Visitors to the Cinque Terre, the five beautiful coastal towns of northern Italy, are usually anxious to try local food specialties. Typical of Liguria, the region that hugs the northwestern coastline of Italy, the food of the Cinque Terre is heavy on seafood and locally grown fruit, vegetables, and herbs.
In whichever of the five towns of the Cinque Terre you choose to dine, a meal here is best served on a terrace overlooking the sea. Here are the 10 foods you absolutely must try when you visit the Cinque Terre.
Focaccia—the light, lofty hybrid of pizza and bread found all over Italy—originated in the Ligurian city of Genoa. While it's now found all over Italy, focaccia is still done better in Liguria than anywhere else. Proper focaccia is fluffy yet crunchy, salty, and glistening with olive oil. Variations may incorporate rosemary, garlic or onions, or are studded with olives, tomatoes, or other vegetables. Be sure to try to few different types—all in the name of research, of course!
Pasta with Pesto
Pesto—the savory sauce made of basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, salt, and parmesan or Pecorino cheese—was first developed in Liguria. This is partly because the abundance and quality of basil in the region. Basil grown in Liguria, and particularly the Cinque Terre, is considered more flavorful than anywhere else. The bright green, flavor-packed sauce shows up on pasta, gnocchi, risotto, and even in lasagna.
Don't knock 'em till you've tried them. Anchovies are ubiquitous across the Cinque Terre and are served fried, marinated, salt-cured, or with pasta. Called acciughe in Italian, they're nothing like the tinned anchovies you find in the U.S. You'll find them on menus everywhere here, so be sure to try them at least once.
Lemons grow like crazy in the Cinque Terre, and their blossoms perfume the trails in the springtime. They feature in all sorts of regional food, and lemon-themed gifts and souvenirs are sold everywhere.
You can taste the lemons of the Cinque Terre in a number of ways, from an icy granita to something stronger like the bright yellow limoncello liqueur that's ubiquitous to the region. Lemon desserts are also popular, and in May in Monterosso, the annual Lemon Festival celebrates the fruit.
There's more than one way to eat a fritto misto, a mixed fried plate. On the street, these portions of lightly fried fish, shellfish, and vegetables are sold in paper cones, priced according to their ingredients. In restaurants, a fritto misto might arrive as a heaping plate or basket of fried tidbits. The serving might look like it's too much for one sitting but trust us, you and your dinner companions will get through it!
Farinata di Ceci
Farinata di ceci is one of the Cinque Terre's most surprising dishes. The thin, savory pancake is made with chickpea flour and is sometimes topped with onions, zucchini, or other add-ins. It's often eaten as a street food snack or served in place of bread at the beginning of a meal. Even if you don't like chickpeas, give this tasty, salty snack a try.
Polpo con Patate
The waters of the Ligurian Sea are rich with fish and shellfish and octopus (polpo in Italian) are a popular menu item up and down the coast. Octopus is often served grilled as an entree, but you'll more often see it in polpo con palate (octopus with potatoes), a cold salad with chunks of grilled octopus and boiled potatoes. This is often served as a stand-alone dish, as an appetizer, or as a small portion of a larger antipasto misto (mixed appetizer).
Another bounty of the Ligurian Sea, mussels—called cozze in Italian—pop up on menus everywhere in the Cinque Terre. They may be served with a garlicky tomato sauce (alla marinara), in pasta, or just braised with lemon, olive oil, garlic, and parsley. A heaping portion of well-prepared mussels is a delight to eat alone or share at a table, particularly with a sea breeze at your back.
Tegame alla Vernazza
Tegame alla Vernazza is a dish that combines all the best of the Cinque Terre. The baked entree is the specialty of colorful Vernazza. It's made with anchovy fillets, potatoes, tomatoes, olive oil, and other seasonings layered in a baking dish (a tegame). While the dish is served in other cities, you should really give it a try in Vernazza.
Antipasto ai Frutti di Mare
If you can't decide which of the many, many fish and seafood dishes to order from a Cinque Terre menu, there's no need to choose just one. Instead, order an antipasto ai frutti di mare. It translates literally to "fruit of the sea appetizer" but figurately means a mixed plate of seafood and shellfish. Your plate might include fried and marinated anchovies, steamed mussels, grilled octopus or polpo con patate, shrimp, calamari, or grilled fish. It's a great way to sample local fish and seafood specialties and then decide what you'd like to order in a larger portion the next time.