Saturday, October 22, 2011

Corniglia and the most mind-blowing pasta of the trip

This morning we hiked to Corniglia. The Vernazza -> Corniglia hike is similar in length and strenuousness to the Vernazza –> Monterosso hike. It’s as stunningly pretty too, although several stretches are a bit more arid and rocky.  There are fewer terraced vineyards along this hike, but quite a few terraced olive groves.

Corniglia is the least touristy of the Cinque Terre villages, which has something to do with the fact that it’s the most difficult one to get to. The train station is about a kilometer away, and requires a ~10 minute hike up a gazillion stairs that zigzag back and forth up the hill. Corniglia’s non-touristy sleepiness also certainly has something to do with the fact that it’s the only village without direct access to the sea; it’s nestled high up on the hills and cliffs, and therefore has no harbor or beach.

I really like Corniglia. Aside form the non-touristy aspect, its main drag still retains its medieval stonework, the views of the sea and surrounding hills are priceless, the locals seem a bit more rugged and weathered, and it’s home to one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to in my life: Cantina de Mananan. But I’ll get to that last point in a bit.

Sadly, the path between Corniglia and Manarola (the next village down) is closed due to a landslide, so we took the train down to Manarola, which probably has the most striking harbor setting, with its jumble of pastel buildings jutting dramatically from the massive rocks that rise out of the sea at 90-degree angles. Manarola is also home to the best focaccia place that I’ve found anywhere. It’s a little to-go place, which, among other things, makes this amazing focaccia with fresh, Ligurian pesto and cheese, and the whole thing is lightly toasted. It’s a bit pricey, but absolutely necessary.

We were feeling kinda pooped, so we went back to Vernazza, piddled around the harbor, did some laundry, and later, took the train to Corniglia for the aforementioned mind-blowing culinary experience at Mananan.

I went to Mananan back in ’07, and was blown away then, too. It’s a tiny place in what looks like an old, medieval cellar, complete with old, stone walls and a vaulted ceiling. The menu is scrawled semi-legibly in chalk on a blackboard, as is the wine list. The owner/guy who works the front is appropriately gruff and grizzled. Tonight, he opened the place by walking out the front door chewing on a cigar, blowing smoke over the heads of the few of us who were eagerly waiting outside. The place can only hold about 20 people, so reservations are absolutely mandatory. Countless sad-faced people were turned away throughout the evening because they hadn’t made reservations.

We ordered tagliatelle with frutti di mare, which came family-style for two. Words can’t do justice to how amazingly orgasmic this pasta was. The tagliatelle was clearly fresh and eggy; the assortment of muscles, clams, crab, and shrimp entwined with the pasta was obviously today’s catch; the sauce that tied it all together (white wine, garlic, herbs, a bit of hot pepper flakes to give it some kick) was so good it made me want to jump up and down and run around the block three times. Terezia just looked stunned as she devoured it, and at some point proclaimed it to be the best pasta we’ve had so far in Italy. I would probably agree.

The  menu at Mananan in Corniglia

This pasta is serious business!

For a secondo, we shared a grilled fish (ricciola), which was quite tasty (and the little rosemary branch stuffed inside of it was a nice touch). Not as life-altering as the pasta, but still quite good. The local white wine we had here was the best from this region to have crossed our palettes. So, it was an utterly amazing dinner in a pain-in-the-ass-to-get-to location, that we’ll probably remember even when we’re old and senile.

For tomorrow, our last full day in the Cinque Terre, there’ll be more hiking, and an excursion into Riomaggiore. 

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