Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tricky customers and male egos 28/05/09

Negative vibes last night in the kitchen. Mi marito said, ‘I don’t even go there any more if I can avoid it, I don’t like the atmosphere.’ They were all shouting at each other when I arrived and then hushed up when they saw me. I think we got the whole kitchen wrong. I don’t like it, even the aiuto cuoco with his earnestness, he hasn’t got good ‘manualità’ as they say here, he doesn’t manipulate the food well, his plates are graceless and unpalatable looking.

A highly strung girl came in (she had come in for the opening and been super-enthusiastic), with her tangoed fake tan and tight clothes and complexes, accompanied by a minute girl with her minute dog. They sat at the table next to mine (I was eating), greeting il barman effusively. She gave me a brief smile and then checked – just checked, not really expecting a negative, ‘It’s OK to have the dog here, vero, he’s just piccolino.’ The barman says ‘Not at all, no probs!’ I leaned across and said, ‘Maybe next time it would be better to leave your little dog outside when people are eating.’ Now, no doubt I was too direct for the delicate Sicilian soul, and no doubt I was annoyed with the barman for not referring to me – but I think it is fair comment. I thought it was very unusual to expect to bring a dog into a restaurant, however tiny. But I should have seen that this girl was trouble. She had the face of many years of discontent and abusive sunbed use. So she went into convulsions of disgust at having been spoken to about her minute dog and moved a couple of tables down and engaged il barman in an urgent discussion about how a dog is allowed anywhere.

My other unfortunate moment of the night was when I accused three respectable ladies of scarpering without paying the bill. Well, not exactly. But there were three glamorous blond highlighted buxom dames at table 7 in the corner who appeared to heartily enjoy their meal; when they left I checked on the table and couldn’t see the conto, and then they asked if they could go out the garden gate and I remembered mi suocero saying so many people had done a runner out the gate, so I suddenly felt over-suspicious and checked again if the money was there – no sign. So I went down after them and asked mi marito if they had paid (as sometimes people just pay at the till) and he said they hadn’t, so il cameriere went after them and checked and I came too and apologized, I said I couldn’t find it, and they laughed and said they had left it on the next table, and joked that they could hardly do a runner in their high heels and with their significant weight. How was I to see it on the next table? It is true that mi marito’s family endless stories about how often people used to try and do a runner, has probably made us a bit paranoid. Hilarious. In my defence, it is also true that when you first move to a foreign country your parametres for sizing people up go slightly haywire, and I still haven't quite figured people out yet here.

Il cameriere was stressed and agitated again last night, constantly checking his mobile and smoking a lot. Problems keeping up with his two girlfriends, his ex-wife and his two young children. He keeps telling me about the women who want to sleep with him. The highly strung bronzed minute dog woman was all over him on leaving and I said, ‘Oh was she on about her friend’s dog again?’ and he said, ‘Assolutamente! Not at all!’ unconvincingly, then added cautiously, ‘We did always used to let people in with their dogs though.’ (He had worked for the mi marito’s family when they were running it, but it was more of a pub/trattoria then) and he said, leaning over the counter towards my husband, but so I could hear, ‘Tutte vogliono trombare’ (they all just want to sleep with me)!

Il barman still thinks he is the prima donna. He started on again about the Vileda cloths we should get for cleaning glass and I went to the kitchen to get the ones I had got at the Cash and Carry and produced them. He didn’t look one bit pleased.I cleaned the counter because it was all paw prints, and he said he had cleaned it at the beginning of the evening. Sure that’s great, but the point is it needs to be cleaned all the time, after customers have been there. I pointed it out to him, look how dirty it is here! Right in his area too in front of where he serves! Mi marito had a spritz (white wine with Aperol or Campari, very refreshing dry cocktail) and I noticed il barman had put on a sliver of cucumber skin like I had suggested (we got them like that in Florence in a bar we used to go to for the aperitivo and the smell of the fresh cucumber as you sip your drink just completes the pleasant experience). Mi marito said, ‘Oh, I like the cucumber’ and il barman said, ‘Yes, I always make it like that now,’ without so much as a flicker of recognition towards me. I had a sip but then suggested using shorter straws too, because with the longer ones you don’t get the smell, the whole point is that you get the scent of the cucumber as you sip your drink and it all makes for a refreshing experience. Mi marito sipped as I suggested, with the shorter straws, ‘See, now you get the smell, don’t you?’ I said, and he nodded and told il barman to use the shorter straws. Il barman nodded his head in agreement; anything for mi marito.


