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.