A swift guide to some of the most delicious, authentic food that can be found in the Liguria region of the Italian coast.
Well, as this is my first piece for House of Coco, I suppose I’d better introduce myself. I’m Deb, a woman who embarks on culinary journeys with the edacious glee of a child armed with the knowledge that the jingling rendition of “Old McDonald” does NOT mean the ice cream van is out of goods (sorry, your parents lied to you). I’ve been fortunate enough to explore, experience and learn about food everywhere from the lush jungles of Maui to the dusty roadsides of Tobago, but the subsequent food comas have been of such severity that, to be frank, I’ve been too lazy to write about them.
Over the coming months, I’ll be sharing my musings on what to eat and where to participate in some of the best authentic cooking experiences I’ve found on my travels. You won’t find any big names or corporate chains in this column, everything is off the beaten track, recommended to me by locals or, as is most often the case, found by accident or calamity. You see, when you live your life driven by equal parts optimism and naivety, you’re going to get into a few scrapes. Some will be dangerous, some will make you laugh, and some will just downright break your heart. Fortunately for you guys, most result in some of the most glorious epicurean finds of my life, and that’s what I’m here to share with you.
I arrived in La Spezia, a port city in Liguria, late one Friday evening after a swift 45-minute train journey from Pisa Centrale. Why La Spezia? Well, it’s wonderfully convenient for accessing the Cinque Terre by train, it’s overflowing with places to stay, and, well, some guy I used to know said it’s a nice place to visit. I was greeted at my apartment by Patricia, a wonderful hostess who was quick to fill me in on her recommendations for where to eat: Seconoini, for the best ravioli, Cantina Da Walter for spaghetti frutti di mare, and Portovenere for Bajeico pesto. She also provided me with a list of illegal, unlicensed restaurants which, under the sole lightbulb over the dining room table made me feel like a co-conspirator in an Italian wartime movie. Frustratingly, I am only too aware that some of the best food I’ve ever had has been served up by shady, unregulated vendors (who, most of the time, are actually excellent cooks and producers who cannot afford to purchase the relevant licenses or who are unable to get around red tape). As much as I would love to prove how much of a complete badass I am by going to an illegal restaurant in a stranger’s basement, I have binge watched far too many murder documentaries to take that chance.
After deciding to only stick to legitimate eateries (this wouldn’t be much of a guide if I couldn’t tell you where I had been), I hopped on the train to Monterosso al Mare, a devastatingly pretty coastal town boasting pastel hued buildings and a spectacular beach you can get to within 60 seconds of disembarking the train. You are greeted with the most magnificent view the minute you leave the platform, a view I found so enchanting that I accidentally knocked a child down the stairs (calm down, he was fine). Five-minute walk from the beach and tucked away down an unassuming alley is Wonderland Bakery, owned by Fabio and Simone. The scent of buttery, cinnamon spiced deliciousness hits you before you’ve even gotten through the front door, the small shopfront crammed with pastries, breads and all manner of baked goodness. Although I could have happily left there with one of everything, I scaled back a little and went for some fisherman’s cookies (a chunky biscuit filled with dried fruit), mulled wine cookies, a selection of cream filled biscotti, a wedge of grandma’s cake, and a slice of the zestiest, crumbliest lemon tart I’ve ever experienced. “Grandma’s cake”, a layered delicacy similar to Bakewell tart, was so delicious that I sat on a bench on the coast, unashamedly eating it with my hands like a monkey. Fortunately for me, Italians aren’t as glued to their phones as us Brits, so no one was about to take a photo of this moment and turn it into a meme. Had I been planning on staying in Monterosso, I would most certainly have returned to Wonderland Bakery for lunch as their breads and savoury dishes are rumoured to be as equally delicious as my early morning sugar bomb, but I only had one day and a lot more things to eat.
