Sestri Levante – a gem of a town in Liguria

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Baia del Silenzio

Liguria has undoubtedly become one of our favourite regions if not the top destination. There is so much going for the region, it is by the sea, it has a stunning landscape, picturesque towns and seaside villages, fantastic cuisine and also hills and mountains in the backdrop which at times reach the sea making for a spectacular setting.

Sestri Levante, formerly a fishing village just 50 kilometres away from Genova, is the holiday destination of the Milanesi. This town is both beautiful and full of life.  It is a great place to laze about, walk up and down the carrugio or main street, sip an espresso in one of the many bars or relax with stunning sea views on the two sides of the town. The restaurants and bars are busy starting from the late afternoon serving aperitivi and nibbles, and the main street of Sestri is full of boutiques which remain open until late.

Sestri Levante is a perfect base for discovering the wonders of Liguria. The most well known sites are the Cinque Terre and Portofino and most tourists actually miss some of the most picturesque and quaint towns and villages along the Ligurian coast.

What we particularly like about Sestri Levante are the two bays, the Baia delle Favole or (Bay of Fairy Tales), and the Baia del Silenzio (the Bay of Silence), both stunning in their own worth.

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The Baia delle Favole

The Baia del Silenzio is hidden just off the main street of Sestri and you will be surprised by its beauty the first time you see it. You will want to return time and time again whatever the time of year.

On the other side, the Baia delle Favole is a one kilometre beach with a splendid view of part of the peninsula where Sestri is located.

Sestri Levante, in our opinion is also a good base away from the tourist locations of Portofino and the Cinque Terre. You can drive around by car in Liguria but the train which goes along the coastal towns and villages is also incredibly efficient and probably the easiest way to visit the CInque Terre (apart from using a boat). From here you are practically halfway between Genova and La Spezia and only kilometres away from Chiavari, Zoagli, Rapallo, Camogli, Santa Maria Ligure, Portofino (more about these places and Liguria in general in another blog post).

In Sestri Levante, you would do well not to miss Balin Cuisine. While not on the cheap side, this restaurant immediately struck a chord because like me the owner and chef is obsessed with food and the provenance of his ingredients. The menu is limited and depends on the fresh fish he finds at the market. He uses top quality condiments like the splendid Ligurian olives (taggiasche olives) and exceptional Ligurian olive oil. If you are not into fish, he has mouth watering Chianina beef from Tuscany.  His fish soup is exceptional, as are his pasta dishes and incredibly fresh fish but let him guide you and you will definitely not be disappointed.

For a quick coffee, the Cafe Centrale is a must. Inside, it feels like time has stood still and you can sit on the covered terrace sipping your coffee or aperitivo and reading a newspaper from one of the newsagents closeby. You will also find the international press here. His ice-creams are also exceptional so this is a place to keep visiting time and time again.

Just a few metres away from him is a very good enoteca or wine shop. Enoteca Grazia is a treasure of splendid Italian wines from some of the best producers around Italy. Here you will find an excellent selection of top quality Ligurian wines as well as wines from all Italian regions. One recommendation – if you are going by car, make sure to leave space in the boot because the temptations in this wine shop are huge.

An institution in Sestri Levante and even known outside the region is the bakery Panificio Tosi which makes exceptional focaccia, a Ligurian bread speciality. I would recommend a selection of different focaccias including the traditional one with salt and olive oil, the one with onions which is delicious as well as the one with tomatoes (which resembles a pizza) and the famous Focaccia al formaggio di Recco (which is a thin sheet of dough covered with a creamy cheese). His farinata, also a regional speciality made with chickpea flour is also to die for.

Tips: If you are there in summer and want to avoid the heat at least on one day head to the entro terra or (hills). One place to stop on the way to Varese Ligure (considered as one of the best small towns of Italy), is Castiglione Chiavarese, a very small village which is also famous for its salami made by the renowned butcher in this hilltop village.

