Before coming to Genoa, I knew only that it was the birthplace of pesto and Christopher Columbus. I hadn’t known that it’s the busiest commercial seaport in Italy. Genoa is the capitol of Liguria, sitting roughly in the center of the crescent-shaped region that arcs from the French Rivera on the west to through the picturesque fishing villages of the Cinque Terre on the east. Bordered by the sea, the meal mainstays come from nets and hooks, such as anchovies, sardines, cod, shrimp, octopus, and squid. At Antica Osteria di Vico Palla tucked down narrow passageways behind the port, I ate fried baccala (dried and salted cod) and stoccafisso (also dried but not salted) as locals have eaten for centuries. Both of these preserved fish are reconstituted in water like lutefisk of my Scandinavian heritage, but much tastier! Vico Palla has served traditional Ligurian food to mariners and their families since the 1500s. It’s a casual paper-placemat restaurant with rambunctious children and families seated at long tables, groups of parents at one end, kids at the other. The children ordered mandilli (“handkerchiefs” of flat squares of pasta) with pesto, as common here as kids in the US order mac ‘n cheese.
The Old Port neighborhood is a fascinating maze of narrow pedestrian lanes, some just wide enough for two people to pass each other. Looking up from these winding paths, sunlight slices between six-story medieval buildings. A perfect place to get lost. We stumbled upon botteghe storriche (historic shops), including a butchery housed in the same shop for hundreds of years, and confectioner Pietro Romanengo displaying sweets that are works of art. I bought fragrant pastel-colored candies that look like tiny Easter eggs or jelly beans called ginevrine, flavored with roses, peaches, cherries, and violets. The shopkeeper wrapped my little package with paper and string as if it were an expensive necklace.
Genovese children and clusters of families ate together, played together. In tiny Piazza Lavagna, moms and dads played freeze-tag and a game that looked like our Red Rover, their glasses of wine a few steps away at one of the cafes encircling the piazza. Little girls drew on cobblestones with sidewalk chalk; boys kicked a soccer ball. Down another narrow passageway, a street musician sang opera beautifully. I’m hooked.