On Italy's Riviera, cooks make magic from the simplest and sparest ingredients

It's hard to dissociate pesto, focaccia, and ravioli from the dinnertime din of upstart New World trattorias. But sniff out their roots, and you will find yourself in Liguria, Italy's charmed crescent-shaped stretch of Mediterranean coastline, which curves northwest from Tuscany all the way to Provence.

The real Liguria and its disarmingly simple cuisine are a far cry from the Technicolor clichés that inevitably pop up when we think of the Riviera. Sure, lavish seafood extravaganzas make their way to tourist restaurants, and at patrician Genovese homes one can still sample baroque dishes that once crowned the tables of nobility. But the sea here is stingy, the land rugged, and the temperament thrifty. Give a good Ligurian cook a pound of pasta and a cup of fresh beans, throw in some young basil, a handful of olives, a splash of fruity oil—and miraculously these humble foodstuffs will be transformed into something utterly poetic.

"During the Crusades, Ligurians were identified by their smell of basil and garlic," a historian of gastronomy once told me. I believe it. This heady perfume followed me on a recent journey into hillside trattorias and smart restaurants, to markets and beachside cafés, as I traveled the length of the Italian Riviera, starting across the border in Nice and ending in Tuscany. (Liguria is also an easy drive from Milan or Florence.)

Balzi Rossi: Stars on the Border
Smack on the Franco-Italian frontier, the restaurant Balzi Rossi, next to a tiny town of the same name, offers a sneak preview of Italy. Mind you, with its two Michelin stars and fashionable clientele, it's like a Hollywood trailer for the neo-realist film that is the true Ligurian cucina. Sunday lunchtime: affluent families in German luxury sedans arrive from both sides of the border in Riviera uniforms—Hermès silk for signora, light blue jackets for signore, Ombeline sandals for their ravishing daughters.

In the kitchen, Ligurian lyricism shakes hands with haute-French formality. Zucchini blossoms are filled with a crustacean mousse that vanishes like an air kiss. Cima, a veal roll with delicate pine nut and pâté stuffing, resembles a Gallic terrine. The Ligurian seafood specialty called cappone magro comes as a pretty bouquet of baby shellfish laced with a tangy sauce of olive oil, vinegar, and anchovies. The medallions of orata (sea bream) with chanterelles are a miss—overcooked. But Mamma never made lasagna the way Balzi Rossi does: sheets of gratinéed pasta poised on iridescent-green pesto hide a vegetable filling as fluffy as a soufflé.

In and Around San Remo: Exquisite Pasta
Drive a bit east and you'll find yourself in San Remo, the flower capital of Italy, whose gritty old center and nostalgic glamour well merit an overnight stay. (Try the Royal Hotel, a grande dame with a sea view.) The town has its share of fancy restaurants—Paolo e Barbara is especially polished—but I took a shine to an archetypal neighborhood trattoria, Piccolo Mondo. Here, birdlike old women happily lunch solo, and businessmen raise their eyes from La Stampa only to pour themselves another glass of house wine; it comes cheaper than Coke.

Piccolo Mondo's pride is a bracing thick minestrone, along with an outstanding octopus potato stew and tortino—a luscious Ligurian vegetable or cheese pie first made in the Middle Ages. The pastas?A refined dish of linguine with shrimp and arugula; and an appealingly homey diamond-shaped sciancui, slathered with pesto and strewn with green beans, zucchini, and pine nuts.

If you stay in San Remo, take a day-long excursion into the nearby hill towns. Start in Bussana Vecchia, a once-abandoned ancient hamlet reclaimed by local artists; spend the rest of the morning exploring the medieval streets of nearby Taggia, known for its olive oil; and have lunch at Il Ponte, in Badalucco.

Il Ponte is nothing but a drowsy village restaurant, yet its food would turn heads anywhere. The earthy flavor of the smoked beef carpaccio is offset by the zing of tiny marinated mushrooms. Pappardelle are finished in a skillet with a slurry of tomatoes, basil, and cream. Voluptuous gnocchi come with wild mushrooms and truffles. These pastas, soothing and silky, are exquisite baby food for grown-ups. In contrast, the elegant tagliata di carne—cold slices of Piedmont beef, set on peppery arugula and topped with a blizzard of warm sliced porcini—is Armani for the taste buds.

After lunch, delve deeper into the hills, and end the day in Triora, famous for witchcraft and country bread.

Cervo: The One Not to Miss
Caterina Barla orchestrates your meal with the dedication of a seamstress sewing her daughter's wedding dress. Tall, prim, and slightly eccentric, she presides over San Giorgio—the region's most charming restaurant, in the stunning medieval hill town of Cervo, about 25 miles east of San Remo.

The subtle vibrancy of Signora Barla's flavors hits with the first bites of the antipasto platter—ethereal olive fritters, zucchini blossoms with pesto potato filling, and bruschetta topped by a festive pile of tomatoes, olives, and bottarga (pressed tuna roe). On the pasta menu: an intriguing black tangle of squid ink linguine with fresh pecorino; and trofiette, delicate "worms" of dough in a jade sauce of basil, fresh tomatoes, olives, and tiny squid. These calamaretti also appear in a main course, paired with fried breaded slices of porcini mushrooms. The taste sensation is typically Ligurian: seemingly disparate elements, the woods and the waters, playing together like happy children.