At Varese Ligure eat at the the Vineria del Borgo, a small wine bar just off the main square with a great selection of wines. The owner is extremely well versed in wines and they serve excellent food for very reasonable prices. The pasta with pesto and with the walnut sauce were excellent as were the home made sausages cooked in white wine.

City guides (1) – Modena – a delightful city for the gourmet traveller

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One of the narrow streets of Modena

Eyebrows were raised when I told some Italian friends that we were travelling to Modena for a weekend trip. Although Modena is renowned in Italy for its liquid gold or Aceto Balsamico, Parmigiano Reggiano, salumi such as the culatello and freshly made pasta many would probably skip a visit to this buzzing city unless they are either Ferrari fans or else heading for a gastronomic experience at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana (see review here) or his new casual brasserie Franceschetta58.

Why, did they ask, are you heading to Modena, when you can visit other places like Bologna, Ferrara, Parma or Verona for example.

Modena is a very welcoming city with a buzzing historical centre which turns to life in the evening as the streets are jam-packed with people or flocking the many bars and cafes that are dispersed around. On a warm evening, crowds spilled onto the streets drinking cooling drinks such as a glass of the regional Lambrusco, which tastes so much better on location. Here you will also find what is becoming a new trend in Italy, a choice of many Italian artisan beers.

On arrival we headed to Caffe Concerto (Piazza Grande), which is perfectly located in the Piazza Grande overlooking the splendid Romanesque cathedral of Modena. On a beautiful day, the terrace is filled with people sipping espressos in the morning or having an aperitivo in the evening. The Caffe also has a great interior which must look particularly welcoming in weekends. The restaurant menu is extremely interesting with focus on quality ingredients and the staff were very flexible given we ordered food for the children despite the fact that the restaurant was closed for a private function. This Caffe is a great place for people watching and is also where most seemed to hang-out before heading to the more trendy area around Piazza della Pomposa with its thriving bars and cafés.

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One of the stalls at Mercato Albinelli

Modena also houses a splendid food market, Mercato Albinelli, (Via Luigi Albinelli). When we visited the market, it was packed with locals making their daily shopping. The fare on offer was impressive, from different aged Parmigiano Reggiano to culatello, freshly made pasta to vegetables, fishmongers and meat shops as well as wine merchants selling top quality Italian wines from neighbouring regions. The shopkeepers are geared for tourists. Many things can be vacuum packed so if you are heading there make sure to leave space in your suitcase.

Like other Italian cities, Modena is also a great place for ice-cream. We came across Bloom Gelato (Via Farini), a splendid ice-cream parlour run by a passionate young ice-cream maker who is obsessed with quality ingredients. His ice-creams were sublime and he tasted some original flavours such as ricotta with an orange marmalade from Sicily for example.

If you want a great pizzeria, you should look no further than Pizza Erasmo. The place is full of locals and apart from the traditional pizzas also serves some special ones including the one I tried with straciatella di burrata and prosciutto crudo di Parma aged for 24 months as well as fior di latte.

A trip to Modena is not complete without a visit to Maranello, just a few kilometres away from Modena which is the home to the Ferrari factory as well as the Ferrari museum with a permanent display of over 50 cars.

The centre of Modena is full of boutiques.

A day trip to Bologna or Parma is only 45 minutes away by car.

We stayed at the Hotel Cervetta 5 (Via Cervetta). This is a nice 22-room hotel with an unbeatable location just next to the main square and cathedral and the Mercato Albinelli. Rooms looked better online but still pleasant and the hotel includes free Wi-Fi and a daily continental breakfast.

 

 

Osteria Francescana – the pursuit of perfection

Italian chef Massimo Bottura is a genius who has brought Italian cuisine to a completely different level. If France is renowned for its obsession with classics and Spain is the culinary hub of innovation, Italy is steeped in tradition. It is a country which takes its critics seriously. I remember a football coach once saying that the country had 60 million football coaches. A chef, I am not sure if it was Bottura, once said that there are as many food critics.

