Luminous Liguria: a quick getaway on Italy’s Riviera di Levante

Leaving the smog of Milano , I was thrilled by the prospect of returning to Liguria after an eight year absence. Liguria is famous for pesto, world-class resort towns and a warm and welcoming populace. The region stretches from Ventimiglia on the French-Italian border to La Spezia on the southeast extreme, and skirts the regional borders of Toscana, Emilia-Romagna, and Piemonte. The seaside portion of Liguria is divided into two separate rivieras-the Fiore and the Levante. The Fiore starts north of Genova and finishes at Ventimiglia, but the more celebrated is the Levante, starting south of Genova and ending at the border of Toscana. The Levante is a string of impossibly gorgeous towns and villages hugging an undulating coastline full of hairpin turns and unbroken vistas. While urban Italy is a frenetic milieu of Vespa smoke, screaming telefonini and alta moda, the Riviera di Levante is a welcome break from quotidian stress.

Camogli (literally, “wives houses”) is the first stop, a town whose principal industries are fishing and tourism. Perched precipitously on the Meditteranean, her grand façades of crumbling peach –colored palazzi and labyrinthian alleys just below give a sense of a faded satellite town, whose prosperity peaked when a local boy named Cristoforo Colombo was learning how to sail.

The best time to visit Camogli is mid-May, when a festival known as the Sagra del Pesce takes place. A cast iron skillet twenty feet in diameter is set in a waterfront piazza, and piles of freshly caught fish are fried to oblivion. The Sagra lasts one week and is about maintaining the old seafaring culture that made Liguria famous. This way of life, of rising at dawn, casting nets in the hopes of corralling a catch of ultra fresh swordfish, is rapidly disappearing. The LegaAmbiente Nord, an environmental activist group, has contributed to the decline of the Ligurian fishing industry by winning a ban on the use of nets to catch fish. The ban is enforced with a lax manana approach, so some fisherman are still able to eke out a living. On the bright side, the LegaAmbiente rates the sea in the Riviera di Levante as among the cleanest in Italy.

The seaside promenade, Via Garibaldi, is where a visitor to Camogli will spend most of the day. The beach is wide and sandy, free of charge and consequently choc-a-bloc in Bain du Soleil- slathered torsos. Skip the beach and indulge your gastronomic urges at the many bakeries and sandwich shops lining Via Garibaldi. Step into La Focacceria for an authentic version of the oft-bastardized cousin of pizza. No fewer than twenty varieties of focaccia are sold here, with toppings ranging from tomato and basil to porcini mushroom and white truffle shavings. Coffee cognoscenti flock to Bar Primula, whose barista Renato is reputed by one food critic to make the best cappuccino in Italy. Now that your blood type is E for espresso, wander the long staircases between the seaside palazzi that leads to Via Piero Schiaffino, to Trattoria al Lama. Order the trofie al pesto, garnished with potatoes and haricots verts. It’s a great dining experience, if you can get a table. Reservations are essential at dinner. After dinner, take in the sunset from the promontory near the restaurant and make your way back to Via Garibaldi for the customary passegiatta, the traditional after-dinner stroll that passes for nightlife in most small Italian towns.

Lodging in Camogli can be quite scarce during the spring and summer as there are about a dozen hotels in town. Book a few weeks in advance and try not to get stuck with the hotel next to the train tracks.

Twenty minutes by train from Camogli, Santa Margherita Ligure is the ideal base for a short trip to the Riviera di Levante. The lone concession to tourists are the pizzerie and trattorie lining the waterfront, otherwise Santa Margherita goes about its business quietly. The facades of the buildings lining the Piazza del Duomo have painted on faux windows and clotheslines, a surreal Disney-esque touch. The best lodging deal is the Hotel Fasce, in a residential area seven minutes by foot from the waterfront promenade. Run in a brisk manner by British expat Jane Fasce and her husband Alberto, it has large, bright and cheery rooms for around $90 a night for a single. My room looked over a lush garden, and the voyeur in me couldn’t help but enjoy the sight of local families gathering on their patios for supper.

The best dinner spot in Santa Margherita is Trattoria Pezzi, one block from Piazza Duomo towards Hotel Fasce. For 5 euro, enjoy the trenette al pesto and a glass of schiacchetra, a dry local white wine. The pesto cannot get any better: freshly picked and pungent basil, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, pecorino and pine nuts in perfect proportion.

