In this series, I will write about the places, dishes, and experiences that have shaped my world view on food, both good and bad.
When you step out from the train in Manarola for the first time, you notice the sea and the high cliffs. Each Cinque Terre city has its own personality and Manarola’s is dictated by the landscape. Walking through the tunnel into town, you notice the houses. Multicolored, built on hills, old, worn by the salt and the air; they perch on the cliffs, making you wonder if they really are all that stable. Walk a little further into town and not only are you greeted by an incredible view out onto the sea, but the sounds and smells of a bustling Italian coast town. But for all of the things that are easily accessed by the senses, the best spot to take in the true essence of Manarola requires a more knowledge based approach.
You’ll have to work to find it. There’s hills, steps, nondescript houses, a worn sign with an arrow and even then, it looks as if it’s any other house in the town. Down what is probably classified as a street, but more aptly described as an alleyway, is Trattoria dal Billy. Billy is placed in an unassuming pink house that hangs off a cliff, almost as if it will fall at any moment. Homey is an almost too perfect description of this restaurant because it’s exactly that: a home. It has two floors with very few tables and even those are close together. The kitchen is just another room, like any house. On the top floor, a painted portrait of Billy greets you as you are seated. Then, the view overtakes you. The sea, the hills, the houses. This is the pure Italian cost experience everyone is looking for.
I made my trek to Trattoria dal Billy in August of 2012. There was an oppressive heat in Manarola at the time. Only swimming in the lagoon helped to bring relief. Even in the night, the moon seemed to radiate heat. This made the trudge up the hill to get to the restaurant unpleasant and left me fairly damp. As we arrived, the sun was setting. We were escorted into the upper dining room, left to ourselves. The only sounds were the clanging of pots, pans, and utensils from the kitchen and the sea breeze from the window. Our waiter approached the table. His demeanor was friendly, yet with a touch of derisiveness. After ordering drinks, he told us some about the menu and brought up the fresh fish. At this point, he decided that demonstration was better than description. From the kitchen he came, with a hulking beast upon his arm. A fish, that had to be at least twenty pounds and had blood dripping from its gills, was hooked on his fingers. He proudly displayed the fresh-caught sea creature and let us know that if we wanted to split a fresh fish, we would get something like this based on the poundage that was decided upon to feed our group. He then promptly whisked the animal back to wherever it was kept until chosen for its delicious fate.
When he returned, our order was taken. I vaguely remember what others ordered, shrimp scampi, maybe an alfredo or lasagna. I remember exactly what I ordered. The fresh fish for myself and my then-girlfriend-now -wife, as well as the green pasta. The green pasta on the menu was said to come with mussels and zucchini blossoms. It had been mentioned in the Rick Steves’ Italy guide as well, which is where we learned about Billy. So I had to order it. I believe some got appetizers and I may have even done so myself, but I don’t remember eating more than a bite or two if I did. The view was all I needed in that moment. Having the sea air hit your face from the window and watch the sun hide itself behind the hills while drinking Italian wine with friends is something everyone should experience.
And then came the food. My fish, my whole fish, was simple. Olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon, that’s it. The green pasta’s zucchini blossoms turned out to be diced zucchini and not the flower part of the zucchini that is so often stuffed and fried in the States. The pasta was made with spinach, thus giving it the green tint. While it seemed that there was no thick, gloppy sauce as you get in so many Americanized Italian restaurants, it was in a sauce that gave it a glorious sheen and tons of flavor. The mussels were fresh caught, cooked to the point where they still have that oceanic flavor, but not so little that they still have that raw quality. The fish was some of the best I have ever eaten. The meat flaked off the bone effortlessly. The simple preparation not only enhanced the flavor of the fish, but let it be the star instead of overwhelming it. It paired perfectly with the green pasta, light but filling.
There was a dessert, some sort of tort or dense cake that might have been made with hazelnuts or something, but I don’t remember exactly what it was. It wasn’t mind blowing. Or maybe it was. I was already on such a high from the rest of the meal that it was hard to climb much further up that mountain. As the evening ended, I remember thinking that this might be the closest I’ll ever come to having a perfect meal. That from then on, every dish of pasta, every fish, will be compared to this one. And so far, they have. I’ve had incredible food in several different countries, cities and even at my own home, but I’ve never been to another place that’s made me romanticize the food and experience as much as Trattoria dal Billy. There will maybe eventually be some dinner or meal that tops this one, but there will always only be one Billy.
Yes, I took all these photos. Yes, I have a copyright on all of them, so no stealing!