The last meal of a trip is always the worst, I thought to myself. We were sitting in Palermo's Piazza Marina on a warm Sicilian spring night, and we were having a classic "bad dining experience".
I said it aloud, "the last meal is always the worst" and breathed life into the idea. My mother's startled laugh jumped out of her mouth. She paused, and then said thoughtfully, "yes, why do you think that is?"
We'd come to Sicily for the food, this trip planned for what felt like years, but in reality only a few months. "It's all about the food" had become our mantra during the trip. We'd done almost half a dozen such trips, she and I, over the last decade, traveling well together in search of the ever illusive amazing meal. We'd had pad thai and curries on the streets of Bangkok, had high tea in London, explored the back roads of Tuscany and the Louisiana bayou. Now, we were fullfilling a lifelong dream of hers to go back to the town in Sicily where here great-grandfather was born, and while were were at it, take some cooking classes and experience as much amazing food as possible.
This trip began with a kernal of an idea, go to Sicily. Soon it blossomed into a full blown food fest planned to last just eight days. I'd been a professional chef for years and my mother is passionate home cook. I thought it would be interesting to taste Sicilian cooking at the source and see if it even resembled my grandmother's meals. Because I'd been to Sicily before, we decided to focus on the central and westen parts of the island that I'd missed, my mother declaring she "didn't care where we went as long as we went!" I finally settled on cooking classes at Gangivecchio and Regaleali, both in the Madonie Mountians of the Northwest, because we could do day long courses at each. We also planned on checking out local food markets and restaurants I'd read about online.
Our first foray into the food in Sicily came at a gas station/truck stop panini counter where for about $2 we had one of the best panini ever. Toasted bread, melted cheese, prosciutto and fresh basil, why can't we get this at our local Mobil station at home? Maybe there would be less road rage if we did.
Our cooking classes came at the beginning of the trip. Both locations were agritourismo, working farms, that had opened themselves to tourism, and both had women who had written well known and respected cookbooks, but that's really where the similarities end. The cooking classes were a study in opposites. Our time at Gangivecchio, while in a stunningly beautiful location, was disorganized, repetitive and uninspiring. I had asked in a email to move beyond the basic tomato sauce, yet three of the five recipes had tomato sauce as a main componant. Our teacher, Giovanna, was more concerned with her (absent) mother's happiness and comfort, than with us, and kept leaving the kitchen during the class. The dining room of the inn on the property however, had a wonderful, innovative take on traditional Sicillian food and I found myself wishing I could have spent time in the kitchen with Paolo and his wife instead. A typical meal in the inn included a first course which was a wonderful, warm savory tart, with a flaky crust top and bottom, diced zucchini, and a cheesy custard layer. Next followed a pasta al forno; baked mostaccoli with italian pumpkin (different than american pumpkin), fresh sausage, a cream sauce and crumbled amaretti on top. The meat course was an osso bucco (braised veal or beef shank) with a very refined, not chunky sauce. This was served without the usual polenta or risotto, instead there was a tiny square of spinach tart with a bread crumb crust and a little mashed potato pancake. Dessert was a bitter orange and pistachio torte with a shortbread crust.
Our experience at Regaleali was completely different. After getting throughly lost, driving on roads out little rental car should have never been on, and arriving late, we were welcomed into the fold like long lost relatives. We were immediately handed a bag which contained an apron, towel, pen, pad, etc. all emblazoned with the Regaleali logo, and given the opportunity to jump right in. The lunch class had started without us (as it should have because we were late). We watched Anna Tasca Lanza, with the help of three assistants in a kitchen built specifically for instruction, show us how to make thick crusted pizzas and foccacias (this day was "bread day" of a 5 day course~we were only in for an overnight stay). When the food was ready, we all sat down to eat, Anna, her husband Vances, her sister, the two other students and us, to a civilzed meal complete with wine from the winery and nice china, something that would be repeated at every lesson and meal. We spent part of that afternoon on a personalized guided tour of the winery with Vances, and later that night at dinner he told us fascinating stories about growing up with his mother being Spanish royalty and his father Sicilian nobility (hence his title of "Count"). In the morning, before our class, he took us into town early to buy a wonderful Pecorino cheese we'd had the day before. Before we left our morning class included various fried foods including batter dipped vegetables, arancini, panelli, and for desert, canolli. The panelli turned out to be one of the most interesting things we learned to make out of all our classed. Panelli are "fritters" made out of fried chickpea (garbanzo bean) dough. The chickpea flour is cooked in water, whisked until a very thick paste forms. Then it is spread thinly onto the back of a plate and allowed to cool to where it becomes almost rubbery. It's then cut into pie shaped wedges and fried until crisp. These little wedges, served hot and salted, are a typical street food in Palermo.
Later in our trip we were fortunate to have one of those once in a lifetime, never forget until the day you die, tell your grandchildren, meals. On our way out of the town of Sciacca, we realized it was time for lunch and decided to try and find a place in Porto Paolo that had been recommended to me. We got off the main highway and followed the signs along progressively smaller and smaller roads to the beach at Porto Paolo. Finally, we spotted a sign for the restaurant, Da Vittorio. At the end of what looked like a private driveway, we found a restaurant on the sand.
