Day 36: Where to eat in Cinque Terre

looking back toward Vernazza on the trail to Monterosso
looking back toward Vernazza on the trail to Monterosso

Cinque Terre is one of the top destinations for tourists in Italy. As such, like in other top touristy areas, finding anything but bad tourist food can be a real challenge. Having lived for nearly three years just an hour south of this tourist hot spot, I’ve had plenty of experiences to weed out the best of the best food options on dozens of trips to what became one of my favorite towns in all of Italy, Vernazza.

The truth of the matter is, there are not that many really amazing places to eat. In a town that survives by catering to tourists from all over the world, authenticity is not often a priority. The clientele are not demanding, and rarely even realize the food being served to them is sub-par.

Skimming through TripAdvisor reviews to find dinner is not… advisable. By doing so you’ll find the top rated establishments reviewed by an overwhelming American clientele who thinks authentic Italian food is what you find at an Olive Garden. Restauranteurs are in the business to make money, and recognize who their customer base is. If you want to find something special, you have to dig for it. It helps to try and find reviews by people who speak the language of the country you are visiting.

spectacular coastal scenery looking north toward Levanto
spectacular coastal scenery looking north toward Levanto

There are also a few things to keep in mind about service, especially considering lots of the negative comments about decent places to eat. The following are direct responses to actual reviews posted on TripAdvisor by less than satisfied diners at good restaurants.

1) Consider your dining experience. Is it al fresco? Is the place packed? First thing to note, a busy restaurant will maximize it’s tiny amount of real estate, both inside and out. Tables will often be separated by mere inches. This is normal, so don’t be dismayed by it. Sorry they don’t have space hogging booths with soft cushions, or big round tables that can seat your entire group. This isn’t Applebees.

2) Wait staff don’t work for tips. Tipping is actually not expected in Italy. When I first came here, my server came running after me with the money I left on the table and gave it back. The customer to server ratio in most places is ridiculous, and that’s just part of the experience. An entire packed dining room may be serviced by just one or two staff. Sit back and enjoy yourself and don’t worry too much if it feels like you’re being ignored. You’re there to eat, and eat you shall. There will be no pressure to flip the table because the servers aren’t working for tips. If you are done with your food, of course the server isn’t going to bother you. Flag them down if you want something else, otherwise you’ve bought the table for the night, so enjoy.

3) The often misunderstood cover charge, or “coperto”. You’ll likely see an extra charge on your receipt. Fear not. It is only the cover charge for the privilege of sitting at your table for as long as you please. Many many many people get all upset about this “hidden” extra cost. It’s not hidden, and is standard procedure everywhere. Don’t be upset. This isn’t a scam.

4) I had to wait for a table. Really? There is something called a reservation. If you make a reservation, a table will be waiting for you. If you show up at 6pm without a reservation be prepared for a sea of unsatisfied tourists taking up all the tables, and a lengthy wait while other people show up who have reservations being seated before you. You won’t get an electronic blinking buzzer to let you know when a table is available.

5) Great food, poor service. What? Do you want to be entertained, or fed? You want the server to take your picture for you? This is the same server who is not working for tips, remember that. So if he/she is crazy busy, the only person working a room of 20 tables, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen. You aren’t the only the table in the restaurant.

6) Consider the time. Dinner is not something you do in the late afternoon. Dinner happens in the evening, 7:30pm at the earliest. Don’t show up for “dinner” at 5:30 in the afternoon and expect the same relaxed experience as those who choose to dine at 8 or even 9 in the evening. You will be judged based on the time you arrive, and don’t be surprised if the level of service you receive matches the time of day. A restaurant full of hungry 6pm diners will likely stress out the staff more than a room of more relaxed 8pm diners.

7) Market price. Don’t be surprised by it. If that swordfish (spada) looks appetizing, and 11 euro price looks attractive, PLEASE realize something right now. The 11 euro price is per 100grams, before the fish is cooked. That amazing swordfish steak that weighs 500 grams (half a kilo) will set you back 55 euro. Knowing that before you order will hopefully reduce sticker shock when you receive your bill. When in doubt, ask. You can get Branzino and Orata at a price that won’t break the bank.

One of our best date nights, at Baia Saracena, Vernazza!
One of our best date nights, at Baia Saracena, Vernazza!

Keeping these tips in mind, PashbyMaul adventures is pleased to offer our seal of approval to the two best restaurants in Vernazza. Baia Saracena for a more relaxed casual dinner harborside, or Belforte for a splurge experience with a view to die for. Reviews follow. Happy dining!

Baia Saracena

From the train station straight down the main drag into the piazza by the harbor and almost out the pier, the entrance to Baia Saracena is hidden behind arches on the western side of the harbor, but with an expansive outside seating area overlooking the water out front.

Here is a place not afraid to continue doing things well despite vocal opposition from an overwhelmingly American review bias. Pizza will be served in the proper Italian way, with a thin sometimes soft crust, and if you order the seafood pizza, yes, all the sea creatures are baked into the crust, shells and all. Yes, it’s lots of work, yes, it’s delicious, no, you won’t ever have ordered the same thing at PizzaHut. This is Italy.

I’ve been visiting this restaurant since 2008. The last time we ate here was with the sunset on one side of our table overlooking the sea, the postcard view harbor of Vernazza on the other. The typical local pasta with pesto is delightful, as is the spaghetti fruiti di mare, shells and all. A bottle of the local frizzante white wine is an overpriced €15, but well worth it as Alicia and I enjoyed a romantic dinner at 8pm, which took about two hours as we soaked in the ambiance, the sea air, and each other.

Ristorante Belforte

The last time we were in Vernazza, we made a reservation at Belforte for our final night based on recommendations from expat locals we’d chatted with during our stay. Even three nights in advance, the best tables are taken, so plan ahead.

We arrived in time to enjoy the sunset from our table on the terrace, about 7:45pm. The view is spectacular looking towards the north along the Ligurian coast toward Monterosso.

Vernazza from high above!
Vernazza from high above!

Very friendly and attentive wait staff saw to our order soon after we closed our menus. Vongole alla Marinara was perfect, and total happiness when enjoyed with a 1/2 liter of house white wine. Orata cooked very nicely as well, and deboned by the server, melted in our mouths. We opted not to have desert as nothing on the menu looked so good as our amazing meal. Instead we ordered more wine and enjoyed the ambiance, and our view over the Vernazza harbor.

This is not an inexpensive restaurant. You will pay for the quality of the food, and most amazing restaurant view and atmosphere in the Cinque Terre. Dine a bit later (9pm) in the evening so you can enjoy a more quiet dinner (after the louder tourists have cleared out). Dinner for two, cover charge, bottle water, 1 liter of house wine, antipasto, mixed salad, two main fish dishes, 80 euro, but a priceless experience overall.

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