Happening upon Camogli's market may have been sheer luck, but we had a very specific target in mind on this visit. We had returned to the town in search of the most amazing focaccia we have ever had. This might sound like an overstatement, but upon looking at these photos again from our trip, I'm convinced that this is, hands down, the best focaccia ever.
Its source is a small focaccieria located at the Eastern end of Via Garibaldi, where the sunlit promenade loses the view of the beach and narrows into a darkened alleyway between two buildings. Blink, and you might even miss the place, but for the aroma of bread baking.
There's focaccia topped with chopped tomato, another with thinly sliced onions, and one with olives. There's pizza too, but the real draw is focaccia col formaggio, a specialty of the region, and in particular the neighboring town of Recco. Loaded with olive oil, the bread contains fresh, soft crescenza cheese stuffed between two extremely thin layers of dough.
I had never tasted anything like it on our first visit, and when a New York City restaurant opened a few years ago promising authentic focaccia col formaggio, I was disappointed to find something closer to a quesadilla instead. I tried to make the focaccia once after my last visit, but it just wasn't the same. After tasting it again this summer, I realized that I had forgotten how incredibly thin the layers were -- paper thin, almost crepe-like. You might need to use a pasta machine to make dough that thin.
I spied a menu posted on the wall of the focacceria detailing the ingredients: "Farina tipo '00,' acqua, olio di olivia e di sansa, cereali maltati, lievito, sale, crescenza."
Unable to translate cereali maltati, I tried to ask some questions about how the focaccia is made, but no one who worked there spoke any English and my phrasebook Italian was not up to the task (if anyone can translate, please comment below). Lievito, which appears to mean yeast, is a surprise ingredient since every recipe I have found for focaccia col formaggio uses an unleavened dough made from just flour and water.
Thoughts about how I might go about reconstructing the focaccia upon our return home quickly turned to eating, as I paid for a focaccia trio -- con pomodoro, con cipolle, and col formaggio.
There's nowhere to sit inside (plus, it's too hot even if there were tables), so you take your focaccia, carefully folded in paper, and quickly find a spot along Via Garibaldi to sit in the sun and unwrap the bready, cheesy goodness. It's gone in seconds, and all that's left is the olive oil covering your fingers.
Beyond our afternoon trip to Camogli, we also ventured further to Chiavari, located a few villages down the coast in the opposite direction.
Below, from top to bottom, is photographic documentation of random acts of eating in all three towns: Candy (Santa Margherita), focaccia (Chiavari), focaccia layered with tomato and cheese and with eggplant (Chiavari), fritto misto (Chiavari), gelato cones (Santa Margherita), gelateria sign (Santa Margherita), pistachio gelato (Camogli), prosciutto and melon (Santa Margherita), grilled scampi (Chiavari), caffe shakerato (Santa Margherita), trenette al pesto (Santa Margherita), trofie al pesto (Santa Margherita).
West of Santa Margherita lies ritzy Portofino, the tiny village of San Fruttuoso, and then Camogli, which is almost sedate in comparison to Santa Margherita. Via Garibaldi, the main road that follows Camogli's shore, is pedestrian-only. Walking along and taking in the view (above) of the pebbly beach lined with colorful umbrellas, the buzz of Santa Margherita's scooters and smart cars fades into distant memory.
We had previously spent a week in Camogli on our honeymoon, and we were eager to return for an afternoon visit. The drive took us along the shore toward Portofino and then high into the hillside above before descending back down to the coast. This challenge was not only navigational but physical, as I woke up that day with a pulled muscle in my neck. Luckily, the ibuprofen kicked in, and we made it down to the bottom of the village in one piece.
When we finally arrived, we discovered it was market day. The east end of Camogli's main shopping strip (a steep flight of steps above Via Garibaldi) was filled with vendors offering a bounty of vibrant fruits and vegetables. Here are a few pictures.
The green glow of the farmacia's neon cross heralds not only the wonders of Proraso shaving cream and 600 mg. tablets of ibuprofen, but unique insights into the food culture of Italy's littlest gastronomes.
On a visit to Santa Margherita's Farmacia A. Pennino, we noticed shelves and shelves of baby food products (see below) that suggest modern Italian bambini get a very early introduction to the glories of cured pork, biscotti, and pasta.
If our first dining experience in Santa Margherita was a disaster, things got much better the next day, when we finally made it to our original destination, Trattoria da Pino (Via J. Ruffini 15).
We ended up eating at the small, unpretentious family-run restaurant twice -- once for lunch and once for dinner -- and had some of the best meals of our trip.
