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Hidden Beauty in Northern Italy

Il Mulino da Drin, at Punta Chiappa, on the Ligurian Sea.

Photo: David Cicconi

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.

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