Fragrant aromas. Reassuring softness. Soothing extra virgin olive oil. The tang of salt. All these sensations and more come together in the crisp, golden rectangles of focaccia which go on sale in Genoa in the early hours of the morning, when the light from the ovens starts to illuminate the lanes and alleyways of the old city. Wrapped in paper, focaccia says good day to sleepy-eyed workers and students, who return to it in mid-morning when the first pangs of hunger make themselves felt – but lunchtime is still a long way off.
Fugassa, as it is know in Genoese dialect, is the real thing: your original street food and a precursor of fast food . Way back in the late sixteenth century, it was already being eaten in Genoa’s churches, accompanied with a nice glass of chilled white wine, at weddings and funerals.
It made the local dialect writer Costanzo Carbone go all poetic: ‘Whether sage or onion or potatoes are mixed into the flour and oil dough, it is the food of the healthy: The man with an upset stomach or a soul that is not serene is incapable of appreciating its virtues. Anyone who rises at midday will no longer find a morsel of it left in the shops, for focaccia is l’espace d’un matin. It is born with the cock’s crow and rises with the aurora. The finest is to be bought at six in the morning. Fresh soft and flavorsome, it’s ideal as bait for a hike in the mountains, munching it as you climb, or sitting beside your snare as you wait for the birds to fly by…’.
The staple ingredients are water, oil, flour and salt. After the traditional 8-12 hours of kneading and resting (it all depends on atmospheric conditions), the dough is baked in large oven dishes. The result is focaccia classica, which is turned out and eaten upside down so that the gustatory papillae savor first the tang of the salt, then the smoothness of the oil and, as a final treat, the reassurance of the dough.
Focaccia is a simple dish which you can enjoy at any time of the day. It is also versatile – maybe too much so. Hence the crisis of identity it suffers when it appears on shop counters in an almost never-ending range of variants. Some – with potatoes, rosemary, onion, sage or cheese – are vouched for by tradition. Other ‘technicolor’ variants with tomato, courgette, aubergine, olives, rocket, shrimps and peppers are dictated by the ideology of the tradesman and the song of the siren of fashion. In such cases, true focaccia, ‘the queen of the oven’, takes a back seat. Newfangled toppings may tempt naive tourists, but they turn the purist’s nose up. In an attempt to stave off this mass mystification, a sparse group of passionate Genoa bakers have decided to join forces to raise the profile of this historic ‘snack’. 400 businesses make focaccia in Genoa, but Elio Rossi of the ‘U Tappe’ breadshop in Campomorone (and another on the road to Borzoli), Lorenzo Giangreco in Bolzaneto, Tumioli in Via Gramsci and the colorful Marina Porto Antico, Macrì in via Felice Cavallotti, Jamoni in via Canevari near the Stadio Ferraris and Marciano in the city’s ‘posh’ Albaro residential quarter are the six artisans who have decided to place the onus on quality and put their professional expertise at the service of the Slow Food Presidium for the ‘focaccia classica di Genova’, the classic focaccia of Genoa. They have done so by agreeing to abide by a rigid discipline which bars the use of lard (it costs less than oil and helps in the raising process, but it actually makes the focaccia stodgy and rubbery and leaves an unpleasant odor on cooling) and makes the use of extra virgin olive oil compulsory. The six bakers, each with his own special secrets (one sprinkles the dough with white wine prior to baking), have decided to (re) elevate this everyday street food its true status as source of eating pleasure. The Slow Food Presidium focaccia has an average thickness of two centimeters. Crispy on the surface and hazelnut in color, it is studded with tiny brilliants of sea salt. Its flavor is balanced and its texture soft and friable. Last but not least, its initial, freshly-baked scent is followed up by pleasant aromatic nuances.
Our Pick of the best bakers of the ‘Classic Focaccia of Genoa’
Panificio Jamoni, Via Canevari 3r – Genoa
Il forno di Albaro, Via Albaro 24r – Genoa Albaro
Panificio voglia di pane, Via F. Cavallotti 26r – Genoa
Tumioli, Via Gramsci 37r – Genoa
Al forno di Giangreco, Piazza Rismondo 15r – Genoa Bolzaneto
Panificio U Tappe, Piazza Marconi 22r – Genoa Campomorone
WHERE TO EAT
Genoa – Cremeno
Closing day: Tuesday
Holidays: August and a fortnight in September
Prices: L. 45-50,000, wines excluded
This restaurant is situated in a quiet, country village in the Val Polcevera, a few kilometers from the Genoa-Bolzaneto motorway exit. Excellent ‘inland’ Genoese cuisine: ravioli with meat sauce, taglierini with mushroom sauce, lasagne, trenette or chestnut-flour troffie with pesto; rabbit, liver, veal with artichokes, fritto misto, or mixed fry, and the classic cima, rolled veal stuffed with vegetables. Decent puddings and a wine list that could do with improving.
Via dei Macelli di Soziglia, 45r
Closing days: Saturday and Sunday lunchtime
Holidays: last week in July, first three weeks in August
Prices: L. 55 – 60,000, wines excluded
A small, cozy restaurant. No frills but good home cooking. Fish-filled ravioli with supreme of pine kernels, black cuttlefish-ink taglierini with asparagus and shrimps, risotto with fresh sea-bass eggs, piccagge with pesto, ravioli genovesi with meat sauce; gurnard, dentex, sea-bass and brill, plus stewed stockfish; excellent cheese; a selection of puddings; good wine list.
Via dei Giustiniani, 16r
Closing day: Sunday
Prices: L. 25-45,000
Another classic Genoa street food is farinata. It is possible to savor the specialty at this old trattoria, situated in a patrician palace at the junction between Via Giustiniani and Vico Sauli.
Also on the menu, classics such as torta di verdura, vegetable pie, stuffed anchovies and sardines, minestrone, trenette with pesto, and stewed and boiled stockfish. Plus house wine.
WHERE TO BUY
LA TAVOLA DEL DOGE
Piazza Matteotti, 80
This producers’ cooperative sells local produce such as wine, extra virgin olive oil, cheese, cured meats, jams, officinal herbs and fresh vegetables.
PIETRO ROMANENGO FU STEFANO
Piazza Soziglia, 74
Top-class confectionery: marrons glacés, jams and syrups and candied fruits (don’t miss the chocolate-flavored oranges).
Vicolo dei Castagna, 14r
An olde-worlde workshop and point of sale. Superb plain, milk and filled chocolate and crunchy nougat.
Photo: the typical Focaccia
Walter Bordo lives in Genoa and is a Slow Food collaborator.
Translation by John Irving