Did I ever tell you about the year I lived in Genova?
It’s a twisty tale that got me there; one that involves a New York City bus ride and a former classmate. For the sake of time and typing space, I will simply say that after a series of e-mails and a leap of faith, I found my post-college self in a school by the sea, surrounded by a gaggle of lively Italian five-year-olds. And, man, it was glorious—crayons, pesto, and all.
In this time of global standstill, I have been dreaming of this port city, as many of us are doing with treasured places from travels past. Genoa’s jumble of baroque buildings and labyrinth of alleys feel like a distant planet, so far removed the four walls and virtual life of my family’s repetitive suburban days.
And though the slideshow in my mind replays many scenes from the seaside Ligurian capital—the black and white striped marble of the Cathedral, tall green shutters on sunset colored buildings, flashes of blue from the coast—to be totally honest, I mostly find myself fixating on the crunch and crumb of the city’s most famous street food, Focaccia.
To the citizens of Genoa, focaccia is more than a snack; it is a daily ritual, bathed in oil.
Originally made to quell the hunger of Genoese dockworkers, loading and unloading cargo in one of the nation’s busiest ports, this city’s beloved baked good has now traveled the world. Thanks to globalization, many are now familiar with focaccia from its appearance in bread baskets of countless Italian restaurants.
Focaccia can take many forms: garnished with rosemary, sage, olives, or onions and countless other variations. Most recently, it popped up in the pages of the New York Times, dotted with cherry tomatoes, yellow peppers, and slivered scallions in baked imitations of still life garden scenes.
Though all delicious, my slice of choice is the classic—plain and unadorned—which lets the olive oil shine.
Classic focaccia in Genoa is thin with a maximum thickness of a little less than an inch. Its ingredients are simple: flour, yeast, malt extract, water, salt and olive oil. Never forget the olive oil. The bottom should offer a crisp crust that makes an audible crunch when you bite. The top should be a shade of hazelnut and studded with flakes of salt and ‘eyes’ (oeggi in dialect) that peek at you with creamy ivory centers.
To the observant wanderer, focaccia is everywhere in the city: dipped in early morning cappuccinos and accompanying white wine at aperitivo hour. I first noted its golden presence on the school playground, at snack times and bake sales where young students unwrapped glistening slices (often larger than their heads) from squares of waxed paper speckled with blorps of oil.
Focaccia was spotted on my commute as well. Dapper businessmen by the tracks of Brignole station, scarves tied in a loop just so, tore into pliant pieces as they awaited the morning train—always meticulously brushing away all evidence of crumbs before stepping on board.
On one of my first walks in the city center, my nose led me to the doorway of Panificio da Mario on the cobblestoned Via San Vincenzo. Crossing its threshold, I entered a throng of customers jostling in front of great glass cases, in a permanent dance of being emptied and refilled, as the scent of fresh bread swirled round. To this day, this is the place that sells the focaccia of my dreams. What I wouldn’t do to be transported there now, contentedly crunching on a slice, my slick fingers grasping the business’ brown paper bag, absorbing all that golden oil.
Until that day comes, I can remember. And I can bake. I will teach my daughter to use her three longest fingers to gently press the soft dough and make the ‘eyes’ in repetitive rows. I will show her the secret of the salamoia, or brine, that is sprinkled on before the dough enters the oven, resulting in those soft and salty dents. And I will tell her other tales—of pine nuts and rocky beaches and of crafty Kindergarteners—as we wait, impatiently, for the sizzling pan to make its exit.
This is the magic of travel, after all; it gifts us memories of tastes and sounds and scenes that we can bring with us no matter where we go—or don’t—and relive people and places past.
Travel to Genoa in your own kitchen with this recipe from Samin Nosrat’s Netflix series, SALT FAT ACID HEAT. It is adapted from Diego Bedin, the Ligurian baker who appears in the first episode, who shows Samin how to dimple the dough and reveals the transformative power of brine.
For the dough:
2½ cups (600 grams) lukewarm water, ½ teaspoon active dry yeast, 2½ teaspoons (15 grams) honey, 5 1/3 cups (800 grams) all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons (18 grams) Diamond Crystal Kosher salt or 1 tablespoon fine sea salt, ¼ cup (50 grams) EV olive oil—plus more for pan and finishing, flaky salt for finishing.
For the brine:
1½ teaspoons (5 grams) Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt, ⅓ cup (80 grams) lukewarm water.
In a medium bowl, stir together water, yeast, and honey to dissolve. In a very large bowl, whisk flour and salt together to combine and then add yeast mixture and olive oil. Stir with a rubber spatula until just incorporated, then scrape the sides of the bowl clean and cover with plastic wrap.
