Pesto, pandolce and pignolini: what to eat in Genoa

The Italian home of pesto and pandolce is turning a corner when it comes to food, with modern dishes sharing the culinary spotlight with old favourites.

By Audrey Gillan
Published 11 Sept 2019, 07:00 BST
Passers-by outside Romanengo fu Stefano
Passers-by outside Romanengo fu Stefano.
Photograph by Getty Images

There’s a whirring and a juddering, a clattering cacophony as a 19th-century confectionery machine spins around to make a praline paste. The aroma of hazelnuts hangs heavy in the air as Eugenio Boccardo scatters chopped nuts into a drum, where two large granite wheels pound away. With rubber belts rolling above him and wheels turning beside him, Eugenio takes a chocolate scraper and scoops up what has now become a liquidy puree. 

“This is the oil from inside the hazelnuts,” he explains. This paste will then be refined in another machine, along with sugar, over the course of two days. It’s a slow process.

The little factory at Romeo Viganotti, a classic Genoese chocolatier and confectioner, sits across five floors, in what was once a brothel. Eugenio, whose father owns the business, leads me to another room where I meet Adriana, who’s pouring orange liquid through a metal funnel into vintage moulds dusted with icing sugar. She’s worked here for 45 years, Eugenio tells me, and today she’s making gocce di rosolio. “They’re a typical candy of Genoa,” he says. “They’re particularly popular with children, because the inside remains liquid.” 

People still queue to pick their chocolates at this 153-year-old local institution. “They take a long time to choose. The waiting is part of the charm and the beauty,” Eugenio tells me. “People are old-fashioned in Genoa.” 

Romeo Viganotti is one of the city’s listed botteghe storiche, historic shops and workshops where tradition is revered. At another of these wonderful places, Antica Polleria Aresu (a shop selling chicken and eggs), an exuberant Matteo Timossi demonstrates his antiquated device for determining the freshness of an egg. Assistants run back and forth to the walk-in fridge, bringing whole birds or thwacking breast fillets onto the marble counter. The fourth generation of his family to run the business, Matteo laughs: “These shops are like those animal species, like the panda, we must be preserved or there’ll be nothing left.” 

The botteghe storici are the cornerstonesof life in the medieval streets of Genoa — not only a relic of the past, but a testament that life in this city is still lived vibrantly. Pasticceria Villa di Profumo’s shelves are painted in pistachio hues and laden with cakes (including a marvellous version of pandolce, the local Christmas cake), boxes of chocolates and twinkling, old-fashioned glass jars of sweets. Maurizio Profumo — who runs the family business with his brother Marco — leads me out of the shop and down a narrow alleyway to another of their shops, Gelateria Profumo, home of award-winning gelato.

“We’ve become famous for our gelato,” he says. “It’s not common gelato. It’s made by people who have real pastry skills; the zabaglione [a milk, cream and sugar base for the gelato] we use is made in the pastry shop. We don’t buy in any products; we even make our own candied fruits. We make the gelato fresh every morning, with no additives.”

Genoa’s old town is a maze of alleyways and tiny streets, known as carruggi. The novelist Henry James described it as ‘the most winding and incoherent of cities… the most entangled topographical ravel in the world’, but it’s precisely this that makes Genoa so charming. It’s such a wonderful place to lose yourself, stumbling across gems of churches, hidden restaurants and fascinating little shops by happenstance rather than design. 

Homemade pandolce.
Photograph by Xedum

Down by the port, I seek out Antica Friggitoria Carega. Friggitorie are shops that sell fried fish and vegetables, and here, black cauldrons of oil are being heated over wood. I try squid, anchovies, and another tiny fish called pignolini, and ponder the local saying ‘even a shoe tastes good when it’s fried’. 

Cucina povera (‘cooking of the poor’) influences much of the food here. This is the birthplace of ravioli, the name of which comes from the word ‘rabiole’, meaning leftovers. Squeezed between the sea and the mountains, Liguria has very little fertile land, so hardy crops such as chickpeas and chestnuts are mainstays. They’re also turned into flours, to be used in beloved dishes such as farinata — a pancake-like snack made of chickpea flour, olive oil, salt and pepper, eaten fresh from the oven (try it at Antica Sciamadda, where the wood-fired oven is almost 200 years old).  

