“What is it with the Americans and Cinque Terre?” asks the Danish gentleman to my left, his tone both curious and concerned. “My wife and I thought we found this hidden gem, and then we arrived here, and I have never seen so many Americans in my life.”
It’s true. The Americans adore Cinque Terre, or the “five lands,” a region in northwest Italy characterized by five pastel-hued fishing villages built into and perched upon a precipitous, rugged five-mile coastline in Liguria. Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore constitute the Cinque Terre National Park, which holds UNESCO World Heritage status. Steep, craggy trails that link the villages beckon both amateur and experienced hikers from far and wide, as does the clear, sparkling Mediterranean. Although the gulf of Monterosso is Cinque Terre’s only conventional beach, a dip in the sea is not out of the question when traipsing through the other towns if you do not mind jumping into a harbor.
The distinct aromas of freshly picked basil, just-out-of-the-oven focaccia, and direct-from-the-ocean anchovies entice pedestrians strolling the villages’ narrow, serpentine streets. Ligurian cuisine, as is true of most of its la cucina Italiana regional counterparts, has humble origins and — despite the seaside proximity — a substantial rustic component. Man-made terraces have permitted locals to harvest Cinque Terre’s menacing, seemingly vertical cliffs for centuries, growing olives, lemons, vegetables, herbs such as basil, oregano and marjoram, and more. Rabbits hop the hills undeterred, hence coniglio alla ligure, a Ligurian signature dish made from red wine–braised rabbit with olives and pine nuts.
Pesto alla Genovese, Liguria’s most iconic dish, holds D.O.P. status. Basil leaves from Genoa, pine nuts, both Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino cheeses, Vessalico garlic, sea salt and D.O.P. Ligurian olive oil comprise the proper recipe, all of which should be hand-crushed via mortar and pestle. Traditionally, long green beans and potatoes accompany the trofie (rolled twists), trenette (long, flat and narrow) or testaroli (thick and pancake-like) pastas served with pesto. The omnipresent focaccia is prepared plain or with a multitude of fresh flavors as well as in pizza or panino form. Most Italians kick off their day by pairing their ritual cappuccino with a brioche pastry, while the Ligurians forego the pastry, preferring to dunk a slice of the standard olive oil–glazed, salt-dusted focaccia — referred to as focaccia della mattina (morning) among locals — into their cappuccinos, without even batting an eye at the thin layer of oil that settles over the foam.
Also from the land, ricotta-and-spinach-stuffed pansotti is topped with a walnut sauce, while chestnut flour appears in several local recipes ranging from savory pasta dough to sweet cakes and cookies. Chickpea flour serves as the main ingredient in farinata, a savory classic Ligurian street food pancake.
Among Cinque Terre’s piscine bounty, anchovies stand front and center, having been fished from Monterosso since Roman times. The bright lights studded across the black nighttime horizon are the anchovy fishermen with their lampare, special lamps shone over the water to lure the sleek, silver little guys into their nets. Additionally, mussels, branzino, tuna and swordfish are among the prevalent sea creatures that call this little neck of the Mediterranean home.
You may think it is impossible to eat badly in Cinque Terre, as restaurants within its 14.9 square miles already provide slim enough pickings. However, tourists swarm the five towns in droves, and the majority of establishments adhere to a hasty turn-and-burn philosophy, resulting in even slimmer pickings for a decent meal. The time constraints imposed on prearranged bus day trips or cruise ship excursions render those visitors more susceptible to settling for the first restaurant in sight, and many restaurants capitalize on the tourists, adhering to the lackadaisical quantity-over-quality mantra. To avoid falling for meals of this careless nature, here — in no particular order — are ten of our favorite restaurants in Cinque Terre.
Photos by Jackie DeGiorgio, unless otherwise noted
Monterosso al Mare
Ristorante Miky is so much more than a restaurant; it’s a beloved Cinque Terre institution. Chef Miky De Fina has been marinating, grilling and roasting some of the region’s most lauded seafood at his celebrated Monterosso New Town mainstay since 1980. The sawn-off ship in front displays the day’s catch sprawled atop a bed of ice, an appetizing prelude to the creative, flavorful fare waiting inside. Tame, table-side pyrotechnics accompany the spaghetti alla chitarra with smoked monkfish, tomatoes and olives and the frutti di mare risotto. Dishes of note include the bacon-wrapped octopus with asparagus and wild fennel, pistachio-crusted yellow fin tuna and wood fire–roasted branzino with potatoes. Via Fegina, 104; ristorantemiky.it
La Cantina di Miky
Located centrally on Via Fegina, the New Town’s main drag, La Cantina di Miky is the aforementioned Ristorante Miky’s casual younger sister overseen by Miky’s son Manuel and his American soon-to-be missus, Christine. Appetizers include classic Ligurian stuffed mussels and an anchovy tasting that showcases seven preparations, from fried to sautéed to stuffed to lemon-marinated to everywhere in between. The house-made riccioli pasta with pesto — complete with potatoes and green beans — exemplifies pesto at its finest, with tangible texture and deep flavor. Other standouts include homemade tagliolini with anchovies, capers, tomatoes, pine nuts and olives, as well as a riccioli with clams and tomatoes. Monterosso is just as famous for its lemons as its anchovies, so finish with the lemon cake. The wine list heavily emphasizes Ligurian producers, specifically those produced in Cinque Terre. Reservations are recommended for the inside; the seaside outdoor patio is for walk-ins. Via Fegina, 90; cantinadimiky.it