Are all cooks so arrogant? 25/05/09

At last it is Monday, our day off. I am wrecked. I woke at 12.30 my whole body aching, especially the legs.

Last night the restaurant was full. I was on fire going round all the tables explaining the specials, ‘the fish of the day is mupa, abbiamo burratina pugliese (which most people didn’t know since it comes from Puglia and not Sicily, so I had to explain it is like mozzarella but creamier - really delicious). People asked me where I was from, and was I Spanish because of how I pronounced the names of the tapas. One table of guys said ‘complimenti per l’italiano’, which I really appreciated since it is no mean feat to have to rattle off the specials , then explain and advise them on the different dishes available, when you have large tables of hungry customers staring at you, slightly bewildered by the array of things on the menu. We have ‘Piatti Unici’, the equivalent of a main course (some with basmati rice and vegetable soufflés or roast potatoes and salads etc), but this is most unusual here since they are used to the primo piatto of pasta followed by the secondo piatto of plain fish or meat.

Il cameriere couldn’t come last night (basically he is off work today and had gone to the Aeolian islands to his girlfriend’s summer house and didn’t want to have to come back for work last night and then go back over to Lipari this morning … talk about work ethic). We missed him because he can do the bar too. Mi marito had to go behind the bar at around midnight because so many were coming in for drinks, and tapas and cocktails.

The chef messed up again. He can’t smistare (sort the orders and keep track of them), even though he insisted that he wanted to do it. He can’t even read the orders and doesn’t bring his glasses to help him, so he squints at them, misses part of the order, and then puts it back on the rack in the wrong place. The result – dishes go to the wrong table, the same dishes go twice to the same table, and some tables simply don’t get their full meal. What a disgrace, I would be raging if I were a client. So I had to apologise again to several tables and take the blame for something over which I have no control. Many of mi marito’s friends keep coming and it is so embarrassing when they don’t get well looked after.

After work we had a word with him, and he blamed everything and everyone other than him. He stupidly told mi marito to ask his mother what she thought, thinking she would take his side! We already knew she would be saying get rid of him! He blamed the aiuto cuoco saying he is incompetent, that the girl is not that great and he has to keep an eye on her (another aiuto cuoco, she comes at weekends and we all think she is very good, quick and able to sort the orders better than anyone). He said the kitchen is too small, there aren’t enough stove tops on the cooker and there is no one to chop tomatoes for him when he needs them … excuse me? I said, you have three people helping you and if there is no one to chop tomatoes it means they are already busy doing something else and YOU have to do it. ‘Ti pare giusto (do you think it is right)that a cuoco should have to do this?’ he asks mi marito, as if I don’t count. As if he really was a cuoco. Since we were getting nowhere I said you need to stop blaming your tools, you need to accept responsibility and identify the problems, the orders went to the wrong table and some simply didn’t reach the customers. He shouted and raved and muttered and defended himself and I put up a hand, Enough! OK, I am no clearer than I was ten minutes ago but I need solutions so you need to go home and write down some solutions. Yes yes, he mutters, I wake up in the night trying to think of solutions, he says,but he can’t come up with the goods. Then he parades about outside with his beer and cigarettes at 1am leaving the aiuto cuoco and the others to clean up after him while he ponces around like the main man of the moment.