From Santa Margherita, hike 2.5 miles along the flat coastal road to Portofino. Portofino is a stunningly beautiful town with a jewel of a harbor, filled with luxury yachts and the odd fishing boat. The waterfront piazza pays tribute to the mighty tourist dollar/euro/yen, and is filled with overpriced bars serving warm beer. Skip this area and wander some of the scenic back streets. A must see is the nearby village of San Fruttuoso, famous for its submerged statue of Jesus known as Christ of the Depths. The statue has its arms raised towards the surface, welcoming scuba divers paying 60 euro a pop for a fifteen minute dive.

A nice half day can be spent in Rapallo, Santa Margherita’s next door neighbor to the southeast, towards Cinque Terre. It has a palm tree lined promenade, a charming town center filled with artisanal food shops and craft stores, and noticeably few tourists. However, it was mobbed by bicycle racing enthusiasts cheering on the Italian riders of the Giro d’Italia, lending the town a carnival-like atmosphere.

With only a day to spare on the Riviera, I popped into Vernazza, the most picturesque of the Cinque Terre. I was enjoying a leisurely dinner when I remembered an item I heard on the morning news, that a twenty- four hour train strike was scheduled. I could not recall if it began that night at 9 p.m., while I was in Vernazza, or the next morning at 9 a.m. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong and was stuck in Vernazza and could not hike back to the main Cinque Terre town of Monterosso where I booked a hotel, because the footpaths are not lit at night. My only option was to find someone in Vernazza, a fisherman perhaps, who could take me back by boat. After a half hour search, I found someone who owned a rickety old rowboat and was more than happy to charge me 50 euro for a fifteen minute boat ride back to Monterosso. I forgot how much I was being extorted as soon as we left Vernazza’s harbor: surrounded by sheer cliffs and the indigo sea and its salt breezes, the magic of Liguria’s Riviera di Levante had cast its spell.

Chef Q&A with Dan Barber of Blue Hill

Located in Pocantico Hills, New York, in the heart of the fertile Hudson Valley, less than one hour from the center of Manhattan, Stone Barns is a sustainable farm, restaurant (Blue Hill) and agricultural education center set on an estate once owned by David Rockefeller. The creative director of Stone Barns is the young chef and gentleman farmer, Dan Barber, who is also the Executive Chef and Proprietor of Blue Hill restaurant in Greenwich Village in New York City, and I had the opportunity to conduct a brief interview with him via e-mail. It is worth mentioning that Dan was a featured guest at a cooking demonstration at Terra Madre in Torino last October, and was visited by Carlo Petrini and ended up in the pages of “Buono, Pulito, Giusto”. Before I spoke with Dan, I decided to pay a visit to a gorgeous slice of Westchester County ruralia- Stone Barns.

My host at Stone Barns was livestock manager Craig Haney, who gave me a personal tour and description of how the hogs, chickens, sheep and cows are raised. All animals are fed grass or organic feed with no GMOs, and have free-range of the pasture for most months of the year, but in the winter months, hogs and chickens in particular have their own enclosed yet spacious pens to keep warm and facilitate breeding. Cows and sheeps, the ruminants, help keep Stone Barns sustainable by spreading their own manure around the pastures and fertilizing the soil. Too much animal waste in one spot makes the soil acidic and has deleterious effects on growing fruits and vegetables. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the on-site restaurant, takes leftover food scrap and kitchen waste and makes compost in order to add further nutrients to the already rich soil at Stone Barns.

Q&A with Dan Barber

1. Is a carrot just a carrot or can it be transformed?I’m not trying to transform the carrot, but sometimes the experience of reconnecting to the true taste of an ingredient (not the antiseptic supermarket alternative) can be transformative in and of itself. My goal is to make the carrot to taste more “carroty” – to show off itsversatility while still respecting its inherent essence.2a. Do New York diners care about the provenance of ingredients and do they read and consider sourcing before they dine out?

I think that the good news is that people everywhere, but particularly in New York, are becoming more demanding in their dining choices. They are challenging the conventions of the general food industry by asking where their food came from; how it was grown; how it got to them.2b. Are your diners at Blue Hill (NYC or Stone Barns) obsessed with all the facets of sustainability or do they just want a delicious meal and not think too much about it?

