The beach at Forte Dei Marmi attracts star names, while the town’s restaurants and cafe-bars serve up superb focaccia treats
Chef Valentina Harris shares the secrets of fabulous focaccia and lardo di Colonnata in an Italian region rich in family history
Lunigiana is where my mother’s family comes from. It is on the border of Tuscany and Liguria and was home to the ancient Luni people, moon worshippers. The town ruins are all that’s left. You can, however, taste the local Colli di Luni wines (cantinelunae.it) from the Bosoni vineyard, which is almost adjacent.
Forte dei Marmi has been a chi-chi sort of place since the 1920s, and my mother went there as a young girl. The beach has seen the likes of Giorgio Armani and Donatella Versace visit, and the streets, set back from the coast and shaded with pine trees, are wall-to-wall with the villas of the elite. The swanky Principe hotel sells quite possibly one of the most expensive cappuccinos in the world – although it is very good coffee.
To eat, keep it simple but delicious at Focacceria Orlando (via Colombo 80). It has been famous for oily, soft, dense, steering-wheel-sized focaccia for as long as I can remember. They are two inches deep and are cut into eight, split and then stuffed with fillings that you choose from vast terracotta jars on the marble-topped work surface – braised peas, cheeses, seafood, aubergine, any extraordinary combination that takes your fancy – then placed in the oven to get hot and crisp.
These days it has evolved into something of a proper restaurant, but a focaccia and fruit tart with a crème patissière filling is all you could possibly want. Sitting under the pine trees with that and a quarter-litre of white wine is just heaven.
Colonnata is a tiny spot, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it old town that grew up around marble mining. Eat at whichever of the two trattorias, Venanzioor Da Mafalda is open and order lardo di Colonnata, which, traditionally, is made by placing pork belly fat in a scooped-out piece of marble with wine, herbs and salt, then covering with another piece of marble to cure. It is then dried on top of the marble, until it’s ready to be finely sliced and served on top of searing hot polenta so that it melts slowly.
Travelling along the coast, hop over the Tuscan border into Liguria, and the town of Lerici. Walk along the harbour, keeping the water on your right, passing three little fish shops built underneath the castle (where, incidentally, I’ve bought the freshest, most amazing fish ever) and you’ll see a tunnel to your left, going under the castle. Follow it to the end and you emerge to find yourself facing a tiny cove to the left. Turn right, admiring the burst of bougainvillea over the rocks, and you’ll find Ciccillorestaurant.
My favourite thing in life is eating fritto misto and they do the best in the world, occasionally including seaweed and sea anemone. My second favourite thing in life is eating spaghetti alle vongole, and they do the best version of that too – made with rosemary, which is extraordinary but utterly delicious. There are sunbeds beneath the terrace and you can ask the staff to wake you up with a coffee in a few hours (they are all incredibly beautiful Italians as well).
Lerici’s main square. Photograph: Filippo Maria Bianchi/Getty Images
From Lerici, take a boat across the La Spezia bay to Porto Venere, where poets Shelley and Byron went swimming. There are a slew ofrestaurants on the harbour – I tend to go for the one at the far end, Del Corsaro (102 Calata Doria, +39 01877 90622), for the view, but go wherever they can fit you in. What I am looking for here is pesto – Genovese-style – dressing a classic Ligurian dish, made with one-third potatoes, one-third green beans and one-third pasta, which I promise is delicious. Occasionally you’ll find pasta here made with borage in the dough.
• Valentina Harris’s memoir and family recipe collection, Fiori di Zucca, will be published in June by Duncan Baird, £20