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Scenes From an Italian Summer

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Sebastian Modak

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. Before Golfo Paradiso, he was jostling for space in Zadar, Croatia.

I will never forget the first time I saw Camogli from the sea. On the upper deck of a ferry, the light breeze tempering the summer heat, I watched as the town retreated into the distance. The tall, narrow buildings, each a different pastel shade, were stacked improbably up the steep hillside. The electric blue of the Ligurian Sea was counterpoint to the reds, yellows and oranges of the seaside buildings.

“Portofino is for the Americans. Camogli is for us Italians,” I heard someone say.

Often overshadowed by its hugely popular neighbors, the jet set magnet of Portofino and the cruise ports of the Cinque Terre, Golfo Paradiso is a roughly 10-mile stretch of coastline in the Italian region of Liguria.

Perhaps because of its try-hard moniker that sounds more like an all-inclusive resort than a string of centuries-old fishing towns, Golfo Paradiso (or “Paradise Gulf”) hasn’t caught on with international tourists in the same way that other stretches of the Ligurian coast have. Over six days hopping between its five towns, I only heard one American accent. The tourists I did encounter were largely Italian families from Genoa and Milan, hitting the rocky beaches for some summer sun.

I left Golfo Paradiso reluctantly, with a dozen new friends and a collection of vivid mental snapshots: Here’s my own personal slide show of summer bliss.

It’s just a 30-minute drive from Genoa into another world, one where time slows down. Clogged intersections give way to the winding SS1 route that runs along the ocean, where tanned young people with beach towels slung around their necks zip by on Vespas. In shaded corners outside tobacco shops, cliques of old women in floral-print dresses hold court and old men in flat-caps day drink and play endless rounds of cards.

Just as “Italian food” or “Italian culture” is too monolithic a descriptor for something so complex and diverse, it is impossible to essentialize a place even as small as Golfo Paradiso. In a distance shorter than the length of Manhattan, I bounced between cuisines, histories and worldviews.

There’s Bogliasco, whose sloping alleyways all lead to a rocky beach. Aperitivo bars hang high above it, at dusk offering views of the sun setting behind a church bell tower in the distance. Next comes Pieve Ligure, where single-lane roads wind into the mountains from a quiet center. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Corsica. Sori smells like fresh pesto and though it’s the biggest town by area, the constant soundtrack of cicadas makes it easy to feel much farther from Genoa than nine miles. And there’s Camogli, with its ocean-facing skyline of colorful Genovese-style apartments. Fishing boats crowd the harbor.

As I ping-ponged between them, I was repeatedly canvassed by locals: “Sori is the best, because it’s nice and quiet,” one would say. “Camogli is the most beautiful: just look!”

And then there is Recco, the ugly duckling among birds of paradise. The town of Recco sticks out like a concrete pillar in a forest, all modern buildings, a result of it being flattened by Allied bombs in 1944. What then is the appeal of Recco?

“It’s on the table,” said Mr. Focaccia.

Mr. Focaccia points to my lanky frame.

“You’re in Italy. This is a problem,” he says.

Of course, Lucio Bernini’s real name isn’t Mr. Focaccia, but it might as well be. He’s put in his 10,000 hours when it comes to eating focaccia col formaggio di Recco, and still savors every bite of the stuff and speaks about the dish with an almost religious devotion. His phone wallpaper is a zoomed-in photo of the browned crust of the dish, white cheese oozing out of the cracks where it has been divided into squares.

Focaccia di Recco starts with a large leaf of dough, either circular or square, rolled so thin you can see through it. Then, dollops of fresh cow cheese are added in regular rows. Next comes the second layer of paper-thin dough, a sprinkling of olive oil and 10 minutes in the oven.

It’s not the thick strips of bread that have become shorthand for focaccia in the United States. There’s no yeast added in making focaccia di Recco. As a result, the dish is light and delicate, the tangy cheese leaving a surprisingly clean mouth feel behind and the upper and lower crusts equally cooked providing a delightful crunch. It’s light, that is, until you get hooked, and eat your weight in it.

Mr. Bernini and his wife Daniela work with Focaccia di Recco I.G.P., a consortium of bakers and restaurateurs who make the real deal, complete with a sticker of approval on every single dish. The dish received European Union-recognized I.G.P. (Protected Geographical Indication) status in 2015, joining the ranks of products like balsamic vinegar of Modena and prosciutto from Norcia.

“Don’t ever call it pizza,” Mr. Bernini told me on my approximately 15th tasting. I wasn’t planning to.

