Liguria may lie in the north of Italy, but its benign Mediterranean climate, and to some extent its cooking, belong further south. Traditionally, the recipes from this region make something out of nothing, and the best-known Ligurian speciality is pesto, the simplest of dishes. Invented by the Genoese to help their long-term sailors fight off scurvy, it’s made with chopped basil, garlic, pine nuts and grated sharp cheese (pecorino or Parmesan) ground together in olive oil. It’s used as a sauce for pasta (often flat trenette noodles, or knobbly little potato-flour shapes known as trofie), or served with a few boiled potatoes and green beans, or stirred into soup to make minestrone alla genovese. Look out also for pasta, usually Pansotti, served with a creamy hazelnut sauce – salsa di noci; and other typical dishes like cima alla genovese (cold, stuffed veal); tomaxelle (veal meatballs); torta pasqualina (a spinach and cheese pie with eggs); sardenaira (a Ligurian pizza made with tomatoes, onions and garlic); and, of course, the ubiquitous golden focaccia bread, often flavoured with olives, sage or rosemary, or covered with toppings. There are lots of things with chickpeas too, which grow abundantly along the coast and crop up most regularly in farinata, a kind of chickpea pancake displayed in broad, round baking trays.
Otherwise, fish dominates – not surprising in a region where more than two thirds of the population lives on the coast. Local anchovies are a common antipasto, while pasta with a variety of fish and seafood sauces appears everywhere (mussels, scampi, octopus and clams are all excellent); you’ll find delicious polpo (octopus), usually served cold with potatoes, good swordfish, and dishes like ciuppin or fish soup, burrida di seppie (cuttlefish stew), fish in carpione (marinated in vinegar and herbs), or just a good fritto del Golfo (mixed fish fry-up). Salt cod (baccalà) and wind-dried cod (stoccofisso) are also local favourites. Many restaurants in Rapallo and along the Tigullio coast serve bagnun, a dish based on anchovies, tomato, garlic, onion and white wine, and in Cinque Terre and Levanto you’ll often see gattafin – a delicious deep-fried vegetable pasty. Liguria’s soil and aspect aren’t well suited to vine-growing, although plenty of local wine – mainly white – is quite drinkable. The steep, terraced slopes of the Cinque Terre are home to some decent eponymous white wine and a sweet, expensive dessert wine called Sciacchetrà, made from partially dried grapes. From the Riviera di Ponente, look out for the crisp whites of Pigato (from Albenga) and Vermentino (from Imperia), as well as the acclaimed Rossese di Dolceacqua, Liguria’s best red.