Ligurian: The chef hails from the Liguria region of Italy and spent time in the Italian Navy. Courtesy photos

As the economy reopens and local restaurants begin the road to recovery the Daily Press is highlighting one excellent eatery a week sharing its history, pandemic struggles, and signature dishes.

This week the spotlight is on Cinque Terre WEST — a Ligurian restaurant tucked away in the Palisades that offers a farmers market driven menu with plenty of handmade pastas and fresh seafood dishes.

The Story Behind Cinque Terre WEST

It was a winding, adventurous and, at times, perilous road that led Chef Gianbattista Vinzoni to the creation of Cinque Terre WEST, and in a sense back to his roots.

Vinzoni grew up in the Liguria region of North West Italy, where he closely observed his grandmother’s traditional cooking methods stomping grapes for wine, pressing olives into olive oil, and preparing pasta from scratch.

“We have mountains and oceans, there is nothing flat in between. Seafood is our staple, but we also use things from the mountains like berries and mushrooms,” said Vinzoni, describing the basis of Ligurian cuisine. “We don’t have a lot of space to grow produce, so we do the best possible with every ingredient we have. Simplicity is the number one key”

While Vinzoni developed a deep love for fresh food and cooking from an early age, his first job was not in the kitchen but on the sea in the Italian Navy. Later in life he brought the grit and hustle from his military career to the Los Angeles dining scene.

When Vinzoni first arrived in America in 1995, he spoke no English and worked as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant. Through this job he learned Spanish and then English and progressively worked his way through the restaurant ranks. With a combination of talent and tenacity he rose to prominence and took on managing roles in the immense kitchens of Soho House, the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and Fig and Olive.

Although he reached great culinary heights, Vinzoni found himself missing the intimacy, simplicity, and quality of small-scale cooking. In 2019 he and his wife Marlo decided to open Cinque Terre WEST as a cozy family restaurant serving classic Lingurian dishes and refreshing Italian wines.

On Surviving Covid

Cinque Terre WEST was not set up to weather a pandemic. The small restaurant hosts just 35 seats and is hidden from view in the back of a small mall in Palisades Village. It relies on seasonal farmers market ingredients that must be thrown away if not eaten in a few days, and on an Italian model of hospitality where friends socialize over long meals and shared dishes.

Yet, buoyed by support from devoted community members, Vinzoni and his wife were able to find ways to adapt and stay afloat.

They developed a new “comfort menu” based on people’s favorite foods and dishes that are easily transported. Vinzoni even found himself doing the unthinkable—cooking an American hamburger—and discovered it was enormously popular. They started a devoted email list for weekly specials and takeaway offers that grew from just 50 emails to over 700.

“The amazing part of the pandemic was the support that we had from the community. It is something that I will never forget for the rest of my life,” said Vinzoni. “They saw me and my wife were here day and night non-stop working and really took us under their wings.”

The restaurant has been doing so well the couple are now planning to open a wine bar next door called Enoteca 5. The bar is slated to open later this spring and will feature over 100 varieties of Italian and Californian Wine alongside Vinzoni’s handmade pastas, charcuterie platters, and antipasti dishes.

What to order right now

As the Cinque Terre menu is carefully curated to reflect the best seasonal produce, meat, and fish locally available, Vinzoni said diners can’t go wrong with any selection. He does recommend people sample some seafood, which is the backbone of Ligurian cuisine and what his family has been living on in the Cinque Terre region since the early 1400s.

Current options include a pan seared halibut with roasted brussel sprouts and salsa verde; sea bass with potatoes, Taggiasche olives and pine nuts; and homemade bigoli spaghetti with a Maine lobster bisque. Cinque Terre also offers a series of freshly baked pizzas and sweet and savory Italian croissants known as cornetti.

For drinks, Vinzoni says most dishes pair well with a Vermentino and recommends true wine lovers check out the selection at Enoteca 5 when it opens. Sweet lovers will enjoy Italian classics such as panna cotta and a flourless chocolate cake.