I don’t want to force the tenets of sustainability down people’s throats. I try to provide our diners with a tasty meal and a story of where their food comes from. Even if it’s on an unconscious level, I hope that everyone eating at Blue Hill makes the connection between the food on their plates and the places and processes behind it. That in turn makes people more aware of the issues underlying the meal, and it makes the food more delicious.3. Is the level of composting the same at Blue Hill in New York City as at Stone Barns, i.e., do you compost at your city restaurant and haul it back to Stone Barns? I am guessing more compost comes from your Stone Barns restaurant than New York City.

For the most part, it’s just as rigorous in the city—I drive compost fromthe city up to Stone Barns twice a week.4. In a figurative way, what did you bring to the table at Salone del Gusto/Terra Madre? How was your demonstration received and what types of discussions/workshops did you attend?

It’s great to be able to draw on the experience of raising animals and vegetables both at Stone Barns and at Blue Hill Farm. The same precision and technology that someone like Ferran Adria applies to the plate I want to apply to farming – to the ingredients themselves.5. What type of role, if any, will you have at the Slow Food Nation conference taking place in San Francisco in May 2008? Do you plan to attend?Not sure if I will attend.6. Your two cents on the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini, chances of Slow Food expanding beyond a cluster of concerned foodies and into the mainstream?

One of the reasons that Slow Food is so successful and has such apromising future is that it starts with a selfish or hedonistic desire for great food. It’s about reintroducing people to the joys of cooking and eating with the seasons – which I think is fundamental to all of us.

Ok, enough about sustainability and wholesome goodness, how is the food at Blue Hill?

Blue Hill's Greenwich Village outpost is set in a 19th century former carriage house and has a womb-like intimacy. Immediately I was transported back to the restaurant culture of my home town, San Francisco, where food and a warm ambience and a personal touch come first. Everything about Blue Hill is first class, from the flower arrangements, to the warm and solicitous maitre d', to the server who brought me an extra serving of sliced Berkshire pork on the house after noting the smallness of the meat in the otherwise Flintstone-esque pork chop. The front room filled with the happy purr of sated diners and I looked forward to sitting in the center of the action. Instead, my aunt and I were led to a near private alcove in the back, euphemistically known as the "Garden Room". I was not thrilled initially but conversation ended up taking center stage and the quiet hust of the back room worked out perfectly. Amuse bouche shots of green apple juice and delicata squash soup, paired with bruschetta topped simply with olive oil and celery provided the appetite catalyst, not that the prosecco was working its magic already. My two servings of Berkshire pork were succulent and earthy, my aunt’s leg of lamb was, well, lamb-y and barnyard. While the food was delicous, healthy and very sustainable, I was not crazy about our seating location in Siberia, yet we were treated well and given copious amounts of personal attention, and it’s hard to fault any meal chased with a glass of Grappa di Moscato. Next time, I will do a drop in and sit at the bar…Blue Hill is truly a neighborhood place and shouldn’t be treated as a splurge despite entrees hovering in the $30 range.

