It was getting dark as Monsieur and I set off to explore something of Palermo on our first day in Sicily. We enjoyed the window-shopping along the Via R Settimo, later rejoining the broad Via Roma, where discount shops and mobile phone outlets were busy with post-Christmas sale business. My favourite window was for a deli-stroke-drinks shop where pyramids of prosecco bottles stood interspersed with beautiful boxes of candied fruit, marzipan and other sweet treats, ready for New Year’s revellers to come shopping. We visited San Domenico, the church where the great and the good of Palermo are buried, and there I spent ages in front of the giant Nativity display, or ‘Presepi’, as they’re known in this part of the world. It was garish, with larger-than-usual figures, pot plants, straw, bowls of citrus and figures of sheep. At the centre of everything was the inanimate model of Baby Jesus. For some reason, this Nativity made me want to laugh; it was such a happy, kitsch scene compared to many.
Back outside we wandered through a market off the Via Roma, passing the usual knock-off stands and stalls loaded with anything and everything from kids’ slippers to pyjamas or fake Calvin Klein underwear and kitchen implements in the alluring colours of lime or fuchsia plastic. On the way back to the hotel we passed the Teatro Massimo, seasonally decked out in fairy lights, twinkling their way to a massive civic electricity bill, with a carpet of red-leafed poinsettias running down its main stairs. This was the theatre where the attempted assassination of Michael Corleone takes place in Godfather part III. I was only sorry that it was closed for the holidays so we couldn’t see how they’d decorated the interior. I bet it was über chic.
Having endured a long day with only the most basic of nourishment, we were ready for an early dinner. The clerks at the hotel had recommended a restaurant for our first supper in Sicily: Zafferano. The reception was such a vivid example of pricey modern chic that it felt more like the entrance to a top hair salon than an eatery. Put it this way – there were pony hide chairs and a tweed-suited receptionist, only the tweed wasn’t fusty musty old English countryside smelling vaguely of mothballs; this girl was confident in her 5 inch heels and the suit hugged each of her curves as if she’d been born wearing it.
Down a few stairs we entered a space with exposed brick walls, a couple of didgeridoos, a knee-high vase carved of the darkest wood, and some splashy abstract canvases eating up the wall space. However, it wasn’t any of the above that distracted me; at the end of the room hung red and white poinsettias ‘planted’ in hanging tiers of plastic bags and ‘fed’ from IV bags. I’d never seen anything like it.
The maître d’ greeted us with champagne flutes, filling them half-way with prosecco. An elegant plate of small zucchini, carrot and potato dumplings then arrived and we selected a bottle of sauvignon/viognier called ‘La Segreta’ from the Planeta vineyard which is well-known throughout Sicily. Just as the wine appeared, the waiter whisked our unfinished glasses of prosecco away before we could say “Don Corleone!” but the wine was so crisp and fruity that we were soon distracted from the absence of a few extra bubbles trickling down our throats.
To start, Monsieur chose a carpaccio of smoked salmon, swordfish and tuna, whilst I enjoyed a plate of cernia or dusky grouper tartare on a bed of cress. On Monsieur’s side of the table the carpaccio disappeared with the silence of a satisfied diner and the cernia was so delicate that it dissolved in my mouth, leaving the sensation of a dream of fish flavoured gently with fennel, dill and lemon. The peppery cress brought the perfect tartare back down to earth with just the right amount of earthy leaf texture.
We weren’t kept waiting by the staff. Our glasses were refilled with a couple of fingers of wine at a time and were soon savouring our main courses. Monsieur’s suckling pig tournedos was served with fries and an orange sauce that perfumed not only the pork, but the air above it so that an orange grove appeared to be invisible around us. Meanwhile, my linguine with dried sea urchin and tuna roe was served in an ideal portion so as not to bloat the diner. The sea urchin brought with it a subtle taste of the sea and the roe slipped about the plate in an attempt to evade my eager tastebuds; it was so soft and cool that it disappeared with each press of the tongue against the palate. To top it all off, the sweet juice of cherry tomatoes cut through the saltiness of the other ingredients, making this a new top favourite on the Epicurienne List of Ideal Pasta Dishes.
We decided against taking a dessert at Zafferano, opting instead for a gelateria stop on the way back to the hotel. This was one of those good-ideas-at-the-time. The gelato was certainly refreshing but the flavours were all wrong. The coconut scoop tasted vaguely of pineapple and the stracciatella was sadly lacking in chocolate bits. “Never mind,” I told Monsieur, “we’ll just have to make it our week’s work to find a better gelato experience.” Besides, we’d enjoyed a superb dinner and a long, energising sleep awaited us, as did more adventures Sicilian style. There would be plenty of gelato cups to look forward to during the coming week.