When I think about Italy, I can’t help it, my mind goes immediately to food.

Not the ossobuco of Milan or the truffles of Tuscany.

Instead, I’m transported back to Cinque Terre. Stepping off the train in Cinque Terre, the first thing I notice is the landscape. I’ve never seen a coastline like this one. Jagged cliffs form the shores, with striation exposed for the eye to feast, stacked and appetizing, like a towering layer-cake dripping into the sea.

Hewed into the rock are five hamlet towns that give the region its name. Cinque, Italian for “five,” and Terre, for “land,” describe five fishing villages that dot a secluded belt of the Italian Riviera known as Liguria. Each town boasts a unique microclimate and all have in common picturesque, pastel-colored buildings, piled on top of one another and scored by narrow, winding streets. A chapel also stands watch over each town.

La Spezia is a three-hour train ride from Milan and capital city of the province adjacent to Cinque Terre. It’s a lively city with affordable accommodations and my plan was to stay for three days while I explored the nearby towns.

After checking into my apartment, I took another train to Manarola, an eastern village of Cinque Terre, to link up with a friend I know from college. This ride was short, not longer than 20 minutes. My friend, Monique, met me on the train platform in Manarola. I hugged her and shook hands with her boyfriend then we started walking, catching up as we ascended a crest along Via Rollandi. I remember hearing how, a couple years after she graduated, Monique had met a chef while traveling through Italy, how she landed a job in the same restaurant where Manu Spadaro, her boyfriend by this time, ran a family restaurant.

At the crest of Via Rollandi, Monique stopped us out front of an old house, which had been retrofitted with an industrious kitchen and terraced seating accommodations. “Trattoria Dal Billy tonight, La Lampara mañana,” Monique explained.

As we waited for a table, I picked up a mild but unmistakable flavor in the air. I searched for detail and recognized a mineral scent and salty flavor. My mouth began to water. At first, I thought it was just my roiling taste buds. Then I realized it wasn’t only hunger tripping my senses, but indeed, a taste of salt hanging lush in the air.

I came to learn during my stay that this sweep of coastline has a unique airborne salinity, which emanates from the sea, washing over and into everything it touches — the air, the food, the wine, and even the people.

The first time I broke bread with Manu, he struck me as a little salty.

Reserved and soft-spoken, he listened intently but didn’t say much. When Monique told me how he works six days a week, up to fifteen hours a day in his own restaurant, alongside his coursework at culinary school, I sympathized with him and couldn’t blame him for taking a back seat to the table talk.

As food arrived and wine flowed, however, Manu came to life. Over the next hour, he pointed out the lingering taste of salt in the air and explained how it gives Cinque Terre’s native wine its characteristic flavor.

It turns out, Manu explained, some of Tuscany’s oldest grapes — grapes heralded the world over for their quality and association with the region — were actually pulled from the Cinque Terre hillside, where vines grow perched atop steep, craggy hills. Manu told us about how treacherous the grape harvest is, how it must be done by hand, and how the grapes are shuttled by basket down to the villages below where locals churn out the finished product. He also lauded his native Ligurian coast as the home of other staples of Italian nutrition, like pesto and focaccia.

At the end of the meal — assorted pasta and whole branzino — Manu poured limoncino and plugged his own restaurant, hinting at but never saying outright that his was better. I admired his quiet confidence but the novice foodie in me knew that would be a tall order.

Two more friends I know from college arrived in La Spezia overnight and we spent the next day kayaking, swimming, and generally carousing with the coastline.

After sunset, we got out of the water and walked into town, up a narrow flight of stairs and on, ascending a gentle incline to a restaurant perched midway up a hill overlooking the street. Unlike the tourist-swarmed trattorias along the coast, the entrance to La Lampara is nestled in an alleyway street, Via Mal Balborghetto, only a few minutes’ walk from the marina in Riomaggiore.

Manu’s older brother, who also works at La Lampara, greeted us in the alley. He ushered us to our table, the closest to the kitchen. As we looked over the menu, I imagined Manu and his crew at work, just feet from where we sat. Monique guided us through the menu and ordered for the table.

If there was any reason to doubt Manu’s culinary talents, all questions were answered when the food arrived. True to his confidence the night before, Manu served up a ten-course meal that was a tour de force of local cuisine.

First to arrive were stuffed mussels, removed from the shell, stuffed and returned so that, on first glance, it wasn’t easy to tell that the meat had been invigorated with cheese and baked. Prying open the shell released a barrage of smells that came together as a unified, singular flavor on the tongue. Grilled chunks of octopus and potato puree came next, followed by swordfish tartar, with diced red peppers, olives, and capers.

