I decided to go out for an elegant lunch on my first day in Palermo. I put on a black faux-satin dress, some make up and walked to Casa del Brodo, recommended by a knowledgeable and generous woman called Claire who has been spending some time in Sicily with view to moving permanently. You can find Claire at @everythingbut on Instagram.
I was on my first ever trip with the specific purpose of writing (and somewhat doubting its/my legitimacy) and my first time going on holiday on my own. I was feeling generally a bit nervous. I brought my new orange notebook, a pen and a volume of MFK Fisher essays as props. When I am going somewhere new I feel concerned I won’t know what to eat or how to eat it. To help myself out, I trawl my memory for similar eating situations in books and films, on TV or that I’ve been told about. I try to establish a sense of what would be appropriate. I order what I imagine is the right thing and it feels like I am performing a play called “woman eats dinner alone, almost convinces”. But of course the food is real and so is my appetite – basically I want to know the best way to have a good time.
Eating in an unfamiliar restaurant exposes the manifold layers of culture that we have absorbed so we can have a normal-feeling day. Suddenly all of the things I have learned to do elsewhere, but not here, are made plain. Even in Palermo which on the face of it is a relatively similar culture to the UK (Western European Christian, 1 hour ahead) there are thousands of small differences. The normality of drinking bottled water with all meals (not tap water), a vast cold starter (antipasti) buffet, pasta after a starter but before a main course, the absence of vegetables and pretty much everything else as accompaniments to meat main courses. Should I eat all courses, just pasta and a meat main and not antipasti, just antipasti and pasta, just antipasti (the buffet consists of rich, unctuous filling items, including a lot of fried stuff) etc…. Also the popular Italian-style food eaten in England is translated both linguistically and in the manner of serving – and there’s the homogenisation of what is still a significantly regional food culture into the catch-all ‘Italian’. This is Sicily.
NB. The feeling of being out of place can be more acute if you’re a woman, because you will have often been made to feel visible in ways you haven’t sought (unsolicited comments, looks and gestures about your body size, your implicit morality, your sexual availability, your legitimacy ). Though written ages ago, the American writer MFK Fisher’s entries on eating in restaurants alone in Europe are helpful because not only is she committed to enjoying herself, but she acknowledges that it requires skill and practice to do it in a way that is pleasurable.
Here’s a list of things I thought of as I walked to Casa del Brodo:
“Old school restaurant . Had one of the best meals I’ve had in Palermo here. It is old school. Lunch is quiet dinner is packed.” — Claire’s recommendation email to me
I once went alone and so hungover I was almost hallucinating to an old school restaurant that had tablecloths in Milan and I loved it.
The restaurant I waitressed at during the past year served Tortellini in Brodo (meat stuffed pasta in broth), which was delicious, but which I also noted was a northern Italian dish.
I went on the restaurant website and they served boiled veal with green sauce or saffron potatoes.
The outside looks sort of fusty and dated and I loved that.
I would feel like I was MFK Fisher eating in pre-war Europe on her own.
It is only the first day of my trip so I still have enough money to eat here.
Shit it’s 2pm, do they eat lunch really punctually at 1pm in Sicily?
When I get there I try to open the door but it’s mostly blocked by the chairs of a long table of middle aged people finishing their lunch. I peer round and they all look at me and I immediately feel I should leave and begin to ask if the restaurant is still serving then answer my own question and begin closing the door when a short, smiling waiter comes and gets me and asks if I want lunch and I said yes. But then he takes me from the jolly front room to an empty back room in the restaurant where I am the only diner and I am sat staring at the old, well blow-dried Signora behind a grand desk (the best piece of furniture in the restaurant) and a large diary. Being able to observe the Signora is a plus, but perhaps the back room is where they send unconvincing solo women? The waiter in the backroom is accordingly more dismissive and less friendly than the man in the front and replies to my Italian phrases in English. Selfishly I feel his unfriendly judgement, but also I am not speaking Sicilian dialect and arguably his speaking English is an act of hospitality. Get a grip!
I order the Tortellini in Brodo and then boiled veal which I feel this is authentic and sophisticatedly spartan. There is a choice between saffron potatoes and salsa verde with the veal, I choose salsa verde. I also have a glass of red wine that comes chilled and a large bottle of sparkling water. About 30 minutes into my lunch a father and daughter come in to the back room and had lunch too. Things are looking up, I thought. She is wearing workout clothes and they both mainly look at their phones. He orders the same as me, except he has the potatoes which I am immediately envious of. They are soft at the edges, yellow, served with a bit of their cooking juice. The daughter chooses her starter from the huge buffet of pre-cooked antipasti and I am envious of the oily fried aubergine and rolled stuffed sardines.
So when I recreated the meal at home yesterday with a starter of pasta (not stuffed) in the boiling broth and beef with salsa verde at home in London yesterday, I decided I would have saffron potatoes too, it went well! Recipe below the pictures:
Enough potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 onion, finely diced
a little dried oregano
extra virgin olive oil
a pinch of saffron, not too much or it will taste soapy
How to make
Fry the onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan or flame proof casserole until soft. Add the potatoes, the saffron and the oregano and cover with water, so the water is around 1cm above the potatoes. Add another few tablespoons of olive oil and a good pinch of salt. Bring to the boil and then simmer for around an hour on a low heat.