The tiny island of Palmaria, just a hop from the Ligurian coast of Italy, is an escape from an escape, a getaway that seems to exist beyond the known world. The olive tree-blanketed island is reachable only by boat from Portovenere, already a dream of a town along the otherwise tourist-congested Riviera, but Palmaria, with its smattering of families and vast, overgrown vegetation, is a rare experience. The hospitality of the olive-oil producing Basso family gives you the chance to stay on this enchanted island.
Our guide is local beauty and agriturismo owner Federica Basso, who meets us on the mainland at her family’s restaurant Iseo, at the water’s edge of Portovenere.
Feeding us like locals, we start with eight remarkable fish appetizers (yes, eight), each as fresh as anything I’ve ever had in my lifetime, and smothered in “La Maiella” olive oil that the Basso family produces on Palmaria, just across the straight.
Everything from the orata pastry to the home brewed limoncino is a taste of true Ligurian cuisine, full of fresh flavors and built upon a foundation of the Taggiasca olive oil. The table was filled with an impossible number of fish dishes, and every mouthful was an experience.
A short boat-ride took us to Palmaria, where the Basso family runs an agriturismo known as the Locanda Lorena next to the hills of their olive groves. The restaurant, overlooking the bay and situated right at the dock where the Basso boat will drop you off, is a favorite with celebrities who apparently love having their picture taken smiling next to Gianbattista, the patriarch and will of the Basso family.
Here you can also find Gianabattista’s unique invention- the world’s first Pestomat, dispensing containers of the Basso family’s pesto. This Ligurian specialty is even better when made with their own oil and dispensed, freshly made, of course, from this bizarre machine.
Later, I discover from Italian foodie friends what Federica modestly left out about this island outpost. The Locanda Lorena is actually quite well known, listed in the Michelin guide, and is a favorite destination for committed diners, especially those that love the famous local Taggiasca oil.
Made from the small, intensely flavored black olives that are native only to this Ligurian coastline, the olive oil here is produced, because of small territory and old-fashioned methods, in batches too insignificant for mass consumption. The unique woody and nutty flavor of this oil is much prized and quite expensive, with an extremely low acidity, five centuries of production, and the D.O.P. status (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) that recognizes it. A visit to the Riviera town of Portovenere and the verdant island of Palmaria is the most satisfying way to experience it.