An Ode to Focaccia Col Formaggio, the Pride of Italy's Liguria Region
Crispy and oozing with cheese, real focaccia col formaggio is worth the journey.
I spent many months in the early 1990s in the western Italian coastal region of Liguria researching the cookbook that became Flavors of the Riviera. I ate very well in the course of my research. Pesto was invented here, and Liguria’s is the best in the world. The region’s minestrone and ravioli are memorable; its veal and rabbit dishes, made with ingredients like tomatoes, pine nuts, and olives, practically define Mediterranean cuisine. After I’d finished my book, though, one dish stood out in my memory above all others: focaccia col formaggio, a specialty of the town of Recco, which is about a dozen miles southeast of Genoa.
Focaccia col formaggio has nothing to do with the slightly spongy semi-risen pizza-dough bread usually called focaccia. It might be described as a kind of Ligurian quesadilla consisting of two large discs of crispy dough with tangy, gloriously melting white cheese inside. It’s absolutely addictive—the kind of thing people make special trips to devour. The memory of this irresistible regional dish inspired me, not long ago, to make a special trip of my own, heading back to Recco for a few days with a couple of friends (the focaccia is typically 15 or 16 inches across, perfect for sharing) to see if it lived up to my recollections.
The people of Recco take focaccia col formaggio seriously. There’s even an organization dedicated to its preservation and appreciation: the Consorzio Focaccia di Recco col Formaggio. The group publishes an official recipe on its website and lists some 18 approved restaurants, bakeries, and takeout places serving the dish. It also hosts an annual Festa della Focaccia di Recco, one feature of which is a “No Limits Challenge” where contestants attempt to consume a 2.2-pound focaccia as fast as possible.
Recco’s pride was apparently invented in the late 1800s by one Manuelina Capurro, who ran a modest inn along Recco’s main road. The inn didn’t survive World War II, but in 1960, Capurro’s grandniece, Maria Rosa, and her husband opened a new restaurant, dubbing it Manuelina in her honor and featuring you-know-what. This was our first stop.
Manuelina had gotten fancier since I first visited: There’s now a four-star hotel attached, and the menu offers amberjack carpaccio with pink peppercorns and smoked salt and foie gras with Sauternes and caramelized mango. But focaccia col formaggio is still the star of the show, and almost everybody orders it to start.
It’s easy to see why. The dough is salty, rich with olive oil, and simultaneously flaky and a little chewy. The cheese, stracchino (also called Crescenza), is runny, almost like clotted cream, and pleasantly sour, becoming slightly grainy as it cools. A server brings the focaccia on a flat metal pan and cuts it into rectangles, then folds them onto individual plates. It looks like an immense amount of food, but my friends and I made it disappear in minutes, before moving on to monkfish with onion compote.
The next day, we had focaccia col formaggio again, this time down the road from Manuelina at Da Ö Vittorio, which employs one chef who does nothing but prepare focaccia day and night. Their version was excellent, a lot like Manuelina’s.
The best focaccia of the trip came on our last day, at a place called Vitturin 1860, which is so serious about its version that the owners have installed a kind of vertical lazy Susan against one wall to deliver focaccias. A wheel about 3 yards across extends down to the basement kitchen, and six large trays are attached to the wheel and hinged so that they remain upright as it turns, like seats on a Ferris wheel. They bring up a constant procession of hot foccacias from below. The crust in Vitturin’s focaccia is just a little crisper than Manuelina’s and its cheese a little denser. It was so good that we ordered a second one and left the excellent seafood risotto and grilled shrimp for another time.
I’m already dreaming about my next trip to Recco. Meanwhile, though, of course I had to develop a focaccia col formaggio recipe, and after considerable trial and error, I finally got it right. I just might have to make some tonight.
Where to Eat It
Via Roma 296, 16036 Recco, Genoa
Via Roma 160, 16036 Recco, Genoa
Via dei Giustiniani 48, 16036 Recco, Genoa