At the Pastificio Novella’s pasta factory, in the town of Sori, there is one floor that is off-limits. Getting into the elevator for a tour of the facility, I see it, like the other floors, marked by the product made there: trofie.

Trofie are inch-long, irregularly-shaped corkscrews that when cooked look like undusted Cheetos. To see the machine that makes it, an invention of the Novella family, you need special clearance and, media access be damned, I don’t have it.

Trofie, like all fresh pasta, was traditionally made by hand. When the Pastificio Novella started in the early 20th century, it relied on a network of subcontractors, mostly women who were paid an hourly rate based on the quantity they produced (the standard was a kilogram an hour). Over long afternoons, they would gather — often with their children — and roll out trays of trofie, piece by piece. It was, and still is for those purists who insist on the homemade version, a labor-intensive process that’s worth the sweat when you taste a bowl of it doused in fresh pesto.

Sofia Cavassa, 26, is a fourth-generation descendant of the original founders of Novella and now works for the company.

“I knew the history of trofie, but never knew how to make it,” Ms. Cavassa said, as she gave me a demonstration. “I was scared that the knowledge could die, so I asked my aunt to teach me.”

She’s standing at a table that is bare besides a large wooden board holding a pile of flour and a water heater. She pours the water into the flour and kneads it into a ball. Then she pulls out a coin-size piece, rolls it forwards and then as she rolls it backward, she pivots it into a 45-degree angle, giving the trofie its signature corkscrew shape. She flicks it into a corner of the board. One down.

Camogli, with its fairy-tale facade, retreats into the distance as the speedboat turns a corner and runs alongside wooded cliffs. After about 15 minutes, we reach our destination, three fishing boats of different sizes. The boats, I learn, have nicknames and specific roles: the Donkey, the Armchair, the Lookout. They’re part of a fishing system called La Tonnarella, that dates back at least 400 years.

Under the boats is an intricate network of fishing nets that make up two chambers. Relying on the migratory patterns of fish and the currents in the area, shoals of tuna, horse mackerel and more are pushed into a pair of netted chambers, the latter carrying the ominous name, “chamber of death.”

When the man on the Lookout boat, who peers into the ocean through a cone dipped beneath the surface, thinks the chamber is full enough, he signals to the others, who pull up the catch.

I’m accompanied by the skipper, Alberto Gambazza, head of the fishing collective that uses La Tonnarella, and Valentina Cappanera, a marine biologist who works with the Portofino Marine Reserve. Members of the collective are the only ones allowed to fish in the area and Ms. Cappanera works with the fishermen to keep track of catches and make sure the system is sustainable.

We circle the fishing boats for 45 minutes. But the fish are not running: We decide to leave when Mr. Gambazza picks up on the signal that it’s going to be a long morning. The fishermen waiting to pull up the nets have reclined on the deck of the “Armchair” and are dozing off.

It’s my last day in Golfo Paradiso and two little girls, 5 and 6 years old, are delighting in my suffering. I tread water as they take turns dunking me, giggling maniacally. The sun is shining, Sori’s beach is full and it feels like I’m spending a day at the seaside with my own family — something I’ve missed sorely over the last six months.

I opted for a one-room bed-and-breakfast in the quiet town of Sori over larger hotels for a chance to get some peace and quiet after the round-the-clock celebrations I had experienced in Switzerland. Turns out, I rarely spent a minute alone.

Davide Piero Runcini, a composer, and his wife, Arianna Defilippi, an artist, my hosts at Villa d’Albora, a stately, multistory home that has been in Davide’s family for generations, quickly became my friends.

Davide and I shared a glass of wine and a Toscanello cigar on the balcony every evening before sunset, where we communicated using a stilted English-Spanish-Italian hybrid and Google Translate. They invited me to their shared studio, where Arianna’s paintings — interpretations of pieces of music — hung on the walls, and Davide sat at a grand piano and played me some of his intricate compositions. Their daughter, Maria, 5 (and a half, she insisted) joined in.

Over the course of my stay, we took day trips, me climbing on the back of a Vespa as we made our way into the mountains for panoramic views of the coastline. They showed me the mill of Fulle, where, in a bite-size village whose paths are only navigable by foot or two wheels, Mario Olcese grinds grain into flour, just like its been done for hundreds of years, using a complex system of water channels for power.

On my last night in Sori, Davide and Arianna insist that I join them for dinner. We assemble by candlelight in the backyard of the bed-and-breakfast, a collection of friends and relatives around the table. Arianna brings out course after course of fresh pasta, all from the Novella factory across the street. There are inside jokes, teasing, hefty quantities of wine. How quickly can a place feel like home? In a small town on the Italian Riviera, at least, it’s a matter of days.



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