Well, his days are limited, we need to get someone slick and professional, though that is not so easy here. I suggested we advertise in some of the bigger cities, but as mi marito, says, Do you think someone from Catania would move here for this job? Apparently not.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The Last Straw 24/05/09

Everything is chaos. Everything is Pachamama. 4am is Pachamama – just about closing time on Saturday night. 11am is Pachamama when the cleaning lady is there and my suocera is putting away the groceries they got (my suoceri do the shopping for us, saving us from getting up early in the morning, an enormous help). 3pm siesta time is Pachamama when we’d like to be relaxing on the beach maybe but some tecnico or other is coming to fix something that doesn’t work properly (the dishwasher, the ice machine, the cooker, the freezer – every other day something breaks down …). 9.00am is Pachamama because we are woken by the scooters roaring past below and the church bells ring out their demented melody. After only five hours sleep our brains automatically switch on to Pachamama and to the chores we have to do today to make it work tonight. Am I going mad? It seems like it.

Nice people came in to sample our food this weekend. An Italian Swedish girl with her Icelandic boyfriend on holidays at her parents’ place. They ate quickly and then we offered them a limoncello at the bar. They thought all was lovely. In fact the terrace is lovely, nice lighting, though you can hardly read the menu. It looks like somewhere from the Aeolian Isalands or Greece, with its white-washed walls and stone sculptures courtesy of mi marito’s artistic husband.
A nice crowd of Messina University students came in. I heard them speaking Spanish and it turned out they were all doing PhDs in Spanish history and had a Spanish friend over visiting. She is from Cordoba and said her boyfriend was trying to convince her to move over here, but she didn’t think it would be a good move. ‘Something is missing here,’ she said, when we spoke about the night life. There is a saying she said, that goes in Italy you eat well, but in Spain you party better. I have always thought that. The Italians haven’t quite got the spontaneity and unselfconsciousness that the Spanish have; they are too worried about looking good and the important bella figura to let themselves go. The nightlife here, as I observe from my key position behind the till at weekends, consists of driving around to see where there is anything on, finding a good parking space and then finding a good position from where to watch the other people doing the same as you. This may or may not involve going into a bar to get a drink. A lot of people are quite happy to take up position on the pavement outside and watch the other people posing by in the spindly heels and uniform black and white.

It was great to see these more cultured people coming in, but the music was so loud it was hard to hear them. So we had another little scene at the bar, with mi marito insisting on the house music and egged on by il barman. But I turned it down slightly anyway. We are not some hick disco with loud music just for the sake of it.
Meanwhile, il barman and il cameriere are busy drinking shots at the bar, despite our warning that there was to be no drinking. I watch and sense now is not a good time to say anything. ‘Uno due tre’ and down goes the shot. I just don’t like the whole alcohol element even though that is where a lot of the money comes from. We are still having to build up the ‘magazzino’ and owe the food suppliers a lot of money. I would slow down a bit and stop the specials my husband insists on having on the menu, people are so bowled over by the menu they can’t take in specials, and outside they were squinting at it anyway in the dark and could hardly read it.

The customers come in for drinks from about 11.30 onwards and the restaurant side of things calms down. We have table service for drinks too, which is not a good idea in my opinion because it is harder to make sure they don’t leave without paying, and also they really try it on (and there is no service charge – apparently it would offend the customers and they would just go elsewhere. But are we sure there is no table service charge elsewhere?). For example, one table of six outside on the terrace took ages to decide what they wanted, adding on different things to their cocktails and generally trying to make them as alcoholic as possible (the cocktails are already three times as strong here as they are at home and half the price). They had no sooner got their drinks delivered to them than one of them called me over and said his was too weak and that he wanted another shot in it, and he asked for another straw. Well, il barman assured me it was very strong already, but added more gin to it and blended it again and I had no sooner brought it back up than a girl at the table asked me for another straw. I looked at her and laughed as if to say, you can forget it and don’t try it on with me, and mi marito jumped on in. ‘Don’t treat the customers like that!’ he hissed! I smiled sweetly. ‘My husband will just get you your straw.’

