Beside me sat nearly a dozen men (and one woman) vociferously enjoying their meal. They turned out to be execs from the Genoese soccer team Sampdoria, taking their habitual game-day lunch, eating four courses and drinking expensive wine. (I tried to imagine the brain trust of, say, the New England Patriots doing the same.) Genoese being Genoese, and soccer being a conversational lubricant around the world, we inevitably fell into a deep discussion.
The uneducated migrants who came from Sicily and the bottom of the peninsular boot after World War II in search of work didn’t have the means to support the Genoa Cricket & Football Club, a staid, dignified organization created by an Englishman in the 19th century. But in this postwar amalgamation of two existing teams, Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria, the new working class found a Genoese institution to embrace as its own. Those sociological lines have blurred somewhat over the years, but Sampdoria remains as unpretentious and authentically Genoese as that farfalle with snapper. By the time I left the restaurant, I’d become fast friends with the club’s directors and had been extended an invitation to the game that night.
Sitting near midfield in a sea of Sampdoria supporters, I reveled in not just team spirit but in the campanilismo that leads every Italian to value his own region, his own city, his own neighborhood, even his own side of the street above anywhere else. It was an early-round match in the pan-European UEFA championships, and Genoa routed the visiting Lithuanians as we sang incomprehensible songs in some dialect of a dialect. Swept along by the enthusiasm, I abandoned my dinner plans. We ended up eating a late supper around the corner from the stadium at a nameless trattoria, a glorified sports bar. My bowl of pasta pomodoro would have been the highlight of the menu at the best Italian restaurant in most American cities.
I began the next morning with a visit to the caravaggios at the Palazzo Bianco gallery, on Via Garibaldi. Then I set out to find Luca Collami, who is renowned as Genoa’s most innovative chef, though I couldn’t help thinking that was like being called the most innovative bartender at the Harvard Club. Still, Collami did once offer a tasting menu titled “25 Tastes from Raw to Cooked” that supposedly took four hours to eat. He’d retired that concept, but his Ristorante Baldin, in a suburb near the airport, felt more urbane than anything in the city center.
As soon as I arrived, someone swept away my coat and someone else immediately led me to a table and handed me a glass of wine. The tablecloth before me was a luminescent goldenrod, the floor a gleaming dark wood, and the deep lush tones of Chopin, I think, or Brahms, filled the room. It felt like an exclusive private club. I spotted only one other customer who wasn’t wearing a dark business suit—and no women.
My server confirmed that the “25 Tastes” menu was no longer available, but he did offer four others. The one I chose included wine pairings and an astonishing range of fish dishes. Sugarello—a kind of mackerel—was served raw with basil oil, chopped olive, and red pepper, a construction that would have belonged at a new-wave sushi bar. It could hardly have been less like the equally delicious steamed zucchini flower stuffed with heavily anchovied stockfish that came later. Even better was a potato gnocchi with seppiolini that had the dark, intense flavor of pan juices and caramelized onions: cuttlefish for liver lovers.
Why, I wondered, is such transcendent food not valued out in the wider world? Why are there no Genoese restaurants we’ve heard about at home, and cooking schools that attract hundreds of Americans, and television chefs making pilgrimages here? Driving back from Baldin, I tried to list cities in which I could eat indisputably better over the course of a few days and came up with exactly none. Paris? At the highest end, sure, but at the cost of many thousands of dollars. New York? Over a month, without question, but I’d match it meal for meal with Genoa over a long weekend. Bologna? Well, yes, but it has a far richer and weightier cuisine, one I’d have a difficult time enjoying for more than a few meals in succession. But if it was Genoa’s lot to stay in the shadows, I was, thankfully, in on the secret.
That night, I headed off to eat the last meal of my visit at La Bitta nella Pergola, which had Genoa’s only Michelin star (it has since been renamed A Due Passi dal Mare). Commendations from Michelin aren’t necessarily a good sign in Italy, where the French guidebook tends to bestow honors on what seem like parodies of high-end restaurants, fussy establishments with starched linens and sommeliers bearing tastevins. And when I walked through the door, my heart sank, for La Bitta has a nautical theme, that last refuge of nondescript fish houses, chowder barns, and fry palaces around the world. A grand painting of a naval battle was hanging on a wall, as if to herald the restaurant’s inevitable mediocrity. The door to the kitchen even had a porthole.
I sat down before a heavy silver plate, and a distracted waiter in a red bow tie snatched it away without a word. I contemplated leaving, but almost immediately—before I’d even ordered—an amuse-bouche arrived. It was a bite-size anchovy, fried and unadorned, and after that one bite I forgot all about the porthole and the painting and the bow tie; rarely have I had a mouthful of fish so impeccably prepared. Later, I had a glistening yellow heap of spaghetti, sprinkled with tuna roe, studded with the obscure garinella (which in English is the equally obscure “latchet”), and resting in a muddy-red broth that made for perhaps the single finest dish of my visit. I could have left then and been overjoyed, but in Genoese restaurants, more is usually even better. So I stayed for my roasted branzino, thickly sliced and served skin-up with diced potatoes, small olives, and fresh dill. A triumph of local ingredients, it couldn’t have existed anywhere that was not just on the sea, but this sea, mare nostrum, in Genoa.