By Stephen J. Kotz
Chef Marco Barrila, who got his start in cooking when he worked as a teenager in his grandmother’s trattoria in his native Messina, Sicily, immigrated to New York City 26 years ago and hit the ground running.
“I never took time off to go see the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building,” he said of those early years when he hop-scotched his way from the Paramount Hotel to Carmine’s in the Theater District before becoming the executive chef of Fiorello’s at Lincoln Center. Mr. Barrila, now 50, eventually opened his own place, Noi, a bistro on Bleeker Street, where he met his wife, Sheila, an East End real estate agent, who now works with him. “The rent went from $1,600 to $16,000, so we decided to sell,” he said.
After moving to the East End, where he did a stint of working as executive chef of the catering company, Robbins Wolffe Eventeurs, Mr. Barrila eventually struck out on his own, opening Insatiable Eats seven years ago. But ever since those days of running his own place, he said he longed once again to have his own restaurant. That opportunity finally presented itself late last year when Via Del Mare, an Italian restaurant that had opened in the former Mirko’s space in Water Mill, closed after just one season, and the lease became available.
In December, Mr. Barrila quietly opened Manna — “food from Heaven,” he said — and he has big plans for putting the out-of-the-way eatery, which is tucked behind the Water Mill Post Office, on the local dining map.
“Finally, after seven years of catering I can showcase my work,” he said during a recent interview in the dining room that seats 51 people. While he plans to offer more formal dining inside, the restaurant also has 16 patio seats, where Mr. Barrila plans to offer a more casual dining experience, focusing on things like tuna and salmon burgers, oysters, shrimp, crab cakes and lobster rolls. He wants the patio to offer diners a European ambiance, adding the East End is like “the Monte Carlo of America.”
In the main dining room, Mr. Barrila said he planned a menu with an Italian theme, although he said diners should not be surprised to see dishes with a North African or even an Indian influence.
“We are not here just to be a restaurant, we are here for the love of food,” he said. “While we might have seafood specials, we will work locally. Whatever nature gives us we will do our best to put it on the plate.”
Mr. Barrila said he always knew he would work with food. After working as a child in his grandmother’s restaurant, he later he served apprenticeships with an uncle who owned a bakery and another who owned a pastry shop. He moved on to hotel management school before his move to the United States.
Chef Barrila took a not-so-subtle dig at modern cuisine, complaining that too many chefs focus on presentation and not enough on providing sustenance. “It’s beautiful, but it’s difficult to eat,” he said, adding that he wanted to do something the bridges the gap between traditional fare and modern molecular cuisine.
“You won’t get just one or two bites,” he laughed. “And you’ll even get something to take home so you can remember your meal the next day.”
“Don’t forget tradition,” he said he would tell young chefs. “Use modern ideas and develop new ingredients, but don’t forget tradition.”
In the meantime, with his wife working as event planner, he continues to run Insatiable Eats. If that sounds like his plate is full, Chef Barrila said he had plenty of help. “It’s not just me,” he said. “I have a great team.”
Manna, which is located in Water Mill Square off Route 27, is open for lunch and dinner seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., although the last seating for dinners during the off-season is 9 p.m. Sunday brunch is also served from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For more information, visit mannarestauranthamptons.com.