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Hidden Beauty in Northern Italy


David Cicconi


On the Ligurian Coast, in northern Italy, T+L discovers the beauty of what is considered the country’s homeliest town.
From August 2009
By Michael Frank
Revealing a secretly prized place is a little bit like telling your dreams at a dinner party: it’s an act of inadvertent autobiography. This is especially true when the prized place happens to be—how best to put it?—on the “modest” side. “You like all the ugly towns in beautiful settings,” my wife said to me after our recent, and I might add mutually heartsick, departure from Recco, on the coast of Liguria. “What’s that about?”
I prefer the word homely myself, but no matter: what it’s about, pure and simple, is love. To explain Recco, you have to start with the Second World War. A sunny seaside town with beautiful centuries-old palazzi, Recco had the longest elevated railway bridge in Liguria. Destroying the bridge meant impeding communication and passage between Rome and points north. From the fall of 1943 through the summer of 1944, first the British and then the Americans flew nearly 30 bombing raids over the town, flattening 95 percent of Recco’s houses and commercial structures before the bridge finally fell on the 10th of July.
The town that rose up from the rubble was—to put it gently—a major missed opportunity in urban planning: bad, blocky apartment houses, cement piazzas with the odd weedy patch of greenery, a mediocre esplanade along the sea. This awkwardly reconstructed center of Recco is, nevertheless, bordered by surviving examples of festive trompe l’oeil villas of the old town, and a spread of period houses dots the surrounding hills. Bright yellow and pink, lime green and terra-cotta, they are like jeweled pins set in an improbably lush cushion, a patchwork of olive trees and grapevines, figs and pomegranates, rosemary and sage and (Liguria being the home of pesto) basil, and more basil still.
What distinguishes Recco for me is that, unlike nearby Portofino, it does not have so thick an air of leisure, as in in-the-pursuit-of, setting the rhythm and tone. People do play here, to be sure, but Recco has the unmistakable vibrancy of an actual, functioning town. Each Monday morning, its sprawling open-air market draws crowds of people from surrounding villages.
Long before eating locally became fashionable, Recchelini have, of necessity, eaten what was grown, fished, or created nearby. The Ligurian table is based on a cucina semplice (literally: a simple cuisine) and is largely fish- and vegetable-focused. Specialties include pesto, of course; torte salate, savory tarts of artichoke, zucchini, rice, onion, or beet greens; anchovies; and ripieni, any manner of vegetable “refilled” with a mixture of bread crumbs, egg, and Parmesan.
Focaccia col formaggio is Recco’s most famous, and one verifiably indigenous, dish. It consists of two layers of papery dough sandwiching Stracchino, a delicately creamy local cheese; baked for eight minutes, it emerges firm on the outside, molten and often bubbling on the inside. Focaccia col formaggio was made famous by Manuelina, whose simple namesake trattoria was popular beginning in the end of the 19th century with locals, who would knock on her door into the wee hours and ask her to stoke the fire and whip up this rustic delicacy. Today, Manuelina’s is a family-owned restaurant and hotel, where my three-year-old daughter delights in watching dough being tossed gently in the air, filled, and slid into the oven. Equally memorable is Tossini, the only bakery in Recco where Maria Luisa Ansaldo, my 88-year-old guide to all local matters, will permit me to buy focaccia with cheese. I once made the mistake of patronizing a rival establishment, and from sight alone she could tell I’d strayed. These sorts of rules are very Recco: You go to Tossini for the focaccia with cheese to go, Moltedo for the focaccia without. Magia Bianca is for salsa di noci (a walnut-cream sauce combined only with pansotti pasta) and savory tarts. Cavassa is where you get outstanding gelato, and Supermercato Picasso—Pablo Picasso’s great-grandfather came from Sori, just over the hill—is where you buy your Stracchino and pine nuts.
After nine annual visits, I have not yet worked out whether the Recco rules are particular to the families I know there, to the town, to Liguria, or even to northern Italy; but I do believe the way daily life is ordered has something to do with the intactness of customs and places: not just cuisine, but (postwar rebuilding apart) architecture, gardens, and interiors. When I asked Maria Luisa how it was that Recco in particular and Liguria in general remained so pristine, she replied, “Because we make it that way.”
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