Surprisingly, given its lack of obvious agricultural land, the Italian Riviera is renowned for its food: fat anchovies, fragrant lemons, olive-oil-rich focaccia bread and a viridian sauce bequeathed to the world called pesto. Farming is carried out on ingeniously terraced clifffaces, and impossibly sited fishing villages have long plundered the sea.
The Italian Riviera has some excellent options for eating on the go, allowing you to grab some cheap and satisfying fare and enjoy it down on the waterfront (or in the case of landlocked towns like Corniglia, at a piazza with nice views). Top street food choices are thick slices of focaccia served plain or baked with delectable toppings; farinata (chickpea flour and olive oil baked in a wood-burning oven and served in thin-pizza sized slices); paper cones filled with small fried fish, calamari, octopus or chips; sandwiches stuffed with ham, cheese, or fish; and of course gelato and granita (a slushy ice drink made from lemons, strawberries and other fresh ingredients).
The Italian Riviera's marvellous markets are enticing spots for browsing and meal-gathering. The food shops are small in Cinque Terre, but with a discerning eye, you can assemble all the essentials for a memorable picnic. Start off at the antipasti counter, where you’ll find cheeses, cured meats, olives, marinated seafood salads, and other delicacies. Pick up some fresh fruit, bread and wine, then take it to a lovely spot out of town, in the hills or along the waterfront.
Breaking Focaccia with the Locals
Spend a week frequenting the bars and bakeries of the Italian Riviera and you’ll quickly ascertain that no two focaccias are alike. The classic focaccia, called 'alla genovese', is a simple oven-baked flat bread made with flour, yeast, water, salt and olive oil, and topped with salt, oil and sometimes rosemary. But various regional variations crop up only a short train ride away. To the east, the galletta di Camogli is a crisp focaccia more akin to a biscuit that was supposedly invented for the town’s sailors to take on long voyages. In nearby Recco, the delicious focaccia col formaggio spreads mild creamy cheese (usually crescenza) between two thin slices of bread made without yeast. It traces its roots back to the Saracen invasions of the Early Middle Ages. San Remo, on the Riviera di Ponente, has concocted sardenara, a pizza-like focaccia topped with tomatoes, onions, capers and – as the name implies – sardines. And, yes, you've seen right: Ligurians think nothing of dipping a slice of alla genovese into their morning coffee.
Pesto: a viridian green blend of basil leaves, pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil and, later, Parmesan. Garlic is controversial with some swearing it’s not pesto without it, while others claim it’s an upstart addition – if you buy a fresh tub in the supermarket, it comes both with or without.
Focaccia: the ubiquitous olive-oil-laden bread, sold in squares; variations include those topped with sweet onion or stuffed with straccino cheese.
Farinata: a chickpea flour flat bread, like the Niçoise panisse and socca; usually made in dedicated shops where you can buy by the slice, though often found on restaurant menus, too.
Polpettone: yes, this sounds like meatballs, but is in fact totally meat-free, rather a bubble-and-squeak like slice of potato, green beans or other seasonal vegetables and eggs, scented with marjoram, baked and topped with breadcrumbs and cheese.
Corzetti: handmade disc-shaped pasta, often embossed with a stamp and traditionally 'flavoured' with a few drops of the local white wine, Pigato.
Salsa di noce: a pesto-like pasta sauce made from ground walnuts, olive oil, garlic and soaked bread as a thickener; usually served either with corzetti or with ravioli filled with bitter wild greens.
Torta pasqualina: an Easter-time special that’s also served year-round, a quiche-like mix of eggs, cheese and sautéed spring artichokes baked in a short pastry crust.
Minestrone: a vegetable and pulse soup that’s not a wholely Ligurian dish, but one that the region has made its own by omitting the tomatoes and adding a dollop of pesto which it's then cooked in.
Cappon magro: a celebratory layered salad of eggs, green beans, celery and other vegetables on top of dry olive oil biscuits and topped with lobster, prawns and other seafood, as well as green olives and artichokes.