A few months ago I was on the phone with my mom and she told me that her friends Narri and Peter invited her to stay at their house on the Italian Riviera. She lamented, “if only I had someone to travel with”
Um….how about me?
I said I’d go for a week but then she passed on information from Narri that the olive harvest would be happening while I was there and I should really stay two weeks. And so it was decided. We flew out and saw the beautiful Côte d’Azur as we flew into Nice. We drove through the mountains along the Riviera di Ponente “the coast of the setting sun” to get to their home in Andora by Genoa. If you know nothing about Italy you may still recognize the word Genoa and associate it with food particularly, pesto. At my first meal I learned that, although the infamous pesto most often served at restaurants was usually premade with parmesan, the fresh pasta that it was ubiquitously served with, trofie, is usually vegan or egg free! Fresh pasta is one of my most favorite foods on earth and so I was immediately gratified to try it within hours of landing.
Pasta Primavera is a dish that I associate with suffering through at a nonvegan restaurant where it is my only option. Often in the US this insipid meal has some canned tomato, bland, verging on gross, zucchini, and a few shakes of dried basil. This Italian version was a revelation, the first of many I would have, of what Italian dishes should be. The squash that they have in this region, trombett was bursting with flavor, and the tomatoes were like the best tomatoes you ever had, at the peak of summer but maybe better somehow? I don’t know, I don’t understand how Italian produce is so much better but I was soon shopping at the local farmer’s co-op gathering seeds for next summer’s garden.
I had been warned that our small town wasn’t at all vegan-friendly, there were no listings on Happy Cow and all I could find was that most restaurants catered to seafood eaters. Usually, in my travels, that’s a very bad sign. but in the two Andora grocery stores, I found more vegan specialty items than I would in my entire hometown or the supermarket closest to me in Austin. I couldn’t stop buying things, vegan ricotta, ragu di soia, minestrone soup and Zuppa Toscana. I loved their yogurt! I didn’t even have time to try all the vegan meat products like chicken cordon bleu and endless variety of gelatos. (I did try some gelato prepackaged in a cone, like drumsticks here, it’s probably a good thing I don’t have easy access to them!).
The first day we went to the Fratelli Carli olive museum and, really, you could change the phrase “a kid in a candy store” to “Stephanie in an olive store” for a better metaphor if you know me at all. Olives are my lifeblood. I tried to grow olive trees (they did not turn out like this) and I would definitely have these olive stained glass windows in my home.
The Fratelli Carli products were all insanely good. Maybe if I put in a bunch of links at tweet at them they will send me more? Please! And oh, in the gift-shop they had a random Vegan Pie just sitting in the case. And yeah, olive foccacia is available everywhere, olives come with meals and drinks even when you don’t order them, sometimes olive bread or olive breadsticks come with your meal. In a restaurant in Apricale they had olive ice cream. Frankly, it was a bit overwhelming. I get emotional thinking about it.
At the grocery store I was able to buy Pesto con Tofu so I could make fresh trofie al pesto at home and though my Italian host was very suspicious, she had to admit it was delcious and so much better than the pesto you buy here. The way the flavor blooms in your mouth is indescribable. I bought seeds and I know it won’t be enough.
Speaking of my Italian host, it sure was nice having a native speaker to interrogate waiters for me! Especially since she quickly intuited that I don’t care for salad and I loved overhearing lei vegana….no lei non ama insalata and they would come up with some pasta Pomodoro, or pasta Aglio e Olio or one of my favorites (that I thought would be so boring didn’t even take a picture of) Pasta Porcini. Each one was instantly the best pasta I ever had. But, if a place couldn’t do pasta without eggs or cheese, pizza marinara was always an option. In the US you can go into some restaurants (like the Olive Garden) and they just can’t/won’t serve you. Sometimes you can’t even have the french fries. This never happened to me in Italy and one reason is that there was always pizza. And you can get it with those Ligurian olives, Taggiasca, and you don’t need any other food, well, maybe some artichokes and mushrooms.
Still, my biggest food revelation was yet to come. In Albenga my hosts were very excited about a farinata restaurant, Da Puppo, that ended up with an hours-long wait every night. We had to be sure to get there well before opening so we wouldn’t have to wait. I’d never heard of farinata but it sounded like socca which I’d read was very popular in Nice so I was excited to try it. We shopped around the medieval part of the city while trusty Peter held our spot in line.
When the doors opened nearly every single spot in the restaurant was instantly taken as we swarmed into the oven-warmed, intoxicating-smelling rooms. After I ordered I checked out the farinatas coming out of the ovens. Unlike the socca I had tried, these didn’t have any toppings, although toppings were available. Instead, the flavor mostly came from the cooking style in huge wide pans placed in wood-burning ovens.
It was definitely one of those experiences where after I tried it I had to ask, are you sure this is really vegan, and indeed it is! Basically, it’s just chickpea flour, water, and a smattering of rosemary. I had it with a side of squash dressed with olive oil and mint which was also delicious, and I am not usually a summer squash fan. I don’t understand any of this. If you have a good recipe please post it in the comments!
On one of our last days we decided to try a Peruvian place in Laigueglia called Azotea. Generally, in Italy all restaurants are Italian so I was a bit hesitant but they were easily able to accommodate me. The decor of this restaurant was so hip and it was right on the beach. Although I’m not usually one to order quinoa, I figured a cook from Peru would know how to do it right and I enjoyed it! Especially the tofu mousse.
And I was especially excited that they could make their sweet potato doughnuts vegan just by leaving off a honey element. All the food had beautiful presentation so if you are dining with omnis in Laigueglia I definitely recommend it.
I am ready to go back and get my PhD Northern Italian food. I want to know all of their secrets! Hopefully I’ll get posts up about Monaco, Apricale, and Venice soon. Until then here are some pictures from touring through Liguria from Cervo, Imperia, Alassio, Albenga, Testico, and Ventimiglia which are full of ancient palaces and churches, medieval cities, beautiful beaches, and cute cars.