Have Fork, Will Travel
Italian Land and Sea
The pleasures of pesce alla Ligure
Special series: The Alibi’s resident food columnist Ari LeVaux reports from Italy for a few issues. Buon appetito!
It's funny that Genoa is most famous, gastronomically, for salami—one that bears little resemblance to the lard-speckled salame Genovese di Sant'Olcese that some historians believe is the progenitor of the Genoa salami. The Americanized version—named after the port from which many Italian goods were historically shipped—is a generic Italian salami, heavy on the garlic and pork. It says nothing about the cuisine of Genoa, most of which comes from the ocean that laps at the city’s feet.
Like many of the cities and villages in the Italian coastal state of Liguria, Genoa practically hangs over the water, clinging to steep hillsides that drop precipitously into the sea. Some of the streets are as narrow as slot canyons, revealing only a sliver of sky overhead. Prostitutes beckon sailors in the narrowest passages. The seafood of Liguria, plentiful in Genoa, is not so easily ignored.
On a stormy night at the restaurant La Casa dei Capitani, waves crashed onto the rocks below the window as I ate an antipasti of raw seafood that contained, among other uncooked treats, two large prawns. Their inclusion surprised me. I've always assumed there must be a reason why I've never seen a raw shrimp at a sushi restaurant. When I asked the waitress about it, she sweetly offered to have the prawns cooked for me. I gesticulated "hell no" and pulled the head off one of the gray prawns. Pink juice leaked from the head onto the prawn's body. I wiped it off and started chewing. The taste was so subtle it was almost flavorless, but with a faint, sweet creaminess.
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 to be found in Liguria.
Its firm white flesh, slightly marbled with ribbons of dark meat, reminds me of a cross between cod and bluefish.
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 were hunkered down in a rented stone cottage 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. 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 is 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: uncomplicated 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 was thin but took a while to burn to coals, which gave me time to prepare my sauce. I started with 1/4 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, halved (cut larger tomatoes into 1-inch cubes). 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, 1/4 cup of capers and 1/2 a cup of olives, all from the farmers market. The olives were small and brown, Niçoise-style, with pits. When the sauce cooked down, I added a cup of that local white wine, seasoned it with salt and pepper, and then let it slowly reduce to the consistency of a watery ratatouille, stirring occasionally.
Our landlords left us six unlabeled bottles of white wine, made of local grapes and processed at a community winery.
I went out to the terrace, where I sipped on homegrown white. Nibbling on freshly oiled anchovies, kumquats from the tree and slices from a hunk of salame Genovese di Sant'Olcese, I watched the stars and the dark hills and the moonlit sea.
When all the wood had burned into bright coals, I raked them into an even pile about 3 inches below the grill. Then I brushed the grill with olive oil and laid 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 of wine, tomatoes, lemon, garlic and parsley.
Outside, the smell of cooking fish mingling with the smell of olive smoke had become irresistible. I had to taste the bits of skin and flesh that stuck to the grill after turning the fish. 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. In the end, I held firm to my vision of the dish, as Odysseus was held firm to the mast of his ship, somewhere in those moonlit waters below, when he sailed past the island of sirens. 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. They complemented each other beautifully, like a sip of wine and a bite of fish—and there was plenty of that going on as well.