The Mint Shop

The Mint Shop

Monday, 15 August 2011

Unexpected Livorno

It is really true: never judge at first glance. This applies to people, food and places. And this is what happened to us in Livorno. I suppose that wandering in the rain without a map and dragging our luggage did not help...

I had never heard particularly good things about Livorno - "nothing special", "quite rough", "a bit depressing"...for us (and "for us" I mean people from Siena - I now have my Italian hat on) Livorno is a port town, with nothing to see - as everything got bombed during WWII ("rebuilt with a lack of aesthetics that only a sea captain could love"), and full of loud people. Even its food has been defined as "quarrelsome and popular".

But then, considering that Sienese are accused of being snobs and aloof perhaps what is said of Livornese might not be all that true after all (psss! *Sienese are truly snobs and aloof anyway*).

So this year on our way down to Siena from Liguria I decided it was time to judge for myself. After all my friend Emiko had intrigued me with her post and I felt too curious to miss our coastal neighbour.

Everyone will direct you to what they call "Little Venice". It is true that as soon as a place has more than two canals it automatically gets a Venice star (there is one in Belgium, in London, Mykonos and even in Benin!).

Whatever you expect though, go there at night, when the temperature is balmy and with a few hours in your hands, you'll be guaranteed a nice time. All the canals buzz with people, stalls illuminate the water, live music is played at every corner, and restaurants lure you with the smell of their fresh fish.

In all honesty, Livorno does not have grandiose splendors - I admit. However, there is a sort of retro atmosphere that few places have. Nothing pretentious but honest and genuine.
Terrazza Mascagni, a "De Chirico" empty and spacious terrace divided from the sea only by a marble handrail, gives a feeling of total calm, of old days frozen in time. The cheque tiles are almost hypnotic!

The mixed blood that Livorno had and still has can be spotted in many details, no least its food. Dutch, English, Jews, Arabs and Armenians were only a few of those who stepped into Livorno and left behind their flavours. Roschette livornesi for example are tiny biscuits perfumed with aniseed from Jewish traditional.

No matter what you decide to eat, you can be sure will be alla Livornese. Either it is or has become. Triglie alla livornese (sardines), Baccala' alla livornese (cod), Bordatino alla livornese (soup of beans, black cabbage and corn flour) are just a few examples.

But my favourite is and will always be il Cacciucco - of course, also known as Zuppa di pesce alla livornese. It is rather laborious (it takes at least 2 hours) but if the fish is fresh, and does not have to be expensive (remember! it was born as a poor dish, *cucina povera*, so any fish will do), it'll fill up your senses - literally.

Apparently Buitoni started selling frozen Cacciucco - they were asked by the town to change it into "Zuppa di pesce". Buitoni kept Cacciucco but removed "alla livornese" - could there be a Cacciucco alla siciliana??

Of course, as with everything, there are many versions of it, but the recipe I am going to give was given to my grand-mother by her old friend who survived the war. So, it must be authentic!


For 6 people

300g squid
300g shark fish (and/or tuna or sword fish)
450g soup fish (red mullet and/or monkfish)
500g mixed shellfish (prawns, crayfish with the shell)
600g mussells
500g ripe tomatoes
5-6 sage leaves
1 chilli
1 onion, 1 carrot, 1 celery stick
12 medium slices of thick Italian bread (sorghum bread can do)
2-3 garlic cloves
1 glass of red wine

In a large pan cook lightly ("in camicia" - *in a shirt*) the garlic together with the sage leaves and the chilli in a few table spoons of olive oil. When it is almost golden, pour the wine and let it evaporate. Remove the garlic, sage and chilli and cook in it the squid cut into pieces.

In the meantime cook the soup fish in a broth where the onion, carrot and celery have cooked till becoming soft. When the fish is cooked - the eye has become almost white and there is no more blood in between the scales - tear part of it into small pieces and grind part of it to make a broth.

Cook on a frying pan the shellfish until slightly brown. Cut into small cubes the tuna (or similar fish to be cut into stakes) and cook it quickly also on the frying pan.

In the same pot of the soup fish, add the squid, the shellfish, the cubed fish and mix everything together. Add the tomatoes and let it simmer for at least 15 minutes. At the last minute add the mussels and let them cook for a few minutes until open.

Scatter some chopped parsley and let everything simmer for another minute or two.

Toast the bread slices. Arrange them on the plate and scrape on them the garlic to give it some of its flavour. Pour the soup over the bread and then the fish.

This for me is instant Summer. A real fish treat - regardless to the allowed fish quota- total bliss. That cannot be concluded without the old fashion "persiana" (yes strange but true it means "window shutter" maybe because of its colour?) made of aniseed and mint syrup.


  1. Wow, that is a fishy feast! Great post - the Terraza looks amazing (great photos!). I almost expect to see a couple in evening dress coming into the picture waltzing!

  2. Thank you! The Terrazza is wonderful, a complete world apart. It made me think of Vetriani and De Chirico. You should go!

  3. I love Livorno, as you know, there's something about those sort of rough-around-the-edges cities that I'm always attracted to! I've never tried the persiana, will have to check it out when I head towards Livorno this weekend! ;)

  4. I agree Emiko, Livorno is definitely not a "refined" or "posh" town but with a charm on its own. Worth it a visit and possibly to stay for sometime and getting to know it.

  5. Lovely pictures and you do a good job of defending Livorno (or "Leghorn" as it used to be called in English)! Are you being paid by the Italian tourist board yet?
    The recipe looks interesting. It seems a bit complex, but does sound good. I like that you serve it on bread.
    What does cooking the garlic "in camicia" mean?
    Love your pics on the flickr stream - beautiful!

  6. I am really discovering the best side of my city ;-) great post!

  7. Thank you both for you kind comments. "Cuocere in camicia" means "poaching" - sorry I should have explained. The recipes sounds complicated but it is not that much really and the result is just wonderful!

    Livorno is probably undeservedly ignored by many tourists. Hopefully this post will convince them to stop at least for a few hours! :D

  8. Hi Fran - Nice post. The Persiana sounds a lot like the wonderful French drink - le Perroquet - Pastis mixed with water and mint syrup. Lovely. You can also have the Pastis with Grenadine - called le Tomate because of the colour. Pastis mixed with cola is called Gasoil (and probably tastes similar)!!

  9. Thank you! Next time I'm in France I shall make sure I have a "Perroquet" then. Probably I will stay away from the Gasoil though... ;D

  10. It's very nice to read about Livorno and learn more, even if I was born and grown up here :))
    Always interestig seen from another point of view :)

  11. Thank you Lucia, I agree, it is always nice to hear comments from outsiders on things we are used to see everyday. I found Livorno a very interesting place!