Gluttony as High Art at La Cucina di Nonna Nina

Gluttony can be defined in many ways. If the term refers to gross over-eating and over-indulgence of alcohol, chocolates, eye-candy, whatever, then gluttony (like unadulterated hedonism) is something I avoid these days and find seriously boring. Ditto “entertainment”-style cooking, usually practiced by chefs who chain-smoke and turn their backs (like Miles Davis) when customers arrive. I didn’t lose 50 pounds and hike across France for nothing… one of the many epiphanies was: how wonderful the lightness of being light! Light on the feet, light in spirit and light in the head (from effort and butterfly enlightenment)!

On the one hand it’s easy to avoid gluttony when eating at Nonna Nina, the celebrated Ligurian restaurant in San Rocco di Camogli (20 miles southeast of Genoa): the food is ethereal, fresh, and exquisitely flavorful. It seems impossible to eat too much of it. On the other hand—my left hand—it’s even easier to keep ordering delicacies—the best seafood on the Italian Riviera, for instance—and savoring them with glass after glass of nectarous Ligurian wine. Wine! From the Italian Riviera? You bet! The Pigato—the Riviera’s most delicious, complex wine made from the mottled, straw-yellow Pigato grape, a native variety—as crafted by Azienda Agricola Bruna, for instance, is irresistible. This wine is so pure (it’s not certified organic but for all intents and purposes is) and so redolent of the Riviera’s sun-washed, honeysuckle-tangled seaside terraces that it is becoming unfindable. Much of it is now imported into America by one of the country’s most prestigious importers…. Grrr… Google it and you’ll soon find out who the culprit is. You’re better off tasting Bruna’s Pigato here in Liguria, if possible at a table at Nonna Nina’s. Location, location, location! The restaurant is just north of Portofino, on the less-chic but much more real and likeable, Genoa-side of the Monte di Portofino Regional Park. This is not only the best place on earth to devour the marvelously flavorful minnows that come from the Gulf of Genoa, about which I have written elsewhere. All supremely fresh fish whatever the size is welcome in Nonna Nina’s kitchen, plus plenty of land-based traditional Ligurian foods to please most carnivores. No, they don’t serve Florentine steak or “international” Italian food, so if you’re hankering for spicy amatriciana or a variation on pizza, you’d best apply elsewhere.

The restaurant’s official name is La Cucina di Nonna Nina—Grandma Nina’s Kitchen. As you might suspect, Grandma Nina never set foot in the establishment: it opened a quarter century ago, and her soul parted company with San Rocco several years before that. However, before checking out she did bequeath to her descendants dozens of delicious regional recipes from times past. These are the basis of the cuisine developed by the retiring, elusive chef Paolo Delpian and his wife, Rosalia, Grandma Nina’s heirs in spirit and flesh. Paolo makes everything from scratch, fresh, using local ingredients. Rosalia runs the restaurant. Though she’s a bona fide grandmother she doesn’t look like one: she’s always fashionably dressed and has none of the flour-dusted Italian nonna of yesteryear. The restaurant and its food are a reflection of Paolo and Rosalia’s personalities: discreet, quiet, tasteful, simple. They are authentically full of enthusiasm for the best the region has to offer. Back to gluttony: I admit to having eaten at Nonna Nina’s not once but three times within the space of a month. The food each time was so sublime that I just had to go back and try everything again. The problem: the menu kept changing. It always does, reflecting the seasons, the catch, the harvest, the market. It has always been that way, which is why in 25 years of eating at this truly great restaurant I have yet to taste everything on offer. The Pigato by Bruna is one thing that is generally available (“As long as it lasts,” to quote Napoleon Bonaparte’s mother, meaning we hope it isn’t all exported to America). I’m not a professional photographer, but the photos I snapped on my third visit a few weeks ago show the flipping-fresh seafood salad as of late winter/early spring 2012, the squid stewed with fresh peas (to die for), the stuffed lettuce leaves (unsightly but an unbelievably delicate labor of love), the homey pies and cakes (with almonds or pine nuts) and Paolo’s ice cream. All made in the restaurant’s small kitchen. The ice cream, by the way, is made with milk, as is almost all great Italian gelato, and it is some of the best anywhere, period. (As anyone who has read my Food Wine guidebooks to Rome and the Riviera or elsewhere knows, I am an ice cream fanatic). Several of Paolo’s recipes are in the classic Riviera cooking-and-lifestyle book “Enchanted Liguria” (by yours truly, with gorgeous photos by Alison Harris). It will one day be an e-book: we’re working on it. These things take a very long time to cook up. Transforming 5 print books into updated e-books? Maybe I’m a glutton after all… a glutton for punishment? Take a Custom Tour with us Book one our favorite Riviera hotels

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