Hidden Beauty in Northern Italy
Published: May 2010
By Michael Frank
On the Ligurian Coast, in northern Italy, T+L discovers the beauty of what is considered the country’s homeliest town.
Revealing a secretly prized place is a little bit like telling your dreams at a dinner party: it’s an act of inadvertent autobiography. This is especially true when the prized place happens to be—how best to put it?—on the “modest” side. “You like all the ugly towns in beautiful settings,” my wife said to me after our recent, and I might add mutually heartsick, departure from Recco, on the coast of Liguria. “What’s that about?”
I prefer the word homely myself, but no matter: what it’s about, pure and simple, is love. To explain Recco, you have to start with the Second World War. A sunny seaside town with beautiful centuries-old palazzi, Recco had the longest elevated railway bridge in Liguria. Destroying the bridge meant impeding communication and passage between Rome and points north. From the fall of 1943 through the summer of 1944, first the British and then the Americans flew nearly 30 bombing raids over the town, flattening 95 percent of Recco’s houses and commercial structures before the bridge finally fell on the 10th of July.
The town that rose up from the rubble was—to put it gently—a major missed opportunity in urban planning: bad, blocky apartment houses, cement piazzas with the odd weedy patch of greenery, a mediocre esplanade along the sea. This awkwardly reconstructed center of Recco is, nevertheless, bordered by surviving examples of festive trompe l’oeil villas of the old town, and a spread of period houses dots the surrounding hills. Bright yellow and pink, lime green and terra-cotta, they are like jeweled pins set in an improbably lush cushion, a patchwork of olive trees and grapevines, figs and pomegranates, rosemary and sage and (Liguria being the home of pesto) basil, and more basil still.
What distinguishes Recco for me is that, unlike nearby Portofino, it does not have so thick an air of leisure, as in in-the-pursuit-of, setting the rhythm and tone. People do play here, to be sure, but Recco has the unmistakable vibrancy of an actual, functioning town. Each Monday morning, its sprawling open-air market draws crowds of people from surrounding villages.
Long before eating locally became fashionable, Recchelini have, of necessity, eaten what was grown, fished, or created nearby. The Ligurian table is based on a cucina semplice (literally: a simple cuisine) and is largely fish- and vegetable-focused. Specialties include pesto, of course; torte salate, savory tarts of artichoke, zucchini, rice, onion, or beet greens; anchovies; and ripieni, any manner of vegetable “refilled” with a mixture of bread crumbs, egg, and Parmesan.
Focaccia col formaggio is Recco’s most famous, and one verifiably indigenous, dish. It consists of two layers of papery dough sandwiching Stracchino, a delicately creamy local cheese; baked for eight minutes, it emerges firm on the outside, molten and often bubbling on the inside. Focaccia col formaggio was made famous by Manuelina, whose simple namesake trattoria was popular beginning in the end of the 19th century with locals, who would knock on her door into the wee hours and ask her to stoke the fire and whip up this rustic delicacy. Today, Manuelina’s is a family-owned restaurant and hotel, where my three-year-old daughter delights in watching dough being tossed gently in the air, filled, and slid into the oven. Equally memorable is Tossini, the only bakery in Recco where Maria Luisa Ansaldo, my 88-year-old guide to all local matters, will permit me to buy focaccia with cheese. I once made the mistake of patronizing a rival establishment, and from sight alone she could tell I’d strayed. These sorts of rules are very Recco: You go to Tossini for the focaccia with cheese to go, Moltedo for the focaccia without. Magia Bianca is for salsa di noci (a walnut-cream sauce combined only with pansotti pasta) and savory tarts. Cavassa is where you get outstanding gelato, and Supermercato Picasso—Pablo Picasso’s great-grandfather came from Sori, just over the hill—is where you buy your Stracchino and pine nuts.
After nine annual visits, I have not yet worked out whether the Recco rules are particular to the families I know there, to the town, to Liguria, or even to northern Italy; but I do believe the way daily life is ordered has something to do with the intactness of customs and places: not just cuisine, but (postwar rebuilding apart) architecture, gardens, and interiors. When I asked Maria Luisa how it was that Recco in particular and Liguria in general remained so pristine, she replied, “Because we make it that way.”
There is a flip side to this authoritative “we”: “We” do not feed young children pasta with frutti di mare, or chocolate-flavored gelato. “We” do not let them go out with wet hair after dark or in a breeze, or (God forbid) go barefoot. “We” do not like “our” grown children to stray too far geographically, professionally, or philosophically from what is nearby, or what for generations has been done or believed.
Visitors benefit from such a conserving mentality, which extends to friendships (they are slowly made but long-lasting), and this is probably most readily experienced in the protected landscape, its water, and its hills. Water is central to the local identity: the town is famous for its water polo team, Pro Recco, which this year won the Italian championship for the 23rd time. As for swimming, there is a town beach with chaises and umbrellas for rent and a small pool geared mostly toward children. But for truly spectacular swims, one must walk to the fishing village of Camogli. Here, a marked path leads into the steep, sunlit hills through the hamlets of San Rocco (with its Baroque church) and San Nicolò (where the church is Romanesque and more sober); it then slopes down through a wooded hillside before reaching Punta Chiappa, on the Portofino promontory.
At Punta Chiappa, I like to have lunch at Il Mulino da Drin, a restaurant that overlooks the Ligurian Sea. In a building said to date back a thousand years, Signora Faustina prepares foccacette—think focaccia col formaggio cut into small pieces, then fried and served with similarly fried zucchini blossoms flavored with anchovies. Afterward there is tomato-based spaghetti with frutti di mare, or lightly fried fish, everything washed down with a fizzy white wine.
After all the sun and water, the food and drink, I never hike back—no way. I return to Recco by boat. And I’m happy to be back, too, because for all the sunlight and sweetness of this excursion, home is best. Home is Il Bar Perla, where the spirited barkeeps Paola and Lori bring me a glass of Prosecco. And while children chase balls in the piazzetta and people venture into Capurro, the town’s excellent bookstore, I visit with my old lady friends, Maria Luisa and Dora and Giugi, and lift my glass to this indelible place, which, no matter what anyone says, I insist on calling la bella Recco. Maria Luisa lifts her glass, too—with one hand. With the other she shields her eyes and says, with the driest and most affectionate irony, “Recco is bella, for sure. As long as you look at it like this.”
Michael Frank is a contributing writer for Architectural Digest. His articles have been anthologized in Italy: The Best Travel Writing from the New York Times.
Fly into either Milan or Rome for connecting service to Genoa. From there, rent a car and drive 11 miles south along the A12 highway to Recco. Alternatively, trains depart for Recco every half-hour from Genoa’s Piazza Principe station.
A Caladda 26 Lungomare Bettolo; 39-0185/720-888; dinner for two $61.
Gelateria Cavassa 31 Lungomare Bettolo; 39-0185/74280; gelato for two $4.
Il Bar Perla 23 Via B. Assereto; 39-347/609-9363; cappuccino for two $3.30.
Il Mulino da Drin 36 Via S. Niccolò, Punta Chiappa, Camogli; 39-0185/770-530; dinner for two $115.
Magia Bianca 7 Piazza Matteotti; 39-0185/74133.
Manuelina 296 Via Roma; 39-0185/74128; dinner for two $140.
Moltedo 2–4 Via XX Settembre; 39-0185/74046.
Tossini 15 Via Roma; 39-0185/74207.