The Province of La Spezia is located in the Liguria region of Italy. Beaches that overlook the sea, spectacular views and small villages that dot the green valleys are all characteristic of La Spezia. The capital city of the province also called La Spezia, has a major naval base that is located at the head of the Golfo della Spezia, southeast of Genoa. The site was inhabited in Roman times, but little is known of its history before 1276, when it was sold to Genoa by the Fieschi family. The province became a maritime office during the French Empire era and also in the Duchy of Genoa era in the Kingdom of Sardinia. The province became an Italian naval headquarters after the transfer of the military fleet from Genoa in 1857 and, in 1923, it became the provincial capital. The province was severely damaged by bombing during World War II.
Notable landmarks include the medieval Castel S. Giorgio, a 15th-century cathedral (rebuilt after 1945) and the naval arsenal (1861–69, also rebuilt after 1945) adjacent to the naval museum. The archaeological museum has a collection of prehistoric monoliths cut in the form of human figures and Roman artifacts from the nearby ancient city of Luni. La Spezia’s industries include shipbuilding, iron foundries, oil refineries and mechanical engineering. It is also a terminus for natural gas shipments from Libya.
The warm Mediterranean air helps create good conditions for growing olives (producing exceptionally light flavored oil), wine grapes, corn, herbs (particularly basil), garlic, chickpeas, zucchini (especially the blossoms), potatoes, onions and artichokes.
The vineyards that cover the province’s sunny terraces are evidence of La Spezia’s ancient tradition of making wine. The Luni Hills, Levanto Hills and Cinque Terre wines are perfect with the local cuisine. Sciacchetrà, the famous D.O.C. wine, with hints of apricot, dried fruit and acacia honey, goes very well with the local sharp cheeses.
La Spezia also has vast expanses of olive groves on the coast and further inland. The oil produced in this area between the Alps and the Tyrrhenian Sea is protected by the Riviera Ligure D.O.P. label. The area’s oil is used in the preparation of most of the local dishes, especially the fish caught in the waters of the Ligurian Sea. Among such specialties are mussels stuffed with eggs, bread, mortadella, parmigiano, parsley and olive oil. The Monterosso anchovies, either sauteed with lemon juice, fried, stuffed or pickled are all popular in the province.
Mesciùa, a soup mixture of chickpeas, wheat, white beans, broad beans and lentils that are all boiled in olive oil, is a local favorite. Pizza, flatbread made with chickpeas, focaccias and handmade pasta are made in abundance, as well as, the trofie al pesto, now widespread throughout the province.
Culinary Specialties of La Spezia
Pasta With Chickpea Sauce
Chef Daniel Gritzer, says: “Using dried beans that are boiled with aromatics produces a more deeply flavored final sauce. The beans blend into a creamy sauce that coats the noodles, but doesn’t require dairy of any sort.”
- 12 ounces dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
- 1 large onion, cut in half
- 1 head garlic, 3 cloves thinly sliced, the rest left unpeeled
- 3 sprigs rosemary
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 4 cups cooked chickpeas, divided
- 1 1/2 cups chickpea-cooking liquid or vegetable broth, plus more as needed
- 1 pound short ruffled pasta
- 1/4 cup chopped parsley, plus more for garnish
Place chickpeas in a large pot and cover with lightly salted water by at least 2 inches. Add unpeeled garlic, onion and rosemary. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook, adding water as necessary to keep beans submerged, until beans are very tender and creamy with no graininess left, about 2 hours. Discard onions, garlic and rosemary. Drain beans, reserving beans and liquid separately.
In a medium saucepan, combine oil, sliced garlic and red pepper flakes and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until garlic is lightly golden, about 3 minutes. Add 3 cups of the cooked chickpeas and most of the chickpea-cooking liquid and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and, using an immersion blender, blend to a smooth puree, adding more chickpea-cooking liquid if too thick. Stir in remaining 1 cup chickpeas, crushing some lightly with a wooden spoon or potato masher but leaving them mostly whole. Season with salt and pepper.
In a pot of salted, boiling water, cook pasta until just short of al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta-cooking water, then drain the pasta. Return the cooked pasta to the pot and add the chickpea sauce along with 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta-cooking water. Set over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring until pasta is al dente and the sauce has thickened just enough to coat the pasta, about 3 minutes; add more reserved pasta-cooking water, 1 tablespoon at a time, if the sauce becomes too thick. Remove from the heat, stir in chopped parsley and drizzle in some fresh olive oil, stirring to blend. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon pasta and sauce into bowls, garnish with chopped parsley and serve immediately.
La Spezia Style Sea Bass
Chef Maurizio Quaranta roasts sea bass with olives and tomatoes until the fish is crisp. He then spoons toasted warm pine nuts over the fish before serving.
- 2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
- 1 pound tomatoes, cut into large chunks
- 3/4 cup pitted and chopped green or black olives
- 1/4 cup torn basil leaves
- 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- Two 3-pound sea bass, cleaned
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
Preheat the oven to 425°F. In a very large roasting pan, toss the potatoes, tomatoes, olives and basil with 1/2 cup of the olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Make 3 shallow slashes in both sides of each fish. Rub each fish with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the fish in the roasting pan, tucking them into the vegetables. Roast for about 40 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and the fish are cooked through.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet, toast the pine nuts in the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil over moderate heat, stirring, until golden, about 3 minutes. Spoon the pine nuts over the fish and vegetables in the roasting pan and serve right away.
Castagnaccio is a chestnut flour cake (castagna in Italian means chestnut) with raisins, pine nuts, walnuts and rosemary. The recipe does not use yeast, baking powder or sugar. According to food historians, the origin of this recipe goes back to the Ancient Romans, when a chestnut bread was made out of coarsely ground chestnuts and travelers’ and workers’ could pack the bread into their bags. Good chestnut flour is very sweet when you taste it raw (and this is why you do not need to add sugar to the castagnaccio). Taste your flour before using it. If you find it sour, this can be the result of two things: the flour is of poor quality or the flour is too old and has gone stale (chestnut flour doesn’t keep well. Purists only make castagnaccio in November-December, as the flour is prepared in October/November when chestnuts are available. In both cases, you can add some sugar to the mix to reduce the bitterness, but the final result may be inferior. Castagnaccio is best served with a cup of espresso or sweet wine like vin santo.
- 250g (1/2 pound) chestnut flour
- 2-3 cups water (500-700ml) – depending on the quality of the flour
- 1/3 cup (75g) raisins
- 1/4 cup (50g) pine nuts
- 5 whole walnuts (shelled and coarsely ground)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 20 rosemary leaves
Pass the flour through a sieve and put it in a mixing bowl.
Add water to the mix slowly, while stirring. You want the batter to be soft enough to fall from the spoon, but not too liquid. Normally 2 1/2 cups (600ml) is the perfect amount of water, but you may need more or less.
Add the olive oil, the pine nuts, the walnuts, the raisin and mix them together thoroughly.
Oil a 9 inch round cake pan Pour the batter in.
Sprinkle the rosemary leaves on top of the batter. Do not stir: you want them to be visible.
Bake the castagnaccio at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (200 degrees Celsius) for 30-40 minutes.
Take the cake out of the oven and let it cool on a wire rack.
You can eat plain or with a tablespoon of ricotta cheese on top, which is how Italian families traditionally eat it.
Wrapped in plastic or foil, the cake will last 4-5 days, but it will dry out a bit.