Read this post in / Anche disponibile in: Italian
Every now and then I win against my family. I mean, it’s bound to happen occasionally, isn’t it? As the great e.e. cummings wrote, “nobody loses all the time”. Of course, the odds are stacked against me, with a lawyer wife, a teenage daughter who could teach Lucrezia Borgia a trick or two, and a son whose evil grin would impress an assassin from one of the bloodier Renaissance tragedies.
And in perhaps no area is my influence lower than that of eating out. This may surprise you, perhaps assuming that in all things gastronomic I am master of the house. The problem is that my family actually agree on this point, and to prove it, insist that we stay in the house, where I can spend my time mastering the art of cooking for their benefit. My offspring also have other reasons for staying at home. In the case of my teenage daughter, an incurable disease of the thumbs. If they stop tapping her smartphone screen for more than ten seconds, she apparently risks instant death. And as for Machiavel Junior, getting him to move would require surgically removing the armchair that appears to have fused with the flesh on his backside, like some kind of luxury hair-shirt. Parting him from the PS3 remote control would also probably require amputation of some kind.
But yes, despite all this, I do occasionally get my own way, albeit with outside help, usually in the form of relatives visiting from England – “you know how much they love the restaurants here, dear”. And so it was, Allied Forces in tow, that I managed to drag the wife and kids out to Sapore Divino in Ganzirri, just north of Messina. I don’t get to come here that often, as you will have realised, and I’m always pleasantly surprised when the proprietor, Mario Valveri, actually remembers who I am.
When I had phoned to book the day before, I had ordered fish soup, one of my favourite dishes, but a rare sight on menus here in Sicily. Hence the 24-hour warning, Geneva-Convention style, giving the restaurant time to get in the right fish from the market and prepare the fish stock, the essential foundation of the dish.
Anyway, that was the main course sorted for a couple of us, with the others going for swordfish, sea bream, and in the case of my irreducibly carnivorous daughter, pork shanks. There were also a few starters – seafood antipasto for two, prosciutto crudo, prawn cocktail –, and pasta – mezze maniche with swordfish, aubergines and pistachios. In full Renaissance idiom, my son ordered penne with wild boar ragù.
I was just about to choose the wine when Mario rematerialised, with inside knowledge to share. It transpired that one of my favourite Sicilian whites, the Tasca d’Almerita Grillo I have mentioned before, was risking extinction. Apparently, rabbits had got into the vineyard and laid waste to it, meaning no more Grillo in the foreseeable future. Maybe, he suggested, I’d like to savour what could be one of the last bottles ever. Yes, thank you, I definitely would. And remind me to post a recipe for rabbit pie sometime in the near future.
As for the food, the antipasto was as usual superb, playing on the in-your-face freshness of the fish. There were fried breaded mussels and prawn fritters with spicy harissa, and then mixed carpaccio, with octopus, salmon, swordfish and prawns. The fish was left practically undressed, to speak for itself, which is the way it should be when it’s this fresh. Nudo e crudo, as the Italians say.The mezze maniche with swordfish, aubergines and pistachio was a superb combination. I think there may have been a few tomatoes in there somewhere too. Either way, the richly-flavoured, creamy sauce had us mopping our plates clean with scraps of bread. Then of course came the fish soup. Clean-tasting, with the fish cooked only as long as necessary, to ensure each variety retained its own individual flavour. The only gripe was the croutons, which were small and lacked that robust rustic charm which fish soup cries out for. What I really needed was a few thick chunks of country bread, char-grilled and doused with good olive oil, which I could have put in the bottom of the dish to soak up all the aromatic broth and flakes of fish. Don’t get me wrong, the soup was excellent, but with the right crostini it would have been close to perfect.
Everyone except me had puddings, which seemed to go down well, although I can’t actually remember what they were, except for MJ’s predictable choice of almond ice-cream mousse with chocolate sauce. With coffees and a couple of grappas, the whole lot came in at a reasonable €200 for six of us, with a bit of a discount.
By the time we left, well-fed and wallowing in that satisfied feeling only a feast of fish can bring, it was already starting to get dark. We went for a walk on the beach to freshen up, or in MJ’s case to look for pointed sticks to add to his collection, as I daydreamed about what I’d like to do to those rabbits…
Ah, by the way, if you fancy a look at the menu and some photos of the restaurant, the website is here, but despite the little Union Jack up in the corner, only Italian seems to be available. Mario, if you’re reading this, I can put you in touch with a good translator…