An Impromptu Lunch in Genova

Updated: Sep 25, 2019


My compagno, which is the word you use in Italian when you are too old to use the word boyfriend, has a small plane. Much of my traveling around Europe is thanks to him, because we get to do spontaneous things when he and I both have a free day, which we both had a couple of weeks ago and decided to fly Genova for lunch.


The port city of Genova has an airport that is elusive. Every other time we planned to fly there the weather was uncooperative. If the wind is coming from the north it is difficult to land a small plane. The runway runs perpendicular to the mountains, so if the wind from the north is strong it will roll over the mountains and blow you off track. Sestri Airport, or Aeroporto Cristoforo Colombo, can only be approached in a small plane when the weather is fine.



The difficulty of landing in Genova has a history. For seafaring vessels, the Ligurian coast is ruggedly beautiful but treacherous. Without recourse to air travel, there was a reason the grand tourists preferred the perils and inconvenience of the alpine passes to an unpredictable sea voyage. Lerici and Viareggio were the most northern places to land, because the sea around Genova is dangerous and the winds erratic. Many grand tourist diaries discuss the travails of landing in Liguria, having to turn back to France or wait at sea, as sailors refused to risk a dangerous landing. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had rock star status when he drowned off the coast of Livorno after a sudden storm erupted in the Gulf of Spezia. His boat, the Don Juan, a reference to his friend Bryon, had been custom built for him in Genova. His body washed up on shore days later, and, in keeping with Italian quarantine regulations, he was cremated on the beach near Viareggio. In his pocket was a small book of Keat’s poetry. Shelley's ashes were taken to Rome and interred in the Non Catholic Cemetery near the ancient pyramid of Caio Cestio, just within the city walls. On his grave is the Latin inscription, Cor Cordium (Heart of Hearts), and, in reference to his death at sea, a few lines of "Ariel's Song" from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: "Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange."



Back to Genova, which, sadly, has been in the news for more than a year because of the tragic bridge collapse, and the region and its inhabitants are still suffering. A few days ago, progress was made with the controlled destruction of the ruined parts of the bridge that hung over sections of the city like the sword of Damocles. Architects and engineers from around the world have pledged to the rebuilding of the bridge, and with hope and pazienza, a new chapter in the life of this storied city will emerge.



From the air, the Ligurian coast is like a blue green beetle, iridescent in the sunlight. It arches its back from Portofino north, its colors bleeding into the Mediterranean, turning its waters light aqua, turquoise, and, farther out, violet blue. The wind favored us, and the landing was calm. I have been around this part of Italy before, by car, and the cragginess of the coast from La Spezia, the Cinque Terre, and on to Portofino makes one wonder how anyone was ever able to live there. Cut off from the interior by impossible mountains, and approachable only by an unpredictable sea, the beautiful pink, blue, and rose colored houses that dot the coast seem improbable, built by people motivated by beauty and desperation.


Genova, on the other hand, is a city rich in history. One of the Repubbliche Marinare, along with Venice, Pisa, and Amalfi, the city was rich and powerful, boasting one of the largest navies in the Mediterranean thanks to its dominance in trade, shipbuilding, and banking. Long before Christopher Columbus made the city famous, the Republic of Genova covered modern Liguria, Piemonte, Sardinia, Corsica, Nice, and it had nearly complete control of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The history of the city is as tumultuous and cut-throat as that of Venice or Florence, full of decadent Doges, Ottoman intriguers, rich bankers, and audacious adventurers. Christopher Columbus was just one in a line of navigators and explorers that the city fostered.


Once you leave the port, Genova is a maze of narrow streets, thick with the strong scent of the sea. You are immediately transported into the Renaissance, weaving through the dark alleys Columbus must have walked and struck by the rich and far-flung cultural influences that reflect the city’s history of trade and exploration.


However, this time my objective was not the city center. From the airport, we took a taxi to the hills outside of town, past the little village of Voltri, and up beyond the Parco villa Duchessa Galliera, a large botanical garden that spills down the hill and boasts a lovely 17th-century villa, baroque gardens, waterfalls, and deer. Our goal was the Ostaia da Ü Santü, a small trattoria rumored to have the best pesto in the region.



Ostaia da Ü Santü is a little family place with an enormous view. In the summer you can sit under a pergola outside and see all the way down to La Spezia. But once the food arrives it is easy to get distracted—the lightest gnocchi di patate I have ever had in my life, swimming in a pungent, bright green pesto. Then comes salt cod, or stoccafisso, with walnuts and pine nuts, followed by a cream and apple tart. The kitchen is simple, but the flavors are all local and intense. I am not sure if this was the best pesto in all of Liguria—that’s a tall order—but it’s right up there. The view and the warm loveliness of the day certainly made it unforgettable.


Thankfully, we had to walk a bit down the hill before catching the taxi back to the airport, or we may have had an issue with weight and balance on the plane. The walk takes you along side the gardens of the park, and the air is heavy with the smell of basil and wild herbs. The winds favored us again at take-off, and we were back in Rome before sunset.