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Saturday, September 5, 2020

Eat, Sip, Relax: the Italian Riviera

I planned to be on Italian Riviera this week with three friends for a week of R&R at a glorious villa with forever views...until the EU banned Americans.   To honor this "lost week," I am writing about the experience I was to have had....and am spending the week cooking meals to pay hommage this trip. 

 Extending from the French border to Tuscany, the Italian Riviera was to have been a perfect spot to overcome jet lag.   With the exception of the Cinque Terre and the city of Genoa, this 200 mile coastline (known as Liguria to Italians) is dotted with romantic fishing villages, sandy beaches, and dramatic rocky cliffs.  Hillsides are covered with basil, rosemary, thyme and marjoram…all of which provide the fragrance of the Ligurian kitchen.  While we’ve come to relax, we're all serious foodies who have also come to partake of the region’s delicious cuisine and its glorious white wine, Vermentino.

                    Trofie, a hand-rolled twisted pasta, with pesto is a classical Ligurian specialty

One of the foods that places Liguria in Italy’s Gastronomic Hall of Fame is pesto.  Pesto was invented in Liguria and the region’s small leaf basil has a cult following.
Is this local basil variety the reason why pesto always tastes so better on the Italian Rivera?   Or, is the reason the fact that many Ligurian chefs add walnuts to the mix of pine nuts?   Liguria’s prized olive oil (used by many Michelin star chefs) may also have a bearing--it’s much more delicate and sweeter than other Italian oils.  Perhaps, however, it’s the Riviera's drop-dead gorgeous seaviews and smell of the cool Mediterranean air that make eating a bowl of pesto pasta so pleasurable? 

                                            Foccaceria's often specialize in certain toppings

A close runner-up for catapulting the Italian Riviera into Italy's shrine for gastronomy is focaccia.   Like pesto, focaccia has Ligurian roots.  Visit the town of Recco and you’ll be welcomed by a huge sign proudly declaring it the place where focaccia was first created.  Walk into a foccacceria and one often finds a mesmerizing selection (the best are cooked in wood-fired ovens) such as carmelized onion, olive, cheese, fresh Ligurian anchovies, sun-dried tomato…and of course, pesto.

                           Nightly "aperitivos" on the villa's terrace will have to wait for another time

The perfect pairing for both pesto and focaccia is a glass of Vermentino.  I’ve written too many articles to count on this seductive Ligurian white varietal.   Reminiscent of a Sauv Blanc without the grassy herbaceous notes, Vermentino offers a luscious citrus profile...mixed with stone fruit (think peach), floral scents, and a characteristic almond nuance.   Vermentino screams the Italian Riviera.

                                      Amaretti are small, addictive almond biscuit-like treats

Ready for a delectable Ligurian dessert?  One of the most famous Italian sweets is amaretti.  In my mind, Liguria’s rendition is the best because it’s softer and moister than the harder, dry varieties from neighboring districts.  One of the most famous makers of amaretti in all of Italy is the Sassello company.  Located in Liguria, Sassello has been making amaretti since 1860.  These amaretti are easily recognized by their colorful paper coverings with fringed-edges, and their attractive Art Noveau tins.

Viva the Italian Riviera!  Liguria ! 

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