Something Fishy 23/05/09

Friends who had the paella last night said it was too salty, that there were actually big agglomerations and clumps of it and the fish was too boney to eat in one piece. So I told the cuoco and he said he didn’t put any salt in it, and I said maybe the fish are very salty and he said they were not, and he kept insisting he didn’t put salt in and the aiuto cuoco like a Greek chorus repeated ‘no, he doesn’t put any salt in the paella’. Like a pantomime the two of them. So I wandered off mystified and perturbed at their compete negation of responsibility, quite a habit here as it turns out. But then it came to me: il brodo -the fish stock – he was supposed to make his own as he had said, but I had noticed a large tin of Star stock on the counter which I didn’t like the look of, the stocks here are very salty and often have too much monosodium glutemate in them.

So I went back and said, ‘I bet it was the brodo, you bought that already made stuff didn’t you?’ And the light went on in his eyes of recognition that he couldn’t get out of that one … so he said he had added the brodo to save him having to make it every time from scratch or something, but I I said make your own in future. We have to check every single thing that goes out of the kitchen.
Il cameriere shows up exhausted because he comes straight from work on a Friday. So I told him to take it easy and this had the wonderful opposite effect and he actually seemed to keep himself very busy. He seemed chuffed at my concern of course. I knew he had gone on somewhere else the night before after work when we closed at 2am so it was his own fault. Keeping his two girlfriends happy no doubt … the aiuto cuoco came to me all worried and self-righteous like a child, because the cameriere had been annoyed with him for not disposing of the kitchen rubbish the night before, but as the aiuto cuoco said the bar was jam-apcked and they couldn’t have got past with it at 1am when they were leaving. Sure I said, no point in that. Don’t worry. So that’s the cameriere’s little play with power. He is the waiter who does all for me (or pretends to anyway), but for the kitchen staff he is sharp and condescending!

Quite often when a large party comes in a sits down he’ll say, ‘me lo vedo io quel tavolo li’ , ie. I’ll take the order at that table, and I thought nothing of it, but then mi marito says, he just says that to make out he is bringing loads of people to Pachamama, but he doesn’t really know them. How funny. All these petty politics in operation.

It is interesting how the staff respond to me. The barman has difficulty if I ask him to do something. Like the day we opened he was behind the bar and said, ’Vediamo se possiamo pulire un po’ l’acqua qua’. Water at his feet. He wanted me to mop up!!! I looked him in the eye and said very firmly, ‘I’ll get you the mop.’ But he immediately realised his mistake and called upon someone else. What was that about? I’ll have none of your old-fashioned Sicilian ideas that women are there to clean up. You’re the barman. Clean it yourself. Yesterday I noticed lots of fingerprints on the counter (made of glass) around the till and told mi marito (since he was at the till and serving beers) to clean it and then said to il barman diplomatically (as I thought), ‘Look I have just told mi marito so I will tell you too, to keep the glass clean because the fingerprints show up and it looks dirty,’ and he made this whole song and dance about how if he is busy he won’t be able to but he can check it maybe if it isn’t busy but that the waiters should look after it. I said that the waiters have to clean all the other tables and the bar is his area and he still protested and I said, ‘Look, all the barmen in the world keep their bar area clean’.
But the next day he cleaned it without me having to say anything. I need to pay the men, then they will realize who is boss. They accept the authority from mi marito but not so much from me, because I am foreign? Female? Both?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Desserts .. waitressing skills .. music .. smile! 22/05/09

We have a little issue about the music. I am the one with the huge music selection on the iPod and cds, but when I put on nice background music for diners(bossanova, flamenco fusion, Feist, Ceu, Bebel Gilberto …) mi marito often switches it to something more lively like house or hip hop. I don’t think that music is ideal for eating, though it may well be OK after midnight on Friday and Saturday night. As soon as mi marito sees a few men come up to the bar though he reaches for the CDs and sticks on something loud and pumping. Or simply turns up the volume. So we have this farcical situation whereby he turns it up and I turn it down and he fires over dirty looks. The barman asked once to put on his music and then knew better than to interfere.

