(This article first appeared in the January 25, 2017 issue of The Independent Newspaper)
When the opportunity arose to experience Manna Restaurant in Water Mill, I knew I’d be in for a flavorful evening. Situated at the reminiscent location of Mirko’s, a restaurant known for catering to a wealthy clientele, that closed its doors in 2013 after a 30 year run, Manna proudly wows its customers.
Chef Marco Barrila grew up in Sicily. Like scenes out of a foreign film, he spent most days working with his grandmother at the family trattoria “La Caraffa,” built in the 1800s. At the age of 24 Barrila moved to New York and began his journey working at culinary landmarks such as Carmines and Fiorello’s Lincoln Center. Then, with the opening of his own location, NOI on Bleeker Street, a love story began.
Customer turned wife Sheila Minkel Barrila soon became a restaurant regular of the opera-singing-chef, for the food, for the singing, and for the man who did both. As NOI was closing one night numbers were exchanged and a new recipe for success began.
Together, the Barrilas celebrated Manna’s one year anniversary with the passing of the holiday season in 2016. Yet, this couple is no stranger to the restaurant industry. In 2009 the two started a catering company, Insatiable Eats.
As snow began to fall one Saturday evening, coating the East End in a winter wonderland, I arrived at Manna with my equally culinary adventurous friend, Warren. Sheila warmly greeted us and sat us at one of the ten tables in a comfortable room that holds forty seats.
Moments later, Marco delivered the first taste of the night, an amuse bouche of chickpea panella, both crisp yet soft in its base, with sheep ricotta, an arugula puree that introduces a garlic flavoring, and black olive on top.
Already set on the table were Grissini breadsticks, a personal reminder of the classic Italian restaurants I’d enjoy as a child as I’d pretend to be Holly Golightly holding, then biting, my oversized cigarette holder.
A tasting plate came out next, served by 24-year-old Emily who started during the holiday season, and bussed by her brother, 17-year-old Jay. Usually, when trying a new restaurant I try not to fill myself with bread in preparation for the flood of original tastes to follow, but the spread in front of my eyes begged a bite. A sundried tomato spread, sheep ricotta (a nice flow from our first dish), and Sicilian olives with a house made olive focaccia.
As zealous eaters, Warren and I decided to split three appetizers to start. The grilled octopus with olive chimichurri may shock those who are apprehensive about eating food that looks like, well, what it is, as the dish is served with two full bodied octopuses. That shouldn’t deter a customer from trying it, as it has an ever so subtle spice and lemon taste, being slightly charred and not remotely chewy.
The beef tartare is served with egg yolk, onions, pickles, and bursting capers with small crostinis. The combination of ingredients is matched in a way that each flavor is fully present. Last in our appetizer trial was the roasted eggplant timbal filled with sheep ricotta (a recurring taste), mozzarella, and fresh basil pomodoro.
Despite the generous sizes of each dish, to our surprise we still had room for more. Sheila, in preparation for our main courses, poured a Sicilian red wine, Tascanta Ghiaia Nera Nerello Macallese. The choice paired perfectly with the endless flavors bustling around on my palate.
While sipping our wines, Warren and I were able to enjoy the atmosphere. It’s a refreshing change to have moments of pure relaxation between courses, time to observe and carry conversation. The anchor patterned carpet, the locally painted seascapes on the walls, and the warm fireplace, all staged a tribute setting to The Hamptons.
Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Renato Corosone, and Domenico Modugno played like an old-school Italian playlist. I was taken back to personal memories of Sundays in an American-Italian household, singing songs I didn’t understand and 3 PM dinners of my grandparents endless preparations.
What started as an intimate dining experience to ourselves transpired into a busy restaurant. Despite it being full there was no sense of overcrowding, no sense of being rushed. One thing that was mutually agreed upon was the freshness of each meal, leaving no desire for added salt or pepper, and the olive oil having smooth and nuanced flavoring.
Marco came out from the kitchen to check in on us.
“Marco, your ingredients!” I exclaimed, “They’re so fresh!”
“You taste the product,” he reacted. “If you use cheap paint, you cannot paint!”
“But the olive oil,” Warren inquired, “what kind is that?”
“If I tell you e’rrybody gonna use it,” Marco winked as he kissed his fingertips and then tossed them to the sky. I may have been in Water Mill but in that moment I was certainly in a Sicilian home.
My special of the day, pan roasted American rack of lamb arrived in a borolo wine reduction, truffled mushroom ragu, with a side of crispy parmesan polenta. In every bite a hint of rosemary. I ate the entire thing.
Warren’s meal, a braised short rib pappardelle with handmade pasta, made on premises, and vegetables. Soon after, his plate was empty as well.
Glancing over at each other, our eyes intuitively begged the question — to dessert or not to dessert?
Inevitably, two Sicilian treats came out. Trapanese, a crispy pastry similar to a calzone filled with sheep ricotta and wild berry sauce, and cassatella, a pistachio sponge cake with ricotta and marzipan. Without hesitation, I proclaimed the cassatella was my favorite dessert in recent memory, and I have eaten my fair share.
With a menu that changes nightly based on how Marco is feeling, customers can always call ahead and request any international dish they’d like and the chef will prepare it “no restrictions.” Year round plates are lobster or seafood risotto, lobster FraDiavolo and truffled veal chop.
If the food is indicative of Manna Restaurant’s longevity, I expect years of success. Run by love and filled with families, it is a welcomed addition to the culinary scene on the East End.