Livorno for Foodies
Most people may not know this but Livorno is a great foodie town. It’s only an hour’s drive from Florence but it seems a world away from the Tuscan capital. Historically known as a very open city, it was a duty-free port from the 16th century with an open door policy that allowed its merchant population –made up largely of Jews, Armenians, Dutch, English and Greeks in particular – to flourish. It lost its status as a free port when Italy was unified 150 years ago, but the centuries of cosmopolitan inhabitants have left their mark.
Livorno today appears as a slightly scruffy version of the 18th-19th century renovations to the city, but the Venice district (named for its series of deep, wide canals) still evokes its past as the “ideal” Renaissance city of the Medici. The central market, a grand, covered Liberty style building, lies on the edge of the Venice district, and is a great place to start your tour of Livorno’s multicultural past and down-to-earth port culture.
Locally caught fish is the highlight of the market, but the butchers’ stalls also reflect the diversity of Livorno’s kitchens – lamb’s head, wild boar, guineafowl and galletto livornese, the local Leghorn chicken, named after the old, anglicised name of the city.
The real reason for a foodie to visit Livorno, of course, is for the fresh seafood-based cuisine – down to earth, honest and simple. Cacciucco is the most famous dish of all, a rich fish tomato-based stew cooked with numerous types of locally-caught fish and shellfish, which is said to represent the diversity of Livorno’s people. It is this mixed population that has created the base of the interesting culinary traditions of the city.
Livorno’s most identifiable dishes (often followed by alla livornese) usually contain tomatoes, which were introduced by Livorno’s Spanish Jewish inhabitants. Many beloved dishes of Livorno had their origins in the Jewish neighbourhoods of the city, such as triglie alla mosaica (whole red mullet cooked in tomatoes), often made at Easter time, and roschette, little ring-shaped bread snacks that you can find in bakeries and cafes all across Livorno.
Along with these dishes, the piatti poveri make up the most traditional of Livorno’s cooking with countless recipes that involve reinventing boiled meat (such as the imaginatively named ‘Inno di Garibaldi and the Francesina) and other recipes that represent the extreme poverty that the city has faced in the past, such as brodo di sassi, “rock broth” (pretty much just as it sounds, a plain broth made by boiling sea rocks to flavour the water) and minestra su’ discorsi (a “soup of sorts,” a broth made out of literally nothing but leftover bones boiled in water).
Today, the fresh seafood dishes that are on offer in the local restaurants bear only the tradition of being simple, straight forward and fresh. Osteria del Mare, a restaurant near the old port, for example, serves only the day’s locally caught fresh fish. The old school style waiters bring out a platter of fresh fish for you to choose from, before taking it back into the kitchen to prepare. The restaurant is not far from the 1920s checker-board terrace known as Terrazza Mascagni, a picturesque stage for people-watching and the perfect place for that afternoon passeggiata to walk off your long lunch.
And of course, you cannot forget to try a ponce livornese. It’s the ultimate pick me up after a big meal and is especially appropriate on a chilly day by the sea. Apparently adapted from traditions taken from the Anglo-Saxon population of Livorno the local ponce is a potent mixture of cheap rum, cognac, Sassolino (an aniseed flavoured liqueur), lemon rind and sugar, heated together before the final ingredient, a shot of coffee, is added.
The rough-around-the-edges port town will capture the hearts of food-lovers looking for fuss-free, genuine food fit for a mariner.