Hunting for Pesto in Italy
A heritage walk, a traditional family-run trattoria and other unexpected discoveries in the port city of Genoa.
Much of Genoa’s medieval nature is intact today, especially the caruggi in the city’s old quarter. Photo by: ValerioMei/istock
The room with high-vaulted frescoed ceilings and ornate decor was part of a historic palace in the heart of Genoa, Italy’s popular port city. It would have been the perfect place to stay if only it didn’t come with a minimum stay stipulation of three nights. Genoa was only going to be a stopover—one night and one morning—for my husband and I. As the palazzo was out of the equation, we settled for a business hotel at the edge of the city.
The hotel was just what a business traveller would expect—clean, functional and quiet. The entire building was devoid of any Mediterranean flourishes that could stir the senses. The staff spoke English and the rooms were white, grey and beige with soundproof windows overlooking a flyover and the harbour beyond. It would do for a night’s rest.
I attributed some of my discontent with the hotel to travel fatigue, coming on the heels of an exhilarating visit to Barcelona in Spain. Maybe this palate-cleanser was what I needed before the next course of travel began.
From Genoa itself, I had no major expectations, apart from a hankering to savour pesto alla genovese in the land of its origin. The next morning, alighting from the bus at the old port, we had a few hours to ourselves before knocking on the doors of a trattoria. The choice was between visiting the Aquarium of Genoa and a heritage walk ending at the site of Christopher Columbus’s childhood home. The heritage walk won.
Genoa is a visual feast—exquisite Banksy-like street art exists along-side graffiti of the defacing kind, with touches of real and faux stucco. We walked along pedestrian streets, stepping through elaborate doorways into the courtyards of palaces. We gazed up at the ornate stucco votives on street corners. We even peeked into one of the retail stores with interesting architectural details.
Outside the San Lorenzo Cathedral, two beings drew my attention. One was a carved dog incorporated into the facade, presumably a tribute to a marble worker’s dog that had died during its construction. The other was a pair of baleful lions flanking the entrance, as if beleaguered by straddling too many children on their backs in some C.S. Lewis-type fantasy.
After a saunter around the Piazza De Ferrari, the walk ended outside a double-storeyed structure on Vico dritto di Ponticello, just off Via Dante. If this was the original building where Christopher Columbus was born, it would have made for an interesting story about how the boy born to a wool merchant in a modest house in 1451, had gone on to become an explorer. But this building was an underwhelming 18th-century reconstruction. And of all the days we had picked to visit, it was a Monday when it was closed to visitors.
By now I was getting a lesson on dealing with travel disappointment. I had hoped it didn’t extend to the pesto I was determined to relish.
We walked through Porto Soprano in search of the eatery recommended by our guide for “the best focaccia in Genoa.” This too was closed for the day. Our last ditch effort was to look for Antica Sa Pesta, a trattoria that came highly recommended for Genoese cuisine. Turns out, we had walked right past it. While the building is from the 1800s, the trattoria was started by the Benvenuto brothers in the 1950s. To this day, members of the family run it.
The shop window featured shallow pans of what appeared to be pie, and the takeaway counter had retained its old-world vibe. Not that I was expecting to see a wizened nonna (Italian for grandmother) pounding out the pesto, but some allusion to it would have been welcome on a day when disappointment was clouding one’s mind.
There were not too many people in the restaurant at noon, except at one table where four elderly regulars, judging from their familiarity with the staff, debated vociferously. We didn’t speak Italian and the staff didn’t speak English—always a good sign—but an elaborate vocabulary wasn’t required for a simple order of pesto alla genovese.
The pasta was served—a generous portion of pesto resting on a bed of the wick-like trofie, perhaps hand rolled that morning. It had none of the showmanship of a gourmet meal, just enough freshness, enough body from the pine nuts and heaps of flavour from the Genoese basil, the garlic, the Parmigiano-Reggiano or Parmesan, the pecorino cheese, sea salt and a drizzle of olive oil.
I sat back satiated from the pesto, wondering if I was being a heathen for preferring the trofie a little softer on the dente. We were just resisting the urge to mop up the green streaks on our plates with some bread, when we were asked if we would like to taste the farinata. The basic form of farinata, a cross between flatbread and pancake, is made with three ingredients—chickpea flour, salt and oil, poured into large shallow pans and baked in wood fire ovens. Although Sa Pesta is known for its pesto, their speciality was the farinata.
The farinata is best eaten hot. However, we opened the carefully wrapped takeaway only later in the evening in our rented apartment in Levanto in the Cinque Terre region. Despite not holding its shape, the farinata was delectably creamy with a camphorish hint of rosemary. It was all the whiff of unexpected discovery one needed at the end of a long day faced with a week’s worth of laundry, a malfunctioning washing machine and cryptic operating instructions in Italian (www.sapesta.it., Mon-Sat 12-2 p.m, Thu-Sat 7-8.30 p.m.).