Borderlands disputed down the centuries by different communities, are the places with the most complex, culture-rich and genetically diverse cuisines.
Lunigiana, straddling Liguria and Tuscany, is one such. It’s an area of natural beauty and magnificent manmade landmarks, of centuries of migration, settlement and history—plus lots of fascinating albeit minor art, if you’re prepared to search it out. Within this context, the food —simple, straightforward recipes midway between solid Ligurian tradition and the sumptuous culinary riches of Emilia—also happens to be superb.
You’re in Liguria and you’re driving to Castelnuovo Magra, 25 kilometers east of La Spezia. Leave the autostrada at Sarzana and drive up to the village itself, which nestles on the slopes of Monte Bastione. The view is breathtaking; the mountains all around and the the sea and the countryside below, but also the tangle of towns and villages that have sprung up along the old Roman Via Aurelia according to no apparent criterion in particular.
On a bend at the start of the village, just before arriving in the main piazza (where, incidentally, stands the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, which houses fantastic works of art, including the sculptures in Carrara marble and even a Breughel), look out for the somewhat nondescript entrance to Trattoria Armanda (0187 674410).
I went there recently with my old mate Salvatore Marchese, a passionate scholar and prolific promulgater of all things gastronomical, who actually lives here in Castelnuovo Magra. It crossed my mind that the first Slow Food Presidia projects were born right here at Armanda’s tables. But it’s not only fond personal memories that bring me back. It’s also the cooking—and what cooking it is!
Under the watchful eyes of her ever present mother-in-law, Armanda, cook Luciana consigns delicacies that are deeply rooted in the local tradition to the small dining room. Leaving aside the lardo di Colonnata with warm focaccia, which is more than just a passing fashion here, I recommend, among the many gems: baccalà fritters (you won’t find any better), panigacci, thin, light flour and water pasta strips that are magnificent both dressed simply with the local olive oil and a sprinkling of parmigiano, and with pesto. Talking of pesto, I tasted an exemplary version (forget readymade sauces!) made with the first basil of the year, delicate and toothsome, over dish of lasagnette.
After filling upon the antipasti (which also feature flans and stuffed vegetables) and a couple of first courses (don’t miss the stuffed lettuce in meat stock, the symbol of the house), if you still have room for a main course, go for the stewed tripe (until recently, they used to distribute it to the village’s old folk for lunch). Armanda’s puddings (the rice cake, for example)are also first-rate, as are the wines. But, above all, it’s the heart and the knowhow of Armanda and Luciana that are truly out of the ordinary.
First printed in La Stampa on April 6 2003
Adapted by John Irving