Restaurant Review: Manna in Water Mill

There are just two words that you need to know when dining at authentic Italian restaurant Manna in Water Mill: delicioso and perfecto. Capice? Even the bottled water and the soft rock music is Italian! Half of the diners the night I visited were speaking Italian—a mucho bene sign!

Many patrons will fondly remember Chef Marco Barrila’s takeout seafood place Frutti di Mare in Hampton Bays. In his new restaurant, Manna, Barrila is able to give full expression to his Italian hospitality and to his considerable talents.

I recently met my friend and renowned cookbook author Hillary Davis at Manna, located in the former Mirko’s space, for dinner. Things started off well with the discovery of how welcoming and classic this eatery is—white tablecloths, twinkling lights, local seascapes on the walls, anchors everywhere.

Since it was early on a Wednesday, Chef had a few minutes to stop by our table to chat. He was just back from tasting and presenting adventures at the New York City Wine & Food Festival, but he wanted to talk about life in Nice with Hillary. He’s Sicilian and she’s American, and they both very much enjoyed the quiet life in Nice once upon a time.

Fagottini pasta

Fagottini pasta. Photo: Stacy Dermont

Only a few other tables were full that evening, but that will likely change soon as Manna is starting to do an off-season prix fixe dinner, in addition to their lunchtime prix fixe.

Manna’s wine list offers a solid selection of reds and whites from Italy and France plus some local stars, including bottles from The Grapes of Roth, Lieb Cellars and Wölffer Estate Vineyard. I felt that a deep, rich red was in order and so I indulged in a glass of Tascante Ghiaia Nero Nerello Mascalese from Sicily, while Hillary celebrated Indian summer with a glass of Chateau d’Esclans Whispering Angel rosé. Later, we both quaffed Chianti at manager Sheila Barrila’s suggestion.

Housemade, still-warm focaccia served with a vivid sun-dried tomato spread, sheep’s ricotta and tasty olives? Oh my.

Sheila suggested that we might like to try the mussels in a light saffron and fennel preparation. She had us at “mussels.” So good, so tender and so beautifully presented, with a fuchsia orchid blossom on top.

Chef Barrila’s lobster bisque tempted, but Hillary ordered the Eggplant Timbal of roasted eggplant, sheep’s ricotta, imported mozzarella and fresh basil. She gave me a taste, which was bright and fresh. She asserted, “it melts in your mouth.”

I think that Hillary and I did a lot of catching up during the meal. I do remember hearing about Hillary interviewing Patricia Wells in Paris and that I told her the unprintable thing that Marcus Samuelson shared when I interviewed him years ago. The rest of the conversation is pretty much a blur, but our photos of the food tell the story. Sheila definitely told us that she and Chef Barrila had just opened a take-out seafood place on the Shinnecock Reservation in Southampton called the Shinnecock Lobster Factory. (I did not dream that.) I also remember the telling comment that Hillary made when Chef Barrila walked by singing along to Zucchero: “A singing chef is happy food!”

Hillary and I shared two entrées—the Short Ribs Pappardelle with braised short rib ragout over the buttery effect of fine pasta, and a super-rich Lobster Risotto, which tasted intensely of lobster. Hillary had to know what gave the stock its sweetness—turns out it was organic baby carrots.

What really took our breath away was Chef Barrila’s housemade fagottini. These tiny pasta purses in a truffled mushroom sauce, stuffed with gorgonzola dolce are indescribably good! Barrila makes a variety of handmade pastas and breads. He offers to make singular meals for diners and for parties—vegan, vegetarian, seafood-focused—“whatever you want!” No wonder his roster of holiday parties in both dining rooms is filling up.

Cassata Sicilian at Manna in Water Mill

Cassata Sicilian at Manna in Water Mill, Photo: Stacy Dermont

Speaking of rooms, we certainly didn’t have room for dessert…in reality. But Hillary just published her fourth book titled French Desserts last month. We’re talking serious sweet tooth there—so we persevered. Hillary tried (and heartily endorsed) the Cassata Sicilian of marzipan, pistachio, ricotta and sponge cake, while I conquered a fine Berry Napoleon.

Hillary says Manna is her choice for her birthday dinner in January—and Manna will be celebrating its one-year anniversary come New Years Eve. So, we shall definitely return to eat another night!

Manna, 670 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, 631-726-4444, mannahamptons.com; Shinnecock Lobster Factory, 42 Montauk Highway, Southampton.

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