Liguria, Italy, and Its Eternal Charm

Gothic church on the cliff’s edge in Portovenere, Italy

Traveling to other countries always makes me laugh at myself. I am an American traveling in awe of the sites and history I see in other countries around the world. At some point during a trip, I usually have a moment where I check myself and the other people around me, noting how fascinated we all are with things that the people who live in those cities see as commonplace. Seeing people live in a village so old that the streets are still made of cobblestones and the castle of the once-ruling noble family still stands 600 years later is something that is always so incredible to me. I will always be impressed with the beauty and the history of these lands. 

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As a third generation Italian-American, it was about time I took my first trip to Italy. It was a place I wanted to visit my whole life, and I grew up listening to stories about my great grandparents and how life was for them back in It’ly (as my grandparents would say) before coming to America. I took my 13-year-old daughter, Emma, with me because I wanted her to experience the Italian culture and get an idea of what life is like in other countries.

View of the sun setting over the water at La Bilaia olive farm

Although Liguria is not the region my family originated from, it was a great introduction to the country. On our first night in Italy, we stayed in Genoa, land of Christopher Columbus. There are statues and places dedicated to him all over the city. We even saw his childhood home just outside the original city walls. There is so much to see from the old city center; one could get lost in all the little food shops and stores and the picturesque view from Piazza Castello. Eager to see the view we had been told not to miss, Emma and I hiked up to Piazza Castello rather than taking the public elevator. The steps start on Via Garibaldi and head up and up and up. At one point Emma and I were laughing so hard about the amount of steps we had to climb that I almost fell backward down them. Seriously, as charming as it was to hike the steps through the neighborhood, take the elevator.

Genoa, Italy, at night

The next stop on our mom and daughter adventure was in Portovenere. Just up the Liguria coast, this village is a stop you should definitely consider. We took a small boat tour of the coastline and marveled at the remains of a large Roman villa and Benedictine monastery high up on the hills above the main town. In town there is another very dramatic Romanesque and Gothic church that sits on the cliff’s edge. We also took a tour of the mussel farms just off the coast. It’s not difficult to see that mussel farming is an important part of Portovenere’s local economy; the farms are located all throughout the bay and are actively being tended to and harvested.

Mussel-farm wading in the waters of Portovenere, Italy

Once back on shore we walked through the village and visited a small restaurant called Un Mare di Sapori where we had a brief cooking lesson. We learned how to make pasta with fresh mussel sauce, deep-fried mussels, and Mussels Farinata (mussels in ground chickpeas). Luckily, Emma was raised to not be a picky eater, and she devoured every bite of those luscious mussels. Though not my favorite food, I thought the mussels were impeccably fresh and delicious; their flavor was subtle with some saltiness, and they were plump and not tough at all. I actually liked them quite a bit and even went back for seconds. After the cooking lesson, we had some time before we had to catch our bus to the next stop so we wandered the streets of the town and did some window-shopping.

Wine-bottle-corking machine at Ca’ Lunae

Our next stop was for wine tasting at a winery called Ca’ Lunae. There was a group of us who were warmly greeted by the staff and taken on a very detailed tour of the winery grounds. Probably the coolest thing aside from the wine is the museum, which is loaded with every winemaking apparatus humans could come up with before it became a mechanized process. It was actually very interesting to see how labor intensive the process used to be compared to today’s methods. After our tour we were treated to a private wine tasting. Poor Emma had to drink a soda, but the cheese and salami they set out made her happy.

Touring Varese Ligure

Our lesson took place in the charming Albergo Ristorante Amici. The chef gave us a quick history lesson then showed us the handmade stamps used to decorate the Corzetti pasta. Each stamp is made from one piece of wood, which is lathed and chiseled into a one-of-a-kind piece of art. Each stamp has a different pattern on the top and bottom so, when stamping the pasta, there is not one spot that is too thin or one that has a hole in it from being stamped too hard together.

Emma’s finished Croxetti pasta at Albergo Amici in Varese Ligure

The chef quickly rolled a sheet of dough out for us, and we took turns cutting and stamping out the Corzetti. After our pasta was cut, we learned about the sauce that is served on the pasta. It’s basically a cheese-based pesto that does not contain basil. The chef carefully ground pine nuts, salt, and olive oil together and added pecorino cheese at the end with pepper to taste. It was rich and delicious. Then he showed us how to make the basic basil pesto. Each part of the lesson was great fun, and Emma had a blast learning how to do it all.

Our lesson didn’t end there. We were taken on a tour of the village and introduced to Pietro Picetti, the man who hand makes the Corzetti stamps. Pietro is a retired banker who, after retirement, found his calling in woodworking and has brought the art of making these stamps back to life. People from all over the world email him asking for personalized one-of-a-kind stamps to be made.

Croxetti stamps in the workshop of Pietro Picetti in Varese Ligure

Later that afternoon we arrived in Chiavari where we were staying for the night at Hotel Monerosa. We had some time to kill before dinner so Emma and I strolled the streets and found the one thing we had been searching for the entire trip: a Sicilian cannoli. I love cannoli and grew up spoiled by my grandmother, who made them from scratch for every Christmas and birthday. Emma and I shared one along with an espresso; it made a great late afternoon treat full of sweetened ricotta cheese and dried fruits.