L’Ancora della Tortuga
Located inside a converted Nazi bunker built into a steep cliffside, L’Ancora della Tortuga is just as desirable for its enchanting sea views as for its solid menu of classic Ligurian fare. Start with the trio of lemon-marinated, salted and stuffed anchovies; seafood-centric first courses include orecchiette with mussels and broccoli and spaghetti with anchovies, capers, cherry tomatoes and garlic bread crumbs. If you’ve arrived on a completely empty stomach, opt for the seven-course tasting menu (35€ per person), which includes the pesto lasagna, a crowd-pleaser also available à la carte. Reserve in advance to ensure a spot on the outdoor terrace; otherwise the nautical wonderland inside does not fail to charm. Salita Cappuccini, 4
Il Fornaio di Monterosso
Located on the tail end of Via Fegina, this lovely bakery is perfect for a typical Italian brioche and cappuccino breakfast — or when in Liguria, get into the local spirit by foregoing the brioche for the olive oil– and salt-dusted focaccia. The focaccia bounty includes the aforementioned standard version, olive-baked, cheese-filled, pesto-topped and more, while a focaccia panini is a satisfying lunch option for anyone looking for a quick and informal bite. Grab a slice for beach snacking or for refueling purposes as you place your hiking sticks aside somewhere on the trail between Vernazza and Corniglia to admire the sublime view. Via Fegina, 112
Trattoria Gianni Franzi
Restaurants flank the tight harbor-side Piazza Marconi, Vernazza’s beating heart, and savvy travelers will approach these eateries with caution. Trattoria Gianni Franzi, which lies on the ground floor of the eponymous hotel just beside the piazza, has been cooking up an honest taste of Liguria since the 1960s. Expect stuffed mussels, anchovies, minestrone alla Genovese, trofie or trenette with pesto, fish ravioli and a fritto misto. Especially of note is the tegame di Vernazza, a quintessential Cinque Terre recipe made from anchovies, tomatoes and potatoes. Via San Giovanni Battista, 47-49, giannifranzi.it
Located inside an 11th century castle tower that stands on the tip of Vernazza’s harbor, Belforte and its prime waterfront location may seem suspect, but do not let it dissuade you. One of Cinque Terre’s finest restaurants, Belforte has been serving elegantly simple Ligurian cuisine for more than 50 years. Standouts include marinated mussels from nearby Porto Venere, lightly steamed pink shrimp from Santa Margherita, spaghetti with Monterosso anchovies, baked sea bream and zuppa Michela, a shellfish and tomato soup. Via G. Guidoni; ristorantebelforte.it/en
Osteria a Cantina de Mananan
It’s unlikely the staff will seat you without a booking, so take care to reserve in advance at Osteria a Cantina de Manana, especially if you’re not staying in Corniglia, as you would not want to brave the notoriously late trains and mount the 382 stairs for naught. The tiny, 20-seat restaurant emits Old World ambience juxtaposed against just the right amount of kitschy objects to charm. The menu includes testaroli with pesto, pansotti with walnut sauce and Ligurian-style rabbit, while the day’s catches may include grilled octopus, frutti di mare taglierini and mussels marinara. The restaurant is cash only, and you would be wise to hit up an ATM prior to arriving as Corniglia’s sole ATM machine is infamous for running on empty. Via Fieschi, 117
This year-old wine bar, meaning “may no one sleep,” is Cinque Terre’s most clever spot to imbibe, hands down. Perched in Manarola’s Punta Bonfiglio promontory, Nessun Dorma is ideal for anyone who wants to feast on a small-plates repast, satisfy late-afternoon hunger pangs or partake in an evening aperitivo. Sip on wine from small nearby producers or a locally inspired cocktail, such as the limoncello spritz, basil mojito or lemon colada while you nosh on focaccia, bruschetta with toppings such as pesto and tomatoes, fresh fruit, salume, cheese and more; owners Simone and Elia grow the majority of the produce on site. Sofas, lounge chairs and tables overlook the rocky harbor and shimmering azure water. Localita Punta Bonfiglio
Trattoria dal Billy
Whether you have arrived in Manarola via train or boat, it is tempting to stop for nourishment at the first place that beckons once you have begun your ascent, but keep going until you have reached Trattoria dal Billy. The strenuous incline eventually levels out, and once you have arrived, you will agree that the vista encompassing the terraced hills, sparkling sea and colorful town make the climb worth it. The antipasti sampler for two (which they will make for one on request) features 13 generous “bite-size” portions of fish and local specialties; it is tasty, though a bit ambitious, as a single portion could easily suffice for two. Pastas include handmade short tagliatelle with scampi and the signature house-made taglierini alla Billy with shrimp, peppers, pine nuts and tomatoes. Main plates include the day’s grilled catch, stuffed mussels and a fritto misto. Book a table in advance if only so you are committed to the reservation. Via Aldo Rollandi, 122; trattoriabilly.com/en
A Pié de Mà Wine Bar
A Via dell’Amore address may seem like a red flag in and of itself as couples and singles alike flock to the “street of love” to snap selfies, landscape shots and sometimes both simultaneously. However, do visit A Pié de Mà for an aperitivo or a quick bite. The no-reservations, cafeteria-style procedure is a bit harrowing — you wait in line to order and receive a ticket to retrieve your food when it is ready. Once seated, however, you surrender to the captivating surroundings and realize that arriving at this moment is, as the Italians say, vale la pena (worth the punishment). The quality, straightforward plates include basic salads, anchovies, salume, cheese and meat. Sip local wines such as Riomaggiore’s own Prima Terra, Walter de Batté and Campo Grande. Via dell’Amore, 55; apiedema.com