The Risotto Gulag

As we marched in one by one into the vast rectangular courtyard of the Antica Tenuta Colombara rice growing estate, a mirage of a sign bearing the inscription “arbeit macht frei” flew over my head, an understandable hallucination in the eighty degree ten a.m. heat. The main building on the estate, with its vastness, in the middle of a rice field, and the country chic farm implements and tractors dotting the front yard, reeked of gulag. We were not visiting the estate to lift heavy equipment and harvest rice, but the oppressive layout and searing heat and humidity made me fear the worst. A fun and luxurious visit seemed out of reach.The day began with an interminable, Fidel Castro-style chat by Piero Rondalino, the proprietor of the estate, on the history of rice farming. We sat at a horseshoe shaped table in a musty, large and airless attic, with vaulted wood beamed ceilings and sparrows flying around, for an added Hitchcock effect. Even the most stalwart students had their mettle tested by the prattle of the Dear Rice Leader, nodding off and looking forward to a late afternoon snooze in the farm house at the front of the property. Before we reached the promised land of our spartan cots, young Rinaldo took us on a jaunt around his playground -- the rice paddy. Previous to this visit, the only rice paddies I’d seen were in Life Magazine photos from the Vietnam War and Oliver Stone’s “Platoon”. The real life rice paddy on the estate isn’t as evocative and romantic as the celluloid version – no peasants squatting here and there in concave hats. Yet despite the inauspicious beginning to the visit, the faint smell of butter, stock and white wine wafted across the courtyard and found its way somehow into the airless attic. A tasting of risotto and a well-deserved lunch break beckoned.Our first lunch was not quite sustenance, just a tasting meant to examine differences between four grades of rice: par-boiled, basmati, Arborio, and Carnaroli. Initially, I was impressed with Piero’s teaching ability, instructing us how to do a visual exam to determine variance in rice grades, and then blind tests. The first blind test consisted of a small ball of par-boiled commercial rice, better quality than Uncle Ben’s but less delicious and more brittle than the average supermarket basmati. A ball of Acquerello carnaroli rice, the brand sold by Tenuta Colombara, was placed next to the par-boiled. The par boiled was not seasoned at all, and was simply a filling starch, and no distinguishable organoleptic features. The carnaroli was prepared as a simple white wine, stock and butter risotto, and was notable for its nuttiness, grain separation, and ability to subtly absorb liquid. This raises the question of fair play during a tasting visit to a producer. It is a given that Rondolino thinks Acquerello is superior to all the other rice types present at the tasting, but why would he place the carnaroli, trumpeted as superior in its ability to absorb flavor, next to a mediocre commercial par-boiled, and then serve the latter basically unseasoned? A fairer fight would have been to place Acquerello next to a competitor’s carnaroli or perhaps a competitor’s vialone nano rice, a type of rotund, pearl like rice from the Veneto that is higher in starch content and absorbs more water per grain than carnaroli, while still maintaining flavor. This debate swirled in my head as I indifferently tasted an Arborio risotto next to a boiled and unseasoned commercial basmati, and perhaps due in part to its tasty preparation, the Arborio was the winner. Overall, I would agree that if prepared without seasoning, the Acquerello is superior but the way the tasting was conducted was biased and pre-determined at least my own judgment.

Is Panarea the new Capri?

Formed by volcanic eruption, the Aeolian archipelago, made up of seven islands, shimmers like black pearls in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Greeks arrived around 580 B.C. and gave the islands, off the north east coast of Sicily, the name Aeolus, after a mythical demigod who kept wind bottled in a cave. Homer writes that Odysseus sailed by the islands, and Aeolus gave Odysseus favorable wind for his voyage home.

The two westernmost and thus remote islands in the archipelago are Alicudi and Filicudi, both sparsely populated with little indigenous industry other than what the sea provides. Previously undeveloped, Filicudi has seen a sprouting of luxury hotels in the last decade.

Lipari, the largest and most tourist-friendly island in the archipelago, offers a wide range of hotels and lively nightlife. It also boasts one of the best archaeological museums in all of Europe. Houses painted in charming pastels and white sand beaches make Lipari a popular place to stay. It's also a good starting point from which to visit the other islands.

Vulcano, is noted for its thermal springs, mud baths and volcanic black sand beaches. Day-long hikes up the side of a dormant volcano are a popular activity on the island. Salina is outrageously lush, and dotted with remote villages, such as Pollara, where the phrase “absolutely nothing to do” takes on new meaning. The popular film, Il Postino, (The Postman) was shot on here. Stromboli is famous for its active volcano that appears to rise up out of the sea. The hamlet of Ginostra on the northeast flank of the volcano now has electricity for the first time.

Panarea is perhaps the most dramatically beautiful of all the islands. Its crystal clear water, abundant sea-life and fantastic flora have made it a popular destination for Italy's elegant, fashionably dressed, but understated elite.There is little to do on Panarea except relax at the hotel pool with a book, take a passegiatta (stroll), and sample exquisite Aeolian cuisine. Sicilian specialties rule the island: dishes like Penne alla Norma, in a sauce of fresh tomato, garlic, eggplant, basil and ricotta salata, and freshly caught tuna can be found on every menu in town, without care or concern about sustainability or mercury levels. Capers grown on nearby Salina have a subtle sweetness and are oblong, unlike the salt preserved nuggets that pass for capers on mainland Italian menus.
There are fewer than one thousand year-round inhabitants on Panarea, although the summertime population swells to around seven thousand, which takes into account summer renters, hotel guests, day trippers and the rich and beautiful who seem content to have discovered what might be Italy's last true paradise. I spent my first day on Panarea enjoying the spectacular panorama from the terrace of my room at the seaside Hotel Cincotta. The Cincotta is stylishly Mediterranean: lemon trees, bougainvillea spilling over white stucco walls, Balinese wood beams, decorative tile from Caltagirone in southeastern Sicily, and fragrant herbs wafting in from the kitchen.

