The fish were dentici, what we’d call sea bream. Silver-scaled and glossy, with limpid, full-moon eyes, they were fanned out on ice like a croupier’s cards and seemed to have been pulled from the water about, oh, three minutes before. I found them remarkable, but the shoppers milling around the storefront market clearly didn’t regard them as anything special, and this I found even more remarkable.
I’d only just arrived back in Genoa after many years away, in the hopes of reacquainting myself with a city that had once been a favorite haunt. As I zigzagged (the only way you can get anywhere in this city) toward lunch in the old port, a glimpse of those fish stopped me cold. They offered a vivid reminder of what I’d always loved most about Genoa, a city that surely ranks among Europe’s most underappreciated.
Once a fishing village, Genoa grew without plan or forethought across a series of hillsides. As a result, it feels unpredictable, as if something surprising—a mansion, a crevice, a Minotaur—could be hidden around the next corner. It dominated commerce in the upper Mediterranean for centuries and is renowned for flinging open its doors to anyone with the wherewithal to dock a boat. Yet it lacks the artistic heft of Florence, the stateliness of Turin, and the Art Nouveau pizzazz of Verona, let alone the grandeur of Rome. It’s also absurdly difficult to traverse. Its roads meander down from the hills so hesitantly that you’d swear they were scared of the sea. The steep slopes often put what the map considers the next street over some 100 feet above your head, accessible by either a 45-minute walk or a helicopter. “The most winding and incoherent of cities, the most entangled topographical ravel in the world,” Henry James called it.
Nevertheless, James loved Genoa. So did Flaubert, and Joseph Conrad, who set part of his last novel there, and Wagner, who insisted that Paris and London “pale by comparison.” They loved the eclecticism of its architecture, the unexpected vistas from its hillsides. I’m certain, too, that they reveled in the cerebral conversation that one finds at meals and parties and even trips to the barber in Genoa, for the Genoese have an adoration of words and ideas that transcends the barriers of language. Theirs is a vital, energetic city with a constant bustle and hum; in a country full of dramatic ports with unique characters (Trieste, Venice, Naples, and Palermo, to name a few), it’s the biggest and most important to the national economy.
But I hadn’t come to Genoa for commerce or culture. I’d come for the seafood. Liguria stretches across the far western extension of Italy like a rubber galosh, thin and long and serving to insulate the rest of the region from the water. And though its historical contributions to gastronomy are the chickpea tarts called farinata, pandolce cakes, and—above all—pesto, the fish and shellfish off its coast are as varied and glorious as any in Italy. When I’m there, I never eat anything else. A far from exhaustive chronicle of dishes I’ve eaten there would include sardines, sea bass, and snapper; the squidlike seppia, seppiola, and seppiolina; migratory tuna and local prawns; mullet and bream; even fingernail-size bianchetti, which are somehow related to mackerel. They’ve been cooked in soups and stews, tossed with pasta, stuffed inside ravioli, laid across a crackling grill.