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FrenchFeast: Fizz, Frites, Fromage and Philosophical Fermentations

French Feast Goes to Sicily

January 13, 2015

Palermo: Part I:

I’ll be writing more on the power and the beauty of the landscape but for now, I’ll cut to the chase: what we did when we arrived.

It was late Sunday afternoon on December 30th. We made our way through the crowds on their passegiata strolls, checked in to our hotel and changed clothes in in time to go to the opera.

Our hotel. Hotel Gardenia. On the 7th floor of a building in a commercial gallery. The reception desk, where you check in, and the breakfast room are several doors away, in another hotel which has (more expensive) rooms on the first floor of what is probably the same building.

Gardenia’s rooms were prison basic. The furniture made Ikea look like Claridges. But the beds were comfortable, the location convenient,the staff at the reception desk helpful and nice, and, it might have been hard to find better at the price as it seems, that Sicily’s hotel industry is still in a very early state of development. A single room, about the size of a prison cell, cost 45 euros; a double (some with balconies), 90.

We had tickets to Norma which was being performed at the Teatro Massimo, the grand neo-classical structure which was the setting for the climactic scene that ended Godfather III.

It’s a huge, glorious jewel box of a theatre – all gilt and dreamy frescoes and red velvet. We were in the peanut gallery, the 6th balcony, so plebian that its seats weren’t even numbered. Many had no view of the stage at all. So it was interesting, though not surprising, that so many of the people seated here got up to walk around – either to get a better view, find friends or stretch their legs. The production itself was fair: the direction was pre-Peter Sellars bombastic, with the crowds just shoved around like so many sheep; the scenery was eery and effective; and the performances were good enough but not great. In any event, it’s always a treat to hear that bel canto and the setting could not be beat.

I want to open a couple of parentheses here. The Teatro Massimo, one of the most important theatres in Europe, is the second largest employer in Palermo. Which either tells you something about the Sicilian economy or about the importance of the Teatro Massimo, or both.

Next: the Christmas decorations. The theatre was a vision from a fairy tale: the central third of its great marble staircase a carpet of red poinsettas; its columns and palm trees clothed in glittering white lights. And this tasteful extravagance was true throughout Sicily. I’ve never seen such lovely Christmas decorations, elegant profusions of shimmering white lights, hung like swags along main thoroughfares, climbing up stone pillars and up the trunks of palm trees. There were also swags with Renaissance putti at their center gathering the strands. And Christmas trees, even in the most modest hotels, were beautifully adorned. The tree in our hotel, for example, was as sweet as a sugarplum – with its white lights and its tennis-ball shaped ornaments, the color of the flesh of blood oranges frosted with stardust.

Since the opera started at 5:30, it ended in time for a good dinner. We went to the Osteria dei Vespri, on the same square as (and possibly a part of) the palazzo owned by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard.

We loved this restaurant so much we went back again and I would certainly go anytime I find myself in Palermo. A small room, with a wood mezzanine, stone walls and a vaulted stone ceiling, its wine list is phenomenal, its cooking, based on top ingredients, is creative but not bizarre and the service is caring and competent.

As it was rather late, we all opted for one savory course and dessert. First came baskets of homemade baked goods – breadsticks and an assortment of tiny rolls, some flecked with fennel seed, others made from cornmeal, and so forth. My main course consisted of long-simmered, fork tender pork jowls and pearl onions set mashed potatoes and served on a very reduced sauce based on Nero d’Avola. Superb. (And rather “French bistro-gourmand”.)

There was a pre-dessert -- orange-scented crème brulee – and a post-dessert – a platter of mixed petite fours such as chocolate truffles and tiny fruit tarts, all delectable. For my main dessert I had “cassaletta” – a fried pastry disc covered with powdered sugar and filled with ricotta cream flavored with lemon peel and chocolate. (It was as delicious as it sounds.)

The wines: First of all, the wine list is to die, with superb selections from all over the world as well as an encyclopedic range of the best of Italy. But I wanted to focus on Sicily. And so:

2005 Nero d’Avola (IGT) from the pioneering winery Planeta. Actually, it was 95% nero d’avola, our very savvy waitress told us, with 5% of a “world grape.” (35 euros.) Young, rich and very tight, it exuded aromas of black cherry, blueberry and licorice. After about five minutes, the barrique aging became evident and later, more evident. The wine, which recalled a very good red from the Languedoc-Roussillon, needed aeration. I ordered a second bottle and asked that it be decanted. The wine opened up beautifully, a stately presence, a weave of rich, dark fruit flavors and a velvety texture.

