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.

David’s Discoveries: Portofino Perfect

Portofino’s horseshoe-shaped harbor and plumb-line cliffs are among the more actively gorgeous places on the Italian Riviera, as Italians call the boomerang-shaped region of northern Liguria. And Liguria is one of my favorite regions in the world for hiking, eating, dreaming and wandering.

A picture-postcard faux fishing port, Portofino is the Riviera’s most glamorous time warp: the villas of the super-rich perch on pine-studded promontories jutting into the Mediterranean. Billionaires like Silvio Berlusconi spend precious leisure hours here. “Precious” is the operative word.

Five hundred years ago one irreverent overnight traveler noted that in Portofino “you were charged not only for the room but the very air you breathed.”

Paying for the atmosphere is still what Portofino is all about.

But my wife Alison and I have a novel way enjoying Portofino for free. It includes some of the greatest views on the Mediterranean seaboard, plus lots of fresh air, and exercise. Naturally on either end of our “Portofino Perfect” walking experience (and even halfway along it) you can drop a few euros for a cappuccino, or spend $200 per head for a snack at a fashionable ristorante.We live much of the year in Paris, but spend several months-usually in fall and winter-in Liguria. Childhood attachments and more–call them elective and professional affinities–draw us back.

Why fall and winter (and spring, for that matter) and not summer, when you can swim and sunbathe? The easy answer is we prefer the low-season peace and ease of access. And I am not a lover of heat
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Our fall-winter ritual is to trek to Portofino from the neighboring resort of Santa Margherita Ligure. This is an unwise proposition in summer, when the traffic on the narrow, serpentine coast road flies thick and fast. Until recently it was not only unwise, it was downright suicidal. That’s changed.

So to ring in the autumn, we laced up and marched toward Portofino on foot, marveling at the scenery: a jigsaw of conglomerate boulders and cliffs, offset by those patented Italian umbrella pines and deep blue waters, where sailboats, fishing boats and motorboats splashed and spluttered.

What’s refreshingly new on this walk is that cars, buses and trucks were unable to molest us.

A skillfully sprung boardwalk now runs from Santa Margherita Ligure a couple of corkscrew miles toward Portofino, via the oligarchs’ hamlet of Paraggi. It’s hunkered down in a hairpin curve a few hundred yards west of Berlusconi’s turreted castle.

The boardwalk ends at Paraggi. A steep, curving, perfectly paved forest pathway leads the remaining mile or so to Portofino.

We scrambled up it, amid the pines and strawberry trees–arbutus to a botanist–and drank in the scent. The wisteria and jasmine were having their third blooming, and the arbutus trees were covered with spiky orange fruit and tiny, sweet-smelling, bell-shaped blossoms.

Instead of battling summertime crowds to reach Portofino’s stone-paved harbor and airborne, black-and-white church of San Giorgio, we were practically alone. A garrison of cats guarded the Castello Brown-the hilltop fortress-mansion where Enchanted Aprilwas filmed.

Back down in the quaintly costly village, there were no lines at the fashion boutiques-not that either of us could afford to or wanted to shop. Shop for designer clothes in Portofino? That’s what the sun-bronzed vacationers who roll off the 200-foot motor-yachts do, before hitting perennial Portofino hangouts and glam, chic-issimo Lo Strainer, on the wharf.

More important to us, there was no wait for the onion focaccia at the sole bakery in Portofino. No, it is not the best focaccia in Liguria, but it’s not bad, and it won’t bankrupt you.

This year my understanding and appreciation of Portofino and of “Enchanted April” deepened as never before: I actually read the novel and was enchanted. Enchanted April, the book, is better than the movie. Read it, take this leisurely seaside stroll, and you too may understand why, back in the 1840s, Portofino became Italy’s first full-blown resort. You might also appreciate why it’s so popular today. Granted, “popular” isn’t the right word. In its peculiar, pretentious, gilded way, Portofino still manages to distill the essence of the Italian Riviera.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest books are the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light” and “Quiet Corners of Rome.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.comand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.

[Flickr image via Valentina_A]

Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011

gadling favorite destinations 2011

We travel a lot, to destinations both well-known and unfamiliar. In our defense, it is our job to travel like mad, to explore the world and then write about our discoveries.

Though most travel writers find something or other of interest in most places we visit, there are always those personal favorites that rise above the rest. This year, we decided to scribble our favorites down for you. Some of these spots we’re tipping for greater coverage in 2011, while others are simply tried-and-true favorites that we can’t stop raving about to our friends and the various publications that allow us to write for them. Over the course of this week, we’ll weigh in on our favorite hotels, airlines, gadgets, apps, and websites.

So, without further ado: Gadling’s favorite destinations for 2011.

Mike Barish. St. Kitts. I genuinely enjoy how locals and visitors frequent the same beach bars and restaurants. During evenings on the strip, I’d recognize staff members from my hotel doing the same thing I was doing: enjoying the ocean breeze with a cocktail and some jerk chicken.

Kraig Becker. Everest Base Camp, Nepal. For adventure travelers, a visit to Everest Base Camp is one of the best treks in the world. The 12-day hike isn’t just about the destination, however, as you walk in the shadow of the Himalaya each day, passing through sleepy mountain villages steeped in Sherpa culture along the way. The scenery, and altitude, is a breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
Catherine Bodry: Ko Chang, Thailand and Sayulita, Mexico.