Genoa: An Ode to the Classics
Most tourists ignore the port city of Genoa, but that only enhances its raffish charm. The sunseekers are missing a trove of Baroque palazzi, arcaded shopping streets, phantasmagoric fin-de-siècle decorations, and a medieval quarter that rivals Barcelona's Barri Gótic.

At lunchtime I roamed the cacophonous alleys around the main market, Mercato Orientale, gorging on street food: focaccia, tripe, farinate (chickpea pancakes). My dinner choice was Antica Osteria del Bai, a wood-paneled institution 20 minutes east of the city center, with a pleasantly claustrophobic boat-cabin feel. Eleganza and tradizione, promised the brochure. Weary of the former (Fish terrine with strawberry sauce? Grazie, no), I was only too happy to surrender myself to tradition. The warm rabbit salad wasn't exactly grandmotherly fare, but it was pleasant and plump. Ditto for the pristine pieces of triglia (red mullet), rolled in lettuce and lightly fried—a takeoff on an old Ligurian preparation. And the simpler seafood entrées, such as mixed grill, were without fault.

But it is the pasta, even the teensiest examples shaped by hand, that shines. Nubby tundetti glow with magical pesto. The musky taste of porcini infuses strands of maltagliati. "In 1869," the owner announced, "Garibaldi ate here before sailing to Sicily to fight for the unification of Italy." Now, that's tradition.

For a taste of ancient inland cuisine, I recommend Genoa's Bruxaboschi, in the wooded hills of San Desiderio, a suburb 20 minutes east of Genoa. (It's not easy to find, so ask for precise directions when you book.) A sprawling, cheerful cantina, Bruxaboschi is dedicated to preserving rare regional dishes. Take the pastas. Peasant chestnut flour is the main ingredient in the rustic ribbons of dough called picagge. And there is nothing impromptu about the beef sauce for the ravioli: this classic sugo di carne simmers all day.

The house fritto misto includes such forgotten delicacies as latte brusco, fried breaded squares of thick milk custard, and a wonderfully bizarre fritto nell'ostia, Communion wafers rolled around a veal and pork mixture, attached to a stick, like a lollipop, and fried. On a more familiar note, there is a melting rabbit-and-olive ragù and a bonanza of seasonal mushrooms. For dessert, try the caramelized figs with amaretto ice cream.

Recco: The Best Focaccia
A former trading post, Manuelina is named for its original owner, a beauty called Manuela who resurrected a forgotten focaccia recipe and created one of the best treats on the planet. Luckily for us, her great-grandchildren are still at the helm, making focaccia that draws thousands to this century-old restaurant in the undistinguished town of Recco.

Save room for Manuelina's pasta. Pansotti alla salsa di noci, triangular ravioli in a creamy walnut sauce, and corzetti, flat circles of dough pressed with a decorative stamp, are treasured Ligurian legacies.

Portofino: The Riviera As You Expect It
Stunning Portofino—its setting the ultimate poster image of Liguria—has never won accolades for its cooking. But who cares when lunch by the bay comes with one of the world's most delectable panoramas?At the restaurant Delfino, I completely surrendered—to champagne on ice, views of rust-colored houses with green shutters, yachts bobbing nonchalantly on their pricey patches of aquamarine, swordfish carpaccio, and a cornucopia of grilled seafood and vegetables dramatically served on red-hot volcanic rock.

Besides my heart, I left a small fortune in Portofino. And given a chance, I'd do it again. Michelin's ministers wouldn't agree, but this is one of that exquisite handful of places by the water where, when the cork comes out and the fork goes in, you see stars.

The Grapes of Liguria
The area's wines are little known and a lovely discovery, especially when paired with Ligurian food. Here, the main varietals.
Rossese A vivacious, fruity red, particularly well made in the region around Dolceacqua, near the French border. Try it with game or pasta in a meat sauce.
Vermentino A crisp, light, slightly herbaceous white, good with simple seafood or pesto dishes.
Pigato A white that tends to have a slight almond flavor and a fuller body than Vermentino; the best are produced near Albenga.
Schiacchetrá A sweet, raisiny dessert wine that is a specialty in the five towns of Cinque Terre.

The RestaurantsBalzi Rossi
Frontiera San Ludovico, Grimaldi
Inferiore;1-84/38-132; dinner
for two $125.
Antica Trattoria Piccolo Mondo
7 Via Piave, San Remo; 1-84/509-012; lunch for two $40.
Il Ponte
3- 5 Via Ortai, Badalucco;1-84/408-745; lunch for two $50.
San Giorgio
19 Via A. Volta, Cervo Alto; 1-83/
400-175; dinner for two $95.
Antica Osteria del Bai
12 Via Quarto, Quarto, Genoa; 1-03/
87478; dinner for two $95.
8 Via F. Mignone, San Desiderio, Genoa; 1-03/450-302;
dinner for two $65.
274 Via Roma, Recco; 1-85/75364; dinner for two $75.
Portofino Mare; 1-85/269-091; lunch for two $50.

Prices include service (though it's customary to leave an extra 5 percent if you are pleased) but not wine.

Looking for more on the Italian Riviera? Read T+L’s Guide to Portofino.