Leave out at room temperature to ferment for 12 to 14 hours until at least doubled in volume.
Spread 2 to 3 tablespoons oil evenly onto a 18-by-13 inch (46-by-33 cm) rimmed baking sheet. When dough is ready, use a spatula or your hand to release it from the sides of the bowl and fold it onto itself gently, then pour out onto pan. Pour an additional 2 tablespoons of olive oil over dough and gently spread across. Gently stretch the dough to the edge of the sheet by placing your hands underneath and pulling outward.
The dough will shrink a bit, so repeat stretching once or twice over the course of 30 minutes to ensure dough remains stretched.
Dimple the dough by pressing the pads of your first three fingers in at an angle. Make the brine by stirring together salt and water until salt is dissolved. Pour the brine over the dough to fill dimples.
Proof focaccia for 45 minutes until the dough is light and bubbly.
Thirty minutes into this final proof, adjust rack to center position and preheat oven to 450°F (235°C). If you have a baking stone, place it on rack. Otherwise, invert another sturdy baking sheet and place on rack.
Allow to preheat with the oven until very hot, before proceeding with baking.
Sprinkle focaccia with flaky salt. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes directly on top of stone or inverted pan until bottom crust is crisp and golden brown when checked with a metal spatula. To finish browning top crust, place focaccia on upper rack and bake for 5 to 7 minutes more.
Remove from oven and brush or douse with 2 to 3 tablespoons oil over the whole surface (don’t worry if the olive pools in pockets, it will absorb as it sits). Let cool for 5 minutes, then release focaccia from pan with metal spatula and transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
To store, wrap in parchment and then keep in an airtight bag or container to preserve texture. Gently toast or reheat any leftover focaccia before serving. Alternatively, wrap tightly to freeze, then defrost and reheat before serving.
While visiting the city of Genoa, you too can experience Panificio Da Mario and all of its early morning Focaccia options. The version with onions is also a thing of beauty.
Panificio Da Mario
Via San Vincenzo 61r, 16121 – Genova – T. +39-010-580619
Open morning and afternoons.
For those travelers willing to drive an hour to the east of Genoa’s city center, we recommend seeking out Trattoria La Brinca. Located in the hilltop village of Ne, above the seaside town of Chiavari. There, the Circella family has welcomed guests for over thirty years with the traditional dishes of eastern Liguria.
Trattoria La Brinca
Via Campo di Ne, 58, 16040 – Ne (GE) – T. +39-348-4059487
Closed on Mondays. Open for lunch only on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
The owners of Trattoria La Brinca were kind enough to introduce us to Piero Barbieri of Paneficio Barbieri in Chiavari, a family business that has been baking since 1968. All of the up-close and personal photos of the focaccia-making process—and the final products—are thanks to Piero and his team. If you find yourselves in Chiavari, be sure to stop in and sample their specialties.
Paneficio e Pasticceria Barbieri
Piazza Cavour 10, 16043 – Chiavari (GE) – T. + 39-0185-308665
Closed on Mondays.
For those who would like to stretch their focaccia skills a bit more, here are the Italian steps to make a Whole Wheat Focacetta (Tiny Focaccia) direct from the ovens of Trattoria La Brinca:
Whole Wheat Genoese Focaccetta from Trattoria La Brinca
Many thanks to Simone at Trattoria La Brinca for sharing this focaccia variation
450 grams of Type 0 ‘Manitoba’ Flour (such as Mulino Caputo’s Manitoba Oro), 150 grams of Whole Wheat Spelt Flour (Farina di Farro Integrale), 200 grams of fresh yeast in solid form (Lievito madre solido ), 350 grams of water, 50 grams of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (DOP from the Eastern Riviera of Liguria), 20 grams of salt, 10 grams of sugar.
Dissolve the solid yeast in room temperature water (25 degrees C / 77 degrees F).
Add the two flours, sugar, olive oil and, finally, the salt.
Oil your pan. With a pressing motion, gently stretch the dough to fit to the pan’s edges. The baking pan that La Brinca uses in Italy to bake this focaccetta is rather large, 30 x 50 cm (approximately 12 x 20 inches).
Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise at least 12 hours at room temperature.
Use your fingers to make the traditional dimples up and down the dough. Splash each indentation with olive oil and salt brine so that each dimple contains a generous pool of both liquids.
Note: Use the recipe for brine from the Classic Focaccia recipe found above.
Bake at 240 degrees C ( 465 degrees F ) for 10 minutes.
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