These food critics will obsess about whether any fish dish should be served with cheese (this is a taboo for many in Italy) and I can understand why. Italians shudder to think of mixing cheese with fish for example though there are some very minor exceptions. You can normally spot an authentic Italian pizzeria anywhere in the world by looking for their Pizza Marinara. If it has mozzarella, the chances are it is not run by Italians.

Bottura, with his Osteria Francescana, however, plays in a different league. Having gone in search of inspiration in France and Spain among others, he shows an incredible respect for ingredients. Who else would have thought of coming up with a dish called the five ages of parmesan which just showcases one ingredient?

Or who could invent a reconstructed lasagna with a sumptuous ragu and a lasagna crisp?

The Modenese chef has reinvented classics. His dishes all tell a story and you sometimes wonder how he gets his inspiration. When you walk into his restaurant you realise that he is obsessed with modern art and it is obviously here that he gets most of his inspiration for his dishes.

While modern, Bottura is also respecting tradition. He is always in search of the past but tries to reinterpret dishes and give them a modern twist without trying to be clever or over doing it.

The meal at Osteria Francescana was one to remember. It was a pity that Bottura was not there but in Istanbul because I am sure the experience would have been even better.

The meal started off with a macaroon of tomato and mozzarella. The flavour of the tomato burst in your mouth. The lemon granita and limoncello foam cleansed the palate for the start of the sensations menu.

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The first dish was exceptional. It was eel served with a cream of polenta and apple gelee. The eel was perfectly cooked, worked incredibly well with the apple and the polenta was out of this world.

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What followed was a joy for the eye but also for the palate. It was a pate served with a jelly of Lambrusco, the regional wine, as well as a puree of different peppers, green, red and yellow. Visually the plate was stunning.

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Next came the Caesar Salad or rather Bottura’s interpretation of this classic salad. You need to be incredibly confident to serve such a dish in such a restaurant. But he used the lettuce as a condiment to 23 different ingredients all stuffed within the leaves from egg to parmesan crisps, to mint and anchovies, to bacon and mustard, lemon and only the chefs know what else. This was outstanding.

This was followed by what Bottura’s calls a day out in the Modenese countryside, a dish which was not only a joy to look at but also excellent (see it here). The snails were hiding under the leaves and it was topped with a beetroot sauce.

The lasagna stole the show for its originality, with the ragu cooked sous vide, but not for long as we were then served with what was probably the star of the afternoon, the five ages of Parmeggiano Reggiano dish which I have written about here.

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This was then followed by frog legs coated in hazelnuts and a pasta which gave the illusion of a pond. After this came a superb pasta dish, Bottura’s notorious “The dream of a Frenchman to cook pasta like an Italian.” Three ravioli stuffed with fois gras which burst with flavour making you wish there were more.

What followed was probably the best piece of meat which I have ever tasted. Pork cooked sous vide and then finished in a pan to crisp the top. It was served with a 45-year-old balsamic vinegar from Bottura’s private cellar together with asparagus and horse radish. What can I say. This was out of this world.

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Next came a risotto cooked with olive oil and covering pigs cheeks, followed by an original dessert of strawberry sorbet, a pea cream, pea meringue served with fresh milk from Modena’s countryside.

Coffee was served with a medley of chocolates and sweets which as expected could not be faulted.

Verdict: Book a flight to Bologna which is only 30 minutes away from Modena and head there now before it becomes much harder to book. It is no wonder this restaurant is ranked number 3 in the world. Expect the unexpected. From Bottura you cannot expect anything less. Osteria Francescana will make you rethink what’s so special with Italian cuisine.

 

 

Follow your passion

Massimo Bottura is not your normal run of the mill chef. He is a man with a vision – combining modern art with avant-garde cuisine while at the same time respecting nature’s provenance. Having quit studying law after finding that a trattoria was up for sale on the outskirts of Modena he has gone from strength to strength reaching the pinnacles of international cuisine by reconstructing Italian traditions and humble ingredients into something one can be awed with.

