Land and sea
It’s funny that Genoa is most famous, gastronomically, for the salami that carries its name—a salami that bears little resemblance to the lard-speckled salame genovese di Sant’Olcese some historians believe is the progenitor of the Genoa salami. The Americanized version, named after the port from which many Italian imports were historically shipped, is generic Italian salami, heavy on the garlic and pork. It says nothing about the cuisine of Genoa, most of which comes from the ocean.
On a stormy night at the restaurant La Casa dei Capitani, waves crashed onto the rocks below the window. At that restaurant, as well as many others, I ordered the pesce alla Ligure, or Ligurian-style fish. It comes dressed in a tomato-based sauce that includes olives, capers, pine nuts, lemon juice and white wine—some of the finest ingredients in Liguria.
Each time I ordered pesce alla Ligure, it was different. Though each version was inevitably delicious, I had a recurring complaint: The sauce was always laid down a little too thinly, as if the chefs were hesitant to adulterate the clean flavors of the fresh fish.
My posse and I hunkered down in a rented stone cottage for a few days amid the terraced vineyards above the town of Riomaggiore. One morning I went to the local market in La Spezia, where for about half the price of a restaurant meal, I bought enough produce and fish to feed four people for three days. My restaurant research had prepared me for this shopping trip, giving me ideas on how I like my Ligurian sauce and which of the local fishes I prefer. My favorite was a type of sea bass called branzino. Its firm white flesh, slightly marbled with ribbons of dark meat, reminds me of a cross between cod and bluefish.
Our landlords left us six unlabeled bottles of white wine, made of local grapes and processed at a community winery. I’m not usually a white wine fan, but I’ve never tasted white like this: uncomplex and clear, with a hint of fruit, just enough sweetness, and a faint dry edge. The cottage came equipped with an outdoor grill and a stack of dry olive branches. I built a fire and let the olive wood burn down to coals as the branzino marinated in coarse sea salt, black pepper and lemon juice.
The wood took a while to burn down to coals, which gave me time to prepare my sauce. I started with a quarter-cup of pine nuts in a dry pan over heat, shaking and heating until they browned. Then I removed the pine nuts and added olive oil and minced garlic, followed closely by a chopped onion. When the onion turned translucent, I added a pound of plump cherry tomatoes, cut in halves. Then I added the toasted pine nuts, a tablespoon of crushed red pepper flakes, chopped fresh sage and parsley, a lemon’s worth of juice, a quarter-cup of capers and a half-cup of olives, all from the farmers’ market. The olives were small and brown, Nicoise-style, with pits. When the sauce cooked down, I added a cup of that local white wine, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then let it slowly reduce to the consistency of a watery ratatouille, stirring occasionally.
When all the wood had burned into bright coals, I raked them into an even pile about three inches below the grill. Then I brushed the grill with olive oil and lay on the fish. Inside, my companions prepared a leafy salad of endive, escarole, radicchio and a variety of soft lettuces. Fresh gnocchi, boiled until it floated, was tossed with minced garlic and pesto. Mussels were simmered in a broth with wine, tomatoes, lemon, garlic and parsley.
Outside, the smell of cooking fish mingling with the smell of olive smoke had become irresistible, and when I turned the fish I tasted the bits of skin and flesh that stuck to the grill. It was so perfect I didn’t want to adulterate it with my Ligurian sauce—an ironic impulse, given my earlier criticism of Ligurian chefs for doing just that. When the fish were done I arranged them on a platter and drenched them in sauce.
The branzino effortlessly held onto its identity beneath the Ligurian sauce. Together, they were a distillation of that corner of the Mediterranean basin, both land and sea.