The restaurant is operated by the daughter of Pino, whose picture can be found on the cover of the restaurant's menu -- standing, with the sea behind him, proud of a surprise catch of the day, a (very short) swordfish.
Here, we found the Ligurian cuisine we were craving.
I had a particular hankering for insalata di mare, the warm seafood salad you will find nearly everywhere in Santa Margherita, though served with slight variations. Sometimes it's topped with a dollop of pesto. Sometimes it includes tiny clams and mussels. Sometimes it's rubbery and cold.
At Trattoria da Pino, the salad was impeccable -- just thinly sliced squid and moscardini (baby octopus) tossed with shrimp, potatoes, and dressed only with herbs, olive oil, and a couple of lemon wedges. Everything was so fresh and incredibly tender (you could even eat the little tails at the end of the shrimp without scarring your throat).
I asked the owner how she made the salad, and she explained to me that everything is cooked separately in hot, salted water and then combined to order: the calamari cooks for an hour, the baby octopus for as long as two. Once everything has been cooked, all of the seafood then remains chilled until an order is placed. The ingredients are then briefly warmed in hot water, drained, and tossed with olive oil.
Even though I could probably have just eaten two orders of the insalata di mare and been happy, I don't want to short-change the rest of the menu. The pastas we had were also wonderful -- fresh trenette with pesto, green beans, and potatoes, as well as pansotti with walnut sauce, plump blond dumplings whose color reveal a potent filling of dark green herbs and cheese.
After settling in and recuperating from the overnight flight and drive to our hotel, we eventually made it out to scout Santa Margherita for dinner options. We came to the town with only one restaurant recommendation, Trattoria da Pino, which my sister had suggested to us from a past trip. We struggled to find it that first night and eventually gave up. Worn out, meandering around, we resorted to doing what so many travelers must do when they reach that pinnacle of restaurant-choosing frustration and desperation: find the nearest place.
The nearest place looked OK at first, but we should have known it was a bad option when the menu came printed with English and German translations. Would any Italians eat here? But, we were tired and hungry, so we gave in.
At least the children in the restaurant were happy. Very happy, in fact, because the restaurant had a real live clown on staff entertaining them in an outdoor romper room. They were better off, too. While we ate pasta with bland, leaden sauce, the clown wowed the kids by blowing up big, bright balloons. To add to the absurdity, the power went out twice during our dinner. And, at one point in the evening, when the staff tried to set up for the arrival of a party of eight, everything slowed to a standstill as four waiters completely ignored their tables and spent at least 15 minutes getting together plates, silverware, and a tablecloth.
With the clown, the balloons, the bad food, the blackouts, and the confused staff, the evening reached a level of farce that actually made the meal somewhat entertaining. Needless to say, however, we didn’t return. Luckily, we found restaurant redemption the next day when we struck gold (or, in this case, insalata di mare) at our original culinary target, Trattoria da Pino. More on this to come . . .
We flew into Milan, rented a car and drove straight to our first destination, Santa Margherita. Located just east of Portofino, Santa Margherita is one of the most picturesque towns along the Golfo del Tigullio on the stretch of the Italian Riviera known as the Riviera di Levante.
We had been to Liguria once before to stay in Camogli, a smaller, less-traveled village west of Portofino. Santa Margherita is bigger than Camogli, with more business and tourists, fancier shopping, and the constant zip and buzz of cars and scooters along the coast road (Camogli has only a pedestrian road along the water, so it is much quieter).Read More >
For the next few weeks, The Food Section will open its passport once again for the fifth edition of Moveable Feast. Earlier installments of this ongoing feature have taken this site to Saigon, Montreal, Florence, and Washington, DC, for an immersion into food culture beyond New York City.
This time, our destination is Italy for a gustatory tour in three acts: First, we head to the seaside resort town of Santa Margherita on the coast of Liguria. Next, we ride down the Autostrade to Grosseto in the Maremma region of Tuscany. And, finally, it's on to Rome, where we conclude our visit and return to New York City.
Italophiles, take note: This won't be a comprehensive account of everything one can, should, and must eat on a visit to these three places. With only two weeks in total (and, in particular, only three days in Rome), there is so much more to see and taste. Yet, with hundreds of photographs and some rapidly slipping memories, I hope to share some personal insights into the gastronomical encounters experienced on our Italia '05 travels.
BLUR Above, a scooter speeds by on the coastal road linking Rapallo and Santa Margherita and continuing west to Portofino.
I want to thank Kristin Franklin for a fantastic job guest-editing The Food Section last week. From burgers to barbecue, mole, and persimmons, her Moveable Feast provided a very informative and personal take on the Los Angeles food scene. In the process, this unabashed L.A. "newbie" unwittingly waded into one of the more important culinary debates of our times -- can one order fries "animal style" at In-N-Out, or are they just an urban myth? Ms. Franklin promises to do some investigative work and get back to us with an update.
