- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

GENOA, Italy — “Basil,” a Genoese lady says with assurance, “is the king of our cooking. Marjoram is the queen.

“In our homes we cook, twice a day, for the family. A two-course meal for midday, while our shops are closed. Then a big dinner at night.”

I have already discovered their breakfast — espresso or cappuccino and a slice of focaccia, which is quite different from the inch-thick slices served across the Liguria-Tuscany border. The Ligurian, and consequently Genoese, version is not quite a half-inch thick and is cut in rectangular pieces to be served. It has many indentations on the surface and is perfumed with excellent Ligurian olive oil. What a fine way to begin the day.

The Ligurians also make focaccia col formaggio — “fugassa co-o formaggio” in the Ligurian dialect. This focaccia is similar to focaccia Genovese in being flat, but it is even flatter and much thinner.

Although this dough is twirled in the air like pizza dough, the two are distant relatives. A round of this dough, made of flour, water and salt, is ready for a large pan for baking only when it is parchment-thin. Nuggets of a pale young cheese are placed on the dough, and it is drizzled with Ligurian olive oil. Then another thin layer goes on top. After baking, this focaccia col formaggio is still thin and crisp, except for the areas in which the cheese has melted.

This is a fine way to begin a lunch, and this is how it is done at Da o Vittorio, a restaurant operated by the twin Bisso brothers in Recco, south of here.

Giovanni Bisso insists that I try his pastas, so he serves generous samples of trofie al pesto, the favorite Ligurian pasta; pansotti al sugo noci, or pasta with a walnut filling; and corzetti, which are flat discs that are cut and embossed with a stamp for whatever occasion desired, such as doves, bells or initials.

Next comes what I am told is morone alla Ligure, a large, thin fillet of fish with olives, pine nuts, olive oil and lemon.

Then chocolate mousse, a glass of Onoratico wine and Camogliesi al rhum, a cakelike dessert, a specialty of the area, named after a nearby resort.

“Recco,” says Giovanni Bissi, “is the capital of Ligurian cuisine.”

Farther up the Ligurian coast and to the west of Genoa, Albert Sacco is making a batch of pesto Genovese, a family enterprise that began with his great-great-grandfather in 1831.

This pesto Genovese (in Italian, the city is Genova) is Genoa’s most famous contribution to gastronomy, and Mr. Sacco makes about 150 to 175 pounds of the aromatic sauce each day. His mixer holds about 11 pounds, and it is made in these small batches.

The Sacco brothers use young basil leaves; pine nuts (from Pisa and Genoa part of the year and also from Argentina and France at other times); two cheeses, sardo from Sardinia and Parmigiano Regiano or Grana Padana; extra-virgin olive oil — from Liguria, of course — and a smaller amount of olive oil that is not as rich in olive flavor; garlic; and salt.

This recipe is familiar, but what sets the Sacco brothers’ pesto apart from what we know in the United States is the basil. It is grown in the Saccos’ greenhouses on the side of the mountain in Pra, and it is harvested in summer 18 days after it was sowed; in winter, each crop may need up to 35 days.

I have seen the small basil plants sold in bundles from carts on the streets of Genoa, but the Saccos’ basil seems younger, a paler green. I look at a cart of basil in the Piazza San Lorenzo near the cathedral in Genoa and tell a guide that Americans use a much more mature basil, from plants that are a foot tall or higher.

“Yes, I know,” she says, “and it tastes like mint.” She has been to America.

The Pra basil, Ocimum basilicum, known as “Genoese basil,” has a royal aroma. Its leaves are small and oval, its aroma delicate, and it does not give a trace of the mint that is found in other varieties. Locals say the best is from Pra, or else from their own balconies, where it can benefit from the Genoese sun and air.

In Liguria, the pesto Genovese is spooned on top of pasta, not tossed with it, and then served. The usual pasta for the pesto is called “troffie,” which reminds me of the German spaetzle, hand-rolled pieces of a pasta made of flour, water and salt — no eggs. Small pieces of potato and broken string beans are partially cooked in the water, then removed while the pasta cooks and then added again to finish cooking with the pasta. Each serving is topped by pesto Genovese spooned on top. The pesto is a brilliant, rather than deep green.

Mr. Sacco says he is happy to make a quality product, although the competition is keen. The Sacco brothers deliver their product to their clients twice each week.

The best part is that he gives me a case of small jars of his pesto to take home. I chill it overnight in a refrigerator in my hotel. The next day it is to become carry-on for the flights home from Genoa to Milan and then to Washington.

A day earlier, I arrived in my hotel and found a luscious tart from Antica Pasticceria Profumo — the equivalent of “Old Profumo Pastry Shop.” The ingredients were an excellent pastry shell filled with perfect custard, topped with quartered figs, lightly glazed and glistening, arranged like petals of a large dahlia. It became a teatime treat, dessert after a dinner of prosciutto, cheese and bread, and still a small piece was left for a bedtime snack.

Someone obviously had heard me raving about a similar tart from Profumo, but topped with wild strawberries and blueberries.

Genoa is also famous for candied fruits, and one shop boasts that it gets more sugar absorbed into its products than any competitor can do.

A traditional Christmas dessert is the pandolce, a round leavened cake containing candied fruits. Each mother apparently believes her recipe is the best; their daughters seem to agree. The traditional Easter tart, the torta pasqualina, uses puff pastry with a filling of chard or artichokes, ricotta and cream.

Farinata is also typical for Genoa and has a close relative in the socca served in Nice, France, not far from the Ligurian border. This large flat cake resembles a huge pancake and is made from chickpea flour in Liguria and Nice.

At Trattoria Al Veliero in the old section of Genoa, I discover centerini, a tube pasta larger than maccheroni, and it is served with dried porcini and shrimp. A sea bass — bronzino — is perfectly cooked and is served with olive oil and lemon. A marble plaque on the wall behind me indicates this is where the Italian Socialist Party was organized in the 19th century.

As for meat, rabbit is king, and many Genoans raise their own. The title of one rabbit recipe — coniglio a carlonn-a — indicates that it is so simple a stupid person can make it. Another, more complicated dish, coniglio ripieno, is boned rabbit stuffed with cheese, eggs and vegetables, then rolled and baked.

In earlier times, ravioli were part of the traditional dinner on St. Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26. The stuffing contains borage, a favorite Ligurian herb, but it also was said that the Genoese made the ravioli filling from leftovers from their Christmas dinner. This is quite fitting with the reputation the Genoese have throughout Italy as the thriftiest in the country. This legendary thrift frequently appears in what we would call “Genoese jokes.”

The meat sauce for the Dec. 26 ravioli is called tocco. A similar sauce, found in Naples’ cooking, is called “Genovese.”

Genoese and Ligurian cooking has been a cuisine of thrift because not many ingredients were available — they used what they had — and the abundance of vegetables and meats has occurred since World War II and the revival of the economies of Genoa and Liguria. Stuffed vegetables are a favorite in spring and early summer.

Some shops specialize in tripe and inexpensive parts of animals. Stockfish — smoked cod — is also very popular, with shops in the old section selling only that, as some of their neighbors sell only sponges or knives, corks or watches.

Genoa’s pesto and focaccia are two reasons to come here.

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