Every time I sit down to write about Italian food, my research unceremoniously chucks me down a rabbit hole and I stumble out the other end, a drunken Alice, into an impossibly raucous, ancient and labyrinthine paese delle meraviglie. Surely Italy possesses the lion's share of history: feuding city-states, warring republics, teeming ports flush with Far Eastern vice, savage families, greed-steeped consiglieri, nefarious popes, festering plagues, exploding volcanoes. Her scientists and philosophers deftly probed the dominion of God, while her artists littered the centuries with jaw-popping masterpieces. She presented the learned and civilized men of the world with an ermine-cloaked Latin and flung a far more richly-loomed vernacular on the groundlings. Her voice soars above the mutterings of other nations in spectacular song, her operas transform the dull ceaseless drone of human comedy into a sweet and sublime music. All of this from a country more or less the size of California—why, the lifespan of an entire continent appears to have been crammed into the confines of its diminutive borders.
A case in point is the story behind the Tuscan port town of Livorno and its classic two-nickel sandwich, the 5 e 5 (cinque e cinque, or five-and-five). It is made of a thin chick pea flour cake called torta di ceci, or simply torta, in Livorno (it's called cecina in Tuscany's Versilia, farinata in Ligurian Genoa, and socca in not-far-away Nice). The torta comes nestled in either focaccia (also called schiaccia in Livorno) or pane francese, a French-style roll, and nowadays is usually offered with melanzane sotto pesto, which in Livorno means eggplant marinated in abundant olive oil, parsley, garlic and chili pepper. The sandwich's unusual moniker came about in the 1950's, when hungry and frugal Livornese could get 5 lire's worth of torta to tuck into a 5 lire roll, making for a nourishing snack or light meal. It became expedient to flick a couple of nickels over the counter and simply say "Gimme five-and-five!"
The torta is traditionally, ideally baked in a shallow copper pan in a wood-burning oven, enhancing the flour's natural smokiness. The batter, made of chick pea flour, olive oil and salt, ferments for hours beforehand and gets cooked at high heat in order to crisp nicely on top and bottom while remaining creamy in the middle. The oven-hot cake then gets dusted with abundant cracked black pepper before it's served on its own or betrothed to a piece of bread: simple and nourishing. Ask any denizen of Livorno where to get the best 5 & 5 and the response will invariably be, "Va' da Gagarin, dé !" A hole in the wall near the old port, Torteria Gagarin is an institution.
But if we really want to understand what makes this sandwich tick, we need to delve into the torta's origins: how did the savory little wonder come into being? As legend has it, the torta was born in 1284 out of the Battle of Meloria, a naval skirmish in the Ligurian sea between warring factions in the Genovese-Pisan War.
The Pisan fleet was destroyed and their surviving sailors taken prisoner on a Genovese galleon. While trying to get back to port, the ship was caught in a fierce tempest that raged for days and days. Provisions ran perilously low. At the mercy of the storm-tossed sea, the ship rocked wildly and took on water; sacks of chick peas spilled their contents, a barrel of olive oil broke open, and the whole lot mixed with salty sea water, becoming essentially a fetid purée that continued to macerate in the hold. Finally, hunger gnawing at their ribs, the Genovese were reduced to eating the rather unappetizing mess. The Pisan prisoners, however, pigheadedly refused*.
Once the sea was calm, the slop was spread out in the sun to dry and it turned into something rather palatable: a sort of crisp chick pea flat bread, and the Genovese sailors gobbled it happily. Back on land in Genoa, it wasn't long before the recipe was perfected and—with perfect irony—baptized as l'oro di Pisa (the gold of Pisa).
All of which brings up another vital organ in the seething belly of the Bel Paese: rivalry. In Italy, apparently, once you've established who your enemies are they're your enemies for a lifetime. Hundreds of lifetimes. These rivalries are hard-wired into Italian DNA and manifest themselves to this day, usually in the form of good-natured ribbing but sometimes—particularly when it comes to soccer—in more crossbow-and-mace fashion. Genoa and Pisa—as we've seen—harbor an ancient animosity toward one another. Ditto Florence and Siena. But undoubtedly the most famous ongoing rivalry in the whole of the peninsula is the one between Livorno and Pisa. To the Livornese, Pisa is a moldering backwater of bungling half-wits whose buckets keep coming up bone-head dry from the intelligence well. Pisa ain't exactly singing Livorno's praises, either.