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.
Walking toward lunch an hour after arriving, I found myself eager to revisit them all. I’d get to know one of my favorite cities all over again, one meal at a time.
In theory, Genoa’s old port is becoming gentrified, but it still offers the atmospherics of a working waterfront out of a 1950’s movie, to the extent that Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy seems likely to appear at any moment. Hidden off a blind alley, the Antica Osteria di Vico Palla looks like it hasn’t changed in a century, though its current incarnation dates back only 11 years. Wooden tables are set haphazardly under a low ceiling, and a small chalkboard is propped on each to serve as the menu. (Written in the Ligurian dialect, it isn’t especially helpful.) The food is as simple as a folk song, but full of vibrant flavors; take for example the dense sardine soup bagnun di acciughe, which tastes like the classic Sicilian pasta con le sarde—pasta with a sardine sauce—except without the pasta.
There was an hour wait at the restaurant when I arrived, so I agreed to share a table with a heavy-eyed IT consultant who works Italy’s northern half. When I offered my theory on eating in Italy, that just about anywhere you are, you can eat as well as you would in the country’s renowned culinary capitals, he came to life. He gave me a superb rendition of that classic Italian gesture—palms upturned, head cocked, smile on only one side of the mouth—that means “not only did I already know that, but you’re perhaps the last person on earth to figure it out.” Then he stretched across the table to dip his bread into the pungent mushroom broth surrounding my ravioli di branzino—which were yellow on top (from egg yolks), black on the bottom (from squid ink), and stuffed with sea bass, while nodding as if he’d asked himself permission. “As Italians, we understand that wherever we go, we’ll eat well,” he said. “But maybe better here than most places.”
I was staying at the Bentley Hotel, in the Carignano district, a retrofitted office building from the 1920’s that turned out to be the best hotel I’ve ever found in Genoa. Sitting on my private terrace in the mornings, I plotted out my next meals before heading out to some distant part of the city on a walk.
Because of its topography, those hilltops and hillsides and valleys between, Genoa has evolved as a disparate collection of neighborhoods. Navigating from one part of the city to another is challenging even for natives, which means that many of these pockets and enclaves have little contact with one another. Every district has its own favorite restaurants, but everyone I spoke to agreed that Piazza Manin’s Il Genovino, which sits high above the city on some hill I would have never stumbled upon, was worth the journey.
What I discovered when I arrived for dinner was a shambolic restaurant with mismatched floors, stacks of wine guides and art books serving as decoration. It was busy but not crowded, and conversations seemed to be taking place between tables and even from room to room. My tagliolini al nero di seppia con ragù di seppia e pomodori—strands of thin black pasta served with slices of tender cuttlefish, half-moons of diced tomatoes, and basil—was so delicious, I wondered why Italian restaurants everywhere couldn’t create the same. The ricciola, a fish similar to pompano, was topped with wafer-thin potatoes soaked in olive oil, ringed by olives, then baked in a very hot oven. It tasted like someone’s grandmother made it, just after someone’s grandfather had returned from a day of deep-sea fishing.
As the meals passed, I noticed that every restaurant had a way of interpreting classic Genoese cuisine that was simultaneously elemental and original. Years before, I’d eaten at the Antica Osteria del Bai, a stone hut set directly on the water west of the city. It has been serving lunch and dinner in the same place for 210 years and Gianni Malagoli has owned it for 42 of them, but he recently ceded control of the cooking to his son-in-law, Marco Maistrello. When I visited the tiny kitchen this time, Malagoli explained that he serves only fish from the gulf, caught each morning. Then Maistrello brandished a still-twitching baby snapper as proof. He’s especially proud of his tartares—labeled as such and not as the trendier crudo—and I understood why after tasting a bold-flavored snapper with orange zest and dried tomato. But the dish I’ll remember was the hand-cut farfalle tossed with chunks of snapper and delicate stewed eggplant. Earthy and autumnal, it somehow smelled like chestnuts and tasted like a turkey’s stuffing.
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.
Ligurian Wine Tips
Italy makes some of the most famous wines in the world—bold, flavorful reds such as Barolo, Brunello, and Chianti. None of them come from Liguria. But that doesn’t mean the local products aren’t delicious, especially the whites. Ligurian wines are typically light and refreshing and are a great complement to seafood. Here, three to look out for on menus or back home.
Bruna Riviera Ligure di Ponente Pigato U Baccan The 2005 edition of this crisp white may be the finest wine ever made in the region, and the 2006 isn’t far behind. It tastes like an apricot crème brûlée.
Claudio Vio U Grottu A focused and floral Pigato from a tiny producer. It’s a hard-to-find bottling but worth looking for. The mouthfeel is Burgundian, but the minerality is pure Liguria.
Terre Bianche Arcana Rosso This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and the indigenous Rossese could almost pass for a wine from the Tuscan coast. Not for pairing with fish, but rather a hearty pasta or stew.
Bruce Schoenfeld is Travel + Leisure’s wine and spirits editor.
If you can brave the vertiginous landings at Genoa’s Cristoforo Colombo Airport, choose one of the many itineraries from North America. Otherwise, fly direct to Milan’s Malpensa and drive the 75 miles from there.
When to Go
Genoa has northern Italy’s mildest winters, but the city is at its loveliest between April and June, before the nearby resorts of Cinque Terre and Portofino fill up and rental cars clog the roads.
Great Value Bentley Hotel Once the headquarters of a steel manufacturer, its rooms are light and spacious and the staff is superb. If you can help it, don’t stay anywhere else. 4 Via Corsica; 39-010/531-5111; thi.it; doubles from $211.
A Due Passi dal Mare 52R Via Casaregis; 39-010/588-543; dinner for two $87.
Antica Osteria del Bai 12 Via Quarto; 39-010/387-478; lunch or dinner for two $140.
Antica Osteria di Vico Palla 15R Vico Palla; 39-010/246-6575; lunch for two $100.
Il Genovino 3 Via alla Stazione per Casale; 39-010/831-1362; dinner for two $58.
Ristorante Baldin 20R Sestri Ponente, Piazza Tazzoli; 39-010/653-1400; lunch or dinner for two $130.