Boston and Genoa are both important ports, but the craggy coastline of Massachusetts Bay has little in common with the sun-kissed shores of Liguria, the coastal Italian region that includes Genoa and the Italian Riviera. The Sapphire Restaurant Group is doing its part to bridge the gap, however, with Rocca Kitchen & Bar .
Developed by Sapphire partner Michela Larson, whose mother grew up in the Ligurian town of Bordighera, Rocca has the cuisine that fed the sailing merchants who called Genoa home.
Larson says the Genovese traditionally have been deep-sea travelers and often were away for a long time.
“So when they came home they were aching, literally, for greens, and they were tired of cumin and coriander and those spicier spices,” which were used to mask flavors of some of the sea rations, Larson says.
As a result, Ligurian cuisine has few spices, but many herbs. Seafood is abundant and the olive oil used to flavor it is milder than in other areas of Italy.
“The food is clearer and cleaner and more straight-forward than in other parts of Italy,” she says.
There’s little grazing land in the area, so the diet does not have much beef, but Ligurians did import prosciutto and other preserved pork products from nearby regions, such as Emilia-Romagna.
Larson had been to Liguria several times, but recently she took one of her business partners, Gary Sullivan.
“When we toured the area and ate, Gary agreed that this seemed to be the right direction to go,” she says.
Larson and her partners, Sullivan and Karen Haskell, are veteran Boston operators, having run restaurants in the area for about 20 years. They opened Rialto, Michela’s, blu at The Sports Club/LA and a bar called Noir.AT A GLANCE
Concept: Ligurian Opened: April 25, 2007 Location: 500 Harrison Ave., Boston’s South End Capacity: 200 Average nightly covers: 170 Check average: approximately $48 Customer demographics: young professionals, plus regulars from other restaurants owned by the same group Best-selling item: gnocchi with meat sauce Slowest-selling item: lamb, although sales are slowly growing Menu-maker: owners Michela Larson and Gary Sullivan and chef Tom Fasno Owner: The Sapphire Restaurant Group
They have divested themselves of those operations and now are focusing on Rocca.
At presstime they were still keeping reservations below capacity to work out inevitable initial operational kinks and to do as well as possible during the launch period.
The cuisine is staying as true to authentic Ligurian cuisine as is reasonable, “but we live here in this country, so we do need to have some beef,” Larson says.
Chef Tom Fasno developed a hanger steak dressed with Ligurian olive butter, rosemary fingerling potatoes and grilled spring onions. Also on the menu are short ribs with polenta and peas.
“We fiddle a little bit,” she says. “We had the big hamburger discussion.”
The American menu staple seemed out of place at Rocca, so they settled on a meatball slider of pork, veal, beef, garlic, eggs, breadcrumbs “and lots of oregano.”
Obviously that’s not something they make in Liguria, Larson says, “but we could imagine them doing it there.”
|Parmigiano-Reggiano with walnuts and honey||5|
|San Remo Pizzetta with tomatoes, capers, olives, anchovies and fresh herbs||7|
|Meatball Slider with provolone, fresh tomatoes and basil||6|
|Veal-Stuffed Zucchini with fresh tomato sauce||7|
|Farinata chickpea flat bread with caramelized onions, mushrooms and sage||12|
|Hot & Sweet Scampi with citrus, fennel, hot peppers, fresh marjoram and mint||12|
|Spaghetti Poveri with tomato, lemon, pine nuts, sage, parsley and basil||10|
|Corzetti with braised rabbit and red wine sauce||14|
|Spring Green Pansôti with walnut sauce||14|
|Roasted Whole Fish with fresh herbs, olives, potatoes, tomatoes and pine nuts||24|
|Grilled Leg of Lamb with escarole, fava bean pesto and white beans||24|
|Buridda Ligurian fish stew served over toasted ciabatta||21|
|Smashed Almond Bark with dark chocolate dipping sauce||7|
|Walnut Fig Torta with dried black mission figs and vin santo||7|
|Pacciugo di Portofino Strawberry and vanilla ice cream with strawberry sauce, whipped cream and amaretti||9|
Though much of Italian cuisine uses local products at the height of ripeness, Larson says the staples of Ligurian food, like olives, pine nuts, walnuts, artichokes, chickpeas, mushrooms, lemons and herbs, are pretty easy to come by.
“It’s almost an easier cuisine to do here,” compared with food from some other parts of Italy because of the simplicity, she says.
So some of Rocca’s menu items are truly Ligurian, such as pasta called corzetti, which means coins. In Genoa, that pasta often is stamped with a family crest, so Larson had a logo of Rocca imprinted on a stamp in the Ligurian town of Chiavari, which is known for making such products as chairs and maidenheads for ships.
The stamped corzetti are served with braised rabbit in red wine sauce.
An innovative dish is the Senza Pane, which means “no bread.” For the dish, prosciutto is used as the outer part of a small sandwich stuffed with mozzarella and arugula. Although it’s an invention of Larson’s, she points out that Ligurian cuisine continues to evolve, too.
“The world gets smaller and smaller,” she says.