A Charming Lunch in Charming Sarzana

Osteria Panzallegra in Sarzana, Liguria.
Even in the nicest spring weather, it rains sometimes. When it does, that's the perfect excuse (or the latest excuse) to go out to lunch. The small city of Sarzana is interesting in  many ways – historically, artistically, socially, and, more usefully, gastronomically. It serves as the informal capital of lower Lunigiana, that is the lower Magra Valley, and we are there twice a week for sure. There are more than a dozen decent restaurants in this town of about 20,000, and on a Sunday in April we finally got to try one of the places that’s been on our list for years – Panzallegra.

This last Sunday in April was the last day of Atri Fioriti, an annual Sarzana event in which the atriums of about a dozen historical palazzi are open to the public, with floral displays to enhance them.  It’s a simple kind of civic event and each site has informative signage and a few volunteer teens of differing levels of commitment.  One of the palazzi was the childhood home of the 14th century Pope Nicolo V, one of a famous local sculptor, Carlo Fontana, and it’s always fun.  We visited four or five atriums, and then started to look for lunch.  When we saw that Panzallegra was open for its last Sunday lunch of the season, we were in heaven - the handwritten menu outside was a Ligurian dream.

Ravioloni di Mare at Osteria Panzallegra in Sarzana.
Typically an Italian meal has four parts: Antipasto, Primo, Secondo, Dolce. Thirty years ago, one would have them all. Today, the diner has what they feel like, even to the extent of sharing portions. We would have loved to have the antipasto – there were 8 or 9 tiny exquisite ‘tastes’ on the plate, including marinated sardines, timbal of cauliflower, flan of onions, and so on…but our capacity is limited, so we started with primi piatti: lasagna al forno with pecorino and artichoke, and ravioli di mare, with cernia* and gamberi.  What can a speechless writer say? They were perfect. The lasagna had three layers of pasta, the pecorino was slightly aged but not tart, the artichokes smooth but with their characteristic bitiness.  No cheating here, everything freshly cooked, perfectly balanced.  The ravioli were even better, if that’s possible.  Four large ravioloni, so-called, filled with a finely chopped and delicately seasoned spoonful of fish, topped with a fresh tomato sauce with all the tastes of the sea in it.

Our second dishes lived up to the first. On one side, a plate of lightly breaded fried local lamb chops, served with lemon and a bitter palate-cleansing little pile of radicchio and lettuce. On the other side, a lovely fan of tiny fresh zucchini halves, stuffed with baccala mantecato and accompanied with a little berm of bechamel, flavored with a touch of fresh garlic and a little garnish of reduced balsamic vinegar.  Both dishes were terrific.

Baccala Mantecato at Osteria Panzallegra in Sarzana.

The service was attentive and friendly, and the owner explained each dish in understandable Italian. When I went to pay, I asked for a business card, and Maurizio introduced himself and beckoned Paola out of the kitchen.  I asked if these were her own recipes, and she said yes, all hers.  When I complimented them – particularly the puree of baccala, which was unforgettable – she said that their policy was freshness, purity, and simplicity.  They are one of the few restaurants in Lunigiana who qualify for the Slow Foods emblem of quality, well earned.

By the way, the price for this unique experience was modest and competitive in this area.  Two primi, two secondi, house wine and water came to 58 Euro.

Osteria Panzallegra  Via Mascardi, 21  Sarzana. Reservations advised. Telephone 338 2595915. See the website or call for opening times. They are open mostly in the evening from Wednesday through Sunday, and for lunch on Sunday from October through April.

Bed and Breakfast  Luci sul Golfo  Via delle Ville, 48A   Arcola (La Spezia) 338.2595915.
Maurizio gave me both the card to the restaurant and the card to the bed and breakfast that they run in Arcola.  At the level of welcome, cleanliness, and attention to detail that they show at the restaurant, I would stay there gladly. It is located on the outskirts of La Spezia in a quiet, hilly suburban neighborhood.

Baccala Mantecato Here's a nice recipe from an independent travel blogger, living VENICE

*Cernia is a fish called Dusky Grouper in English. We tediously debate the degree to which we ought to translate the terms. Our current arbitrary test: translate if the term would be unknown to a smarty pants on their third trip to Italy. Feel free to add your opinion.

Written by Martha