Genoa is way off most travellers’ itineraries, but it’s time this northern Italian beauty – and its outstanding local cuisine – gets the recognition it deserves, says Natasha Foges.
Genoa might just be Italy’s most under-appreciated city. Though overshadowed by the starrier sights of Venice, Florence and Rome, it’s a cultural heavyweight in its own right (no less than 42 of its historic palazzi are UNESCO-protected), and its tangled medieval alleys hold plenty of atmosphere.
But it’s Genoa’s astonishingly good, earthy cuisine that is putting the city on the map: the local pesto is in the running to join UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Here are our top 7 Genoa foodie experiences.
The local cuisine is big on vegetables, so you can eat your fill and avoid packing on the pizza pounds. Star of Genoese cuisine is pesto alla genovese, a much greener, herbier and tastier dish than any pesto you’ll have eaten elsewhere.
The basil – strictly from nearby Prà – is a small-leaved variety that’s incredibly flavoursome.
Pesto is a serious business here: the biennial pesto-making world championship is held in the Palazzo Ducale amid statues and frescoes, participants pulping the ingredients with family-heirloom pestle and mortar, following generations-old recipes.
In town, you can also learn to make your own pesto: try the Creattivando cookery classes, run by enthusiastic Mario at the Mercato del Carmine, where you’re taught how to rustle up a knockout pesto with ingredients from the market.
Focaccia – deliciously oily, salty local flatbread stuffed with cheese, tomato, olives or whatever you fancy – will tempt you everywhere you go in Genoa.
The caruggi (medieval lanes) of the centre hold numerous hole-in-the-wall focaccerie; a hunk of focaccia with a glass of the local bianchetta wine is a typical morning pick-me-up.
Follow the crowds to Il Gran Ristoro, a tiny spot in the port area that serves gourmet focaccia sandwiches like sliced swordfish marinated with orange and lemon, at bargain prices.
Farinata is another Genoese speciality. This tasty pancake made with chickpea flour is best sampled in one of the city’s sciamadde, typical Genoese hostelries with wood-burning ovens.
At historic Sa Pesta, the farinata is cooked in a vast pan in the fireplace, and the closely-packed tables are crammed with locals gobbling up vegetable pies and seasonal speciality friscieu, fried batter balls stuffed with whitebait.
Genoa’s medieval old town – the largest in Europe – is ripe for exploring: Henry James called it “the most winding and incoherent of cities, the most entangled topographical ravel in the world”.
Wandering the twisting alleys you’ll spot faded frescoes, reliefs of St George (the city’s patron saint), the remains of columns and skeletons of arches that were filled in as the old town expanded.
If hunger strikes – and you’re feeling adventurous – you could always sample another of Genoa’s traditional snacks: strips of tripe, smothered in oil and salt and sold to take away in little cardboard cones.
Timewarp shops abound in the historic centre, with a number of tempting chocolaterie whose beribboned packages make good souvenirs. Seek out Viganotti, a backstreet bijou chocolate factory whose antique wooden contraptions have been producing the town’s tastiest chocolates for 150 years; there’s an array of quirky flavours to try, from pink pepper to Genoese basil.
The sweet of tooth should also make a pilgrimage to Romanengo, a handsome shop where candied fruit and sugared almonds are displayed like jewels, under glass in antique cabinets. Cinnamon confettate, traditionally kept in ladies’ bedchambers to freshen their breath, are still sold here.
One of the liveliest of Italy’s markets, Genoa’s Mercato Orientale is set inside the dilapidated cloister of a former Augustinian monastery.
Wander between silvery piles of anchovies freshly fished from the gulf – they’re called the “bread of the sea” here as they’re so versatile and plentiful; sheafs of fragrant basil from Prà; heaps of supersized tomatoes and peppers; and mounds of chestnuts from the mountains that overlook the city.
There are plenty of tasty souvenirs to take home, too, with stalls piled high with herbs and spices, nuts and conserves, and sweet, raisin-studded pandolce genovese.
Come sundown, locals wind down over an aperitivo, and there’s no place more picturesque than the piazzas of the historic centre to sip a baxeichito – a basil-flavoured mojito – nibble on the freebie focaccia and watch the world go by.
Head for Piazza Lavagna, where the shuttered palazzi and lines of washing strung overhead conjure a particularly Italian atmosphere; or Piazza delle Erbe, a long sliver of a piazza with plenty of aperitivo action – and the added bonus of a first-class gelateria at one end.
For further information on Genoa, see visitgenoa.it and turismoinliguria.it. British Airways fly from London Gatwick to Genoa from £90. Natasha stayed at the Hotel Meliá, where doubles cost from £101. Featured image from Pixabay / CC0.