Surrounded by dry, rocky mountain peaks, Liguria is made up of forests and steep valleys that lead down to the sea. For centuries, Ligurians have terraced the land in order to build homes and small cities along the coast. Seen from the water, the steep hills look like a well-manicured garden. The mild, coastal climate is ideal for growing olives, and Liguria produces some of the finest olive oil available, made from a local olive called “taggiasca.” It produces a mild, well balanced, fruity and delicious olive oil that seems to work perfectly with seafood and fresh sweet basil grown in the region.
The most-known Ligurian food contribution to world cuisine has to be the Genovese pesto. It’s made with one of the region’s most ubiquitous plants – basil. The basic recipe for Ligurian or Genovese pesto is simple: olive oil, basil, pine nuts, garlic, sea salt and a handful of Parmigiano Reggiano. Though this Ligurian pesto recipe is by far the most common, there are many more in Italian cuisine, including a centuries-old version from Sicily with fresh ricotta, tomatoes, basil and almonds. They are both appropriately named, as the word pesto comes from the Italian word pestare “to pound.” By making these dishes by hand with a mortar and pestle and not cooking the ingredients, the delicate aromatics are retained, and you get their full effect.
Accordingly, almost any combination of nuts, aromatic herbs and EVOO can be combined, resulting in a limitless array of different versions. Consider the combination of pistachios, basil, and parsley or mint for an amazing bright green color and full herb flavor. Or a simple pesto of nettles, parmigiano, salt & pepper and EVOO. A favorite of Barilla Chef Lorenzo Boni is his take on Sicilian pesto with sautéed artichoke hearts, pistachios, ricotta and parsley.
Pesto is used to flavor summertime vegetable soups or rice dishes, or tossed with dry, versus fresh, pasta. Historically, Genoa was one of the first cities to produce dry pasta. Long ago, the best hard wheat came from Crimea and was delivered to the port. The pasta was formed into a number of sizes and shapes that have become symbols of Ligurian cuisine: trenette, trofie, pansotti, piagge and corzetti.
Not surprisingly, fish and seafood are popular in Liguria. Ciuppin is a soup made from the little, leftover fish from the markets in Liguria, and today’s it’s known in places like San Francisco as the iconic “local” San Francisco treat Ciuppino. The folks at Sotto Mare are famous for their version, which highlights the local dungeoness crab! Other classic dishes Buridda, warm salt cod; and Cappon magro, a kaleidoscope of little vegetables and fish cooked in olive oil.
Here’s a dish that uses the classic pesto Genovese; paired with fresh seafood and asparagus.
One of the most famous pasta dishes in America these days is Melissa Rodriguez’s Girello Genovese – it’s a mash-up of regional cuisines, combining the pesto Genovese with Tuscan pork ragu in a rolled lasagna or girello. It’s definitely not traditionally Ligurian, but…wow!