Liguria has a long tradition linked to pasta, both dry and stuffed. In fact for centuries, along with Campania and Sicily, it contested the primacy in the production and export of the dish that today more than anyone else speaks Italian.
Some people have defined Ligurian stuffed pasta, ravioli precisely, as “the most exquisite of all the soups in the world” (Giovanni Casaccia, Dizionario Genovese-Italiano, Genoa 1851). Some like Ratto, author of one of the first books on Ligurian cuisine (La vera cuciniera Genovese, Genoa 1863) claimed that the ravioli were invented by a Genoese cook and then spread throughout the world.
Actually soft shells of fresh pasta containing a filling were already present in ancient cookbooks throughout Italy and history teaches that already in the Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Chinese cuisine there were similar dishes.
What is certain, however, is that in Genoa, as well as in the hinterland of all Liguria, the art of stuffed pasta developed precociously becoming over the centuries a sophisticated art based on the balance of multiple ingredients expertly chosen and dosed (such as vegetables, meat, cheese, spices and herbs).
There are, in fact, notary deeds that attest the production of ravioli in Liguria already towards the end of 1100. In particular, in a contract backdating the end or 1100 a Savonese settler undertook to provide his master at the time of the harvest a meal for three people consisting of bread, wine, meat and ravioli!
Having made this brief historical premise, today I’ll tell you about the main types of stuffed pasta that traditionally are cooked in our region, a roundup starting from the West Riviera to get to the East Riviera.
Let’s start with the BARBAGIUAI, typical of the inland of Ventimiglia, close to the French border. They are large ravioli stuffed with pumpkin, beans, rice (sometimes) and Brusso (a fermented ricotta typical of the hinterland of Imperia) that are deep fried, as often happened in the Middle Ages. The funny name comes apparently from the inventor of the recipe, a famous local cook called “barba Giuà” (in dialect uncle Giovanni).
These ravioli are an excellent aperitif, served both hot and cold. In fact, traditionally peasant families prepared them in the evening and ate them cold, the next day, during work in the fields. In Val Nervia, in Camporosso, on the third Sunday of September every year there is a great festival in their honor.
Moving a little further north east, at the foot of the Maritime Alps, we find TURLE. They are a typical dish of Mendatica and of the White Cuisine that characterizes this territory. These are large ravioli filled with the few ingredients easy to find in the mountain huts during the winter, namely potatoes, soft toma, parmesan cheese, eggs and mint (here my recipe) Once cooked, this pasta is usually seasoned with melted butter, mint and Parmesan cheese. Some recipes also include a sprinkling of toasted and chopped hazelnuts. Where to eat the turle? Without doubt at Agriturismo il Castagno, in Mendatica.
Also in that area, in Montegrosso Pian Latte, near town and historical rival of Mendatica, RAVIORE are famous. They are half-moon shaped dumplings filled with local raw-chopped wild herbs. Depending on the season, twenty different species of wild plants are used for their preparation, which are expertly dosed to obtain a balanced and pleasant filling. Pasta is nothing more than a thin wrap to hold them together while cooking. They are traditionally seasoned with cooking water, extra virgin olive oil and pecorino cheese. I tasted them, prepared according to an ancient recipe, at the Osteria del Rododendro. in Montegrosso Pian Latte
In Cosio d’Arroscia, always nearby, with the same name are identified, instead, small pies always filled with spontaneous herbs, but cooked in the oven.
Moving towards Genoa, then, we meet the famous RAVIOLI (the “ravieu”). It is the traditional one, ubiquitous, the hero of all Ligurian trattorias with chequered tablecloths, the one that appears for centuries, inevitably, on the tables of feast days. The Genoese ravioli have the classic dented square shape and the stuffing is a mix of veal and pork meat, green leafy vegetables (tradition wants borages and escarole), eggs, Parmesan cheese and fresh marjoram leaves. Their main dressing is the Genoese meat sauce, “U tocco”, but they also blend wonderfully with butter and Parmesan cheese or with the Ligurian mushroom sauce.
Another great classic of Ligurian cuisine, especially prepared in the East of Genoa, are PANSOTI or pansotti. From the recognizable potbelly shape, from which the name (“pansa” meaning belly in Ligurian dialect), Pansoti enclose a vegetarian stuffing traditionally made of mixed wild herbs (the so called “prebuggiun”) and prescinseua, the local curd cheese. The most modern recipes, to meet the difficulty of finding these very niche ingredients, suggest a filling based on chard, borage, escarole and ricotta. The pasta is traditionally white, that means without eggs, where the flour is tied with water and white wine. They are normally served with walnut sauce. But even with butter are excellent, highlighting in this case the light and “wild” taste of the filling.
Then there are the ZEMBI CON L’ARZILLO, large fish ravioli – round or squared – characteristic of the entire Ligurian coast. The filling consists of white fish meat (preferably rock fish, very tasty), escarole and borages. They are seasoned with a light sauce of fresh tomato and basil (as my grandmother did) or with fish or shellfish sauces, or just heads and bones sauce (the latter, I confess, is one of my favorites). The curious name of this preparation, “zembi”, would come from the Arabic zembil (the baskets of twisted leaves for the transport of the fish), this remarking the close connections that Ligurian had with the Arabic countries during middle ages. The “arzillo”, on the other hand, in Genoese dialect is the pungent fragrance that is smelled by the sea, between the rocks, the smell of seaweeds actually
Close to Laspezia, Liguria east border, on the other hand, RAVIOLI OF RED POTATOES OF Pitelli are very commmon. Their filling is characterized by red quality potatoes – traditionally produced on the back hills – lard, Parmigiano Reggiano and nutmeg. They are seasoned with mushroom sauce and they too, in ancient times, were served on the table for the holidays.
Finally in Levanto we find the GATTAFIN, a large raviolo filled with wild herbs, onion, ricotta cheese, eggs and cheese that, as for the barbagiuai, is served deep fried. You can try Gattafin at Ristorante Moresco, in Levanto, of course.
I hope this roundup was useful to get immersed in the Italian Riviera cuisine! If you are still curious I have published this post on Ligurian different pasta shapes and a short guide on Italian Riviera Wines . Other small Liguria food guides like these will be coming soon! If you are interested you can subscribe to my newsletter here below and follow me on Instagram and Facebook!
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I am so thrilled to be able to view your posts! My family is Ligurian and I have a cousin in Genoa but my family was from Maissana. I was born in the USA> but when I look at the photos and read your articles, it takes me back to a wonderful time and place. Can you suggest any cookbooks?
Thanks so much!