One night in Palermo, Monsieur and I decided not to take the restaurant recommendations of the hotel or our travel guides; instead we would sniff out somewhere good in the neighbourhood. Little did we know that this would be one of THE dining experiences of the entire Sicilian expedition and NOT because of the food.
We chose a place that had been established in the same year as Monsieur’s birth (a good omen, surely?) boasting an impressive counter of fresh fish, lobster, and other fruits of the sea. On entering, the maitre d’, dressed in impeccable dinner suit and bow tie, looked us up and down in a cursory appraisal before taking our booking. Intimidating this may have been, but in fact the restaurant wasn’t overly fancy so the actions of this delusional penguin merely served to amuse. We left smiling, reservation in hand; a few hours later we returned to dine.
The same maitre d’ greeted us with a theatrical stare of non-recognition and asked our name again, as if he didn’t remember us from that afternoon. Talk about a rapid onset of amnesia! Then, our admission granted at last, we followed him to our table. Another waiter brought the menus, and a more junior waiter in the restaurant’s pecking order appeared with water and a bread basket. This place was definitely doing its bit to support the local community’s employment needs.
As I cracked the grissini and perused the menu, I glanced at the tables around us. Against a far wall sat an older couple. They looked comfortable, Italian and well-fed. ‘That’ll be Monsieur and me in a few years if we’re not careful!’ I thought. Next to us, but not too close, was a Japanese family. They were dressed in a more casual way than most Japanese tourists and seemed very relaxed. I suspect they were travelling academics – something about their cargo pants, untamed hair, strange lack of total colour coordination, which the Japanese so favour, and a carefree manner which smacked of not having lived in Japan for some time. Then a single man came and sat at a table near us. He was burly, with dark stubble, sporting a rough plaid shirt and expensive-looking body warmer. The maitre d’ did not hand him a menu; in fact a few minutes passed and a meal was set before the man, signalling that he must be a regular.
Meanwhile, our waiter returned to inform us that there was a problem with the card machine, so we’d need to agree to pay cash before he could take our order. This seemed normal enough; card machine links go down from time to time, so we proceeded to select our courses from the menu.
As we waited for our food to arrive, I stole a glance at the burly man. He was surveying the room in silence, his dark, dead eyes moving stealthily from side to side. He caught me watching him so I changed my focus to an artwork on the wall in the distance, pointing it out to Monsieur and making small talk in an attempt to disguise my uninvited interest in our neighbour. The maitre d’ then walked up to the burly man’s table, presenting a thick white envelope with a flourish. Burly man took the envelope and stuffed it into his body-warmer. If this was some sort of protection money payment, there was absolutely nothing cloak and dagger about it. Then again, I could be completely mistaken, having merely observed the maitre d’ making the down-payment on some new double glazing. It’s possible, I suppose.
The food at this Palermo restaurant was far from great. My main of fritto misto was rubbery in a Pirelli sort of way and overly fried, but our bottle of fruity white Planeta partly made up for it. Across from us, the burly man readied himself to leave, having wolfed his plate of pasta in a minimum of mouthfuls. He brought out the envelope, extracting a ten Euro note from it to leave on the table. (Ah, so there WAS money inside!) Then, with a flash of heavy gold watch, he was gone.
As I’d spied on the burly chap from the corner of one eye, Monsieur was checking out the goings on down at the cashier’s desk where stacks of banknotes were being sorted and counted by a woman whose monthly grooming bill probably sucked up the better part of her salary. She had perfectly layered hair with all the right highlights, no roots showing, the silkiest of makeup, bright red talons flicking expertly through golden fifty euro notes and a fair weight of gold adorning her perfectly-bronzed self.
The dessert trolley appeared before us with a selection of somewhat aged offerings; the cannoli had definitely seen better days, its creamy filling hardened where it met the crisp-ish shells, and an adjacent bowl of fruit salad looking rather tired, as were we.
And so we paid up in cash, as earlier agreed, thereby contributing to whatever ‘renovations’ the establishment required, dragging our weary legs back to the hotel.
Only in the quiet of our room did Monsieur and I discuss the strangeness of the evening, excitedly comparing our observations to episodes of The Sopranos, only it seemed we’d been privy to a real life ‘double-glazing’ order in the Mother Country, as opposed to the exported version as might occur in the States.
One thing remains with me when I think back to that evening and it sticks like congealing cannoli ricotta in my throat: the burly man’s eyes were dead. Their stare was dark and cold as icy water on stone, speaking of things most people will thankfully only ever see in nightmares. It was easy to imagine him giving the Devil a hard time over a late ‘double-glazing’ payment. Had this man ever known sweet thoughts or happiness? Had he experienced the innocence of youth? Or had he been born with a giant 666 tattooed on his forehead, and a habit of riding tricycles into mothers teeter-tottering on chairs near stairs? If you could see those eyes, just for a second, you’d understand the thoughts in my head at the time; they betrayed no sign whatsoever that they could laugh or show sympathy or joy. I’ll never forget that burly man. As for the restaurant, all I can say to them is that I hope they improve their fritto misto for future diners, and may their new ‘double-glazing’ protect them from Palermo’s ‘noise’.