1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy


Originally Published March 1954

The Italian Riviera, Birthplace of Christopher Columbus will yield rich discoveries to present day explorers

There are, needless to say, several ways to approach Italy with taste buds atingle. An ocean liner will land the inquiring gourmet within a three-minute walk of a fragrant Neapolitan pizza or the most subtle of Genoese raviioli. Stepping off a plane, another questing voluptuary finds himself only a bus ride away from the fastidious restaurants of Rome, Milan, Florence or Bologna. Trains, express autocars and gondolas will take him to less attainable cities. Then again, he may approach this fair peninsula by car, through difficult Alpine passes or by way of the Riviera. This gustatory expedition, soft, sun seeking Sybarites that we are, has chosen the latter approach. It is far from original, but we are confident that the climate, the gaiety and, above all, the culinary charm of Liguria will justify the choice in your eyes.

Back in the dim chapters of history, Gauls, Romans and Franks have controlled this iridescent ribbon of shore. In the Middle Ages, it belonged to Genoa, and it seesawed back and forth until, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, it became a part of Piedmont. Following the treaty of 1860, which ceded Nice to France, the narrow strip of land which tumbles into the Mediterranean from the watersheds of the Alps is now equally shared by the two adjoining countries. At first sight, Prance seems to have the best of the bargain, at least from the viewpoint of sophistication. Cannes or Cap d'Antibes can be dazzling at first sight! But the Italian Riviera has an intriguing simplicity which comes as something of a relief. After the endless repetition of French perfume shops, lottery booths, candied fruits and jewelry stores, how bereft of artifice are the first few miles of Italy!

Here, beyond a doubt, is a hard working elbow of the Azure Coast, where the husky, hill climbing paesano has to labor long to make a livelihood from his terraces of chrysanthemums, oranges and carnations. This impression of toiling thrift is heightened by the appearance of donkeys, heavy laden with casks of wine or olive oil, and by straight backed women carrying jugs and bundles on their heads. How quiet and primitive it all seems, you say to yourself. But even as you approach Bodighera, for generations the winter refuge of fog fleeing Londoners, things begin to seem less restful. There is something vaguely nerve shattering in the atmosphere. It doesn't remain vague for long, however. Two new and disquieting factors have arrived to lend a staccato pulse to postwar Italy. One is the repetitious, impact type roadside advertising, which we'll try to discuss later when our power of invective has become a little more acid. The other is the locust plague of “scooters, ” a word which is now admitted freely into all Latin languages. This fat wheeled little monster has developed to such a point of efficiency and adroitness that owning one is the cherished dream of every Italian youth.

By the time you arrive in San Remo, glistening with luxurious hotels and a naughty looking casino, it is clear that first impressions can be wrong. There is more play than toil along this sunny shore, especially in summer. The Italian Riviera is quite as dedicated to the business of attracting travelers to its hotels as to growing flowers, squeezing olive oil or building ships. Aware of the phenomenal percentage of warm, sunny days throughout the year, a rate of foreign exchange which greatly favors the visitors, and a shore line which in places is supremely beautiful, it is not surprising that the tourist responds to the siren call. It is gratifying to report at first hand that the exacting gourmet interested in regional cookery and wines will encounter rewarding adventures in Liguria and, for that matter, in almost all of the Italian regions. Local wines and dishes have the same charm and variety as they do in France.

Before we take you for a brief tour of this fragrant coast line, a preview of its epicurean resources might be welcome. A mere glance at these immense mountainsides carpeted with olive trees reveals Liguria's first treasure: the clear, appetizing olive oil which is used in almost all Genoese cooking. A cow would have to be an acrobat to exist on these rocky slopes, and even goats are sparse. No need, therefore, to look too far for local cheeses. For generations Italian farmers have built up stone terraces on these sun soaked hills. By dint of hard labor they have made them productive, aided by concrete water tanks high above them. Fruit trees, flowers and vegetables are box holders in these fertile balconies facing southward to the sea. The citrus family is there in full force oranges, lemons, tangerines and grapefruit but figs, pears, persimmons, peaches, strawberries and table grapes do equally well. So do vegetables, particularly artichokes, asparagus, tear shaped little tomatoes and long white radishes which have to be cooked to be palatable. One herb sprouts in unrivaled splendor here basil, the key aroma to Genoese cooking. Higher up in the mountains are orange roofed mushrooms, pine nuts for the asking and a rich yield of chestnuts.

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