Italian Food You've Never Dreamed Of
Enlarge Image Credit: Christopher HirsheimerTo assemble one of the most original and addictively delicious specialties of northern Italian cuisine, split some firm, dry gallette marinare (ship's biscuits), rub the cut sides with garlic, drizzle them with vinegar, and place the gallette on a large platter. Upon this hardscrabble foundation, begin to construct an architectural fantasy of alternating layers of fish (crushed anchovies or cured tuna roe and thin pieces of hake or cod) and sliced cooked vegetables—carrots, celery, potatoes, beets, and salsify, whatever. Cement the layers with a green sauce of capers, green olives, and parsley. Scatter some slender green beans around as straw in the mortar. Stud the joints with fresh green peas or fava beans. Ornament the finished structure with hard-boiled eggs, olives, capers, oil-packed mushrooms or artichokes, and any impressive seafood you can afford—shrimp, oysters, even lobster.
You have just made cappon magro—literally, ''fast-day capon''—which is to say, chicken you could eat even on days when the old dietary laws of the Catholic Church forbade the consumption of meat and fowl. That there is no capon involved is, of course, the point.
Cappon magro is not something you're likely to find at your local Tuscan grill, much less at the mom-and-pop checkered-tablecloth place down the block; few self-styled exponents of ''Mediterranean cuisine'' would recognize it. It is perhaps the ultimate emblematic dish of an ancient and often complex culinary tradition almost unknown in this country—the cuisine of Genoa. Like a number of other Genoese specialties, cappon magro exemplifies a kind of Italian food most Americans have never even dreamed of.
The cuisine of Liguria—the crescent-shaped region that arcs along Italy's northwestern coast, connecting Tuscany and Provence and encompassing the storied Italian Riviera—is inventive to the point of ingenuity, but poor in resources and sometimes so modest as to seem almost penitential. In Genoa, however, which is Liguria's capital city, there is a tradition of dishes that are immensely complicated and ornate, even baroque—and often imbued with celebratory, almost ritualistic importance.