As I mentioned the other day, we were having bad weather, at least officially. So even though it was a Friday evening, the bars and restaurants were pretty empty. Our chosen dinner venue, I Ruggeri, was no exception, despite being top of tripadvisor’s list of the city’s 414 restaurants. Of course, I feel I should mention that at least in Italy, tripadvisor’s definition of “restaurant” is pretty flexible. “Restaurant” no. 2, for example, is actually a bar. They offer Messina’s best gelati and granite, apparently, but you’d probably be hard pushed to get some grilled swordfish and a salad. Luckily, I Ruggeri most definitely is a restaurant, offering all those old restaurant favourites, like tables, menus and waiters. And of course food that went beyond toasted sandwiches and ice-creams.
The patron, Alvise, told us the place was supposed to be fully booked up, but that everyone, except us obviously, had phoned in to cancel because of the bad weather. So, apart from a couple on another table, who left not long after, we had the place to ourselves. And a pretty attractive place it was too. Elsewhere in Europe, the application of interior and lighting design to eateries is taken for granted. Here, where some pizzerias have all the charm of abattoirs, it’s still rare enough to merit comment. Ochre walls, lots of cushions and soft lighting. Relaxing but not slumber-inducing.
We were swiftly offered an amuse-bouche of basmati rice and fresh salmon with courgettes. Not a great fan of salmon, but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say, so I tucked in. And talking of horses, the starters included straccetti di puledro with rocket and grana cheese – the only time I have ever seen horsemeat on offer here (although further down the coast in Catania it’s a traditional delicacy). There was also grilled cheese with acacia honey, and carpaccio. The daily special was tuna tartare with red prawns, also raw. As I may have mentioned before, I can’t resist tuna in any form, and nor did I this time. It was succulent, lightly seasoned, and quite simply delicious. The prawns too were so fresh you half-expected them to get up and jump into your glass of water.
I didn’t pay much attention to the first courses, which I tend to avoid when I’m eating out, preferring to concentrate on the fish and meat. But I do remember seeing a classic cheesy, peppery spaghetti cacio e pepe, a traditional Sicilian pasta with sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts and sultanas, and an intriguing pasta with flying squid, malvasia and mint.
My eyes were already perusing the main courses, which included steak braised in nero d’Avola, baked ham shank, garfish, and flying squid, as well as fillet steak or salmon for the less adventurous. My carnivorous children went for the ham and the braised beef, while my wife insisted on being unwaveringly Sicilian and ordered the stuffed flying squid. I’m not much of a fan, finding it a lot muskier than its “normal” cousin, but she clearly seemed to enjoy it. Like my meat-loving daughter, I too went for the ham, and it’s probably just as well the place was empty, since the groans of pleasure it elicited from me might have raised an eyebrow or too among the other diners. Slightly smoky, richly savoury and melt-in-the mouth tender, this was ham shank heaven. The accompanying mash was, to quote my son, “as good as Nanny’s”. And that’s about as good as it gets, since Nanny’s mash is the benchmark against which he measures all others. His rich braised beef was almost, but not quite, as good as my ham.
The pudding menu held fewer surprises, with the usual collection of hot chocolate puddings, ice-cream mousses and panna cotta. I gave these a miss, apart from a sneaky spoonful of George’s intensely flavoured chocolate pudding.
We rounded off with almond biscuits, superb artisan malvasia from the island of Salina and grappa, offered by Alvise, who came over to keep us company, and we probably would have happily chatted on for hours if George hadn’t started falling asleep on my arm. And so we dragged ourselves to our feet to brave the elements, having paid a bill that was more than reasonable, and considering the quality, excellent value.
So, to sum up:
- Ambience: relaxing décor, soft lighting, lots of cushions, discreet background music (including the matchless Nouvelle Vague)
- Menu: good variety – about ten each of starters, pasta dishes and main courses, with a preponderance for fish, plus a few daily specials. They also offer vegetarian menus and gluten-free pasta
- Wine list: interesting selection across the price spectrum, divided about 60-40 in favour of Sicily
- Service: attentive and polite, but never intrusive
- The bill: pretty painless, considering the quality, at less than 30 euros a head for two courses (not including the wine)