina online before you go to familiarize yourself with the seasonal menu because the printed one you will be handed at the restaurant will be in Genovese dialect (in old Italian school-form cursive!)

                Regarding frays, fights and fractious words on the Chowhound Italy board: I have been spending the day reading interviews with about 25 sommeliers, many of them talking about their experiences of wine in Liguria and Piemonte. Every one of them was asked to name the best wine they had ever tasted. It was surprising -- and encouraging -- that quite of few of them emphasized in reply that what had most stuck with them through the years was a great wine experience, which was crucially about the context in which they had enjoyed a wine, not merely the wine itself. They wanted to underscore context trumped technique.

                We don't know the context of your trip, and many of the words used here to describe individual restaurants or meals need to be understood in a context that it hard to convey economically. Describing an eatery like Nonna Nina as "decent" is fine if we are reserving the word "great" for an altitude few restaurants anywhere on the planet achieve. But Nonna Nina is capable of producing exquisite dishes (like its mixed antipasti of seafoods or its ravioli filled with pesto) that are a joy to eat and you wish you could eat for the rest of your life.

                Likewise, jen's carefully delineated report of how each dish at Luchin stacked up, even when it she judged some wanting, doesn't take away from the overall context of how very, very pleasing Luchin is overall (which we all agree upon). It is a unique Ligurian treasure.

                So have a great time in the context of your own trip! You will, I am pretty sure, because the food in this corner of Italy is very tied to the land and to the sea and the smells of both in ways that can never be exported, so it is great you have a chance to experience it where it lives. Happy eats!

                1. re: chowtraveler

                  @ chowtraveler

                  You might never hear back from Conchiglia d'Oro (they are not on holiday). They may not ever look at their email. Italian restaurants are in the dark ages that way. In fact, I didn't even realize that they have an email address. Could you tell me what address you used?

                  Re wine at Luchin. Just get a decent bottle of a recent vintage of Vermentino. In general, that's the best Liguria has to offer. In general, it's not great, but for the meal at Luchin it will be more than adequate. Luchin is about Ligurian osteria food (i.e. very basic food, food the way it was, pre World War ll). It is not about wine (even though they now have a store nearby that sells wine). Even if there were very good wines on the list, unless something has changed in the past two years since we've been there, the glasses are of the cheapest variety. Would you ever eat great pasta on a paper plate?

                  Luchin is all about farinata and a few other osteria dishes (perhaps cima; stuffed vegetables). Nothing more, except the wonderful atmosphere under the arcades. There is plenty of parking in the (paying) lots close by or usually by the arch. Think about going to Chiavari in the late afternoon and walking around. Wonderful food city with great food stores to browse. Going early also has an added benefit. if it is a warm evening, you can get to Luchin early and get a table outside. Magical, for what it is.

                  1. re: allende

                    wonderful passegiata, too, everyone is out, promenading and socializing.

                    1. re: allende


                      Just realized I never responded to your request for the Conchiglia d'Oro email address. According to both ViaMichelin and also the Liguria tourism website, it's (Still no response, but I'll try again in a week or two. Failing that, I suppose I can ask our hotel in Alba to try phoning.)

                      1. re: allende


                        Please forgive my typo. The email address is

                        But you probably figured that out already.

                        1. re: allende

                          "Would you ever eat great pasta on a paper plate?"

                          I've actually had great pasta at a street festival in Italy, off of a paper plate. Not all great pasta is refined, and I wouldn't pass up great pasta in Italy because of a paper plate. I've eaten excellent farinata off waxed paper. My favorite foccacia col formaggio I've eaten to date was off styrofoam with a plastic fork, and I had a truly revelatory experiences of wine out of quite ordinary, dishwasher tough glasses in Tuscany and Campania. It is important and enjoyable to become mindful of the precise traditions and high aspirations for attaining the truly great in eating and drinking in Italy, but Italy in general has an admirable culture of greatly ignoring rules when it makes more sense to do that, and even more admirably of being stubbornly and greatly uncompetitive, including about eating and drinking. Pride in craft, art, detail and tradition, yes, which is different from unbridled global competitiveness, which seems to be an attitude non-Italians impose on eating, with near-constant exclusive talk of "best" this and "greatest" that and "only" and "never" etc. Different things suit different occasions. Rules beg exceptions. What matters is context. Flow. Seizing rare opportunity. Unrepeatable experiences. Genuinely incomparable meals. To me, those words and phrases come closer to describing life-changing eating in Italy than "best" or "no." So if you are traveling all the way to Italy, experiment with an approach to food that fundamentally differs from the east coast of the US in a variety of ways.