Monday, March 5, 2012

La Superba

Mercato Orientale
When your nickname means, "The Superb One" you have quite a bit to live up to.  Genoa (or Genova in Italian) is a city that I didn't know much about until a few years ago when I started writing about Ligurian cuisine.  One of the phrases that burned itself into my mind was La Superba.  The other was a simple statement - Genoa was, at one time, considered the center of the universe.  I never forget this whenever I have the chance to come to the city, but, unfortunately, when I do come, it's for something other then sightseeing.  Ikea, for one, is a huge draw for Ligurians looking for cheap Swedish furniture, and like Americans, left with bags of spare screws and nails - but that's another story entirely.  Shopping and the American Consulate are other reasons I found to visit, but this time my draw was an amazing Van Gogh and Gauguin at Palazzo Ducale, right in the center of the city.
The port

Framed by a majestic fountain adding even more water to a rainy day, the buildings in the city center are intricately carved and tall, covered in typical Ligurian frescoes, reminding you of the combination of practicality and creativity of these sturdy people.  Narrow, empty alleyways wind through uneven streets, narrowly lit, which gives the whole city a feeling of shadows that filter out into a piazza with a giant church, or, if you go further, the water and one of the most active harbors in Europe.  Genoa has always been a port city, and like many cities with a constant flow of people in and out, you can certainly feel a sense of some unsavory characters, especially when they have so many nooks to hide.  It used to be quite unsafe, but has cleaned itself up quite a bit.  However, the tourists on cruise ship stopovers or breaking up a Riviera trip to France walk a little quicker down alleys where prostitutes smoke, bored.  Every time I've been here, it's rained, and the grey sky and dreary feel give the city a hue that seems to fit it.  Maybe because I've only seen it like this, but the white and red cross of the Genovese flag seem to pop even more when surrounded by so many shades of grey.  It's not a Disneyland kind of city.  It's a very real one, with very real people, habits, history and, of course, food.

As we wandered through the city, for the first time I started to take pictures and appreciate the real feel of a city with a pulse and, for good or bad, a personality.  Nestled off one of the main streets lies the Mercato Orientale, not named for it's outstanding selection of Asian goods, to my disappointment, but because when it was opened, over a century ago, it lay in the Eastern (or orientale) part of the city.  The produce and meat is incredibly fresh and beautifully presented, a symphony of colors, smells and sounds - and I'm a sucker for a good market.  Especially when it's indoor on a rainy day, and even more when I can find cilantro at a tent just outside.  The mercato is one where families have had their stalls for generations, and one where people clamor for their choice of produce from their preferred vendor, something I'm also sure is handed down through family and time.  In addition to the bountiful market, Genoa also is home to one of the Eataly complexes, a sort of super-mega-market of things that are delicious, authentic and amazing to eat and drink in Italy.  There is one in New York, which is a little more impressive, only in the fact that you can rejoice in finding obscure Italian products.
Inside the mercato
The famous lion of San Lorenzo,
guarding the cathedral.
In Italy, however, obscure Italian products are simply Italian products, but it's still a nice place to window shop and buy some Italian craft beers.
Eataly has a huge selection of these hand-crafted beers, which are ubiquitous in the States, but a budding movement here.  Genoa itself has breweries, as does Liguria, scattered across the coast, taking advantage of the endless supply of one of the main ingredients in the brewing process - water.  It's interesting to be in a country as a movement is happening, and like the craft beer movement in the U.S. when it first started, some beers are huge misses, but some are incredibly creative beers made with unique ingredients, like chestnuts or yeast from wine made in Parma, again, taking the new with the old.
My cilantro market, and Palazzo San Giorgio,
one of the most beautifully decorated facades in Liguria.
Also, where Marco Polo was held prisoner upon his return to Italy
from the Orient.  Polo was from Venice, which was at war
with Genoa.  Genoa took him prisoner.  And then won.

La Cattedrale Di San Lorenzo from outside.
Inside, we overheard a tour guide mentioning, lies a
bomb that landed here by British troops in WWII and,
fortunately, never detonated.  Underneath the cathedral lies
evidence of an old Roman burial ground.

Farinata.  Torte.  Stracchino.  Oh my.

Pesto.  Where it was born.  Can't go wrong.

Mixing these two is something that Genoa does particularly well, and something it's had to do to survive for so long.  Sa Pesta, where we ate lunch, lies nestled in one of the shady alleys, but is full of life and color for lunch.  The food is as Ligurian as you can get.  Farinata, a sort of flaky, but enjoyably oily pancake baked with chickpea flower, is their specialty, made in the huge wood oven at the front door.  The other food is along the lines of pesto, minestrone, and torte (vegetable pies or rice pies, with a flaky crust and filled with anything from cheese and beet greens to onions and rice).  Genovese is spoken, lightly mixed in with Italian, but the crowd is fully of ladies dressed to kill and businessmen in tailored suits, rubbing elbows over paper tablecloths, drinking house wine in pitchers, and happily inhaling Ligurian comfort food.
San Giorgio, at the right, and a grey line of buildings that have looked out to the sea, guarding the city for centuries, looking at the past and the future at the same time.

I'm sure it's even more enchanting when the sun is shining across the sea and sails, but for me, Genoa is La Superbia just as I've seen it.  Maybe it's no longer the center of the universe, but Genoa takes the news proudly.  The buildings still tower over streets and walkways with intricate tiling, the old stone work trickles into restaurants and shops bringing something new, but still keeping that incredible feeling of what is old and special.  A port city needs to bend so it doesn't break.  Genoa, like the sea, has to move with the tides as each ship into the harbor can bring a change in habits or thoughts, food or status.  With a shrug, it seems like Genoa is happily biding it's time.  It throws the new into the mix of the old, and what comes out is a very real city with obvious foreign influences, but one that absorbs them easily.  Content to be where it is, Genoa knows that it has it's place in history and has secured an important one in the future.
Now THAT is truly something superb.

1 comment:

  1. Paul and I had some of the pesto rosso you had given us. So delicious! Made me think of you. I also drool over the thought of that pasta you gave us. Bring some more, please, when you come home next. xo