Anyone looking for new twists on Italian cuisine should get to know the cooking of Liguria, the country’s northwest coastal region where you’ll find the Italian Riviera. While two of Liguria’s staples—pesto and focaccia—have edged their way on to menus around the world, there are many other dimensions to the area’s cooking beyond these delicious mainstays. Andrea Ballerini, one of the Italian Riviera’s most dynamic restaurateurs, has dedicated himself to exploring some of the lesser-known culinary roads of his territory. For one of his restaurants in Sestri Levante, La Sciamadda dei Vinaccieri Ballerini, he included an historic form of Ligurian cooking, a hybrid style called Tabarchine cuisine, that blends flavors from North Africa and Sardinia along with those of the Riviera.
Ballerini says he’s always been keenly interested in the history of Ligurian cuisine, and has sought out 19th-century cookbooks to study different ways to approach his region’s food. Meetings with the late renowned food journalist Franco Accame and culinary scholars like Sergio Rossi, author of the book, La Cucina dei Tabarchini, encouraged his interest in the under-the-radar Tabarchine cooking style, as did his passion for and involvement with an ancient Ligurian sailboat, the leudo, that plied the Riviera’s coastal waters for centuries and routinely traveled to such islands as Sardinia, Elba and Sicily carrying wine and food.
Tabarchine cuisine is the cooking of the group of settlers who left Genoa in the 1500s to live on the tiny island of Tabarca off the coast of Tunisia, which offered opportunities for good coral fishing. Two hundred years later these transplanted Genoese moved again, for political reasons and more coral, and colonized areas of two small Sardinian islands, San Pietro and Sant’Antioco. The dishes they developed over centuries incorporated the diverse flavors of their new and original homelands.
Intrigued by this unique food culture, Ballerini began to develop contemporary Tabarchine recipes for La Sciamadda. When planning the menu Ballerini says he wanted it to be based on seafood, but “different from everybody else.” And indeed it is. La Sciamadda is the only restaurant serving Tabarchine cooking in Italy outside of the town of Carloforte on the Sardinian island of San Pietro, says Ballerini, where many of the Genoese expats lived after moving from Tunisia. (In addition to offering Tabarchine cuisine, parts of the islands of San Pietro, especially Carloforte, and Sant’Antioco, are home to a rare Ligurian dialect, called Tabarchina.)
You’ll find a number of Tabarchine dishes at La Sciamadda. Among them is a distinct lasagna cooked with steamed tuna or bonito, pesto and tomato sauce. (In addition to harvesting coral, the Genoese settlers became renowned tuna fisherman, so, not surprisingly, tuna is common in Tabarchine cooking.) Their Cascà, a Tabarchine version of couscous, is made with shrimp, mussels and diced vegetables. “Cascà is the definitive recipe that groups all the influences—couscous from North Africa, fish typically found in the waters of Sardinia, and the vegetables are steamed Ligurian style,” says Ballerini. Cassolla, which Ballerini labels as a fish stew from Carloforte, is from a long-ago recipe with mussels, shrimp, clams, octopus, tomatoes and bruschetta. He explains it used to be “a poor soup,” but today it’s not inexpensive to produce.
The menu at La Sciamadda isn’t only about Tabarchine cuisine; here you can sample both updated and classic Ligurian specialties like branzino prepared Ligurian style with olives, potatoes and pine nuts; “Maé” spaghetti with a variety of local seafood; and a traditional fritto misto with calamari, shrimp and anchovies. At Ballerini’s reasonably priced Aragosta D’Oro, where certain items are inspired by Genoa’s street food, you can order testaroli pasta and panigacci bread (both typically from the Lunigiana region which includes places in Liguria and Tuscany), along with various salamis and cured meats from local producers. Testaroli and panigacci have a similar recipe; testaroli are often served with pesto, sometimes in a crepe-like shape or torn into smaller triangular pieces. Panigacci, cooked as flat discs, can be served savory, with cheese and salami, or sweet, with chocolate. Testaroli and panigacci are said to date from ancient times.
While focaccia is ubiquitous throughout Liguria, there are 12 varieties of the bread made with pastry layers to try at Ballerini’s restaurant Don Luigi on the Viale Rimembranza facing the sea (there’s additional seating on the beach). Other Ligurian dishes at this lively spot include cuculli di baccalà, a type of fritter from Genoa; Ligurian ravioli called zembi; and the popular pansoti with nut sauce and trofie al pesto.
The Ballerinis also see their cooking classes as a way to spread the word about authentic Ligurian cooking. These classes, ranging from such basics as how to make pesto or the Ligurian pizza called Sardenaira, to more detailed fish and dessert courses, are available year round excepting holidays and can range in size from one to 100 participants.
When I was recently in Liguria, Andrea and Daniele Ballerini demonstrated how to make corzetti with pesto (corzetti are medallion-shaped pasta embossed with historic designs). The Ballerinis alternated the how-to’s with back stories about the region’s food culture, which helps you understand the reasons behind the meticulous sourcing to guarantee the authentic flavors of the terroir. So that means basil leaves from Pra, near Genoa, renowned for producing a type of plant free from mint undertones (found in some varieties of basil); pine nuts from Pisa; Vessalico garlic (grown in the Ligurian mountains); locally sourced olive oil and Pecorino Romano cheese. To mix it all, Daniele uses a mortar and pestle (“the oldest blender in the world,” he says) made with red marble from the nearby town of Levanto, which he likes because it provides the right amount of friction for turning the ingredients into a paste. Tips for producing the pasta dough (with grano duro flour and egg) included adding some marjoram, cheese, and even a little white wine to the dough, which is then left in the refrigerator for several hours before it is rolled (“flatten it like pizza,” says Daniele) and cut with special molds. The Ballerinis use corzetti molds crafted by the renowned Picetti clan in Varese Ligure.
The Ballerinis are active wine producers with 21 different labels—reds, whites and the sparkling Kaligo wine. They refer to themselves as vinaccieri, the term used to describe the wine merchants who sailed leudi carrying their wares on the seas off Liguria starting in the Middle Ages. The Ballerinis take a leudo to travel to and from Elba for their wine business, saying they want this aspect of Liguria’s culinary history to “not only be told, but lived.” They are in the process of restoring their own leudo, and hope to sail it next year to the islands off the coast of Sardinia where the Genoa/Tabaraca coral harvesters settled. When speaking of his enthusiasm for leudi, Ballerini says, “It’s not a re-enactment, but a continuation of a tradition and an opportunity not only to bring the wine but also a cultural message.”