Mario Anfossi isn’t widely known as the Basil King of Italy—that’s just a sobriquet my friends and I came up with for him—but his farm, Azienda Agraria Anfossi, just inland from Albenga, is a veritable fiefdom of basil, whose aroma beckons from a quarter-mile away. Anfossi is the Albenga region’s largest producer of fresh basil and basil products, including an organic pesto that will ruin you for any other. I was introduced to him by his daughter, an acquaintance from London. The day we visit, the fiftysomething Anfossi is wearing plaid stovepipe pants, a cashmere polo, and blue leather driving shoes. (His ride: a Maserati Quattroporte.) With sideburns that fall somewhere between Easy Rider and Master and Commander, Anfossi cuts an idiosyncratic figure: a little bit farmer, a little bit dandy. I find him delightful—and surprising. But then, I hadn’t expected much from this part of Liguria, which, until now, I’d pegged as the Riviera That Glamour Forgot.
Liguria’s Riviera di Ponente—“of the setting sun”—stretches from Genoa westward to the French border; its name is an apt moniker for a once-favored seaside playground long since faded from glory. Its neighbor to the east, Riviera di Levante (“of the rising sun”), holds the regional monopoly on luxury and sophistication, with Portofino, Santa Margherita Ligure, Camogli, and Rapallo strung like expensive jewels along the coast. It’s unlikely that i signori Dolce and Gabbana, who own a waterfront villa near Portofino, would steer their Codecasa yacht anywhere near the Ponente. So when two London friends (one of whom had spent time in the Ponente as a teenage au pair) invited me to join them on holiday here, I was skeptical. But as I learned over a three-day, 60-mile drive, this little-sung coast possesses a charm distinct from its fabulous eastern counterpart. If the Levante is northern Italy’s Hamptons, the Ponente is akin to Long Island’s North Fork: a bastion of middle-class normalcy. The mostly Piedmontese families who summer here have been renting the same houses and booking the same beach-club sun beds since those silver-haired bisnonni were toddlers playing in the fine white Ligurian sand.