Chandeliers strung from the rooftops in Chiavari

Chiavari is a great city. We were not sure if they were preparing for the holiday season to arrive, but strung from rooftop to rooftop were lighted chandeliers and twinkly lights all down the main shopping street. It was so beautiful. Emma and I window-shopped, walked along the waterfront, and really enjoyed the ambiance of Chiavari.

Dinner was planned for us at Lord Nelson restaurant. Lord Nelson has been in Chiavari for 30 years and is family owned and operated. Not only do they have incredible local fare and a delightful wait staff, they also have an impressive wine collection reaching more than 16,000 bottles. We were given a private tour of the wine cellar that is located under the restaurant by Alex Molinari, sommelier professionista. We saw some great vintage wines and spirits as well as more popular varieties.

A few of the 16,000 bottles of wine at Lord Nelson restaurant in Chiavari

The next morning, Emma and I packed up our bags and headed out to a village called Camogli. Camogli is the other Portofino. Many people have said to me that they would rather visit Camogli than Portofino. The beauty is equal, but the accessibility is easier.

We arrived mid morning and had the most incredible light for picture taking. It couldn’t have been more perfect. The golden shine of the sun was bouncing off the beautiful stone-filled beach onto the brightly colored buildings against the hillside. There were families sitting on the beach enjoying the warm sun and a variety of shops, restaurants, and cafés along the boardwalk.

The beach in Camogli, Italy

While in Camogli, we visited Revello Focacceria. This local focacceria makes fresh focaccia and pastries specific to the area. The owners of the focacceria brought us into their kitchen and showed us how they make their anchovy focaccia, which Emma devoured. It always amazes me what she will eat and I will not. To make the anchovy focaccia was quite a process; the dough is made and placed into a pan. Usually when working with dough one needs to be delicate and sweet to it so it cooperates. In this process, the dough is pushed around and poked to death. The fingertips of the baker are pressed deeply into the dough to create the characteristic dimples the bread is known for before salted water is scooped by the handful onto the dough accompanied by bright green olive oil. The dough is then again poked and pushed around a bit to make sure there is flavor in every dimple. If the bread is to have any toppings, then those are added and the bread is baked.

Focaccia dough with fingerprint dimples ready for the oven

It was just about time for lunch so we headed to Recco to enjoy a very special type of focaccia bread called La Focaccia di Recco con il Formaggio, Specialitá Tipiche Liguri, which, loosely translated is: The Focaccia of Recco with the Cheese, specialty typical of Liguria. Emma was about to learn how to make cheese-stuffed focaccia bread from our friends at Ristorante Vitturin. There are two parts to the establishment: a downstairs focacceria where people hang out and are more casual, and an upstairs where patrons enjoy finer dining. We went downstairs where the kitchen is located for our lesson. Emma learned how to toss the dough so it is thin and even, then she layered the fresh cheese on top of the dough and topped the cheese with another thin layer of dough. The whole thing is covered in olive oil and put into a very hot, wood-burning oven. The bread cooks very fast and needs to be watched closely as the dough is so thick it will burn if it is not rotated during cooking. When the focaccia is removed from the oven, it is gorgeous. Brown and crisp with bubbling cheese peeking out from the edges and holes in the top of the bread … my mouth is watering now just thinking about it.

Emma with her finished focaccia at Ristorante Vitturin

Lunch was amazing, but we still had a visit to the La Bilaia olive farm and Cooperativa Agricola Lavagnina, an olive oil co-op, on our agenda for the day. The owner of La Bilaia gave us a tour of the farm and offered to let Emma try her hand at harvesting olives from the trees. She had to use a massive, vibrating, fork-like instrument that is hooked up to a car battery. It almost rattled her arms off her body. The olives fell to the ground and became caught in fine mesh netting. Once all the olives were rounded up, Emma worked with the farmer to put them through a debris sorter. This machine blows any leaves or sticks that might have fallen out of the tree out of the harvest so there will not be any foreign flavors when it comes time to press the olives.

Olives go through the sorter on their way to becoming olive oil

Next we traveled to the co-op, where the olives would be pressed. The process is so clean and simple: The olives are dumped into a scale for weighing, then the scale opens up and the olives are transferred into a sifter. The sifter then puts the olives into the press where they are ground and pressed. The olive oil and water that comes out now goes into a separator so the oil can be extracted from the water the olives give off. Then the pure, fresh, bright green and extremely aromatic oil is pumped out and ready for bottling. The whole process takes about 20 minutes, depending on the amount of olives. We were able to taste a sample of the freshly pressed olive oil; what a difference it was from the stuff we buy out of the store.

Freshly-pressed olive oil at Cooperativa Agricola Lavagnina

As you can see, we were very spoiled on our trip. Emma and I were able to participate in some really fun and educational activities. If ever you find yourself in Liguria, make sure to find these places and tell them we sent you!