If you missed the Moveable Feast, here's a final look back at all of the entries:
»Destination: Los Angeles
»Keller Heads South . . .
»The VA, Barbeque, and Jazz
»The Beef About L.A.
»Mole, Links, and Blogs
I have had loads of fun this week. Thanks so much to Josh and The Food Section for giving me this opportunity. I especially appreciate all of the comments posted. I will be sure to continue my burger tour starting with the recommended Sunset Grill, Astro Burger, and Pie-n-Burger . . . and I'll be certain to try the fries "animal style" next time I get a hankering for a double-single at In-N-Out. I've also since heard that The Counter in Santa Monica is a fun, interactive burger place. Thank you!
Just as there is so much to eat in L.A., there is so much to read about eating in L.A. For me, the first magazine in my hands in Los Angeles has been a guide to gluttony. I leave you with a few sources which I've found helpful, entertaining and just plain fun to read.
Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn graced the cover of the September 2004 issue of Los Angeles Magazine, but what really caught my eye was the top bar line: "The 25 Best Mexican Restaurants." I was excited to get this issue in my hands after I relocated to Los Angeles, where taco stands rival burger joints, this past September. I use it as somewhat of a guide to the Mexican food around here; I try to keep it in my car. But at the same time, this article only highlights 25 out of the overwhelming thousands that are out there. I have found one favorite so far, thanks to Patric Kuh (who wrote the article): El Sazon Oaxaqueno. This family-run place in Mar Vista shares a small strip mall with a laundromat and an abandoned 98-cents store. I haven't tasted many moles in my life, but I know I'm getting the real thing when I inhale the delicious Enchiladas de Pollo with black or red mole from El Sazon. The sauce is complex and sensual, with deep chocolate and chili flavors. And, if you're lucky, sweet bread will be baking as you're waiting for your lunch order, almost ready to fill the bakery cases at the front of the small restaurant.
On the Mexican food note, I noticed online that Jonathan Gold (L.A. Weekly) recently published an article titled Nueva York, which highlights seven Mexican restaurants on one street, York Blvd. I'll have to try . . .
Other links also provide direction, entertainment, and/or proven good reads. The Los Angeles Times Food Section is extensive, publishing loads of articles weekly on all things cooking and eating and drinking. Or if you'd like, you can goo-gah over L.A.'s hottest chefs at L.A.com's dining section, while finding out where to eat when you shop or whether you should bring Fido to dinner. Gayot.com's Los Angeles Restaurants section keeps tabs on restaurant openings, renovations, and closings. The page also features a reliable guide, although seemingly limited, to upcoming and ongoing food events in the city. The hip Los Angeles City Beat, an "underground"-looking online counterpart to its newsstand publication, provides a small but intriguing "Eat" section.
A few blogs have come across my path during my research. LARitz, a personal, witty, everyday life blog based in Los Angeles, devotes many posts to explorations of food and restaurants around town, mapping noteworthy meals from Campanile to Pollo la Brasa. Franklin Avenue intertwines L.A. food adventures with life adventures, coming to you from Mike and Maria, who I'm guessing are the coolest couple to hang out with in Los Angeles. EatLa, although appearing to have stopped publishing articles a year ago, contains entertaining documentations of contributing writers' restaurant adventures. In EatingLA, a more updated blog not to be confused with the one previously mentioned, Los Angeles resident and food-enthusiast Pat Saperstein becomes tour guide to "eating out, cooking and shopping for delicious foodstuffs in the city of the angels." Her articles range from pastry shop openings to documenting eating out with Chowhound's editor.
Speaking of, Chowhound's Los Angeles thread is so lively you're likely to get a response to a post in a matter of seconds (even at 2 a.m.). So, in order to fully represent (to the best of my ability) devoted Los Angeles food blogs, I've summoned the Chowhounders. A special thanks to Chowhounders "LesThePress", "igj," and "weebie" for pointing out these blogs:
- Low End Theory's Guide to L.A. Restaurants allows searches by neighborhood, "style," or cuisine. The site is relatively young (October 2004), but the rich content so far merits reason to return.
- Orange County-based blog Professor Salt explores Orange County spots while sharing stories of home barbeque.
- Quite the specialized site, Hot Dog Spot with its wacky "crack team" is on a mission to find the best hot dog in Los Angeles, hence documenting their dog-licious journeys.
I look forward to making these sources daily reads for daily eats. I'm sure I've missed a few, so please feel free to tune me in. We've got the hot dog; any L.A. mole blogs out there?