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.

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20 Responses to “Livorno for Foodies”
  1. Andrea says:

    Let me say that this is one of the nicest and most precise description of Livorno I have ever read. In few lines you caught the sense of the whole city, whose atmosphere you can feel only there. I am Tuscan and I worked in Livorno for two years and can witness all you say it’s completely true. But I would add that one of the most important ingredients of all this are Livorno people, the only one of its kind.
    Beautiful pictures, too! Bye

    • Emiko says:

      Andrea, thanks so much for your comment. It means a lot to get a reaction like that from someone who knows the place and obviously loves it too!

    • Fred says:

      I was born in Via Paoli in Livorno, delivered by a mid-wife at my grandparent’s house. My father was an American soldier and my mother a Livornese. I know Livorno very well and I have to say. that for a straniero you have described our unique cuisine very well. The only thing you forgot to mention is our torta di ceci. Before the Americans brought the Neapolitans north, torta di ceci, or simply la torta, was our sidewalk food like pizza in Naples. Torta has made a comeback and it is no longer in danger of being overcome by pizza in Livorno, thank God. Oh, the cinque e cinque (5 and 5) which is torta placed between bread, was called thus because the torta cost 5 lire and the bread cost 5 lire. And, the bread was either pan francese (a kind of baguette) or schiacciata which in other parts of Italy is called foccaccia.

      • Emiko says:

        What a wonderful story; I’m glad you approve because I have a soft spot for Livorno, with all its rugged charm. And don’t worry, I have the torta di ceci covered in this post – one of my favourite things to get on a trip to Livorno’s market!

        • Fred says:

          Well, it’s been over a year, but I read your piece on torta di ceci. You correctly picked out the best, in my opinion, torta place, near the mercato centrale and included spuma as the correct drink to accompany the torta. If the heavyset mother was at the place when you went, I knew her when she was a chubby little girl helping her father, the then owner.

          Some Livornesi believe the Tortaio in Borgo Cappuccini is the best, but I agree with you.

          • Emiko says:

            Yes, that woman you mentioned was there! But I must try that place in Borgo Cappuccini when I’m there next as I’ve never been there!

  2. Sonya says:

    Thanks for this lovely Italy foodies post! Gorgeous photography!

  3. francesca says:

    what wonderful pics of my city! ;-)

    • Emiko says:

      @Francesca & @Sonya, thank you! Though I have to admit, Livorno’s such a photogenic city – not in an obvious way, but just so easy to photograph because everything looks like something you want to capture!

  4. francesca says:

    well sometimes I walk in my city trying to find unexpected surprises to see! ;-) and your pics give me this sensation!

  5. I’ll definitely follow your advice and visit Osteria del Mare next time when I’m in town. Livorno is easily my favorite town in Tuscany. Sadly it’s a bit of a drive from Southern Tuscany, but after reading your post I’ll definitely put it back on the map.
    Livorno’s aquarium is right next to Piazza Mascagni. It’s really modest compared to the one in Genova, but it has been lovingly renovated and is a fun way to spend an hour if you’re in town with kids.

    Regarding the design of your posts: I love the the mosaics you are doing with your beautiful photos. I’ve tried to do that in the past on my blog (like e.g. here:, but quite apart of the fact that my photos aren’t high quality like yours, I also haven’t managed to find a good and easy program for making mosaics. Do you use a professional tool for your mosaics or could you recommend a good web application?

    And last but not least: say hello to Melbourne from me – we’re stuck at home in a snowstorm (again!).

    • Emiko says:

      I use Photoshop to do that, but if you have a mac Pixelmator which comes with it is great too – just resize the images and then cut and paste onto a new board. Easy! A popular online application is the pixlr editor but I haven’t used it much since I have the others. Good luck!

  6. Regula says:

    Can’t wait to see this next week!

  7. Enrica says:

    La bellezza sta negli occhi di chi guarda…

  8. Janet McKinney says:

    We want to eat at the best restaurant in Livorno and will only be there one day. Can someone help me please?

    • Emiko says:

      My pick would be Osteria del Mare, it’s very close to the harbour and they do things the old fashioned way — absolutely the freshest fish, changes day to day depending on the catch and they bring it out to show you so you can choose before they cook it. Go for the cacciucco, Livorno’s famous dish, or the divine scampi ravioli.

  9. Or says:

    Dear Emiko, I really enjoyed your post, very beautiful. I also wrote about Livorno in my travel blog (more about history and textile than food), called travels in the wardrobe and I likes your take on the city.
    Well done!

  10. michael says:

    Honestly, reading this made me change my plans and come here. I am excited to check out the town.
    Thanks for putting this together, and I enjoy your photography very much as well!

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