There are those who come here and those who leave here by ship; people who stop by just to spend a day on the rocks by the sea. Actually, Livorno should be discovered slowly, walking through its narrow streets, discovering its fascinating Medici canals, visiting its neighbourhoods, browsing the corridors of the old central market, talking with the city’s friendly people or over a dish of cacciucco fish stew.
Livorno is situated 20 kilometers from Pisa and 100 from Florence (it’s very well connected from Pisa or Florence by train). It’s the most important port city in Tuscany, a cosmopolitan and multicultural city, with a huge immigrant community. It’s where the Italian Communist party originates from and it’s famous throughout Italy for its Vernacoliere, an Italian monthly satirical magazine.
It was built under the Medici family during the Renaissance as the “ideal Italian city”, with fortified walls, ramparts and canals. Livorno, for me, is all about its vibrant people and the lightness of the sea breeze.
Browsing the Vettovaglie Market
Vettovaglie market in Livorno, better known as the “Central Market” is a landmark for the city’s food scene. It was built in 1894 and is one of the largest indoor markets in Europe. Its internal structure made of iron is typical of the late nineteenth-century eclectic style that combines neo-classical and Liberty elements. The almost 200 shops are arranged in rows and inserted in the different pavilions, where just about everything is sold, from vegetables to dried beans, meat, fish, coffee, bread and eggs of all kinds and for all tastes.
The beef, pork and poultry comes to the market come from nearby areas. Same thing for the salami made and sold by true food artisans.
One of the most popular pavilions is the fish hall: here you can find all kinds of fish and seafood: cuttlefish, squid, octopus, lobster, sea bream, sea bass and dogfish, from the most to the least popular. Tons of fresh fish in all shapes and colours are sold as from the early hours of the day.
But the market does not end within its majestic walls. Outside, hundreds of stalls in the spaces and adjacent streets sell clothes, fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, every morning from Monday to Saturday.
Claudio Mollo, my journalist friend and local guide for the day, explains that it is not the custom of the locals to have lunch in the market. Even though some new shops offer sandwiches and fast meals. But for an authentic street food you must go to the “Torteria Gargarin” near the market and ask for a torta or cecina (chickpea cake).
Cacciucco Livornese is a very thick and dark fish soup. It’s made from many kinds of fish and molluscs, but not with refined seafood. At the base of the dish there is a mixture of garlic, pepper and sage. Cacciucco contains octopus and cuttlefish, some mantis shrimps and different kinds of bluetailed fish.
Cacciucco is not a summer dish, though you will find it throughout the year. It is not easy to digest due to the huge quantity of thick tomato sauce.
Emiliano, along with his wife, daughter and father, have been running a restaurant in the heart of the Pontino neighborhood. A place where you can find, in just one room, flags of the Communist Party, walls covered with photos of the Livorno football team, prints of the Vernacoliere magazine and authentic traditional food at the table, like this great Cacciucco fish stew:
Serves 4 people
- 800 g of fish with bones (as tub gurnard and scorpion fish)
- 200 grams of dogfish
- About 2 kg of squid and octopus
- 8 mantis shrimps
- 800 g of tomato paste
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 hot pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 glass of red wine
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Slices of bread
- Clean and cut the cuttlefish and the octopus. Boil the octopus in a pot.
- Clean and cut the fish with bone into two or three pieces.
- Pour 100g of extra-virgin olive oil into a large pan, add a bit of hot pepper, the sage and two cloves of lightly crushed garlic.
- Add the squid and cook everything on low heat. Add the boiled octopus and sprinkle with wine.
- Add the tomato paste and, after 15 minutes of slow cooking time, add the mantis shrimp and the dogfish. Let it cook for another 20 minutes and add the fish with bones over a slow heat. Add a bit of water or the octopus broth if necessary.
- Cut and toast the slices of bread, rub with garlic and put them on the plate before serving the soup.