There are a handful of things that have made Genoa famous, amongst them pesto and Christopher Columbus. Interestingly, in all the many, many stories told by Scheherazade (to persuade the emir not to have her killed) in the Arabian Nights, the only European city to be mentioned is Genoa. And, when you visit the city it is immediately apparent why Arabs, used to the mazy streets of the souks of North Africa and the Middle East, could base tales of intrigue and deception there.
Set on the side of a series of steep hillsides on Italy’s Ligurian coast, Genoa (Genova) has remarkably medieval feel to it with its rabbit-warren streets lined tightly with buildings that prevent sunlight from reaching the ground. This, together with the soupy local patios with its French and Portugese inflections, and you almost feel like you’ve left modern Italy and arrived somewhere in the 13th century.
All of which sounds terribly romantic and redolent of mystery and adventure, and, well, it is, except when you’re entering the city at rush hour without a clear idea of where your hotel is, and you desperately need to pee after a three hour drive. Happily though, once installed in our B & B and fortified by a few glasses of wine – hastily thrown back, we began exploring the city’s mazy streets in the growing dusk, emerging periodically, like moles from a hole, onto a variety of piazzas wondering how the hell we got there, and thoroughly enjoying it.
Eventually, we found some semblance of bearings, so that the next day we managed to locate a restaurant our host had recommended for its typical Genoese cuisine for lunch. The previous evening, we had dined on fried fresh anchovies and langostines near the harbor, and so that lunchtime we were looking for pasta. Call me predictable, but I had to have pesto, you know the basic pesto made just out of basil, pine nuts, parmigiano-reggiano and olive oil, so I ordered spinach tagliatelle with pesto alla Genovese. Amy, though, went for another Genovese specialty, ravoili with walnut cream sauce or salsa di noci.
Now, it’s not uncommon for us to rave on about something perfectly simple, and indeed, patient readers, this dish is precisely that, but at the same time, and as you probably know, we don’t get all worked up over nothing. This sauce really is a badass. Trust us, we wouldn’t steer you wrong. In fact, the only thing that could have made the remake – recipe below – as enjoyable as the original we ate in Genoa, would be if we could have placed another table in our apartment and installed the wiry, old gent who sat opposite us at it.
PASTA WITH SALSA DI NOCI (WALNUT SAUCE) AND MUSHROOMS (Serves 3-4)
- 1 1/2 cups walnuts, boiled for 25 minutes
- 1 cup of parmigiano reggiano
- 1/4 cup lite cream
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 slices white bread soaked in milk
- 1 pack of mushrooms (your choice – we used white button)
- salt and pepper
- 1 pound pasta (we used long fusilli)
- optional: fresh thyme for garnish
- blender or food processor
What to do:
- This is so easy to make, I could cry. Boil your walnuts for 25 minutes to remove some of the bitterness and soften. Drain and set aside.
- On a plate or in a deep dish, soak two pieces of crustless, cheap white bread in some milk so it soaks it all up. Allow to sit for 5 minutes or so.
- Get out your blender or food processor. Throw on some extra salted water to boil for the pasta.
- In a pan, add your sliced mushrooms along with some olive oil or a pat of butter and saute until firm-soft.
- Blitz the walnuts until fine first then blend all the rest of the ingredients together : the milk-soaked bread, the walnuts, the cheese, milk and cream along with a pinch of salt to taste. Add your pasta to the boiling water and cook till al dente.
- Add the sauce to the pan with the cooked mushrooms, stir and warm on low for a bit. When pasta is done, add a bit of the pasta water to the sauce (maybe 3 tablespoons at most) and then add your drained pasta to the warming walnut sauce. Toss.
- Plate your pasta and top with some fresh thyme, a bit of freshly ground pepper and some extra parmigiano. Enjoy with a big glass of red wine.