This is the fourth part of our travel series on Northern Italy.
Vernazza has been called the “jewel of Cinque Terre,” and it deserves the hype. The colorful town is wedged into the tiny space where the mountains of Italy’s western coast fall down to meet the sea. The homes of the town’s roughly 1,000 residents tumble up the hill, accessible by stairs from the street below. Underneath, a pedestrian tunnel leads to the town’s quiet beach. There is no space for a hotel, and the limited number of rooms for rent keeps the place blissfully quiet in the mornings and evenings when those who arrive by boat for the day are gone.
Everything in Vernazza is a little bit surreal. People walk around with paper cones filled with perfectly fried calamari or with fried fish so tiny they can be eaten like popcorn, their tails poking out of the top of the cone, as if doing such a thing were a normal part of daily life. A store dedicated entirely to making different kinds of focaccia occupies a prime location on the town’s only street. Cars are allowed only on Tuesday mornings, and only if they’re taking part in the weekly street market.
We had snagged a prime room at La Marina Rooms, a small collection of rooms rented out by the friendly and energetic Cristian Carro. He had that charismatic confidence of a guy who is known to everyone in town. Up the stairs we went, one of our heavy suitcases on Cristian’s head and the other suspended between his left hand and my right. At the top, on our private balcony, the Mediterranean spread itself out in front of us like a blanket, its waves crashing white against the cliffs below. In the distance, the town of Monterosso al Mare could be seen nestled into the foot of the mountains on the edge of the sea. There was no one in the world but us.
Everyone else in the world was at Il Gambero Rosso, a happening spot in the main square serving fresh seafood and pasta dishes. In Italy, everyone has an opinion, and our taxi driver in La Spezia had it on good information that the best dinner in Vernazza was to be had at Il Gambero Rosso. The setting couldn’t be beat and the place was packed, so we settled into an outdoor table around sundown.
We were excited for fresh seafood after several days in the interior, so we went with a dish of paccheri–large tube-shaped pastas–with tomato sauce and chunks of red mullet. Paccheri is a great pasta shape–very rustic–and it made a great vessel for the meaty fish, garlic and sauce.
My go-to dish in a seaside European town is a mixed grill of fish–a parillada de pescados in Spain, or a grigliata mista di mare here in Italy–which lets the restaurant showcase the finest of its bounty. At Gambero Rosso, the grigliata mista arrived with a whole grilled fish, a giant langoustine, a large red shrimp, and some more assorted seafood, all served with little more than good olive oil, lemon, and some capers–simple seaside cuisine at its best.
We quickly jettisoned our plans to visit the other towns in Cinque Terre and decided to take it slow. Not that there’s anything to do in Vernazza. At Batti Batti Friggitoria, we grabbed some paper cones filled with fried seafood and tried to fit in. The calamari were fresh and tender, seasoned beautifully, rustically presented with a lemon wedge and a plastic fork stuck into the top of the pile. I stared at the bottom of my empty cone with the disappointment of child who had just finished his ice cream.
Breakfast each morning was out on the main square, at one of the restaurants opposite Il Gambero Rosso, where a few euros got us a cappuccino, a slice of focaccia or a croissant, and a view of the sea. The boats of visitors had not pulled in yet for the day and the square was quiet and calm. As we sipped our cappuccinos, we watched restaurant workers open umbrellas and polish tables in preparation for the day ahead.
For lunch, we would wander into Batti Batti Focacceria (sister-restaurant of the fried seafood place) and see what caught our eye. There was doughy-crisp focaccia with sea salt and sweet caramelized onions. And then there was Melissa’s favorite, focaccia topped with tomato sauce, fresh basil pesto, and a creamy white cheese with the texture of ricotta but with a stronger flavor. We sat on the dock dangling our feet over the water, thinking that there must be very few better places in the world to have lunch.
Dinner the second night was at the Ristorante al Castello, a three-level restaurant that climbed up the cliff and dangled over the water, with stunning sea views. As the sun went down, the sea, sky, and mountains all blended together in a greyish-blue silhouette.
On the menu I found exactly what I wanted: a tangle of spaghetti spun together with fresh seafood. There was no need for “sauce”–the liquor of the fresh clams, mussels, and shrimp gave the pasta all the flavor it needed, producing a dish that tasted like the sea. Some coarsely chopped parsley added just a bit of texture and color. It was coastal Italian fare at its finest: simple, fresh, and pure.
A dish of little pasta quills with tomato pesto was advertised as a special of the house. It was nothing special, really, but it was a nice simple dish to accompany our fresh seafood.
We were even more impressed with Ristorante Belforte, which served the best dinner of our time in Vernazza. The caprese was visually stunning, with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes served on a multi-colored bed of lettuce and radicchio with a pile of marinated olives in the center. We had many capreses during our trip; this was one of our favorites.
We were really craving pesto, and Belforte did not disappoint. The pasta shape of choice was trofie, which are rolled up twists of pasta that the Italians have come to believe are the ideal vehicle for pesto. The pesto itself had a deep basil flavor and a creaminess that I have not been able to find outside Italy. It was a great dish to cap off our time in Vernazza.
We ordered a beautiful white fish, which showed up whole, went away, and came back filleted atop a bed of potatoes, tomatoes and veggies. The meat was tender and juicy, and although there could have been more of it we had plenty to fill up on with the trofie and caprese.
Vernazza is not an easy place to leave, but at least they can make sure you are well-fed on your journey. The Lunch Box, on the main drag, serves excellent Italian sandwiches to go, stuffed with fresh ingredients and good olive oil. Our neighbors on the train to Milan eyed us jealously.
As we rode the train, we thought back to the great food we had had on our trip through Northern Italy: sauteed lake fish in Bellagio, pizza by the water in Lecco, a fantastic afogatto al caffe on Lake Garda, and of course the stuffed pasta with parmigiano reggiano in Parma. Our last stop was Milan, where we knew we would find a dish of osso buco with saffron risotto Milanese.
There were great things yet to come.