Piacenza, Pavia, Genoa
I recently did a quick jog through these three very lovely, highly atmospheric Italian cities and had wonderful cultural and food experiences -- although perhaps ones not in line with many people's expectations of Italy or destination dining. I do not keep notes when I eat, but here are the highlights:
In Piacenza, La Carrozza is a knotty-pine paneled, working class trattoria not far from the train station where I ate outstanding, deeply soul-satisfying pisarei e fasò. This is an antique soupy dish that nourished the pilgrims walking the via Francigena, made with bread gnocchi and beans, which I’d happily eaten before in western Emilia, but the version at La Carrozza is the one I now thnk I might crave forever. Service is sympathetic, but not used to tourists.
Osteria Santo Stefano is a charming, airy space, family-run, with a wisteria garden in the back on a street of the same name (not far from the Ricci-Oddi museum and Piacenza’s branch of Eataly) where everything I ate was delicious, pleasingly un-fancy and unfussy. Absolutely outstanding and so beautiful to look at was a classic tortelli piacentina (con la coda), a braided stuffed pasta with a tail, served with cheese and butter. Equally memorable was bright seasonal punterelle with anchovies, and for a secondo, breast of duck that was perfectly done. The place is very popular with locals, so reservations are a must. (I ended up eating lunch there because I was unable to get in for dinner.) Service was doting.
La Trappola is quite near the dramatic central piazza of Piacenza, and is a touch eccentric and chef-driven. Although there are plenty of classic dishes on the menu, they are more refined that the rustic versions one would get at La Carrozza (which I prefer). It serves high quality examples of the many famed cured meats of the immediate region as antipasti, and a good artisinal pisarei e fasò, but what jumped out was an evening special of fresh chestnut pasta ribbons paired with shellfish (Piacenza borrows a lot from the region of Liguria) where the cook really showed his stuff.
Falicetto’s jewel-box of a chocolate shop is quite out of the way, beyond the historic western gates of the city, and probably not of special interest unless you are chocolate completist, but it does make a very good product, often molded into amusing shapes. Running an errand to Mailboxes, Etc. (near the spectacularly frescoed basilica of Santa Maria di Campagna) , I stepped by a totally local salumeria with fat torpedoes of coppa piacentina hanging in the window and bought potently fragrant, paper-thin slices to take with me on the train. The owner was determined to give me the very best coppa he had in the shop for an optimal experience of the pride and joy of the town. I feel fairly certain that every neighborhood in Piacenza has an equally charming and delicious salumeria and enthusiastic owner, but if you want to go to this one, it’s in the piazzale Torino.
In Pavia, my first 2 restaurant choices were booked out for dinner, so I went to a very quiet medieval corner of this enchanting little city to eat at Trattoria Ressi, a charming space complete with chatty toddler dancing about the kitchen and sleeping pooch near the door, and quite appealing food and wine. The osso buco I ate jumped to the top of the list as my favorite (osso buco is a dish that is often made unpleasant by an imbalance of aromatics or too big a portion of meat, I think.) I began with an extremely well-executed vegetable strudel, interior vegetables not overcooked and it had just the right amount — not too much — cheese. No one wanted to share a risotto with me (the minimum order being 2 persons) so I opted for a tagliatelle with duck ragu, which was straightforwardly well done (but I wanted risotto!).
Maybe one “don’t miss” spot in Pavia when it comes to gastronomic treats is Vigoni, a delightfully unrenovated historic cafe, still well-used, that legitimately claims to be the inventor of Torta Paradiso, the rich-with-eggs single layer yellow cake topped with powdered sugar I've seen served in restaurants in many parts of Italy. It was too early in the morning for cake (and I was lugging too much stuff to buy one to take home) but the coffee at Vigoni is absolutely excellent, and with mine I nibbled on a few pasta sfoglie treats that were satisfyingly crunchy with a sugary glaze.
I also had a day in Genoa, where I had been a few times before, and ate at the rather famous Sa' Pesta, which I had not done before. Given its reputation, maybe I was expecting more, especially from the farinata and the pesto, but I personally prefer other versions of these creations I’ve had elsewhere in Liguria. What was a pleasant surprise was a plate of mixed shellfish, sparkling fresh and simply prepared in a bath of wine with a few aromatics. I happened across a special market set up in the piazza Ducale, with vendors from all over Italy. I was especially happy with slices of mortadella di Prato from Tuscany and a bag full of dark chocolate covered hazelnuts from Piemonte.
I cannot emphasize too strongly how much fun it can be to visit some of the less-traveled destinations of Italy. They are stuffed with treasures and filled with hospitable Italians. Even if the food were lousy — and it is actually delightful and fascinating — the beautiful architecture and unique museums are reason enough to go. All of these places are easily reached by train and offer charming accommodations. Pavia in particular feels part of another world, with much of the town pedestrianized and teeming with energetic students, who fill the piazze with life and the happy sounds of animated conversation, away from the hushed cloisters of the city's gorgeous antique university. It really pays off before you go to read up on the local food specialties, although unless you spend days and days there, you are unlikely to make even the slightest dent into sampling them all. But like me, maybe you'll want to go back.