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A Food Lover's Guide to Genoa, Italy

Frutti di mare at Antica Osteria di Vico Palla, in Genoa’s historic center.

Photo: David Cicconi

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.

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