I flew out of Reykevik early Friday morning and headed east, bound for Zurich, Switzerland. When I landed my buddy, Morgan, who lives in Zurich, picked me up and we set sails for Italy. Our final Italian destination being Genoa. Seeing as Genoa is a 5+ hour drive from Zurich, and taking Easter weekend traffic into account, we planned to stay in Milan that night before concurring the final stretch to Genoa the following day.

Although Milan had never been on my must-see list, I’m happy I got the opportunity to check it out, even for a short time. It turns out our best Italian meal was in Milan.

I’m unfortunately a terrible food blogger and don’t remember the name of the restaurant. BUT, I do remember that it was on an adorable cobblestone street and on that cobblestone street was a full-on fortuneteller reading minds, palms and crystal balls over a folding card table.  

Anywho, the food was bomb. Morgan ordered the lobster linguini and I ordered the black spaghetti with swordfish and seasonal vegetables. Both were simple dishes. There was no crazy presentation (unlike Icelandic cocktails...) or unusual ingredients. But that’s exactly what made them so good. Simple/local/seasonal ingredients brought together with tried and true techniques. The texture of the pasta is something I still think about on the daily.

After dinner at [insert restaurant name here if I ever figure it out] we meandered the streets to find some post-din drinks. Passing by a bar we spotted this gem:

I don’t know if it’s the phrase, Mikey’s mouth situation, or the fact that the whole thing is held up with a mess of masking tape, but I absolutely love it. So fun to think about what in the world was going through the mind of the artist as he created this. If I could have gotten it out of the bar and into my suitcase I would be staring at this beauty on my bedroom wall right now, masking tape and all.

The rest of the night in Milan included gin and tonics, negronis, barware thievery and more negronis. So, moving on.

The next morning we left Milan and drove south through the Piedmont region. This is where Nebbiolo grapes are grown and Barolo wines are produced. It was picture perfect.

We stopped in the little village that was appropriately named, Barolo, to grab lunch and, of course, drink Barolo wine. When in Barolo…

Talk about quaint. There were barefoot kids playing soccer on the brick roads, cafés and tasting rooms on every corner, and hillside vineyards to the north, south, east, and west.

We decided on La Cantinetta for lunch, primarily because there was outdoor seating and wasn’t a wait. There was a cute little white dog and a David Cross look-a-like to keep us company. I went with the risotto of the day, which happened to be asparagus, and Morgan ordered the wild boar. Again, both were delicious. Simple, rustic food. Nothing more, nothing less.

Although I love the ever-changing, bold food scene in Portland, there seems to be something pretty special about Italian cuisine. At a place like La Cantinetta, you know that what is put in front of you is the same dish that was put in front of a customer 20, 30 years ago. It was done so well from day one that there is no need, want, or desire to make changes. What is it they say? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

After lunch we continued on our way to Genoa. Genoa isn’t exactly a tourist destination or on too many peoples’ must-see list. And that was totally me until I read this article by Travel & Leisure. The author, Bruce Schoenfeld, makes Genoa sound gritty, beautiful, bashful, and vibrant, all at the same time. But what really excited me about Genoa was the food, particularly the seafood.

Once again, because I’m a terrible food blogger, I don’t have a single photo of a seafood dish I ate in Genoa. WTF. However, pesto was invented in Genoa and I DO have a photo of that.

This was at a place called Il Genovese, a restaurant recommended in the article. This is gnocchi with the brightest green pesto you’ve ever seen. We were trying to figure out why it was so good and so bright and our conclusion is cheese. Obviously cheese makes everything taste better, but I think it also makes the pesto brighter. (Like with printing, when you print a color over white ink it’s much brighter than if you were to print it over colored ink.) I need to do some pesto experimenting at home to see if our theory holds up.

Il Genovese was the cutest. A few tables downstairs and a few tables up the spiral staircase. The waiters were young and helpful and the clientele was so diverse: Families out to celebrate; friends sharing a bottle of wine and fried anchovies; a couple having dinner with their dog resting at their feet. 

We ended our first night in Genoa with, you guessed it, MORE NEGRONIS.

Our final Italian adventure was the Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is five small villages along the Ligurian Sea coastline. It’s one of those places you see on postcards and have a hard time believing exist. The pastel buildings, clear blue water and mountainous terrain will make your jaw fall to floor.

The villages restrict cars so to visit you must hike or take a ferry. We started in Monterosso, the westernmost village, and hiked/walked to Vernazza. It was only about 2 miles, but the fact that we were herded through like cattle made it feel a bit longer. (TIP: Don’t hike the Cinque Terre on Easter weekend!) Other than the absurd number of people we were forced to hike alongside, it was really a cool experience. The views alone made up for the crying children, impatient adults and sluggish seniors.

After the hike and another fun night in Genoa, we left Italy with bellies full of wine, seafood, and a much higher expectation of Italian restaurants in the U.S. 

Next up: Tapas so tasty in my new favorite city, Barcelona. 

AuthorMolly Streuli