When the anchovies arrived, Monique pointed out how the fish is a local delicacy. She told us that, among Riomaggiore’s renowned seafood, anchovies might be an underdog but they’re undeniably a staple, having been fished from Monterosso — Cinque Terre’s westernmost village — since Roman times.

In homage to local tradition, our anchovies came bathed in olive oil, garnished with fresh garlic and chopped oregano. Later, I found out: when anchovies reach the Ligurian coast it’s early summer and the fish are a perfect weight for eating — plump but not too meaty. The unique salinity of the water, together with the humidity and summer heat, gives the anchovies a firmer flesh, nearly sweet in flavor. I bit into an anchovy and sipped the wine, my pallet counterbalanced by the indigenous flavors.

Later, Monique recounted for us how the anchovies must be caught at night using a lamp to attract plankton as bait for the feeding schools, and how Manu’s restaurant — La Lampara — takes its name from these bright lamps that dot the summer’s nighttime horizon. She told us about how anchovies can be salted and preserved for a year or more.

Following the anchovies came plates of spaghetti and swordfish, tomatoes, and olives, drizzled in a light sauce. Linguine with clams followed, flavored with garlic and diced basil. The seafood risotto that came next still defies description.

While we were looking through the menu before our meal, there was a minor disagreement about which final dish we should order because Manu had, over dinner the night before, sold me on La Lampara’s whole branzino. Meanwhile, Monique assured us that we couldn’t miss with the mixed plate of grilled seafood. We ordered the branzino.

After the server walked away, we changed our minds, coming to a consensus that we’d made a mistake ordering whole fish two nights in a row. Without batting an eye, Monique glided into the kitchen and clarified our fickle request, assuring us it was no problem at all.

We didn’t regret it.

The final entrée: langoustines (small, thin lobsters), swordfish fillet, sea bream (a whitefish indigenous to the Mediterranean and North Atlantic), whole calamari, and giant prawn. For dessert, Monique ordered us pana cotta drizzled with syrup and topped with fresh fruit, and tiramisu for good measure.

As the staff cleared the last of our plates, Manu emerged from the kitchen and we gave him a round of applause, rightfully so. He sat with us as we drank espresso and a sweet dessert wine.

As for the wine, Manu told us that, like dry whites and salted anchovies, this Scacchetrà was a source of local pride. It was made by drying the grapes before fermentation, a process that concentrates the shrunken fruit’s sugars and requires a larger quantity to make the same volume of wine. The prodigious number of Cinque Terre grapes required to make a single bottle, together with the customary 6 years of aging, justifies the sweet flavor and surprising heft of each bottle’s price tag. Manu offered up his own glass for us to try, passing it around the table.

During the meal, Monique told me over linguini with clams that Manu makes a habit of fishing out each clam from a simmering pot and plucking the clam meat by hand before plating. Even though he’d never admit it, she explained, the ends of Manu’s fingers were typically sapped of feeling by the end of each day.

When Manu sat with us, I asked him about how he made the dish, intending to compliment him on it. At first he interpreted my question differently, apparently under the impression that my asking about it implied dissatisfaction in some way.

“Oh, then do you prefer them in the shell?” he asked.

I clarified immediately that the dish was excellent the way it was and knowing the effort, care, and attention that went into it only enhanced the flavor.

What struck me about this exchange was that, despite the time and singed fingertips it took to compose the dish, Manu’s only concern in that moment was whether I, his guest, was satisfied with what I’d eaten, or if I might prefer something else.

It’s humbling to be in the presence of such devotion to craft.

After we paid the bill — which was modest, I’d have gladly paid double — I hugged the chef and offered to buy him a drink. He told us to go to the bar next door, that he’d meet us there.

He caught up with us a few minutes later at Bar O’Netto. We talked about football (the European kind), about Manu’s favorite team, and wondered why Americans call their version by the same name when the game is played by hand.

Monique also told us about how Manu was working on a new menu, that he’d already written it, about how it’s now just a matter of sourcing ingredients. We discussed plans to return the next day to try the pizza, served Neapolitan style with fresh seafood, or pesto and cheese.

We did, in fact, return the next day for afternoon pizza, and again, for dinner that night. Each meal was better than the one before it and Manu would join us after for an espresso and Scacchetrà or limoncino.

After a post-dinner round (or two) on our final night, we said our goodbyes and left, wishing Manu good luck on his upcoming culinary school exams.

I have no doubt he’ll pass with flying colors.

— FIN —

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