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The Luxury of Simple Cooking While Traveling
Mark's notes from the road
As I write this, we are in Liguria, Camogli, to be precise: soon on our way to a quick overnight stop in a town called Borgio Varezzi from where Kathleen will go to Turin for Slow Food Terra Madre, and I will go to London for some research and visiting of old friends.
The last couple of weeks of traveling have been different than those when my primary goals were finding restaurants or chefs to write about or shoot with, or to learn about how people were growing food or making oil or wine. The primary goal of this trip has always been recreational — as close to a vacation as I’ll ever get.
To date, I’ve met zero chefs and the restaurants tend to be random, found the way everyone else finds them: through word of mouth, or a concierge’s recommendations, or the usual unreliable website, or “Oh this looks good let’s try it,” which was how we found last night’s restaurant and it was as good as any.
Although too many people assume we’re after Michelin-starred places, we go for informality and tradition, places that seem solid and serve local dishes without “reimagining” them. Nothing thrills me more than a local dish cooked well and at the right moment. And here, that’s easy. As in much of Italy, it gets repetitive, because the number of popular and established local dishes is finite. Soon enough, I’ll be crying because I can’t find any pansotti or trofie and we’ll have to either make them ourselves or come back.
As in much of Italy, it gets repetitive, because the number of popular and established local dishes is finite; but soon enough I’ll be crying because I can’t find any pansotti or trofie and we’ll have to either make them ourselves or come back.
We started in Nice a little over a week ago, and the first night my friend, southern France’s all-star American food and travel writer, Lanie Goodman, took us to a place in the old town, Vieux Nice, called Lavomatique (it was once a laundromat), a small-plate style place, and very good: panisses, fennel sausage, anchovies, baccalaitos, and so on. The wine was not even close to being local which bothered me a bit, but soon we would be drinking nothing but Pigato grown within meters of where we were eating, so I was comforted by that notion. We ate socca in Nice, of course – in the morning at Chez Theresa, though the original Theresa is gone – but that could never be as good as my 40-year-old memories, and in any case, the farinata across the border is generally better.
The best thing about Nice has nothing to do with food: It’s walking down the street and plunging into the Mediterranean, right in the middle of town. I have a 1945 picture of my dad, on leave from the front, standing on the Boulevard des Anglais, so it’s always felt special. There are other big cities with saltwater swimming, of course — Santa Monica, or Coney Island — but it’s not quite the same. Here the beach is really the center of town.
Wherever we ate that second night in Nice was fine but unmemorable. The next day we drove to Italy, stopping at a kind of beautiful-horrifying rich person’s place called The Mayborne, a modern monstrosity built into a cliff over Monaco with sweeping views for a million miles. The sun shone, it rained, we oohed and aahed, the food was average, and the service was abysmal. We’ll never go again and neither should you unless it’s for an overpriced snack or glass of wine and an exciting gander.
The sun shone, it rained, we oohed and aahed, the food was average, and the service was abysmal. We’ll never go again and neither should you unless it’s for an overpriced snack or glass of wine and an exciting gander.
Things then became more bucolic, but, again, the focus was barely food, or to the extent it was primarily for amusement and “nutrition.” We checked into a room in a village called Borgomaro, above Imperia, a beautiful little village with a few centrally managed apartments/rooms scattered throughout and a central office, swimming pool, snack bar kind of thing. The town was lovely, quiet, pleasant, a bit of a fantasy hillside town, but just at the foot of the big hills. We focused on nightly meals and daily hikes. The hikes were sensational, the evenings pleasant. We ate the good local pizza twice and drank pigato of course — that’s a given.
The third night we went to an utterly wacky osteria run by a big, friendly bearded guy who kept 20-pound carp in an indoor pool fed by river water. (They’re pets; he’d never serve them.) The place – called Censin da Bea – is carved into the hillside, with the river running next to it. It’s not quite as badly lit as some others, but bad enough, with the river passing by in the dark, the bare bulbs blinding you on the terrace, and about six cats bugging you for food every second, and only one server (though a very efficient system of pretty much everyone eating pretty much everything simultaneously and food being brought constantly), decorated with old farm implements.
There were about 20 dishes, brought in a steady stream, sometimes three or four at once, some pretty good and some not so great, but all total fun: three sausages, mushrooms in oil, dried tuna, bad bread (this is standard; for years I have wanted and failed to write about the worsening condition of the never-very-good bread in Italy, though yes, I’m aware of the exceptions), tongue with green sauce, real sun-dried tomatoes, good melon with good ham, potatoes with cheese, olives, sensational torta verde, fagiole con funghi that was 30 percent sausage, ravioli with greens and parmesan, trofie with pesto and beans and potatoes (a staple; well, most of these things are), roast beef (this I could’ve lived without), fried mushrooms (porcini, and good), peppers roasted with codfish, eggplant and – the penultimate dish – lomache, garden snails, with hot sauce. A very local thing. Finally, the worst panna cotta I’ve ever eaten. A great place, especially at 35 Euro plus wine.
So that was Borgomaro, which had been recommended by our new friend Enrica Monzani, who runs the lovely website A Small Kitchen in Genoa, and it was there that we went to meet her, not at first in her small kitchen, but in central Genoa, which I’d remembered as one of my favorite and still legitimate old centers, and indeed it remains that way: with secret passages and quiet piazzas; and chocolate shops that have special addresses; and a tripe shop; and the best focaccia and farinata and all kinds of lovely and bizarre stuff; and yes, lots of tourists, but also, yes, lots of real people. It’s a wonderful place to spend a day.
Back in Enrica’s kitchen we cooked (and made pesto) and ate (a gorgeous plate of panzanella, and another of baccala and potatoes, trenette with pesto and potatoes and green beans) and enjoyed with Enrica, and then went out to dinner ourselves at Trattoria Ugo, which was perfect, as long as you want even more Ligurian specialties.
Twenty-four hours in Genoa is not nearly enough, but it leaves you wanting more because it’s one of those very few remaining cities that retain at least some of the character it had not only before the mad building of the ‘80s but even before World War II. Other than Naples, maybe Palermo, I know of no other sizeable city in Italy that measures up.
Twenty-four hours in Genoa is not nearly enough, but it leaves you wanting more.
From there we drove to Camogli, the main town of the Golfo Paradiso, big enough to feel like there are some true residents – Portofino, by comparison, is a Disneyworld, and pretty tough to take – but small enough to get to know. We’ve had four glorious days here and, again, it’s the beaches and the hiking (we hiked from here to San Frutosso, enough to impress us, at least) that ruled. I will admit that the semi-formal restaurant at our hotel (the Cenobio ei Dogi) was a pleasant surprise, especially the fish ravioli, but again it was the run-of-the-mill, unheralded places we liked most, especially the Osteria dei Pescatore in Santa Margherita di Ligure, which doesn’t even make the list of “top 30 fish restaurants” on Trip Advisor and yet brought us perfect fried anchovies, and fat steamed mussels with lemon, and pansoti, gorgeous pansoti.