Cliffhanging, Wining & Dining
By Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo
© Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram 2008
We visited Cinque Terre many years ago. We wonder if it has changed as much as we have. We say goodbye to Como and the lakes, and head for La Spezia – one of the most beautiful stretches of the Italian coast where steep mountain cliffs drop directly into the azure Ligurian sea.
Mercedes and BMWs zip past as if they own the road. At these speeds, they do. We stay to the right and watch our mirrors for flashing lights of aggressive drivers. As we pass beneath ancient first-century aqueducts, the contrast is overwhelming.
We drive by Carrara, home of the Italian marble industry. Chunks of marble the size of dinosaurs lay in enormous piles. We stop for dinner along the way at La Maison. Despite its name, it offers classic Italian fare. We enjoy polpo e patate, octopus and potatoes, followed by a magnificent pizza with ricotta, prosciutto and rosemary that challenges our sentimental notion that Naples is home of the best pizza in he world.
It is well past dark when we arrive at Hotel La Spiaggia in Monterosso al Mare, the northernmost of the five towns that compose Cinque Terre (five lands). We are greeted by Andrea Poggi, who welcomes us back to his ancestral home with a glass of homemade wine. It’s been 20 years, but he is unforgettable, with impeccable English and quirky delivery—think Alfred Hitchcock in pullover sweater and reading glasses. He is as solicitous as ever. “Tell me what you want to do,” he growls, “and I will fix you up.”
Except for the avuncular nature of our host, much has changed. No more shared bathrooms or peeling walls. Hotel La Spiaggia is updated and modern, with comfortable, attractive rooms and shiny fixtures. Our room has a balcony overlooking Cinque Terre’s biggest sand beach. The sea breeze tickles our nose. This is paradise.
The lobby floor is striped black and white, reminiscent of San Giovanni Battista, a local church that Poggi helped restore. The breakfast room is coral-painted and hung with family photos in heavy frames. There are Poggi’s parents as a young bride and groom, marching along the seawall. The photographer’s name, “Maselli,” is signed in old-fashioned script. And there is Poggi as a baby, wearing nothing but an imperious expression.
In our 20-year absence, Cinque Terre has become a national park. The five villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manorola and Riomaggiore are picturesque beyond belief, and connected by spectacular walking trails. This is some of the best coastline hiking in the world. Walking between all the villages is next to impossible in less than a day for all but experienced hikers. The train is the best way to travel between towns; there is also a seasonal ferry service. Our little blue Fiat is a handicap in this part of the world, so we park it during our stay.
Each town is a unique pastel-painted destination nestled among terraced vineyards, olive groves and rugged cliffs. The best way to experience the sensory overload and incredible beauty Cinque Terre offers is by spending time in each town—on foot or by train—it’s up to you. It is amazing how so much great cuisine, incredible views and wild hiking are packed into this tiny 11 miles of coast.
We decide to hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, the next town. As we learn the hard way, this stretch of trail is actually the steepest, winding through terraced olive groves and vineyards. The dramatic ocean views are breathtaking, however, and worth every blister. Sensible shoes are essential, as trails are narrow and missing barriers. Following days of heavy rain, mud and slippery rocks make for treacherous, slow going. Younger hikers pass as if we are standing still. Three hours later, our two-hour hike is over.
As my pulse returns to normal, we hop a train to Corniglia, the third of the five towns, where Mr. Poggi has recommended the Ristorante daü Tinola. “You must have the fish antipasto for two. Ten plates of fish, maybe more, each better than the last,” he says. He is right—there are mussels, clams, shrimp, swordfish, octopus, squid, anchovies six ways, stuffed mussels, more clams, tuna carpaccio, swordfish and the tiny fried silver pignolini sardines. All are served really fast and hot when it matters, with lots of crusty bread. Poggi’s very specific recommendations include a local white wine, Polenza, crisp, dry and sunny yellow. Perfect after a long day on the hiking trails wearing the wrong shoes.
Poggi also recommends a restaurant around the corner, Barcaccia, fishing boat. Standout fare includes handmade ravioli stuffed with sea bass; beautiful grilled fish; and basil pesto over trofie, light Ligurian pasta. Pesto is a local specialty and served at almost every meal. We give the waitress an Obama button and she brings us two complementary glasses of limoncino, Cinque Terre’s fresh lemony liqueur. Not bad.
On our last morning, Mr. Poggi emerges from the kitchen where he has been loudly instructing his staff. “You eat fantastically well,” he growls at us over his glasses—high praise indeed. He decides to bless us with a reservation at Ristorante Manubiola in Parma on our way back to Milan.
We bid Poggi a fond arrivederci, pile back into our Fiat and head along the river for a rustic country lunch of wild boar and porcini mushrooms. Mr. Poggi says they hand roll pasta all week for Sunday afternoon’s 250 guests. We arrive in tiny village of Berceto, Parma. “Turn right at the graveyard,” Poggi said, but we are a bit lost. The tiny village feels medieval, with stone houses and streets. When, after many twists and turns, we finally arrive at the Manubiola, it is jumping, with 30 or more cars crammed along the front and back of the building.
Photos of hunters and stuffed boar’s heads line the entryway. The staff is grinning at us. They know we are the two stranieri from Monterosso and find us amusing. We are intimidated, impressed and grateful to Poggi for getting us here. This is a local crowd—we hear no English, French or German anywhere. While we wait, we are served a sparkling white wine and a slightly fizzy red. The red is astonishing, and the white is as light and fresh as any we have had up north.
We are seated, and the plates start coming. We are served porcini mushrooms on toast with a delicate bechamel sauce; porcini mushrooms in puff pastry; porcini in crespelle (crepes); prosciutto crudo with rough chunks of superb Parmigiano-Reggiano, for which the region is famous. This is followed by porcini mushrooms over fresh pasta with savory herbs. Just when we’re about to say “basta,” they bring out densely flavorful wild boar with soft, buttery polenta.
When you finally surrender and just sit, helpless, staring at your plate, they bring you a delicate glass of lemon sobetto, a few crunchy hazelnut cookies and the bill—a civilized way to end a world-class feast.
Mr. Poggi outdid himself.
We return to Maine sated and happy, maybe even a few pounds heavier. Cinque Terre is a splendid place, perhaps the most beautiful on the Italian coast. I doubt we will wait another 20 years to return.
SIDEBAR: Manubiola may be difficult if you don’t speak Italian, and you must have a car to get there. We would suggest visiting mid-week rather than the weekend, and do make a reservation. Restaurante Manubiola (Closed on Tuesdays), 43042 Bergotto, Berceto (Parma), Italy. Tel: 011-39-0525-64511.