Besides, Francesco, the nice young man who'd settled us into place when we arrived here, mentioned the possibility of a light supper being served right here, even though there wouldn't be a real dinner. So we decided to stay put, and had a huge plate of antipasto, including the first lardo of the trip — being in Tuscany has its advantages. Then a big platter of spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and basil. Then a fine green salad. What more could you want? Well, a piece of nice home-made jam crostata…
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Sciacca, May 19, 2010—WE ARE NOT foodies, I hope, I hate that term, but I suppose we are Slow Foodies. We've belonged to the organization for a number of years (I hope we've continued to pay our dues, that's not my department); we certainly subscribe to the guiding principles of the outfit (Buono, pulito, giusto: Good; Clean; Just); and when traveling in Italy we generally get hold of a copy of the latest Slow Food Guide to the Osterie Italaliane, the authentically Slow places to eat, as determined by a group of SF people we do not know, whose credentials we do not know, but whom we blindly agree must somehow be Among The Anointed.
So tonight we settled on Sciacca for a stopover partly because there's a SF osteria here. (Partly, also, because I'm a fan of the writer by that name.) We were lucky to find a B&B right on the Via al Porto, not two blocks (if there only were blocks) from the restaurant. On entering we found a single large room, three or four tables for four on one side, one long table set for twenty-one on the other. Looks like trouble, I thought to myself; better order quick before that group gets here.
No problem. We started with green olives with salted sarde — I'd have called them anchovies — went on to an order of pasta con sarde, spaghetti with the delicious sardine sauce I discussed here a week or so ago; then we each had a grilled swordfish steak and a green salad. Not the best restaurant dinner we've had in the last couple of weeks, but not bad at all.
Corvo (bianco), Glicine, 2009
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Marsala (perhaps), May 18, 2010—PERHAPS, SAY I, because we had a certain amount of time finding this place, recommended by various guidebooks. An agriturismo is a farm-bed-and-breakfast usually offering also dinner if you arrange for it, and the dinner is almost invariably a family-style affair. This place is a perfect example. We're surrounded by grapevines: the Grillo varietal, which makes a fine dry white wine, excellent to accompany fish; and which is also the principal constituent of Marsala, about which more in a moment.
For dinner we had three simple courses: pasta, fish, dessert. But it was excellent, as good as any dinner we've yet had in Sicily. In the first place, the pasta was revelatory: fusilli in pesto Trapanesi, which we already knew about, but which had never offered anything this interesting, gratifying, and intelligent. The pesto is made of tomatoes, garlic, basil, and almonds; and they are all chopped or, rather, minced, not pounded; and the result is not at all cooked, but mixed into the hot drained pasta.
And tonight's version was fortified with the addition of, I'd say, for a platter containing enough pasta for two very hearty eaters, the crumbled-up bits of perhaps two, three at the most, local brutto ma buoni, local style: macaroons made not with hazelnuts but with almonds, and sugar of course, and baked quite dark. So the pasta had a sweetness and a crunchiness; the tomatoes and garlic retained their individuality, the basil leaves were so fine and pungent I thought they must have been mirto, that small-leafed myrtle I like so much (but which is local to Sardinia, not Sicily). This was really a fabulous pasta; you can be sure we'll be making it often at home.
There followed good-sized sardines, each say as big as my hand, marinated in vinegar, breaded, and deep-fried, served with lemon. The point here is to have good-tasting and fresh sardines, good vinegar, and a deft hand at the deep-fryer: all that fell completely into place.
I don't particularly like strawberries, but it happens there's a race of strawberry local to this part of Sicily, big but not at all woody, red red, sweet, and fragolic, if you know what I mean; we flopped them into the sugar-bowl and ate them gladly.
