The Seafood of Cinque Terre, Italy

By Mia Brady

I felt the heat of the sun on my back, the sweat dripping down my neck. My legs ached from climbing flight after flight of the Lardarina, the seemingly endless set of stone stairs. As I took a moment to catch my breath, I grabbed my camera and snapped what had to have been my 100th picture of the sparkling Mediterranean. After a morning spent walking through the tiny village of Manarola, and a train ride to Corniglia, the endless blue of the ocean never left my sight. I had been in Cinque Terre, the five tiny cliffside villages on the coast of the Italian Riviera, for a few short hours, and I already knew it was a place I would never forget. I pushed myself to climb the remaining few flights despite the heat, knowing I had a much-anticipated lunch in my future.

To put it simply, I am a foodie. I love food, and I love what food can do to enhance one’s experience of a place. It isn’t exactly an exaggeration to say that part of my decision to study abroad in Italy (and Florence, the capital of Tuscany no less) was influenced by the prospect of amazing Italian meals. So when my professor, who was leading this class daytrip to Cinque Terre on this beautiful September day, shared that we would be having a complimentary lunch at a restaurant overlooking the ocean, I was excited. And after hiking for hours, I was hungry and ready to eat.

Our tour guide had prompted us that our meal would consist of seafood antipasti and pesto pasta, both of which are famous dishes in Cinque Terre. I have always enjoyed most fish and shrimp, but my love for seafood stops there; there’s something about the consistency that I cannot get past. When I heard that we would be having seafood antipasti, I reminded myself to be open-minded. I distracted myself with the unlimited water (something you never get in Italy) and unlimited bread (this is a little more familiar…). It wasn’t until the waitress brought out our antipasti di mare that it hit me: this was not like any seafood I had ever tried before.

I stared at the full plate for a few seconds, craning my neck at different angles to try and figure out just exactly what the thick, white creaming substance on the lettuce leaf could be. I couldn’t decide what looked less appetizing- the thin slab of some sort of white fish with the skin still on, or the purplish tentacles. My first reaction was to move my chair back and make a face. I sifted through the mix of potatoes and cold squid, eating only the potatoes. I pushed the white fish aside, which my friend insisted had to be sardines, and sifted through a portion of octopus, avoiding touching the tentacles with my fork. This was not the grilled salmon or shrimp scampi I was used to.

I glanced around the beautiful outdoor patio overlooking the cliffs, filled with tables of my classmates. Some were pointing at their plates, looks of utter confusion on their faces. Alright, so I wasn’t the only one to find this meal… less than appetizing. But others were diving right in. One being my friend Erin, who was sitting directly across from me. We made eye contact as she was mid-bite. She put down her forkful of the whitish gook.

“Mia, have you really not tried anything yet?” she asked, baffled. “It’s so good!”

“Eh, this isn’t really my thing. I can see the tentacles.”

“Just try it at least, come on. Look at where we are” she insisted, motioning to the color faced homes to our left and the rolling hills and cliffs to our right.

Although I hated to admit it, she was right. I wasn’t going to let my squeamishness get the best of me.

“Fine. I’ll have a bite… but…” I said.

“Good! Go ahead. The squid,” Erin said.

I gave her one last look of hesitancy, poked a chunk of the purplish, pinkish squid, which stayed on my fork quite easily, leading me to believe that it would be chewy (ew!), took a deep breath and brought my fork to my mouth.

I was right; it was chewy. Very chewy, and had a somewhat squishy texture to it. But as I chewed and chewed, there was nothing that really stood out too much about the taste. It tasted like seafood, but nothing spectacular. After I swallowed my first bite, I looked at Erin and shrugged.

“Not too bad. But I don’t get it… what makes this so good?” I didn’t particularly like it, but I didn’t particularly dislike the squid either.

On a whim, I cut the sardines in half and took a bite. Now this I did not like. The slick, thin fish was so incredibly salty that it was overwhelming. I’ve always considered myself a “sweet” person, and this salt was just not for me. I made a face that had the whole table laughing and swallowed.

“Ew” I managed to utter.

“Oh Mia, stop being a baby. How much would you pay me to eat this?” Erin said, as she held up a full baby octopus on her fork.

“No you won’t….” I said in disbelief.

“I will too, I’ll do it for free,” she said.

And just like that, she popped the, baby octopus, tentacles, head and all, into her mouth. I watched in disbelief as she chewed (and chewed and chewed) and swallowed.

“Yum!” she exclaimed.

I did not go as far as Erin, but I did learn a lot about myself, as well as seafood, during this cliff-side lunch. For one thing, I know I’ll never eat sardines again. Previous to my experience in Cinque Terre, I had immediately associated the word “seafood” with the Americanized version. This was the first time that my eyes had really been opened to a differentiation of what I was used to. My trip to Cinque Terre is an experience I will never forget; the spectacular views of the Mediterranean, the challenging hike through the cliffs. And of course, the octopus and squid on the plate in front of me.