On holiday in Palermo, I play at an elegant lunch. I put on a black faux-satin dress and some make up and walk to Casa del Brodo with a new orange notebook, a pen and a volume of MFK Fisher in my bag. I don’t know what I’m doing and it feels like I am preparing for a performance called, “woman eats alone, almost convinces.”
When I arrive and try to enter the restaurant, the door is blocked by a long table of middle-aged Sicilians finishing their lunch. I peer in and they all look at me. Whisperingly quiet, I ask if the restaurant is still serving, then answer my own question and turn to go. I am saved by a short, smiling waiter who takes charge and beckons me in.
My heart sinks as he takes me from the jolly front room to an empty back room where I am the only diner. I am sat facing the old, highly blow-dried Signora who sits behind a grand mahogany desk with her bible-thick leather bound reservations diary. Being able to observe the Signora is a plus, but perhaps the back room is where they send unconvincing solo women? She ignores me, occasionally answering the phone. The waiter serving this area is less friendly. He replies to my Italian phrases in English. I feel slighted by this, but try to consider that his English is also an act of hospitality.
I order Tortellini in Brodo and boiled veal which I think must be authentic because boiled meat is considered undesirable and dated in England. There is a choice between saffron potatoes and salsa verde with the veal, I choose salsa verde. I have a glass of red wine that comes chilled and a large bottle of sparkling water. I set out With Bold Knife and Fork, my new orange notebook and my pen and sit up straight, reading page one: ‘Anatomy of a Recipe’. I channel MFK Fisher in pre-war Europe, commanding and curious. The food arrives quickly. The broth is clear and salty and plain-tasting, the tortellini are springy and filled with minced veal. No garnish or herbs interrupt the broth, pasta and meat. The salsa verde is strong and fishy and thickened with breadcrumbs and is astonishing with the undressed hunks of veal. The rough clarity of the cooking is strange and exciting.
About 30 minutes in, a father and daughter come into the back room for lunch. Things are looking up, I think. I could learn something from how they eat. She is wearing workout clothes and they both mostly look at their phones. The daughter browses the heaving sideboard of pre-cooked antipasti and chooses oily fried aubergine and rolled stuffed sardines, I want them. He orders the same as me for both courses, except he chooses the potatoes with the veal and though I loved the salsa verde, I am immediately envious. The potatoes are soft at the edges, vibrant yellow against the wan veal and served with a bit of cooking liquor. I resolve to make them like this at home.
The lunch exposes the geographic specificity of my expectations of food, even though I live in a metropolis like London. Italian food in England is translated both linguistically and in the manner of serving. It is made more delicate and complicated, which conversely softens flavours by making them less direct. The directness of my lunch has taken me by surprise.
In Palermo I find a world of small differences I didn’t know before I was just here. Ice cream in a huge split brioche bun for breakfast. Bottled mineral water with all meals, however modest. Vast buffets of unctuous, baked, fried and stuffed antipasti at room temperature are miles away from fridge-cold mini mozzarella balls, sun-dried tomatoes and a few olives on a wooden board. Pasta after a starter but before a main course. The absence of vegetables and pretty much anything with meat main courses. Each plate is an encounter with another way of being-in-the-world. The thrill is of my expectations not being met: I couldn’t have known how it would taste.