Oh and the wine: from the vineyard here, made by the cook's husband, with whom a long conversation about wine, terroir, globalism, industrialization, and what Marsala is supposed to be: closer to a fine Sherry than the sweet fortified stuff we usually think of:
Grillo, 2009; Marsala (dry)
Monday, May 17, 2010
Tràpani, May 17, 2010—WE TURN TONIGHT to one of the guidebooks for help choosing a restaurant — it's Monday, the choices are limited. We settle on Ai Lumi because it's inexpensive and local, described in the Cadogan guide as "an old tavern where the locals eat some of Tràpani's best food," and an easy walk from the hotel on the pedestrian-only Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
It's a very nice-looking restaurant inside — I'm sorry Google isn't allowing me to post any more photos here at the moment. There are a number of families dining, some with kids in strollers. German is spoken at one table, but Italian at most of the others. It's not a tourist joint; the menu's in Italian only. And it features couscous, which Lindsey's been wanting to try.
We start with a platter of salumi: lardo, prosciutto, cooked ham, salami, bresaola; served with slivered dates and broken-up walnuts and a handful of small leaves of arugula and — orange jam: a sort of marmalade made without any of the orange peel. This is an inspired combination and one we'll have to repeat once home; it makes me want to make some marmalade immediately — too bad oranges will be out of season.
Lindsey had her platter of couscous, with small red prawns, clams, mussels (delicious smoky ones), and monkfish; I had cascaretti in brodo, ravioli filled with fish paste — all sorts of fish scraps, I suppose, cooked down and mashed together, in a Provençal-style fish soup. It was, in a couple of words, quite tasty.
Inzolia (dry white), Adragna, 2009
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Tràpani, May 16, 2010—WE DINE TONIGHT and indeed sleep tonight on the edge of a sickle, the sickle that gave Sicily its name (as I understand it), the sickle with which Zeus castrated his father. Tràpani is one of the cities I have always most wanted to visit: like Skagen in Denmark, Tarifa in Spain, it's a city on the edge of things.
We settled into a cheap, clean, pleasant hotel in this windswept, clean, pleasant city; and we chose a restaurant from the Slow Food guide Osterie d'Italia, and we ate reasonably well. We began by sharing bruschetta con bottarga, because after all we're near the home of the tuna mattanza, and tuna roe is specific to the area, and we like tuna roe. Then we went on to pasta con uva di tonno e mandorle, pasta (which looked much like my favorite, strozzapreti) with more tuna roe and ground almonds.
So far so good. The secondi, however, the "main course," disappointed, as it so often does. Lindsey had a scallopine alla Marsala, since Marsala is the next big town; I had a cotolette alla Palermitana, since Palermo was our last big town. Both seemed tired, undersalted, cooked in oil used too much. Oh well: the restaurant was otherwise very pleasant, crowded, small, you could talk, people-watching was fun, we liked the wine.
Oh: and the dessert, a parfait of almonds, while a little too heavily chocolate-sauced, was a nice reminder of the texture of the bottarga, and the taste of the pasta's almonds.
Grillo, Haral, Terre di Shemir (Tràpani), 2008
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Palermo, May 15—WE DINED LAST NIGHT the second time in the same restaurant; tonight we returned to the one we found our first night here, only four nights ago — it seems much longer. In the meantime I've finally done some research on Palermo in the Lonely Planet guide to Sicily, and what do you know, our hostess's husband's restaurant, just downstairs from our apartment, is listed there.
Tonight we ate at 9:30. Perhaps there were earlier diners; no trace was to be seen of them. Two diners showed up a little after we were seated, but one of them was the chef's wife, our hostess in this little apartment. Lonely Planet is mistaken about one thing, by the way: Al Garage has five tables, not four; in a pinch perhaps sixteen diners could be accommodated — but the kitchen has only two small burners, no oven, no walk-in.
It doesn't need a walk-in, of course; the principal fare is fish, and the fish can be bought fresh as paint in the street-market around the corner. Tonight we had pesce spada, swordfish, very young swordfish, fried in a pan, beautifully done, strewn with herbs, served with a lemon. What more do you need? Mixed salad, of course. It was fresh and copious. What more do you want?
