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A fistful of focaccia

There are gastronomic gems to be found all over Italy, but nowhere will you find the simple combination of dough and cheese more addictive than in Recco, writes Colman Andrews.

Every municipality in Italy seems to have its own culinary specialty, some dish or foodstuff that its citizens claim enthusiastically as their own, from Puglia's artigiano dolci (artisanal sweets) to Modena's zampone (stuffed pig's trotters). The emblematic aliment of the town of Recco, south-east of Genoa on the Ligurian coast, is one of the simplest of these specialties, and possibly the most addictive: focaccia col formaggio. The name, of course, means simply "focaccia with cheese" - but this is not conventional foccacia, which is usually a kind of semi-risen flatbread, like a slightly thicker pizza crust. This one is a miraculous concoction, wide and flat, round or rectangular, of soft cheese melted between two paper-thin discs of unleavened dough, enriched with olive oil and baked. Call it the apotheosis of a quesadilla.

Focaccia col formaggio is taken seriously enough in Recco that there is a quasi-official organisation dedicated to its preservation and appreciation, the Consorzio Focaccia col Formaggio di Recco. The group publishes an official recipe for the dish and lists as members some 20 approved restaurants, bakeries, and take-out places in Recco and the vicinity. It also hosts an annual Festa della Focaccia, one feature of which is dubbed (in English) the "No Limits Challenge", where contestants vie to consume a 60-centimetre, one-kilo example of the thing in under 15 minutes.

The origin of Recco's pride and joy is commonly traced back to the 1880s, when one Manuelina Capurro opened a modest inn along the main road to serve itinerant traders, passing mule drivers, and workers carrying slate from quarries of the Fontanabuona valley to the nearby port of Camogli. In the early 1900s, so the story goes, she came up with the idea for focaccia col formaggio and soon became famous throughout Italy for her creation.

Of course, the combination of dough and cheese far predated Signora Capurro: Cato the Elder (234-149BC) described a dish he called scribilita, made by enclosing slices of cheese in sheets of dough; legend also has it that villagers fleeing the Saracens in early medieval times retreated to the mountains where they ate cheese and flatbread cooked on hot stones. In any case, before it became the flashy Italian Riviera, rural Liguria was a poor region, where residents often couldn't afford enough flour to make pasta, so they stretched what little they could buy into thin dough sheets to use for tortas - round, flat pies filled with whatever they could forage or produce themselves. Cheese, for instance. Capurro probably did codify the preparation of focaccia col formaggio, however, and it was almost certainly she who popularised it as a specialty of Recco.

Capurro's original establishment didn't survive World War II. In 1960, though, Capurro's grand-niece Maria Rosa and her husband Gianni Carbone opened a new restaurant in Recco, dubbing it Manuelina in her honour and featuring, well, you know what. Manuelina has got fancier since I first visited about 25 years ago: a portico over the front door connects it to a four-star hotel, trophy wine bottles are displayed in vitrines in the white-tiled foyer, incongruous red brocade tablecloths tart up an otherwise rustic dining room, and the menu includes steak tartare and foie gras with caramelised mango. Focaccia col formaggio, though, is still the star of the show, and almost everybody starts lunch or dinner with it.

If you try it, you'll know why. The dough is salty, rich with olive oil, and simultaneously flaky and a little chewy (in a good way), with enough little oven-darkened bits to make it interesting; the cheese - originally a local variety called formagetta but now stracchino (also called crescenza) - is runny, almost like clotted cream, but pleasantly sour, and becomes slightly grainy as it cools. The overall effect is just wonderful. Most tables order an entire focaccia, which is "No Limits Challenge" size. It arrives atop a flat metal pan and a server cuts it into rough-hewn rectangles, then heaps and folds it onto individual plates. It looks like an immense amount of food, but it somehow always seems to disappear.

On my most recent visit to Recco, I decided to try focaccia col formaggio at a couple of other restaurants. Just down the road from Manuelina, at Da Ö Vittorio, I was invited into the kitchen to watch it being made. Da Ö Vittorio is an excellent restaurant - a place to eat such things as fresh Camogli anchovies baked with breadcrumbs and herbs; ravioli alla Genovese, with a mousse-like filling of assorted meats; spaghetti with red mullet, spiced up with red-pepper flakes; and remarkable Camogli shrimp, simply poached - but the kitchen employs one chef who prepares nothing but focaccia col formaggio day and night. He deftly stretches and whirls a round of thin, elastic dough until it's big enough to cover a broad, flat copper pan with a slightly rounded edge. Next he dots the dough with big clumps of stracchino. He prepares another round of dough and presses it lightly down over the cheese, tearing eight or 10 rough holes in the dough to let steam escape, then drizzles the top with olive oil and slides the focaccia into a very hot gas-fired pizza oven. By the time I settled back at my table, the focaccia was ready, and my friends and I made short work of it.

It was at least as good as Manuelina's.

I also tried another nearby establishment, Vitturin 1860. This place is so serious about its focaccia that in 1965 the owners installed a remarkable contraption to convey it piping hot from the kitchen to the table. Flat against one wall is a sort of vertical lazy Susan: a bronze-coloured wheel, about three metres in diameter; six large trays extend from it, attached to arms hanging on ball bearings so that they remain upright as the wheel slowly turns, like seats on a ferris wheel. The lower part of the wheel extends down to the basement kitchen, from whence is issued a steady parade of first-rate focacce. Vitturin's version looks pretty much like everybody else's, but the crust is a little crisper and more flavourful, and the cheese is a bit denser. If this is what they're offering in the Festa della Focaccia competition, I just might give it a go.

Da Ö Vittorio, Via Roma 160, Recco, +39 0185 740 29; Manuelina, Via Roma 296, Recco, +39 0185 741 28; Vitturin 1860, Via dei Giustiniani 48, +39 0185 720 225

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