Unfortunately we can’t seem to agree on this; he says he knows what he is talking about and I should just let him get on with it, but I feel strongly about it since it creates the ambience. On that subject, he is obsessed with the lighting and says we haven’t got the lights right yet, so any time he goes out he comes back with new lamps or lighting experiments. Let him get on with the lights and leave me to the music, I reckon. Our ‘locale’ is no longer the place of DJs on a Friday night – I had said that when the DJ was there for the opening night –I asked him to stick to his chill out selection instead of the pumping volume he put on as the night went on. OK to have the dj but he brought a dodgy crowd and people drank too much and got rowdy. That is not what we want. I think sometimes mi marito is too stuck with the memory of what it once was.

Setting tables, clearing tables, resetting tables, carrying glasses and plates to the kitchen and meals upstairs, cutting bread, making sure no one is stealing … hmmmm. This is the new life. The waiters tried to teach me how to carry three plates, but my hand doesn’t seem to have the necessary flat bit at the palm for carrying the second plate on one arm! But I managed to carry three desserts on one tray also holding the wineglass down with my thumb. Required real muscle power in the arms. It is better if I take the orders at the tables, but this also requires great concentration. The menu being new, the customers have lots of questions and I am still getting used to the strong Sicilian accent here. Plus they really stare when they realise I am foreign and this puts me off my little speeches about the tapas and what to recommend. I am also quite slow as I have to do a double check at the end to make sure I have taken everything down correctly. Cocktail orders are the worst because they invent all sorts of things and ask for them to be really strong too! Dessert orders are best because all the desserts are made on the premises. I asked my mother for foolproof recipes that the cooks couldn’t possibly get wrong. She is the best cook I know, a true Pachamama and expert at desserts. We serve our lemon cream in a cappuccino cup with chopped strawberries on top and thin biscuits on the side and it looks lovely. Her chocolate mousse is to die for, but I have noticed that mi marito has sneakily given the aiuto cuoco some kind of ready made cocoa mixture to speed him up. There is no need for it, the guy just needs practice. There were supposed to be round little meringues with fruit in the centre and cream on top, but the aiuto cuoco can’t get the meringue right, he always over cooks or undercooks it … so we crumble the good bits and make the strawberry fool instead, looks amazing in the wineglass. I have finally gotten the aiuto cuoco to understand that artificial spray cream is not on. How he could even dream of it is beyond me, they are obsessed with cream in Sicily.

Our friend Gianni from our local cafe down the road said I see you are more relaxed today, you need to relax a bit more and you’ll be fine. I asked what he thought about people smoking inside and how to deal with rude customers and he said 'you as a woman can be sweet and make yourself understood, don’t be arrogant to dogmatic as that won’t work with the locals.' My cugnata (one of our waitresses) said she had said ‘Guys, you know you can’t smoke inside’ and she had got the whole ‘Who the hell are you’ chat, and she simply said, that is irrelevant but you know I can get a fine if you smoke and the guy pulled out a police ID and said I will never get fine (abuse of authority!), and she said ‘I thought of saying you should be giving the good example' -but I just said - 'but if you smoke others will smoke and then what will I do?’ And eventually he went outside. So I will have to work on this pleasant attitude to creepy smokers in my restaurant. I am probably a bit teacher-like in my attitude. But Gianni said, you have the fabulous smile, you will make it work with that alone. Use it! When you are at a loss, smile! Nice to get encouragement and not just criticism. And Sergio, one of mi marito’s mates on Sunday night, asked him, ‘Who is the girl with the wonderful smile over there?’ and mi marito said proudly, ‘That is my wife’! At a certain point in the evening, I will spot his arm extending towards me as he is chatting to some nicely-turned out couple, and it is the signal that I am to go over on cue to the ‘Let me introduce my wife’.