Later that morning, I managed to track down Cantina del Pescatore, another unpretentiously charming establishment featuring a small store front with a restaurant tucked away at the back. I would love to tell you that I went for some beautiful meat or fine wine, but the sole reason for my visit was the small glass slush machine in the doorway churning out vodka spiked lemon ices (the vodka is optional but, hey, it’s 5 o’clock somewhere). The guys here use the lemon in its entirety, the flesh, the rind, the lot, resulting in a tangy, aromatic nectar that is making my mouth water just writing about it. Just as pineapple tastes better in Hawaii and rum tastes better in Barbados, lemon tastes so much better in Italy, especially when you’re perched on a bench outside Cantina del Pescatore with a glass of the good stuff. It was whilst leaving this bench that I was ushered into the building next door, vodka lemon ice in hand, after being mistaken for a wedding guest. It was a lovely ceremony; we all sang an Ed Sheeran song and threw blush pink confetti over the beautiful bride and groom before I unwittingly ended up in the wedding photos. Yes, the building opposite Cantina del Pescatore is a church, and unless you have an hour to spare and love power ballads, I strongly recommend you don’t hang around outside for too long. Just get a glass of lemon ice, maybe pick up a bottle of their delectable balsamic vinegar, and get back to the beach, pronto.
My final foodie stop was at Pigons Focaccette back in La Spezia. Guys, please do not consider travelling to Liguria without visiting this place. It’s difficult to define Pigons Focaccette in that it’s not quite a restaurant and it’s not quite a bar, it’s more of a social gathering, so to speak. Anna, the proprietor, wouldn’t even describe herself as a cook (she’s actually a psychologist), she’s “just someone who likes to bring people together”. Rather than focusing on trends or pretentiousness, Anna cooks from the heart, her mother’s Tuscan focaccette recipe at the crux of the operation. When you arrive, you are offered an “all you can eat” menu for €12.90 but, rather than the lukewarm food left congealing under heat lamps that you might expect, their definition of A.Y.C.E is freshly cooked food from kitchen to table until you’re fit to burst.
Everything is made by hand and with heart by Anna and her family, and it shows. The bread is baked between two hot iron paddles and served immediately with cheese, meat, pesto, everything you need to make a gratifying hulking plate of comfort food. The courses that follow could be anything from freshly made ravioli (I cannot recommend the pesto one enough), fresh seafood, whatever is in season at the time. You only need visit once to be considered part of their extended family, after which you will be welcomed with open arms. Some diners stay behind to drink, some even help with the dishes, that’s the beautifully nurturing atmosphere that has been created here, and only exists in places such as this where an establishment is run as a home, as a place for people, rather than a money making enterprise. Anna would not let me leave without taking a ham filled focaccette for later, and a plain one to fill with chocolate and heat up for breakfast. I must admit, I fell a little bit in love with this family, their story and their style of cooking, and a few tears were shed as we spoke about the difference between cooking using the soul for guidance rather than recipe books and google. The food is delectable yet uncomplicated, the company candescent, the atmosphere homely and warm, and I simply cannot wait to go back.
If, like me, your main objective for travelling is to fill your face and see a few sights along with way, you won’t be disappointed here. There’s an abundance of restaurants boasting delicious sea food and freshly baked bread. There are food markets, plenty of independent eateries, and the people are warm and welcoming. As I was pulling my suitcase to the station to head home, a man waved and said something to me in Italian that I didn’t understand. I would like to think he was wishing me a safe journey, but it’s more likely he was saying “get out of my town, you child kicking scumbag”. Either way, I cannot wait to return to Liguria to eat more food, drink more vodka, and maybe crash a few more weddings.
Where I ate:
Wonderland Bakery, Via San Pietro, 8, 19016 Monterosso al Mare SP, Italy
Cantina del Pescatore, Via Vittorio Emanuele, 19, 19016 Monterosso al Mare SP, Italy
Pigons Focaccette, Via Fabio Filzi, 23, 19123 La Spezia SP, Italy
Where I stayed:
Belle Cinque Terre Apartments, Viale Giovanni Amendola, 18, 19121 La Spezia SP, Italy via www.booking.com
How I got there:
I flew with Ryanair to Pisa airport before getting the train to La Spezia Centrale. The Italian railway network is very well connected, and you can travel along the coast or from city to city with ease. Tickets can be booked in advance via www.thetrainline.com.