Later that evening, I took a stroll to Calcara beach pausing to chat with shopkeepers and to sample a blood orange granita paired with a miniature cannoli. From Calcara, I watched plumes of smoke rising from Stromboli's volcano crater, followed by lava, but the volcano puts on its best show at nightfall when it spews streams of molten-red lava that flow into the sea.

The perfect way to experience Panarea's spectacular natural beauty is a hike to Punta Milazzese in the a.m., after the obligatory granita inside a brioche Sicilian breakfast and before the heat leaves your skin crispy and seared. Ten minutes into the walk, the sanctuary of San Pietrino stands out like a yellow wedding cake. The interior is kitschy and can be skipped, but the view from the terrace of the distinctively shaped rock outcroppings Basiluzzo, Dattilo and Liscia Bianca is well-worth a pause. The Milazzese trail is the most scenic on the island, with sweeping vistas of neighboring Salina and a silhouetted Lipari. Punta Milazzese covered with stone ringlets that were once the huts of Stone Age settlers, is breathtaking. More experienced hikers can descend a rocky footpath to the cove pictured below. On the other side of the promontory is a more accessible beach where families can relax, skip stones, or have a picnic.

Staying and dining on Panarea

The Cincotta is the best deal on the island. The price for a spacious single room with an ocean view terrace is around 80 euro per night. The hotel restaurant is airy and relaxing, a destination for locals and hotel guests. Try the pesce azzurro con capperi di Salina, a freshly caught bluefish with capers harvested from nearby Salina. The best choice for pasta is the penne bianca, in a “white” sauce of olive oil, garlic, zucchini, and ricotta infornata, an aged, oven-baked and finely-grated ricotta cheese. Entrée prices range from 10 to 22 euro. Hotel Cincotta http://www.netnet.it/cincotta/

Hotel RayaThis is the swankiest hotel on Panarea, with thirty rooms each offering an ocean view terrace, hybrid Mediterranean-Balinese decor, antique carpets and lush bedspreads, with the requisite high-thread count. The maincompound where guests stay is a fifteen minute walk from the port, along Via San Pietro. The Raya also has the only nightclub on the island, a spectacular open air discotheque overlooking the sea. The nightclub is open only in July and August, when Panarea is jam-packed with Northern Italians showing off there fabulous tans. The restaurant, connected to the nightclub, makes a lovely grilled tuna steak (16 euro), rubbed with sea salt, crushed mint and garlic. If you are on a budget, order a prosecco and sample the complimentary antipasti in the hotel bar. Pretend you are a guest and share a couch with the hotel’s chatty and elegant proprietor, who enjoys making the scene. Hotel Raya Via S.Pietro98050 Panarea(011) 39-090-983013 phone (011) 39-090-983103 fax
info@hotelraya.it http://www.raya.it/Rates: 92-278 euro

Budget hotel options

Liscia Bianca(011) 39-090-983004

Tesoriero(011) 39-090-983098

Getting to Sicily

There are direct flights from New York JFK to Palermo, but there are more choices and better prices if transferring from Milan, Rome or Naples. All major mainland Italy airports fly to Palermo, Catania, and Reggio Calabria. Alitalia, AirOne, and Meridiana have the most frequent flights and best rates.

Getting to PanareaFrom the mainland of Sicily, aliscafi (hydrofoils) and traghetti (ferries) leave from the port of Milazzo several times daily to the Aeolians, even in low season. In high season, there are three departures daily from Palermo, which takes about three hours. Private helicopter rides are available from the mainland port of Reggio Calabria. Prices vary but average about 60 euros each way during low season, and 80 to 100 euro each way during high season.

From the port of Reggio Calabria, there are three hydrofoils daily to Panarea during the high season, and one per day during low season. It makes stops at the other islands first, making Panarea the second to last stop before Stromboli. The journey takes about two hours. Traghetti take at least an hour longer. Be warned that during low season, there is only one aliscafo per day from Reggio Calabria. If you literally miss that boat as I did, Reggio Calabria merits a visit to the Museo Nazionale della Magna Graecia for a peak at the famous Riace bronzes, two statues dating back to the 5th century B.C. and fished out of the Ionian sea in 1972.