Last month, Jon and I spent a week in Liguria, the coastal region of northwest Italy. Of course, this being Italy, there were plenty of regional foods to enjoy, the most famous of which is pesto Genovese (aka pesto) and focaccia.
Because Jon and I flew in and out of Genoa, we decided to spend a weekend there before moving on to the Italian Riviera, which was meant to be the focus of our trip. What turned out to be pleasant surprise in Genoa were the dozens of beautiful old palazzo lovingly restored and open for tour — the city was a former trade and banking powerhouse — and the food wasn’t half bad, either, though I suspect with a little more research, we would have eaten like kings.
Below is a roundup of what we ate and saw in Genoa:
Soho Restaurant & Fishworks. Our B&B owner highly recommended it, and the restaurant has a bar/lounge vibe going on, so we probably would have enjoyed the decor more if we’d gone for dinner instead of lunch. In any case, seafood is the restaurant’s focus, which makes sense given its location close to the port. Overall, our food was well prepared. Jon and I especially enjoyed the baby calamari and pesto, as well as the squid ink tagliatelle with prawns. We spent 48 euros on lunch, which seemed a bit pricey for two starters, a shared main and a glass of house white, but the food, while simple, was fresh and tasty. You could do a lot worse.
Mua’ Ristorante also had a bar/lounge aesthetic. We found the restaurant through this glowing May 2010 writeup in the New York Times, calling it “one of the city’s finest restaurants.” The restaurant aims to serve regional specialties with a twist, but Jon and I most enjoyed the dishes that skipped the “twist.” A starter portion of mandilli al pesto (wide, flat sheets of egg pasta) for 9 euros was a highlight. Dinner for two totaled 59 euros with a single glass of wine, and other than recommending that you order the more traditional dishes on the menu, my only complaint was the too-cool-for-school servers who seated us in the back near the loos. I hate when that happens.
Trattoria da Maria is located very close to Mua’ Ristorante, but is the opposite in style and price. It’s homey and was described by The Minimalist (Mark Bittman) in this July 2006 New York Times article as “one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I must, however, issue a caution: this is really a workingman’s lunch place, a dive, a cheap eats joint.” When Jon and I showed up for lunch, we were immediately reminded of another Mark Bittman recommendation, Chez Palmyre, in Nice, but this one compared less favorably. Yes, the lunch was cheap (8 euros prix fixe for a starter and main), but our food wasn’t especially tasty. I was most looking forward to the fried anchovies, but they were served lukewarm. Who wants lukewarm fried food, at any price?
Da Gaia Ristorante was the worst of the restaurants we tried in Genoa. It came highly recommended by our B&B owner, but it was old-school in a bad way. Pricey menu and dingy decor, with food that was weighed down by thick sauces. We thought a place like this would make a strong showing with regional specialties like pansotti, a ravioli filled with a variety of greens, marjoram and ricotta cheese, and tossed with a walnut pesto. But we found it tough going to finish our two starters and two mains. Maybe Da Gaia shines when it’s cold outside.
Of the palaces we visited, I most enjoyed the Palazzo Spinola, which now houses artwork and decorative knicknacks on the top floor (thus making it the “national gallery”), but I think the real draw were the rooms of the mansion itself. Touring the rooms is like being on an episode of MTV Cribs, 16th-century-Grimaldi style.
Jon and I also spent many a sunny hour sitting on the steps of San Lorenzo Cathedral, the city’s main cathedral, eating gelato or snacking on focaccia. There are a couple of places near the cathedral selling both, and though we never settled on a favorite focacceria, we did think that for gelato, the nearby outpost of Grom Gelato was hands down the best option. Having sampled their wares five times in 36 hours, I consider myself an authority on Grom’s flavors. It turns out they’re all delicious.
We stayed at B&B Quartopiano, wonderfully located in Genoa’s atmospheric old town next to the Palazzo Spinola. The living room/common area is stylish and comfortable, and our room was also clean and sleek. However, for 150 euros a night for a small “comfort” (cheapest) room, I was expecting a much better breakfast (comprised of defrosted and toasted pastries, along with large but oddly-flavorless cappuccinos), and more importantly, a lift. It’s not just that the B&B, true to its name, is on the fourth floor of an old palazzo. It’s that each floor has incredibly high ceilings, so you end up climbing seven solid flights of stairs, which can be exhausting (with or without luggage), even when you’re not 33 weeks preggars.
Genoa Aquarium. Unless you have kids, avoid the much-hyped Genoa Aquarium. Like many port towns hoping to rejuvenate piers and wharfs that have fallen into disuse and disrepair, Genoa has splashed out and heavily marketed a newish Aquarium. Jon and I had run out of things to do on a quiet Sunday, so we decided to check it out. It’s dark, crowded, loud and expensive (18 euros per person). But if you have to go, buy your tickets from a tourist information office. There’s a particularly helpful one located on the Piazza de Ferrari. This way you can skip one of the queues (to buy the tickets) and go straight to the queue to get into the aquarium. Tickets are timed entry, and we found going late in the afternoon minimized the time spent queuing.
Overall, Genoa turned out to be more than just an airport in and out of Liguria. The cheerleader materials at the Genoa Tourist Information office described the city as like Barcelona before BCN hit the tourist big time. While I wouldn’t make Genoa a destination on its own, if you’re headed to the Italian Riveria (Portofino, Santa Margherita, the Cinque Terre), it’s worth spending some time in the city.
B&B Quartopiano, Piazza di Pellicceria, 2, Genoa; +39 348 7426779 (cheapest rooms start at 150 euros/night in May). Closest metro: San Giorgio.
Da Gaia Ristorante, Vico dell’Argento, 16124 Genoa; +39 010 2461629; closest metro: Darsena. Open Monday-Saturday, 9 am to 6 pm.
Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola, Piazza di Pellicceria, 1, 16123, Genoa; +39 010 247 7061; 4 euros a person admission with no English brochure or map available. Open Mon-Sat 8:30am-7:30pm; Sun 1pm-8pm.
Genoa’s Palazzo Ducale, the former Doge’s palace,now an art museum and exhibit space, just behind the San Lorenzo Cathedral. Piazza Matteotti, 9, 16123 Genova; +39 01055 74 000
Genoa Cathedral (aka San Lorenzo Cathedral), just up the road from the Genoa Aquarium
Grom Gelato, Via di San Lorenzo, 81, 16123 Genova 2 euros for a small (two scoops) gelato
Mua’ Ristorante, Via San Sebastiano 13, Genoa, 16123, +39-010-53-2191
Soho Restaurant & Fishworks, Via al Ponte Calvi, 20, 16124 Genova; +39 010 869 2548
Trattoria da Maria osteria con cucina, Vico Testadoro, 14r, Genova; +39 010 581 080; 18 euros for two people at lunch. Metro: de Ferrari; Open Weekdays 11:45am-3pm, 6:45pm-9:30pm; Sat 11:45am-3pm