Genoa-born chef Ivano Ricchebono looks like a Hollywood actor playing a chef in a movie. His restaurant The Cook is in a 14th-century palazzo in the old town, and as I step into the dining room I stop and stare – the entire place is covered with frescoes. It’s wildly romantic. “People get engaged here all the time,” Ivano says with a smile. Awarded his first Michelin star in 2010, he has cooked for Stanley Tucci, and has an international reputation for excellence. But today he’s my tour guide – not to the blossoming fine dining scene but to the affordable (and equally delicious) fare enjoyed by locals every day.

Once a mandatory stop on the 19th-century Grand Tour, and known as “La Superba”, Genoa centre is full of impressive architecture that tells of this under-rated port city’s past as a rich and powerful republic. Squeezed between the sea and the Ligurian Alps, it’s just an hour and a half by fast train from Milan, and about the same down to the Cinque Terre. Among Italians the city is renowned for its culinary riches – almost everyone agrees that the pesto and focaccia here are the best in the country (there’s even a foccacia festival in May). Our plan is to walk through several neighbourhoods and taste as many of Genoa’s gastronomic delights as possible.

Chef Ivano Ricchebono, right, and the owner of the Rela stall in Mercato Orientale Genova. Photograph: Laura Coffey

Ivano doesn’t speak much English and my Italian is horrible so I bring along Maria, a friend’s daughter, to translate. Our first stop, in the medieval heart of town, is at a tiny hole-in-the-wall cafe, Cremeria Buonafede. This is the best place for pànera, a sweet, soft, coffee-flavoured semifreddo invented in the city in the 19th century. Ivano orders a caffè con pànera, an espresso topped with a ridiculous amount of the stuff, dusted with a choice of cinnamon or cocoa powder. I just have a scoop of pànera. It feels pretty decadent for 10am, but then the smart older Italian couple at the bar next to us are breakfasting on maritozzi, brioche buns stuffed with an unreasonable amount of cream.

We walk off (some of) the calories as we continue through the tangle of streets and almost impossibly tiny alleys called vicoli. Streets have poetic names such as Piazza dell’Amor Perfetto (perfect love). Via Giuseppe Garibaldi is lined with palazzos built by the Genoese aristocracy during the Renaissance. “The noble families were all fighting with each other to make the most beautiful palaces,” says Ivano (they’re open to the public on certain days, known as “Rolli days”; the next are 17-19 May; the newly reopened Palazzo Rosso is now a museum, open Tues-Sun, €9).

Genoa is a city of characterful colourful alleys. Photograph: Luca Rei/Alamy

We head west towards the port. Genoa constantly reminds you it’s a place where real people live, not a picture-postcard museum of the past. At Piazza San Giorgio, on the boundary between the old town and the seafront, we stop at Friggitoria San Giorgio, which sells bright yellow cones of fried fish to take away. The fish comes fresh off the boats at 7am every day, and it’s no ordinary selection: there are anchovies fried in chickpea flour; calamari and octopus; to be eaten on a bench overlooking the sea. They haven’t started frying when we arrive, so I take Ivano’s word for the quality of the food, and we keep walking.

Frescoes at The Cook, Ivano Ricchebono’s restaurant.

Further along the street, under the arches, is the retro shopfront of Gran Ristoro, a great place to pick up a panino. An enormous selection of hyperlocal ingredients sit in the window alongside foods from other Italian regions. Ivano points out his go-to: cima alla genovese, slow-cooked breast of veal stuffed with vegetables and eggs and cut into slices; aged pecorino cheese; and salsa verde, made with parsley, garlic and olives. As we walk on, we pass Pescheria da Simone, the stall where Ivano sources all the fish for his restaurants. “It’s the best,” he says.

But perhaps more than anything, Genoa is known in Italy for pesto. There’s something special about the basil plants that grow in the hills of Liguria: they have smaller leaves and a more delicate flavour. I ask Ivano where we should go to try some. “I make the best pesto!” he asserts with great passion, but he also recommends Osteria da Pippo, in the village of Fontanegli, half an hour away in the hills to the north. Tubs of readymade fresh pesto can be bought from delis, and from the covered market, see below. Traditionally, it’s served with small twisted pasta called trofie.

We continue on to the centre of Genoa, past the strikingly monochrome San Lorenzo Cathedral, and up to central Piazza de Ferrari, then along the main shopping street, Via XX Settembre, towards the historic food market, Mercato Orientale Genova (known as MOG). As we walk I keep stopping to admire the city’s grandeur. Evidence of its wealthy banking heritage is everywhere – the buildings are ornate, the fountains spectacular, the streets colonnaded, and under my feet there are orange mosaics, depicting waves, flowers and strange sea creatures in intricate repeating patterns.

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Genoa offers some of the best pesto in Italy thanks to the quality of the basil grown in Liguria. Photograph: Lizzy Komen/Getty Images

We turn left into the MOG and suddenly there’s colour – and people – everywhere. “Here you can find anything you want: meat, fish, vegetables, every single spice you can think of,” Ivano says, guiding me towards Rela, one of the oldest vegetable stalls. We admire sculptural artichokes; dark green zucchini, each with a delicate orange flower; and spices that would rival a Moroccan souk. A weird black vegetable that looks a bit like a manky carrot catches my attention: it’s scorzonera, or salsify. Ivano tells me it’s one of the ingredients in cappon magro, a traditional Christmas Eve salad of seafood and vegetables.

At tables in the light-filled central atrium, people are tucking into street food. Ivano steers me to Laboratorio Gastronomico, which does sandwiches, pizza and a lot of fried things. My favourites are latte dolce (thick egg custard cut into squares and deep-fried) and stuffed zucchini flowers, but the fried ravioli feel like an indulgence too far. Other specialities are torta pasqualina, a flaky pastry pie filled with egg, spinach and ricotta, and farinata, the chickpea pancake famous in Genoa and made in huge, flat pans.

Panificio Mario sells bread in four varieties with flavours including onion, cheese and sage. Photograph: Laura Coffey

Next, Ivano suggests sampling some local wines from La Vineria, a wine shop across the atrium. I’m taken with a fresh, light sparkling Ligurian vermentino, far nicer than prosecco.

No food tour of Genoa would be complete without trying some focaccia. Traditionally, when they’re not scoffing pànera, Genovesi eat focaccia for breakfast, dipping it into their morning cappuccino. At Panificio Mario, near Brignole station, the bread comes in four varieties: normale (salt), onion, cheese and sage. It’s hauled out in huge thin slabs, hot from the oven. Ivano chooses onion and I have the simple salt one, which tastes surprisingly delicate, though, unsurprisingly given the day we’ve had, I can’t finish my enormous piece.

Enchanted Islands: Travels through Myth & Magic, Love & Loss by Laura Coffey will be published on 2 May by Summersdale. To order a copy for £14.95 go to