Like an epic football final or a brilliant art exhibition where you would continue to talk about it until your friends get fed up, Bottura’s food has a somewhat similar effect. Bottura has a simple philosophy – follow your passion and express your emotions in what you do. You can only admire him for this. He resonates this philosophy when you enter his world. It is probably the dream of many people who are stuck in their daily routines to do what they would love but who might not have the courage to follow their passions or express themselves.

Can food be art? What turns humble ingredients into greatness? Can you break preconceptions while at the same time respecting tradition and history? What eventually makes a meal memorable? The Osteria Francescana makes you ask these questions and much more.

This to me was always going to be much more than a restaurant. The reservation was made a few weeks after I turned 40, the booking was only a few days after my wife and I had celebrated our 7-year wedding anniversary. And we were going with two dear friends. While not being too bothered with celebrations, the expectations for a 40-year-old at maybe the turning point of his career where huge. The restaurant is hidden in one of the pretty alleys of the unpretentious but incredibly welcoming streets of Modena.

Here, in the land of fast cars and slow food, you can be lost in thinking that time stood still. Whether it’s the traditional Aceto Balsamico from Modena, the Parmeggiano Reggiano from the region or even the different types of hams, you can find exceptional produce which ages gracefully. The experience was unforgettable in more ways than one. At Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso, which alas no longer exists, I beat a phobia which had the potential to ruin the pleasure of gastronomy. Until that time, I had a phobia of cheese, not an allergy but rather a psychological condition. But at that restaurant I had vowed to eat whatever was served. All was going well until the kitchen decided to send an amuse bouche before the main course of suckling pig which I still can remember like it was yesterday. But more about that story another time. photo

At Osteria Francescana, I graduated with Honours when it comes to cheese. The five ages of Parmeggiano Reggiano served as one of the courses was simply out of this world. In its simplicity, it was a celebration of just one ingredient but the textures, different temperatures and different taste where such as to wow you into a sense of wonder. The idea alone was incredible. The execution of that idea was perfect. How could the chef have created such a dish?  How did he even think about it? The dish was clever but not too clever. The presentation was harmonious but at the same time bland. The flavours, textures and temperatures did all the talking. And what a speech they gave.

I will blog about the whole meal in a separate post first for me to record what is one of my greatest culinary experiences and secondly to encourage you to see for yourself the effect Massimo Bottura’s philosophy has on the food and help you to get out of your comfort zone because this is exactly what Massimo Bottura does.

You need to think more about the providence of food and how to reinterpret certain dishes, including by not necessarily following precise recipies.

Was this the pinnacle? I don’t know. On the one hand, I don’t want it to be. What is certain is that I will return to try different interpretations of dishes which were not served. One lesson which I take from the experience however is that of why it is so difficult to succeed in the restaurant business. Massimo Bottura was not there when we visited. How did we know? We asked.

Did we guess he was not there? Not really though with the benefit of hindsight we should have guessed. In such a well run kitchen, everything works to perfection. And this was clearly the case this time as well. The service was impeccable and all the dishes were executed to perfection but the finale went missing. The first sign of our hindsight lesson is that we were encouraged not to take the 12-course sensations menu. The second is that we were served 11 dishes, one of which was a dessert which was good but not memorable and clearly not in sync with the crescendo of dishes which just seemed to get better and better. In my view, this was meant to be a pre-dessert. I stand to be corrected but upon reflection, discussion and menu counting we came to the conclusion that we had not been served the main dessert probably because it was getting late and the chefs wanted to close the kitchen. For those who are familiar with Bottura, it was maybe a case of “Ooops I forgot the lemon tart”. A slight disappointment to an otherwise impeccable meal. As the saying goes, when the cat is away the mice come out to play.  And that clearly is the difference between passion and work. A passion which Bottura has in droves.

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