Trebbiano, Silva (Abruzzo), 2007
Friday, May 14, 2010
Palermo, May 14—AFTER THREE REALLY quite nice meals here it was time for a little disappointment, so for midday meal we went to a place long popular with the publishers of tourist guides. It's been in business since 1834, so it should have things pretty well down by now; it's catered to everyone from priests to gangsters, so it should please anyone; it's in a prime location, so lunch there on the terrazza, gazing at the fine Norman façade of S. Francesco d'Assisi, would be gratifying to at least one sense no matter what.
The operation confused me at first: on entering, you see a line of steam-table pans, then a sort of soup kitchen. You take a tray, line it with a paper, get yourself some plastic cutlery, and tell the cooks — if they're listening — what you want. Not what I wanted at the moment, so I asked the guy at the cash register if it wasn't possible to order our meal.
Naturalmente, he responded, waving at the pavilion outside across the street. There we found two equal-sized sections, one with unset tables for those who'd loaded their trays, the other with red tablecloths on white tablecovers, waterglasses, and metal cutlery.
In the spirit of scientific inquiry I ordered food I'd eaten elsewhere in the last couple of days: caponata, the loose ratatouille-like melange popular here, and bucatini con le sarde, prepared here with saffron as well as the requisite fennel, onion, pine nuts, and sardines.
Alas neither was up to what we'd had previously. The caponata seemed tired and bland to me, the eggplant overcooked, the flavor lacking spirit. And the bucatini seemed simply thrown together, the fennel and onions tossed at the sardines rather than cooked down with them. Lindsey wasn't as critical as I, but then that's why I travel with her.
Viognier, Mandrarossa, n.v.
TONIGHT WE WENT back uptown to last night's restaurant, getting there so early the menu hadn't been printed yet. No problema, I told the waiter, we have our own — showing him the copy we'd taken last night. He smiled, but protested that there were changes. But what I'd wanted to order was available: four dollops of Robiola di capra Girgantino, one of my favorite cheeses, served with steamed chestnuts and honey; and gnochetti Sardi con pistacchi di Bronte, little Sardinian gnocchi in an Alfredo sauce with lots of ground pistachios in it. It was all delicious.
Catarratto, Girgis, 2007
La Dispensa dei Monsù, via Principe di Villa franca 59, Palermo; tel. +39 091.609.0465
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Palermo, May 13, 2010—OH WHAT AN EXCELLENT restaurant we found tonight, thank you Faith Willinger for having written about it, thank you Atlantic Monthly for having published her round-up; you can be sure we'll be looking for other ideas from the series of dispatches she ran last December.
Our first course reminded me of one of our first meals in Europe, at the old l'Atre Fleuri in the Chartreuse, back in 1974, when everything was new to us, and we were often excited at the table. Tonight's discovery was a unique kind of caponata, or maybe a Sicilian ratatouille. It involved apples, onions, capers, pine nuts, fennel, maybe some peppers, olive oil and salt, all bound in a light tomato sauce, and it was delicious. With it, grilled eggplant and zucchini and radicchio, and peppers à la grècque.
Next, Tagliatelle al nero d'Avola e Ragusano: pasta that must have been cooked in the red wine, which would then have been reduced and combined with cheese for the sauce — a deep, somber course, beautiful and intelligent.
Then grilled tuna steaks, served simply with a lemon half and a zucchini cup that held a kind of pesto which I'm sure involved mirto, that small-leafed myrtle I so enjoy.
Dessert was a return to the apple, served in a sort of rissole-tart and drowned in what was billed as a blanc-mange but seemed to me a thin milk custard, not entirely successful. But oh boy otherwise what a fabulous meal; if we return a few times I may have to nominate this place to the Five Restaurants.
Catarratto, Girgis, 2007
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Atrana, May 8, 2010—I SEE I'VE FORGOTTEN to record the dinner we walked to so memorably from our hotel Le Palme in Pogerola to their restaurant Le Palme in Atrana, two towns away. It was a beautiful walk, though we knew we'd pay for it with sore calves next day. (In fact I write this four days later, and it's only today we're almost completely recovered.)
