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Destination: Italy

Seaside for All Seasons : Sun, food, history in the relaxed Riviera town of Rapallo

September 21, 1997|MARIA GRAZIA COCCHETTI | Cocchetti is a freelance writer who lives in Milan, Italy

RAPALLO, Italy — I am not one who likes to lie on a beach basking in the sun. For me, the word "seaside" evokes thoughts of focaccia, crispy fried seafood, medieval alleys, shopping and cultural trekking. For these reasons, on holidays I often go to Rapallo, a lovely town near Portofino on the Gulf of Genova in the Liguria.

I also come here on weekends, especially in winter when I need to escape the gray sky of Milan, the city where I live. My love affair with Rapallo traces back to the '60s, when my dad bought an apartment near the bell tower of the cathedral for his "skinny little daughter" who suffered from tonsillitis. Thus Mum and I came to Rapallo to spend many winters.

What I like most about this place is that it has all the uncommercialized comforts of a small town, plus the Ligurian ingredients: salt air and a typical smell that's a mixture of pistachio nuts, geraniums, fruit and fresh bread. Rapallo is not posh nor expensive like Portofino, nor is it isolated like the wonderful Cinque Terre.

Beginning in the middle of the 18th century, Rapallo became popular with the European aristocracy and middle classes for its perfect climate, which is mild in winter and windy in summer, thanks to the hills that embrace the town like an amphitheater. Among its famous guests was the Duke of Windsor, who would escape the northern fog for months at a time by taking up residence in the Grand Hotel Excelsior, renamed the Excelsior Palace Hotel in 1995.

Since those days the town has grown, but fortunately the Lungomare (the promenade) and its bordering historical district have kept the glamour of the past. Traces of the aristocratic flavor still can be found in the many old-fashioned hotels facing the Lungomare Vittorio Veneto. Examples include the Rosabianca Hotel with its little round balconies and its ocher-colored facade near the 5th century Porta delle Saline, or the Hotel Europe, all pink and white like a cake, a former 17th century stately home with bedrooms furnished in neoclassical style.

My favorite area is the historic district--which lies between Via Milite Ignoto and Piazza Cavour, and between Piazza Nazioni and Piazza Martiri della Liberta. I love especially the narrow medieval alleys between Via alla Torre Civica and Via Venezia, where laundry hangs from house to house. Also the sepia-toned tower built in 1473, with the churchyard where the city council used to administer justice; the city hall; and the old villas facing on Via Magenta, such as the one at No. 42 with frescoes on the upper part of the facade. Ligurian facades are famous for their painted patterns and "perspective tricks" such as false windows or ornaments, a nice way to enlarge space in a narrow region.

I love to inhale the scent of Liguria, walking in the morning along Via Venezia and its square, where the air is filled with the fragrance and aromas of the daily local market and its displays of seasonal fruits and vegetables--tomatoes, peaches, basil, fish, flowers, and, during the last weeks of summer, the rare and expensive porcini mushroom, picked up in the woods of the hinterlands. The latter are great with tagliatelle and tomato sauce. To save the porcini's aroma, I like to buy a handful of dried ones at the Casa del Parmigiano and put them in covered glass jars, where they keep for months.

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The market still has single vendors who offer daily products grown in their own gardens.

Staying in Rapallo means getting to know one major food: focaccia. Yes, this is the realm of hot, shiny, salty focaccia (a kind of pizza without cheese and tomatoes, once prepared for sailors). In recent years, the growing reputation of Liguria's focaccia has sparked the opening of new focaccerie in the region. The Rapallesi, of course, know the few bakeries that make the best of the best. One of these is the panificio (bakery) Castruccio, in an old building with medieval porches at Piazza Garibaldi 5.

The place is known to locals as the vecchine (roughly, little old ladies), referring to the former proprietors, who owned it until the '70s. The little shop, now run by a son of the former owners, has been renovated through the years to better serve the insistent crowd of locals and visitors demanding just one thing: focaccia.

To taste the focaccia at its finest, it's best to be around when it's taken out of the oven, usually when the shop opens and every hour on the hour after that. I personally prefer the plain version, which comes out in a big rectangular shape, its soft holes filled with olive oil, which alone is worth the transatlantic air fare. And I strongly recommend you try the pizzas, with tomatoes and black olives, or the focaccia al formaggio, a thin layer filled with hot, dripping cheese. Stories still circulate about the "secret ingredient" that makes the focaccia of Ligurian bakeries so unique--a drop of white wine or the local oil or the yeast.

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