LIVORNO, Italy (Reuters Life!) - Venice has St Mark's Square while Rome offers the Colosseum. But should visitors come to the Italian town of Livorno, its tourist office suggests a gastronomic chickpea pie tour as a main attraction.
Simple street food that looks like a large pizza only thinner and more yellow in color, the "torta di ceci" is a delicacy favored all along the Tyrrenic coast, but particularly popular in the Tuscany and Liguria regions.
In Livorno, which lies on the central coast of Italy, the local tourist board insists on a walking taste tour of some of its 20 little pie shops to sample "a bit of the city flavor."
Locals pride themselves of the savory food made from chickpea flour, peanut oil, water and a pinch of salt. Although called a pie, it is more of a fritter, served as a sandwich in white bread, sometimes with grilled eggplant.
Often called different names in different areas -- like farinata" in Liguria or "cecina" in Pisa -- the pie's origins go back to 1284, during the battle of Meloria which saw Genoa attacking Pisa to win control of the North-Tyrrenian coast.
Genoese ships were caught in a storm and seawater started flooding the holds, soaking sacks containing chickpeas and breaking and spilling containers with cooking oil.
A type of mush came out of the mix and sailors and prisoners tried to eat it to survive, only to find it was inedible. Leftovers were forgotten out on deck. Baked by the burning sun, the mush turned into a tasty flat fritter and was gobbled up.
The crew soon began cooking the food back on the mainland.
Despite the large number of shops selling the pie, Livorno inhabitants say just a few are the real "tortai," the name given to makers of the delicacy.
Their shops are usually tiny with a standing bar. The businesses are family-run and informal and owners usually begin their career as apprentices in "torta di ceci" shops.
One of Livorno's best-known names, Vittorio Seghieri comes from a family of four generations of pie-makers.
"I started cleaning (the shop) at the age of seven, I have always been in this shop," he told Reuters.
"The ingredients are so simple that everyone thinks they can make a good chickpea pie, but that's not how it works. You need experience, it takes hundreds of pies before you find the right way of baking ... that's why there are just a few real pie makers."
Salvatore Chiappa, or Gagarin as he is known locally due to his resemblance to the Russian astronaut, is another famous Livorno pie maker. "A chickpea pie is cheap, sandwiches will cost at most 2 euros. But these shops stay profitable as they are always packed with clients," his son Giuliano Chiappa said.
"People want chickpea pie for breakfast, lunch, as an afternoon snack and even for dinner."
Few Livorno pie makers have ventured out of town, preferring to stick to their home base to continue this culinary tradition.
"If one of us were to move, I'm sure people who are not familiar with the pie would just love it," Seghieri said. "Anyone of us could spread the tradition but pie makers do not like to move. They belong to where they have always lived."
Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Paul Casciato