The beating heart of the community

11 May 2023

Ne is one of only five comune in Italy whose name has just two letters: but Ne doesn’t even really exist as a town. It’s a collection of 50 small villages in the Graveglia Valley, east of Genoa, and home to a fine Osteria, La Brinca.

Until the early 1800s this area was known as the territory of “Garibaldo”, and this was the ancestral village of Italy’s most famous founding figure. Indeed, there is a statue of Garibaldi in the square by the council offices.

The opening of this article is borrowed from another, written long ago for Slowfood magazine by John Irving. It was 2006 when our correspondent traveled to Liguria to do a double feature the two local osteria: L’Antica Trattoria dei Mosto and La Brinca. The first of the two establishments has since changed management,  but at La Brinca, the owner Sergio’s sons have joined their father in the kitchen.

We speak to one of Sergio’s sons, Simone, to trace the history of this beacon of traditional gastronomy nestled among the hills of the Italian Riviera.

Born and raised in the kitchen

Ligurian aperitif at La Brinca

La Brinca was founded as a trattoria e caneva con fùndego da vin, that is, a tavern with a workshop and wine cellar, in 1987, though the establishment’s name goes back 100 years ealier, to the mid-19th century, when Teixin (Teresina) dei Brinche, known as “La Brinca” lived here, and left her name to the farmhouse where the osteria now stands.

The place is family-run, and has been for several generations. In addition to Sergio, we find his wife Pierangela, brother Roberto, and grandmother Giovanna, known as “Franca.” Then there’s the new generation, twins Simone and Stefano, and cousin Stefano. As Simone tells me, “My brother and I were practically born in the trattoria, and this is where we grew up. Our playroom was the workshop where Grandma and Uncle made pasta.”

Though raised in the restaurant, in their college days the twins chose engineering and economics, but soon come back: “Everything we saw here as children taught us that our family’s work paid off. Without realizing it, we learned a lot from what we observed on a daily basis.” Upon returning to the Brinca, Simone took up cooking, while his brother Matteo took care of the wine cellar.

Far from the shore: anchovy and cod dishes from inland Liguria – Thursday, June 1, at 1 p.m.

In the Middle Ages and early modern period seafood was not a widespread or popular food in Genoa. If anything, fish was consumed in the two Rivieras either side of the city, but only when there were no alternatives. The diet of the Genoese, starting with the ruling classes, was based on flour-based foods: fresh and dry pasta, rustic flatbreads, pies and other stuffed savory dishes. Today, Ligurian cuisine is still largely based on the land, as demonstrated by the menu of Brinca di Ne, a historic osteria in Genoa’s hinterland, and part of the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance. With a few notable exceptions—preserved fish brought inland, either dried or salted, which are transformed into a variety of original dishes far from the shore. Simone Circella of La Brinca brings his “inland fish” to Genoa, prepared with the experience and the sensibility.

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Eastern Winds

Pasqualina cake, eaten at Easter

Awarded by the Michelin guide for his wine selection, Matteo has expanded the already rich selection curated by his father Sergio, and with Simone has started the gottari movement, which began as a series of spontaneous gatherings among young restaurant owners in the Levante region of Liguria to discuss natural and territorial wines from small-scale producers, often unknown, the products of heroic agriculture, and an idea of authentic local cuisine. These spontaneous aggregations have since spread elsewhere and today involve hundreds of young people animated by a desire to share and a vision of wine and cuisine that is in many ways revolutionary.

La Brinca’s wine list is impressive to say the least: well over 1000 different labels divided by color, region and state of origin. It is many pages thick with carefully selected and continuously updated products, and ample emphasis on the wines of Liguria. Accompanying it, is also a spirits list, with over 300 bottles, and an extra virgin olive oil list featuring the best local producers.

Don’t call them marginal areas

Simone Circella in the kitchen at La Brinca

Before 1963, when the road was paved, one could only get to Ne by mule. The distance to the sea is short – less than 10 kilometers – and yet we are in an area with a distinctly Apennine identity. You can tell this by a look at the menu, where there is no seafood at all.

Many of the dishes on offer speak in dialect: from panissa (chickpea flour dough) to prebuggiun (local potatoes and black cabbage), baciocca (Genoese potato pie), picagge (tagliatelle), tuccu (meat sauce), and tomaxelle (meat rolls stuffed with meat, herbs, pine nuts and mushrooms). As Simone tells me, “Our cuisine fully reflects an area where people have always eaten what’s available, and it’s based on stuffing, offal, and leftovers. Fish, indeed, is not there, as the sea of Liguria is stingy compared to the Adriatic and its treasure never arrive up here in the hills.”

Recovering ancient crops

Wild herbs in spring

Despite this lack of sea, there is a steady stream of visitors eager to embark on a journey of discovery, and authenticity. It is clear, in fact, that at La Brinca one has the impression of eating things one would not eat elsewhere, things of another time, strongly linked to this place and its history. We like to see La Brinca not as an osteria in a marginal area, but as an opportunity for discovery and a magnificent introduction to the Apennines. “We are in love with this place,” says Simone, “and at the same time we know that working here represents quite a challenge, and that bringing people here represents quite a battle. But we believe completely in what we do.”

The Circella brothers are also creating alliances with producers and raising awareness for the revival of ancient crops, from the Quarantina potato to the Zerli onion, and of course, choosing local ingredients, such as cabannina meat, garden vegetables, cheeses from the valleys, and more!

Come and taste La Brinca for yourself at Slow Fish 2023!

by Silvia Ceriani,

Slow Fish 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the Liguria Region, with the support of the City of Genoa. We’re in the Porto Antico of Genoa from June 1-4. Sign up to the Slow Food newsletter for the latest updates. #SlowFish2023

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