Genoese cooking is plenty of tasty appetizers and finger food, invented long before the modern trend of “aperitivo” – indeed, if you happen to have an “aperitivo” (which is a drink consumed a couple of hours before dinner, usually going along with unhealthy snacks like chips, salted peanuts and crackers, a typical Italian habit) in Genoa you’ll be surprised of how many snacks it is served with. Oddly, people from Genoa have the reputation of being particularly scrooge.
Such an abundance of satiating appetizers in Genoese cooking can be explained with local culinary tradition, consisting in many poor foods, often made reusing left-overs and/or combining poor ingredients in different ways, looking for a tastier dish.
Genoa lies by the sea in a very sunny region, Ligury, which nowadays is renowned among tourists for its beautiful landscapes and small coastal towns. This position and a centuries-old tradition of sailing and trades enriched local cookery with a variety of flavors, such as herbs and pine nuts from the Mediterranean “maquis”, local olive oil and legumes from central Italy.
This resulted in a culinary tradition offering a variety of croquettes, deep-fried foods (codfish, mussels and anchovies first, but even plain bread) and different kinds of savory tarts, that nowadays are mostly served as appetizers, while everyday food has become lighter.
Cuculli are probably the poorest and simplest food after plain bread, because they basically are made by dropping a spoonful of dough into hot oil (about 200°C/400°F) and letting it fry.
There are a lot of cuculli recipes. Most common ones are those with lettuce and with onion (or with them both), but some are also made with a mashed potatoes based dough, like these ones.
How to make Genoese potato cuculli at home
1 kg (35.3 Oz) potatoes
50 (1.8 Oz) g butter
20 g (0.7 Oz) pine nuts
1 small bunch marjoram
Wash potatoes and put them in a pan, cover with abundant tap water and place the pan on the burner. Allow potatoes to boil for at least half an hour. They must turn tender, and it may take longer if they are big, so test them with a stick now and then.
In the meantime, take the butter out of the fridge to let it reach room temperature. If it’s cold in the room, consider to place it close to the burner to speed this process, but not to close, not to let it melt.
Wash marjoram and mince it. Gently toast pine nuts in a non-sticky pan, without adding any grease, then coarsely chop them.
Once potatoes are cooked, drain them, peel them (be careful when handling freshly boiled potatoes: peel may be warm, while pulp is burning hot) and mash them in a large bowl when they still are hot.
Add butter, pine nuts, marjoram and three yolks. Season with a dash of salt and a dash of nutmeg. Mix it all up very well. Add a small amount of flour to make the mixture denser and drier. From two to four spoonfuls are usually enough for this amount of potatoes, but a lot depends on their variety.
Be sure the mixture is very well blended and let it cool down a little (spreading it helps).
Meanwhile, briefly whip albumens in a soup plate with a fork. Pour breadcrumbs in another plate.
Heat oil up in a proper pot. Once it’s hot, form a croquette from the mixture and roll it in the egg white, first, then in breadcrumbs.
Deep-fry the croquette and place it on paper towels immediately after draining, to let it absorb oil on the surface.
You may want to damp your hands to easily form croquettes from the mixture, but drops of water falling into hot oil from your hands can be dangerous. Always be sure that your hands and the food are as much dry as possible before panfrying.