WE were lingering with friends on a terrace overlooking Lago Maggiore, northwest of Milan. "On the new autostrada, you can be in Genoa in 90 minutes," the young woman was saying. She disappeared into the inn and returned moments later. "They have a room and a table for tonight."
At 3 p.m. we were on our way - dashing directly south across the Po River valley plain to the Ligurian hills and Genoa.
A triple bill drew us: the 500th anniversary of Columbus's sailing from the port of Genoa; the first sighting, for me, of the docks from which my father sailed to the New World in 1915; and the chance to visit Franco Solari's restaurant, Ca Peo, overlooking the Mediterranean from the nearby precarious hill town of Leivi.
Liguria is the thin band of a province that reaches from Monte Carlo at the French border down around to the summer resort beaches of Tuscany. It has few fields for pasture. Its back is up against the mountains, so its opening to the world is by sea. Invaders came for centuries; Ligurians do not claim to be of some distinct stock. Ligurian cooking is maritime - both in terms of the sea's bounty and in the need to feed sailors. "The cooking of Liguria was tailored to fit the desires of the returned seafar er," observes Waverly Root in his writings about Italian cooking.
Its salient feature is a passion for fresh herbs - especially basil and marjoram, laurel and fennel - and for fresh vegetables, produce not available at sea. The Ligurians have made a cult of growing herbs, preparing special beds with compost. Herb-stuffed pastas are made only in the seasons when the herbal bouquets peak - especially the sweet marjoram-flavored capellaci that Solari serves in the autumn. Pesto - the basil, olive oil, pine-nut mixture - is the best-known Genovese green sauce for pasta and
other uses. And the Ligurians have a passion for stuffing things: rolled breast of veal, called cima; special, pumpkin-filled savory tortes; and stuffed vegetables.
The Ligurian countryside is made up of tight, crisscrossing hills with no natural corridors. The hills are covered with scruffy pine woods and chestnut groves. The autostrada crosses viaducts, enters tunnels, and seldom follows a straight line.
At last we reached the suburbs of Genoa and then the city itself. Buildings crowded the Mediterranean's edge.
Through a wide opening from inland, railways poured toward the harbor and docks, as if a glacier were spilling onto the sea. This was what had made Genoa an important Italian port - a merchant city in the past, then a fissure, a gateway, for the modern industrial north, and a departure point for the great Italian migrations to the Americas by sea in the 19th and 20th centuries.
A little beyond Genoa, heading south, we turned off at the Chiavari exit. A couple of lefts in the town itself (ask directions at the first filling station) and you will be following signs to Leivi and Ca Peo, Solari's restaurant, up winding roads with views of the sea.
The restaurant and inn were built into the family house that goes back 100 years on the site. The inn sits amid a cluster of old houses, its more elegant apartments and terrace out of sight on the cliff's edge.
CASCADE of nasturtiums and then Solari's wife Melly and daughters Nicoletta and Allesandra greet the guests.
Franco is tall. His eyes are soulful. He is almost reverential when he talks about food. He works very hard. He has a small staff. At dawn he drives to the port for seafood and to other purveyors for the chestnut-grove mushrooms (the most fragrant, he claims) and herbs and game for that evening's preparations. He has only a small freezer in his $300,000 kitchen, he explains, because everything he does is simple, direct, and fresh, in the true Ligurian manner.
Had we heard about the Metropolitan House gala in New York last April, at which he and a dozen other Italian chefs had been invited to cook? He had prepared his speciality, stuffed lettuce leaves in broth. (The recipe is included in the "Gourmet's Tour of Italy" volume listed to the left.) Some readers might lose heart where the ingredients list progresses from veal sweetbreads to veal brains. But it was on the menu that evening.
Chef Solari offered a carrot-colored red-pepper mousse as a pre-antipasto, and zucchini tortelli and eggplant tortelli as first courses. For the second course he served tomaxelle (thin slices of veal, rolled and stuffed with a meat and herb filling) and fresh porcini mushrooms (quickly deep-fried in a light batter). Desserts included a spuma (mousse) of torrone nougat, and a sauce for ice cream made of apples, pine nuts, and golden raisins.
The dining room at Ca Peo (dialect for "Peter's house") is spare. The sunset over the Mediterranean is in full view through the large windows. Solari moves from kitchen to table to talk. He grew hushed when we discussed the dessert sauce and explained later that a rival chef was seated at a nearby table.
All the better chefs know what the others are doing today in Italy. But while the basic structure of service now appears the same countrywide, the regional ingredients and styles - such as in Solari's Genovese cucina - hold fiercely to tradition.