As we pushed open the osteria‘s dark green wooden door, lace curtains on the windows, our spezzina friend Monia asked us, “Ever eaten in a seafood restaurant which closes for the day if the owner can’t get the morning catch of fresh seafood?” This was one: Osteria Picciarello in La Spezia, right on the coastal road leading to the Cinque Terre. We sat down on cane-seated cheery yellow chairs at our table in an empty dining area. This was closing day, and Monia’s friend, Lara (cook – and, astoundingly, the ONLY kitchen staff here at the Osteria) was in the kitchen creating a seafood feast for just the four of us. Born in La Spezia – “but we spezzini call it just ‘Spezia’ as the definite article, ‘la’, was a clerk’s error in the last century” – Monia now lives near Assisi with Raffaella (from southern Umbria) but has known Lara and her husband, Stefano, osteria host, for a couple decades.
“During our Spezia vacations, we eat here many nights weekly,” Raffaella told us as Stefano poured us a chilled Ligurian white, Vermentino. “…e ho il massimo del territorio,” he told us with pride, sweeping his hand over the shelves of wine bottles behind us. (lit. – I’ve got the best the area offers.) Then Stefano told us what they’d be serving us for lunch. And isn’t that the sign of a great restaurant? The cook decides, based on the fresh ingredients available.
Monia and Raffaella recognized all the dishes in the litany – we certainly didn’t – and smiled approval. I could see Pino, Sicilian, ready and eager to try the Ligurian seafood dishes, which certainly would have nothing in common with le specialita’ di mare siciliane – but it would be seafood all the same, a change from our Umbrian prosciutto, lamb, veal and wild boar.
Monia promised us a rigorosamente ligure lunch and we knew it from the first antipasto: a tortino of baked potato slivers. Tiny fresh tomatoes and fresh anchovies. And right behind that one, a delicate salad with baby cuttlefish, tiny squid, citrus fruit slices. Mackerel tidbits with cherry tomatoes and fresh basil trailed – and then came the stuffed muscoli, a Ligurian signature dish. “Don’t call mussels ‘cozze’ here or the fish vendor will ignore you. For us liguri, they’re ‘muscoli’.” Monia learned the dish from her grandmother and makes it in Umbria when she can find good cozze (for here in Umbria, muscoli are built up in the gym!). The fresh mussels are opened one-by-one, emptied of their flesh and then stuffed with a buonissimo mixture of bread crumbs, finely-chopped mortadella, Parmesan, marjoram, thyme, nutmeg and minutely-diced mussels.
This same filling is also used to stuff the anchovies, dredged in flour and then fried, which alternated on skewers with fried zucchini, fried mussels, and fried shrimp (first rolled in corn flour – “corn for shrimp and muscoli, white flour for anchovies,” Monia instructed) for our next antipasto.
And any Ligurian antipasto “parade” has to include acciughe a scabeccio: fried fresh anchovies, marinated in white wine vinegar. Stefano – serving them with a carrot and onion slice, rosemary sprig on top – told us, “I’m fifty years old but I’ll always remember the smell of vinegar in our home: Nonna and Mamma were always marinating anchovies.” Monia, too, remembers the pungent vinegar smell infusing her Nonna’s Ligurian home.
Stefano proposed just a small pasta “taste” for us because his diver had had good luck that morning, spearing a 6 kg. (13 lb.) sea bass. Stefano purchases his fresh seafood only from the diver and from one woman at the fish market, Teresa. If they do not have fresh fish, Stefano does not open.
Luck was with us that day.
Lara’s Ligurian pasta specialty, homemade chestnut-flour picagge (similar to tagliatelle) – only her pasta is served at this restaurant – was highlighted with a savory sauce of cuttlefish, a touch of tomato and Ligurian DOP basil pesto. As we savored the goodness, Monia reflected on the characteristics of Ligurian cooking: “our cooking is that of the sea married to that of the land. The sea often took away our men (note: many became fishermen, sailors) and those at home worked the terraced land high above the sea. Many were afraid of the sea.” Pino nodded agreement and added, “anche per l’incursione dei pirati.” (“Also because of the pirates’ raids.”)
And this Ligurian sea/land culinary “marriage” starred in our final course: roasted sea bass surrounded by baked cherry tomatoes and potatoes. That bass launched Pino into “seafood paradiso.”
All of us followed.
None of us had room for dessert but how not to at least taste Lara’s tarts (Monia: “I’ll never master Lara’s pastry crust – soft but also crispy”) and her strawberry/cream pudding? After espresso, Lara and Stefano wrapped a couple Vermentino bottles for us to take home as gifts.
Lara would return to the kitchen for clean-up after we left. Her work for our meal astounded and it was impossible to imagine that lithe young woman doing those same tasks – and many others – day after day, for a full dining room: pasta-making, pastry-rolling, the prying open of hundreds of muscolo shells, de-boning of fish, cleaning octopus, shelling shrimp, dicing up cuttlefish and squids, washing and slicing and dicing all the vegetables.
And what does she do between lunch and dinner service? Zips home to help their eight-year old son, Andrea (in Nonna’s care) with his homework!
Lara, we don’t mean to give you more work in the Osteria Picciarello kitchen, but… we’ll be back!