The restaurant's ordinary, I suppose: but ordinary on the Amalfi coast can be pretty damn good. My first course was a little sketchy, I thought: a waferlike cup made of Parmesan cheese; in it, a salad of tomato and fennel. A way of using up cheese-ends, I suppose: but the vegetables were very nice. Afterward, spaghetti con vongole, ordinary spaghetti cooked with extraordinary clams, tiny tiny ones, very sweet and fresh. Yes, we had a bottle of wine; no, I don't recall now what it was, other than white, a little effervescent, and very local.
Photos of these places can be seen at http://gallery.me.com/cshere/100239
Palermo, May 12—WHAT A WONDERFUL PLACE, I said to Lindsey, And the interesting thing is that it's just an ordinary place, and so it is. But it's on the waterfront, almost, across the boulevard from the sea, and it serves, what else, fish. You see the fish laid out on plates, on ice of course, on a table, as you walk to a table — they're all outside — and then you watch as Francesco cooks them on a portable grill out in front of the tables.
We decided to take our principal meal at midday today, and so I ordered a plate of eggplant alla parmagiana and a primo of bucatini con sarde, a traditional dish here which must consist of sardines, currants, onion, fennel, and pine nuts, all cooked up into a thick sauce. (Some add saffron, but that would be Sard, I think, not Sicilian.)
Afterward we each had a grilled swordfish steak, dressed with oil and lemon and sprinkled with lots of parsley. What more could you want?
Bianco d'Alcamo, "Vini del Golfo," 2009
Palermo, May 11, 2010—THE HUSBAND OF OUR hostess here, a Tunisian with whom we must speak only French since we know no Arabic and he's uncomfortable in Italian, runs a little trattoria downstairs below the apartment we've rented for the next few days, so of course on our first night in the Sicilian capital, anniversary or no, we dined there. We were the only ones to dine there, but we didn't feel too alone, as there are only four tables in all. He stood politely ignoring us, watching Tunisian television, while we talked business with his Dutch-born wife, a painter; and then after she left on her own business he continued to ignore us, whether out of politeness or forgetfulness I'm not quite sure, while we finished a bottle of wine.
Then, after a trip to a little room at the back, I asked him politely what he proposed. Concerning what, exactly, mussieu, he responded. What do you propose about that excellent daurade you mentioned, I said. Ah, would you like that? Yes we would, I answered cleverly, and he stepped into the kitchen, and before long we heard some cooking sounds, and after what seemed a very long time after which I thought the fish would be little more than shoe-leather here he came with a beautiful daurade on a plate for each of us, and for each of us also a fine bowl of mixed salad.
We're living around the corner from a big daily market that goes on for several blocks, and that's where our fish and our salad came from. The fish-counters smell wonderful, crisp and healthful, and are laden with everything from tiny clams and anchovies to enormous whole tuna. We expect to explore things further.
Trebbiano, Abruzzo, 2008
Caserta, May 10—WE ATE TWICE today, fortifying ourselves for a l-o-n-g train trip to Palermo. First we stopped halfway through a delicious day in Paestum, about which more on The Eastside View; then we took a supper in the restaurant of the Jolly Hotel in Caserta, because it's right next to the train station, and we were schlepping baggage.
Signora the proprietess at La Vecchia Quercia had recommended the Ristorante Nettuno, and we were glad she had. It's just outside the archaeological site, conveniently at the opposite end from the entrance: just when you've covered half this magnificent visit and you're hungry you can sit in a comfortable dining room whose huge windows look out on the Temples of Hera and Zeus. Here I had veal scallopini with asparagus, then a plate of grilled eggplant, zucchini, and peppers.
Cilento bianco, Marini, nv
In the evening a small, dapper, twinkling-eyed waiter brought us amusess-gueule: squid rings with porcini in olive oil; then I went on to grilled salmon with little potatoes and, why not, a few of the girls' mixed vegetables. And we didn't eat again until Palermo.
Falanghina, Cantina del Taburno, 2008