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Flash in the Pan

Living it up in Liguria



It's funny that Genoa is most famous, gastronomically, for the salami that carries its name—a salami that bears little resemblance to the lard-speckled salame genovese di Sant'Olcese that some historians believe is the progenitor of the Genoa salami. The Americanized version, named after the port from which many Italian exports were historically shipped, is a generic Italian salami, heavy on the garlic and pork. It says nothing about the cuisine of Genoa, most of which comes from the ocean that laps at its feet.

Like many of the cities and villages in the Italian coastal state of Liguria, Genoa practically hangs over the water, clinging to steep hillsides that drop precipitously into the sea. Some of the streets are as narrow as slot canyons, revealing only a sliver of sky overhead. In the narrowest passages, sailor-hunting whores beckoned me with their siren songs. The seafood of Liguria, plentiful in Genoa, is not so easily ignored.

On a stormy night at the restaurant La Casa dei Capitani, waves crashed onto the rocks below the window as I ate an antipasti of raw seafood that contained, among other uncooked treats, two large prawns. Their inclusion surprised me, as I've always assumed there must be a reason why I've never seen a raw shrimp at a sushi restaurant. When I asked the waitress about it, she sweetly offered to have the prawns cooked for me. I gesticulated "hell no" and pulled the head off one of the gray prawns. Pink juice leaked from the head onto the prawn's body. I wiped it off and started chewing. The taste was so subtle it was almost flavorless, but with a faint, sweet creaminess.

At that restaurant, as well as many others, I ordered the pesce alla Ligure, or Ligurian-style fish. It comes dressed in a tomato-based sauce that includes olives, capers, pine nuts, lemon juice and white wine—some of the finest ingredients to be found in Liguria.

Each time I ordered pesce alla Ligure it was different. Though each version was inevitably delicious, I had a recurring complaint: The sauce was always laid down a little too thinly, as if the chefs were hesitant to adulterate the clean flavors of the fresh fish.

My posse and I hunkered down in a rented stone cottage for a few days amid the terraced vineyards above the town of Riomaggiore. One morning I went to the local market in La Spezia, where for about half the price of a restaurant meal I bought enough produce and fish to feed four people for three days. My restaurant research had prepared me for this shopping trip, giving me ideas on how I like my Ligurian sauce and which of the local fishes I prefer. My favorite was a type of sea bass called branzino. Its firm white flesh, slightly marbled with ribbons of dark meat, reminds me of a cross between cod and bluefish.

Our landlords left us six unlabeled bottles of white wine, made of local grapes and processed at a community winery. I'm not usually a white wine fan, but I've never tasted white like this: uncomplex and clear, with a hint of fruit, just enough sweetness, and a faint dry edge. The cottage came equipped with an outdoor grill and a stack of dry olive branches. I built a fire and let the olive wood burn down to coals as the branzino marinated in coarse sea salt, black pepper and lemon juice.

The wood was thin-diameter but took a while to burn down to coals, which gave me time to prepare my sauce. I started with a quarter-cup of pine nuts in a dry pan over heat, shaking and heating until they browned. Then I removed the pine nuts and added olive oil and minced garlic, followed closely by a chopped onion. When the onion turned translucent I added a pound of plump cherry tomatoes, cut in halves (cut larger tomatoes into one-inch cubes). Then I added the toasted pine nuts, a tablespoon of crushed red pepper flakes, chopped fresh sage and parsley, a lemon's worth of juice, a quarter-cup of capers and a half-cup of olives, all from the farmers' market. The olives were small and brown, Nicoise-style, with pits. When the sauce cooked down I added a cup of that local white wine, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then let it slowly reduce to the consistency of a watery ratatouille, stirring occasionally.

I repaired to the terrace, where the smell of olive smoke furthered my Mediterranean mood. Sipping on homegrown white, I watched the stars and the dark hills and the moonlit sea and nibbled on freshly oiled anchovies, kumquats from the tree, and slices from a hunk of salame genovese di Sant'Olcese.

When all the wood had burned into bright coals, I raked them into an even pile about three inches below the grill. Then I brushed the grill with olive oil and lay on the fish. Inside, my companions prepared a leafy salad of endive, escarole, radicchio and a variety of soft lettuces. Fresh gnocchi, boiled until it floated, was tossed with minced garlic and pesto. Mussels were simmered in a broth with wine, tomatoes, lemon, garlic and parsley.

Outside, the smell of cooking fish mingling with the smell of olive smoke had become irresistible, and when I turned the fish I tasted the bits of skin and flesh that stuck to the grill. It was so perfect I didn't want to adulterate it with my Ligurian sauce—an ironic impulse, given my earlier criticism of Ligurian chefs for doing just that. In the end, I held firm to my vision of the dish, as Odysseus was held firm to the mast of his ship, somewhere in those moonlit waters below, when he sailed past the island of sirens. When the fish were done I arranged them on a platter and drenched them in sauce.

The branzino effortlessly held onto its identity beneath the Ligurian sauce. Together, they were a distillation of that corner of the Mediterranean basin, both land and sea. They complemented each other beautifully, like a sip of wine complementing a bite of fish—and there was plenty of that kind of complementing going on as well.

Ask Ari: Oh, nuts

Q: Dear Flash,

In last week's Ask Ari section (see "Unraveling the nut case"), you failed to tell Feeling Nutty how to get the nuts out of the cone, which would be to go back to Arizona, find a bearing tree, put a tarp under said tree and shake. The nuts that fall can be easily sorted and either roasted, cooked or eaten raw. Salt is optional.

The seeds she got out of the cone are not ready to be eaten yet, though.

It's even easier to buy them from old Hispanic couples tailgating along two-lane highways around the American southwest.

—Pine Nut Police

A: Thanks for keeping me in line, PNP. Consider your advice passed along. My only problem is telling Feeling Nutty what he or she should have done doesn't have quite the same ring of relevance as telling he or she what can be done with her present circumstance: possessing pine nut cones that aren't ready to release their nuts.

And there's one problem with the roadside vendors in the Southwest, the ones who are there year-round with "New Crop" spray painted on their vans: A lot of the nuts you get from them are actually from China. This is partly because the pine nut crop this year has pretty much sucked.

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