Discovering Nonna Nina’s Kitchen: minnow heaven on the Italian Riviera

Just north of Portofino on the Italian Riveria, on the Genoa side of the Monte di Portofino Regional Park, is a perched hamlet called San Rocco di Camogli. This is the best place on earth to devour the marvelously flavorful minnows that come from the Gulf of Genoa, which the locals call rossetti - little red things. And little red things they are: about an inch long, thin as a thermometer, translucent, and with a little red dot near the gills. You don’t just pop rossetti in your mouth whole – you fork in dozens of them at a time. And the best place to do this is on San Rocco di Camogli’s single street, at the venerable restaurant La Cucina di Nonna Nina – Grandma Nina’s Kitchen.

You will not find Grandma Nina in the establishment: she left her corporeal essence behind some years ago, and never set foot in the place anyway. She also left behind many delicious regional recipes from yesteryear, recipes transformed into exquisitely delectable dishes by the elusive, retiring, shy Paolo Delpian and his wife, Rosalia, Grandma Nina’s natural heirs.

Paolo says little and works a lot: he’s not a super chef and doesn’t like “super” anything, including wine. He’s an excellent cook who makes everything from scratch, fresh, using local ingredients. Rosalia runs the show. A bona fide grandmother, she doesn’t look the part. She’s fashionably turned out and has little of the plump, flour-dusted Italian nonna of yesteryear. The restaurant and its food reflect the owners’ personalities: quiet, discreet, tastefully simple.

Tasteful simplicity is the root of the best Italian cooking. Paolo gets his minnows squirming fresh – they’re too small to flip. They’re fished along the jagged coast below the restaurant – whose dining room is blissfully unequipped with a distracting panoramic view. Into boiling water go the minnows, and mere seconds later, they’re slid onto a warm plate, then onto your table and into your watering mouth. Purists eat them this way, naked. Others dribble their minnows with the lightest, fruitiest local Ligurian olive oil: full-bodied oil would spoil the delicate flavor. A minnow-sized pinch of salt is also allowed. And then: piscine heaven.The first local decree regulating the fishing and devouring of rossetti was drawn up in Genoa in the 1300s. At about the same time, a Genoese proverb, often unfairly attributed to Dante Alighieri, ironically declared that Genoa’s bay was a “fish-less sea.” And yet to this day local fishermen keep pulling up little spiny, unmarketable fish-the most flavorful and delicious of fish-and zillions of minnows. The fishermen are careful about how and when they fish. Over 700 years after that first wise decree, the hedonist insiders of the Riviera swim by the school to places like Nonna Nina to savor this minuscule bounty.

Naturally, Paolo Delpian also transforms guppies into fritters – golden knishes studded with glinting little eyes. They’re flash-fried in olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and are too exquisite to describe.

Nonna Nina offers more than mere minnows. The place also happens to serve the best traditional Genoese air-dried cod-soaked, softened, then slowly stewed with pine nuts, potatoes, tiny local Taggiasca olives and that same olive oil pressed from them-anywhere, period. So having dispatched a few thousand minnows, washed down with the region’s finest white wine, I tucked into the cod.

This was a full-sized specimen of fish, yet I felt a moment of hesitation before being subdued by the simple, healthful, tender, deliciousness of the dish. Cod has been a specialty in the region for over 1,000 years. But it doesn’t come from the Mediterranean. Hereabouts what is served is from Iceland, mostly (that’s why Iceland has an embassy in Genoa). My worry suddenly was and remains: how sustainable are cod-fishing practices? The massacre of minnows doesn’t seem to bankrupt the Genoese fish bank, but those giant factory ships flying global flags pull up nothing but immature cod these days.

So it was with somewhat guilty pleasure that I mopped up the last drops of the flaky cod essence and the olive oil. But guilt-free was my amazement at the perfect match made by the pale yellow Pigato from the Western Riviera. Crafted by winemaker Azienda Agricola Bruna, in the village of Ranzo, this bottle of single-vineyard “Le Russeghine” seemed genetically engineered to accompany minnows and cod to digestive paradise.

The Pigato also flowed easily in the company of Paolo’s homemade semifreddos and rustic hazelnut tart. Though not necessarily an adept of fish, I felt no envy watching other diners enjoy land-based dishes of veal or rabbit or poultry accompanied by luscious Ligurian red wines.

Yes, the reds too are good, some excellent. They’ll never be as big and flowery and popular as Tuscan reds. Like the olive oil, the tiny olives and the ethereal cooking, things Ligurian are small, delicate, and quiet. They don’t export well. The ham-hankering, spice-loving, sugar-and-alcohol adoring crowd will never embrace them. And that suits people like Paolo, Rosalia and their customers. The tables at Nonna Nina are always full, even in deepest winter, when the Riviera empties of its speedboats and backpackers. The sun of Tuscany, the herbs of Provence, the over-loved beauty of the Cinque Terre and the glitz of Portofino-just over the hill-feel like they’re those proverbial million miles away.

[flickr image via Jeremiah John McBride]

Author and guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.