When we asked for a menu, the young waitress explained to us, in Italian, that there wasn't a menu, just a set lunch. Shortly, the plates started arriving at the table. First was a tomato bruschetta, followed quickly by garlic and olive oil marinated mushrooms and tiny bay shrimp. Next came snails in a spicy tomato sauce and grilled, stuffed swordfish. The fifth and final dish of our antipasti was spadola, a white fish with silvery skin and mild flavor served with carmelized onions and a sweet and sour sauce.
Soon, the next course arrived, a fruitti di mare pasta filled with clams, mussels, and shrimp in a garlic and olive oil sauce with a hint of chili flake. The pasta was a perfect al dente. At this point, we had no idea how much more food was coming and were were starting to try and pace ourselves. But there was more to come, and we were next brought a mixed grill fish platter with wonderful grilled prawns, grilled swordfish, and a whole grilled fish called dentesca. The meal was punctuated by not one, but two desserts; a bowl of sliced fruit and a plate of hot, fried popovers, dusted with sugar and filled with fresh ricotta and chocolate. In all, the service was quick and efficient and by the end of our meal the restaurant had filled up with other customers including a lady who hand-fed her little dog pieces of fish at the table. We saw no other non-Italian tourists which made sense given the remote location. The main man in the kitchen is Vittorio himself, gruff on the exterior, complete with torn jeans and a shirt unbuttoned to the navel. He's quite the anti-chef. I poked my head into the kitchen and thanked him personally, and as we walked out to our car he stopped us in the parking lot to chat. Far from the initial impression, he turned out to be a gentle man who was intrigued by the two American women who had come so far just to find his restaurant.
Not every experience was about dining, but we did have other interesting food related encounters as well. In search of a morning market in Marsala, we rounded a corner on the way out of town, and my mother yelled out "Did you see that big fish?" Fortune was smiling on us and we found an open parking space and pulled over. We walked back to check it out and I was dumbfounded by an enormous tuna in the process of being butchered. The fish was so large it took two of them to cut off one loin of tuna. I asked the gentlemen who were cutting down the fish if I could take pictures, and instead of scowling at me like expected, they grinned and even posed for photos. From there, we drove north toward Trapani in search of the famous Salt Flats. Driving long the small road, barely on the map, we saw plenty of wind mills, salt pans, and mountains of salt covered with red roof tiles to keep it from blowing away. Just north of Mozia, we stopped and toured the salt museum inside an old windmill. We were the only English speakers to sign the guest book in the last two years. After leaving the salt flats we drove to Trapani where we found the daily market at north end of town near water. It turned out to be primarily a fish market with some produce and cheese and olive stalls. There, we tasted smoked tuna, which sold for 40 E a kilo! In Palermo we walked the open air market called La Vuccceria, located near the Piazza San Domenico. This market has mostly food products including cheeses, olives, dried herbs, fresh produce and meats and fish. From the end of La Vucceria, we headed for the famous La Antica Foccacceria di San Francisco which has been serving food since 1832. We sought it out for the traditional Milza sandwich which consists of sauteed veal spleen served on a roll with a slice of frech ricotta and grated parmasean cheese. This may sound disgusting, but believe me, it tastes great. We continued to walk heading back toward the Il Capo market, marveling at everything available here, from food to housewares to clothing. It's easy to get lost here, even with a map and we must have walked for miles.
So, with such luck throughout the trip, I really wanted that last meal in Palermo to be special. We'd been fairly lucky so far and we'd chosen this restaurant based on a recommendation from two women we'd met while returning our rental car. They said it had great food and a great house wine. We'd even looked at their menu earlier in the day. The meal went bad from the start, it seemed as if they were out of everything on the menu we wanted and even what we eventually ordered. My salad appeared without the fresh mozzerrella listed on the menu. I asked the waiter if it was supposed to have cheese and he said it was. I sent the salad back to the kitchen (which is just not done in Sicily) in hopes some fresh mozzerella would find it's way to the lettuce, and the salad came back to the table a plate of hard parmesean cheese slivers. Not bad really, but a poor substitution for for soft fresh cheese. My mother's steak came out smothered in a creamy brown sauce. When my pasta appeared without asparagus, the waiter tried to tell us the chopped parsley was asparagus. The plate went back to kitchen. After a very long wait, we asked for check. My pasta re-appeared with zuchini, which looked like it had been taken off the antipasto buffet. I sent back to kitchen and insisted on check again. Oh, and that "fabulous" house wine, was horrible. I am not a spoiled diner with unrealistic expectations. I've worked in the restaurant industry enough to know that all restaurants have bad nights. I've traveled enough to know that expectations change from country to country. But I don't think anyone should have to suffer bad service, incorrect menus, unasked for substitutions, and just plain bad food just because they are a tourist. I've traveled all over the world and there are some countries where one would expect the food to be fabulous most of the time and others, well, where you feel lucky to get a bowl of rice and dal and are pleasantly surprised to find decent food. It's especially disappointing when you are in a place so known for it's cuisine and are let down.
So yes, in this case the last meal was the worst. Why is that usually what happens? Is it because we are dreading going home, or because we are ready to leave? Is it Murphey's law? Or are we perpetually recreating the Last Supper, paying some sort of cosmic pennance for a fantastic trip? Maybe. I know from now on, my expectations for my "last meal" will be much lower, and hopefully, I might just be surprised instead.
Sicily 2003 Home