Joel Bullock: My favorite new roller coaster of 2010 is Carowinds’ Intimidator. Carowinds is located on the border of North and South Carolina in Charlotte in the heart of NASCAR country. It was only fitting that the park design a racing-themed roller coaster that bears the nickname of racing legend Dale Earnhadt. Intimidator is an exciting ride. It’s the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster in the South East.

David Downie: As a general trend, I revisit places that have fallen off the tourist maps, or that have been taken for granted, and delve deeper into favorite destinations such as Paris and Rome, which are infinitely rich and fascinating and satisfying. Cities: Paris (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Rome (art, culture, walks, museums, food, wine), Genoa (food, wine, scenic beauty, history, magically restored architecture), Bologna (food, food, food and atmosphere and architecture), Helsinki (scenic beauty, atmosphere, seafood). Countryside destinations: Burgundy (wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Massif Central (hikes, scenery), Drome-Provencal (ditto, plus truffles and wine), Tuscany (art, culture, museums, wine, food, vineyard and mountain scenery), Italian Riviera (ditto).

Don George. (1) Peru‘s Sacred Valley. I finally made it there this year and was enchanted by scenery, history, culture, people, cuisine. Machu Picchu is of course life-transformingly amazing but the other untouted ruins all around the valley are equally amazing. (2) Kyoto, Japan. The cobbled back quarters of this ancient city are as enchanting now as they were when I first visited 30 years ago. Tiny temples, impromptu shakuhachi concerts, apprentice geisha in full splendor. (3) Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Incredible island scenery, hospitable people, stunning lagoon, peaceful and laid-back lifestyle, thriving dance, carving, and textile arts scene.

Tom Johansmeyer. If you’re a cigar smoker, nothing beats Esteli, Nicaragua. On just about any budget, you can spend a few days down there. Make a few calls in advance, and you’ll have the opportunity to tour tobacco fields and cigar factories. Even if you aren’t a smoker, it’s amazing to see such craftsmanship in action.

Jeremy Kressmann. Hanoi, Vietnam for its great history and architecture, awesome cuisine, and intriguing Cold War sights. Secondly, Laos. The rugged north of the country has great hikes and the buzzing cultural capital of Luang Prabang is totally worthwhile.

Grant Martin. Bogotá. Forget what you’ve heard about kidnappings, drugs and danger, Bogotá is the new cosmopolitan capital of South America. With quaint, brick streets, a buzzing commercial district and a hip, young population, there’s not much to dislike about this place. Get there before the rest of North America figures it out.

Melanie Nayer. Shanghai. The city of old and new hit a turning point when it hosted the World Expo, and set the stage for Shanghai to become one of the most talked about–and visited–cities in the world.

Sean McLachlan. Ethiopia. Friendly people, rugged scenery, historic sites, and great coffee. What more could you want? Beautiful women, good food, adventure travel? Ethiopia has all that too.

Laurel Miller. Ecuador, especially Cotopaxi National Park (see above), because it’s stunningly beautiful, uncrowded, and there are loads of outdoor recreational opportunities. Ecuador is an amazingly diverse country, kind of like a mini-Peru but with very low-key tourism. There’s also great whitewater rafting/kayaking and mountaineering, fascinating indigenous culture, beautiful colonial cities, delicious regional foods, and the people are wonderful. There’s so much more to Ecuador than just the (admittedly spectacular) Galapagos.

Meg Nesterov. Bulgaria is cheap, creative, and easy to explore. Several of my most well-traveled friends already rave about it. Go now before tourism overexposes the country.

Heather Poole. Positano, Italy. It’s just so beautiful and the food is amazing. I’m a flight attendant and I have a four year-old son, as well as a husband who travels over 100,000 miles a year for business. Our life is like a game of tag. So when it comes to vacations all we want to do is relax. I love to be able to sit on a balcony and let the vacation come to me.

McLean Robbins. Telluride. It’s not new, but as ski towns go it feels non-commercial and relatively untouched. You’ll find truly friendly people (and your fair share of under-the-radar celebrities), but also the country’s best extreme skiing. And it looks like heaven when it snows!

Annie Scott. I’m big on Vienna. It’s a magical city that embodies everything I think of when I think of Europe: culture, history, cathedrals and class. I think the Swiss Riviera may be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Lake Geneva looks so pristine you could drink it, and the French influence gives everything from the dining to the shopping that elusive je ne sais quoi. Lastly, I had a marvelous trip this year in Zambia where the wildlife was rampant and the scenery was enchanting and unexpectedly dynamic: sweeping plains, dreamlike riverscapes and incredible trees. The thrill of being immersed in the bush is hard to match.

Alex Robertson Textor. Lima, Peru continues to pop. While the Inca Trail is old hat, Lima is emerging as a major destination on its own. Perhaps most notable is the Peruvian capital’s excellent restaurant scene, which is as disarmingly inexpensive as it is top-notch. I also have to mention green, rustic, jaw-droppingly beautiful Dominica as the Caribbean’s top adventure destination. Dominica has a number of fantastic eco-lodges that showcase the island’s natural beauty wonderfully and are priced reasonably.

Karen Walrond. As a diver, I love Cayman. Love it. Very touristy, but the diving is beyond anything I’ve seen, and i’ve been diving all over the world. And I’m partial to Grand Riviere in my homeland of Trinidad, which isn’t touristy at all. Between April and June, you can see Giant Leatherback turtles nesting in Grand Riviere.

[Image: Flickr | alepheli]