Sometime in late May the shining sun announces that spring has started to slide into summer in the Lunigiana, a region in northwestern Italy that straddles the border between Tuscany and Liguria. This geographically diverse area that I have called home since 2007 is at its best in that glorious shoulder season when secrets can be unearthed both up in the mountains and down by the sea.
On that first warm obligation-free morning, faded beach towels are shaken clean of last summer’s sand and tossed in the back seat of my aging Volkswagen. With the car’s windows down and sunroof open, my husband navigates the short but winding drive along the eastern coast of the Gulf of La Spezia. Known as the Golfo dei Poeti because centuries of writers have sought inspiration in the area’s natural beauty, this rugged coastline has dozens of inlets and sandy beaches tucked among pastel-painted fishing villages.
One particularly beautiful stretch boasts a sandy crescent behind San Terenzo’s castle, perfect rows of blue umbrellas lining Venere Azzurra beach, and giant rocks that locals use as sun beds along the promenade in Lerici. But for me, the most special spot for sun-musing, the one I mention to friends only in a whisper, is Eco del Mare.
A secluded cove cradled by enormous cliffs, Eco del Mare is a beach club whose exclusivity seems destined by nature. In high season, reservations for the sun beds situated far below the snaking road are hard to come by and prices spike. But before the preening tourists arrive from Milan and Moscow, there are still oversize beanbag chairs to rent, including one each for my husband and me under a large white umbrella with billowing curtains for a touch of privacy. It feels like our own private beach hut, just steps from the azure water, where the seaside soundtrack includes no buzzing motorboat engines, no radios blasting Italian pop music and no teenage gossip wafting from a nearby towel — it’s just the sound of the lapping waves echoing off the cliffs, l’eco del mare.
When the daylight fades in the Lunigiana, the secret is to migrate into the nearby mountains. Ristorante Emili is situated so deep in the foothills that even my GPS gets lost navigating the endless switchbacks. But the arduous drive is instantly forgotten when you’re seated at a table on the outdoor terrace overlooking rolling hills thick with vegetation. And then comes the sgabei.
Unique to the territory, sgabei are salty pillows of fried dough that are typically served with a platter of local meats and cheeses. At Emili, a heaping basket of still-steaming sgabei arrives alongside fresh stracchino cheese, paper-thin prosciutto crudo and buttery lardo di Colonnata, among other delicacies. The multicourse meal will continue with other only-in-Lunigiana dishes, such as testaroli, a crepelike pasta that gets a liberal dollop of fragrant fresh pesto. But the first bite of sgabei makes a convincing case that the best-kept secrets of the Lunigiana are the unheralded culinary traditions of this ancient territory nestled between the mountains and the sea.