Known as La Superba, meaning ‘the arrogant’ or ‘the proud’, Genoa is a largely conservative city where many people are suspicious of change, which contributed to much of its youth leaving in recent years, in search of excitement and modernity elsewhere. But many are returning with the belief that their hometown is on the cusp of great things. One of them is Daniele Rebosio, the executive chef at Mercato Orientale Ristorante, above the newly refurbished market, Mercato Orientale Genova. 

“People in Genoa normally go abroad to work, because this never used to be a city for your ideas. I left at 18 because my city gave me nothing from my point of view. But I’ve returned aged 23 and I’m very grateful that things are changing. We want to do something different here,” he says. “There are 2,900 restaurants in Genoa, and 2,800 do pasta with pesto sauce. I’m interested in experimenting. I use local ingredients, but different techniques. Pesto is uncommon with rice, so I make rice with basil pesto, one with pecorino, one with balsamic.”

Matteo Caruso and his stepbrother, Andrea Cremone, also feel certain that Genoa is at a turning point, and so, two years ago they turned their family latteria (milk shop) into Tazze Pazze, a gourmet coffee house. Sitting outside in the medieval Piazza delle Cinque Lampadi, Matteo tells me the pair have travelled the world to find coffee beans, and they take them to a roastery with very precise instructions. 

“In Italy, we maintain a quality of espresso that’s good, but the beans are roasted too dark. You burn all the taste that way,” he says, presenting me with a gorgeous cappuccino and a slice of salty focaccia to dip in it. 

Yet, for all its culinary developments, Genoa’s most famous taste remains pesto al mortaio (mortar-made pesto), also known as pesto genovese, which dates back centuries. At MaddAlive, a bar and event space in the basement of the old Palazzo Cattaneo Adorno, Marina Firpo, a guide and cookery teacher, shows me how to make it. 

“In the Middle Ages, pesto was made with different kinds of herbs. But by the 18th century it was made with basil and pine nuts (or sometimes walnuts), and parmesan or pecorino, and a little light olive oil. Parmesan makes it sweeter while pecorino makes it stronger. Some mix half and half, but my family prefers stronger,” she explains. “Our basil is small and the leaves are very light in colour. It shouldn’t grow any more than 30cm high; pick the leaves from the whole plant.” 

Marina tells me to put half a clove of garlic per person, plus 30 pine nuts, into a Carrara marble mortar and pound them with the pestle — ‘pesto’ means pounded in Italian. I should keep turning the mortar a quarter of a turn using the four small handles known as ears. The sound is meditative, a kind of harsh thump that becomes softer as the pesto begins to elide into a verdant, creamy emulsion. “When it’s like a paste, add leaves and a little coarse salt. Basil leaves have essential oils inside. And you need a marble mortar, because marble is cold.”

As my pesto comes together, it’s not just the colour that’s bright and light; it smells so different to any green gloop masquerading as pesto I’ve seen before: fresh and alive, almost. Genoese seafarers took jars of pesto on voyages with them, but when they returned home, it was the smell of fresh basil and the promise of fresh pesto that made their hearts sing. Now I understand why.

Gelateria Profumo interior
Photograph by Marco Polo

A taste of Genoa

The Cook
Genoa’s only Michelin-starred restaurant combines traditional Genoese dishes with modern techniques. Try seppia carbonara, where the ‘spaghetti’ is thin strips of soft, slow-cooked cuttlefish. It’s topped with egg and pecorino, cheese foam and a drop of squid ink. Other dishes include crudo de mare (a raw seafood platter) and scucuzun, a tiny Genoese pasta, served with clams and spring vegetables. Three courses from around £62 per person. 

Antica Sä Pesta
One of Genoa’s most popular historic restaurants, this place is family-run with communal tables and a friendly atmosphere. Crispy farinata is cooked in the wood oven in vast pans, and another speciality is the delicious Genoese vegetable pie. Alternatively, try a plate of home-made tagliatelle with fresh pesto, accompanied by pitchers of house wine. Expect a long queue on Saturdays, and it’s closed throughout the summer. Three courses from around £20 per person. 

Mercato Orientale Ristorante
The old market has been completely overhauled, though the traditional shopping area remains at the front. Chef Daniele Rebosio heads up the restaurant on the first floor, where dishes include beef tongue topped with borage flowers and capers; and rare tuna in pastry, served with seasonal vegetables and soya. Three courses from £36 per person. 


British Airways flies from Gatwick to Genoa from £160 return. The Valéry Guest House offers double rooms from €80 (£72) a night, B&B.   

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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