While waiting for it to breathe, we drank a 2005 Nero d’Avola “Il Moro” from Valle dell Acate (22 euros). Good value here, and a very nice wine, with a smooth attack and good structure, but a bit raspy and it suffered by comparison to the Planeta.
I may well be built backwards. I like to end a meal either with Champagne or with something dry and alcoholic -- or both – and start with something off-dry or downright sweet. Keeping within the Sicilian mode, I opted for a dry Marsala, the Pelligrino 1880 Reserva del Centenairo 1980, which was all coffee, toffee and nut flavors with a steel backbone – something of a cross between a Palo Cortado and an Oloroso. (I’ll describe our second meal here later. In the meantime: Osteria dei Vespri, Piazza Croce dei Vespri, 6, 90133 Palermo; tel: 091.617.16.31; www.osteriadeivespri.it; closed Sunday.)

Palermo: Part II

(The first and last parts of this day remain to be written. So far I've only done dinner.)

Dinner: The Big Night:

I had selected Sant’Andrea. Based on everything I’d read, I was sure that this would be the star restaurant of the trip, that we’d want to go back again and again. Well, it was a major disappointment on every level. But before going into some of the sorry details I do want to say that it’s an attractive, contemporary, popular place with good food (as in a squid ink ravioli stuffed with a mousse of broccoli). But it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.
First of all, the service. I may sound mean but I spent many years as a waitress while I thought I wanted to be an actress. So even though it was New Year’s Eve, I wasn’t going to give the restaurant that was supposed to be the best in Palermo a free ride. Everything was timed to the minute: to the kitchen’s minute. What we received had nothing to do with who had or hadn’t arrived, with who had or hadn’t finished the dish they were eating. It had everything to do with the timing they had obviously worked out down to the minute. And they paid so little attention to our needs that eight of us drank only two bottles of wine! Scandalous! I can drink that much on my own on a summer Sunday in the garden!

There was a set menu of four courses for 60 euros with a three possibilities in each course. For my first course I chose “Mediterranean raw fish”: a “king prawn” on fennel, sping onion and ginger; oysters on “scalora riccia”, and fish carpaccio with artichokes and orange. I think this is the last time I will try to like raw prawns. I adore them cooked but raw? The oyster was good but whatever the ‘scalora riccia’ was remains a mystery: I didn’t taste anything much less anything I could identify. Was it a typo, as in “the Mean (sic) course”? I’ll have to ask Maureen. The raw fish – sorry, I forget what it was--was tasty but there wasn’t much evidence of the artichokes and orange.

Next course: risotto with cumin, fish of the day, artichokes, wild fennel, broad beans and fresh caciocavallo cheese. Risotto it wasn’t. The rice was al dente. The fish was a different fish of the day than the one in the first course – one, I think was sea bream, the other sea bass – and was a bit overcooked. The pleasantest thing about the dish was finding the molten strands of fresh cheese at the bottom of the bowl. I was still desperately trying to like this restaurant.

The “Mean” course: stew of Tusa lamb, flavored with and wild fennel and served with a basket made of fried bread and filled with a compote of dried fig and date. I ordered this because I knew that for most of the trip we were going to be eating fish, fish, fish; because I love lamb; and because if they used the name “Tusa,” I assumed it was a special, regional lamb – though they were too busy to answer any questions.
In any event: just a really ho-hum lamb stew, not quite as mediocre as cafeteria level but not far.This, on a New Year's Eve menu in what was supposedly the best restaurant in Palermo? The dried fruit compote was tasty but by this time I had pretty much lost patience.

And dessert: yellow cream and fresh goat cheese with puff pastry. What’s the yellow cream? I wanted to know. “Yellow cream.” Well, it was more of a savory-ish soup than anything else and I ate about two spoonfuls of it.

The Wine: The list was far from great. Mostly big houses like Donna Fugata and when they had a small property, they were out of the wine. Still, we were very happy with our 2006 Cerusualo di Vittoria from Planeta. Made principally from Nero d’Avola blended other indigenous red grapes (eg Frappato, Nerello Mascalese) it was seductively fragrant, with the texture of velvet and rich flavors of black cherry, cherry pit, raspberry liqueur and crème de cassis. We could easily have downed another bottle or three.