Our male waiter asked me for a mirror in the staff toilet – ‘Lola, te lo dico a te, ma non sarebbe possible avere uno specchio nel bagno?’ I couldn’t help but laugh, these vain Italian males. 'Gioia, you want to check how handsome you are; but don’t you think there are enough mirrors here, can’t you manage with all the ones in the restaurant? (there is a huge one opposite the bar and two old Sicilian style ones in the other two rooms). He laughed but two minutes later he said, it isn’t for narcisismo you know, as if he was embarrassed I'd caught him out.I said, of course it is!

I had to make my first cocktail today, and what was it – a tinto de verano! The guy asked for a sangria so I made that instead. The desciption sounds a bit like a drink your grandfather would have in Sicily (red wine with lemon soda or gaseosa lemonade, since older people drink their wine watered down like that) rather than the ultimate refreshing drink for summer in Spain. Also I explained it was with vino tinto (instead of vino rosso), slipping into Spanish by mistake and the man laughed, since tinto means off!

A nice couple came back, and were all delighted that I recognised them ( I was delighted myself, at the moment everyone just looks the same to me).I had seen them on Saturday night. They enjoyed all, especially the tapas so that was encouraging.

The cook tries it on 20/05/09

The ‘cook’slid up to the bar at around 1am last night leaving the aiuto cuoco to do all the cleaning in the kitchen. He was all friendly and familiar, and ‘I hear everything, I know all the bar and restaurant owners and I hear what they are saying …’ Is this supposed to be some kind of threat? He stays on at the bar with his beer and I seem him deeply engaged in talk with my husband and I imagine he is complaining or something.

So later on our terrace, in the lovely cool night air with the smell of jasmine and the softly lit Via Montecastro leading up to the Spanish castle, my husband tells me he was asking for more money .. already. After the shame of Saturday night! You must be joking! I would have sent him packing, so perhaps it is useful that I was not there. My husband managed to be diplomatic: ‘We had two ‘difficult’ days and then two days which went well enough. We need to see how you get on this weekend and the weekend after ...’ The ‘cook’ was talking about a raise at ‘fine mese’, at the end of the month that he had mentioned when we offered him the job. My husband said, I don’t remember that, I remember you seemed happy with our offer, but we can check with Lola as she was there too’.

The cheek. The tables of people who walked out hungry on Saturday, and me standing there. It was ME who had to go and excuse myself with those people, ME who passed them on the stairs leaving. And his disgraceful fit in the kitchen. He is full of himself too. He doesn’t deserve any more than he is getting: he is totally dependent on my suocera– he uses her as a factotum, as his aiuto-cuoco, his dishwasher, and in reality it is she who knows how to run the kitchen, and she who should be telling him what to do.

He would need to prove he can work without the support of Salvo’s mum, that he can organise the kitchen without merely delegating to everyone, and also contribute to the cleaning. If not, the money we may be able to give him in the future, will have to go on a third person in the kitchen. As he said himself, ‘any extra help in the kitchen is welcome.

My husband is paranoid since we lost the first cook that this one might also just up and leave, so he says, all we need from him is the guarantee of good food that will make a good reputation for our restaurant. Well, that means no more people leaving unsatisfied, and I would need more than a month’s proof. He said that the cook is not interested in having a contract etc, he just wants the money. He has said he doesn’t care about benefits and health etc, just wants the cash. So that would save us on taxes and the accountant’s fees etc. But what if there were checkups? Surely we should have everyone in order anyway? My husband says there are never checks unless someone files a complaint…

Saturday night disaster - the 'real' cook 19/05/09

Saturday night was a complete disaster. The cook has no idea what he is dong. He still insisted on making the pasta from scratch when an order came in! He has a huge problem with heating up food in the microwave, which is why he wants to make all the pasta sauces from scratch. But you can’t start making the tomato salsa at 10pm when the order arrives. The salsa takes an hour or so to make to stew the tomatoes properly and get the flavour. He even started making the Spanish tortilla in the middle of all – this takes at least half an hour also because you are supposed to fry the onions and potatoes on a low heat for 15 minute before you even start with the eggs. I have never worked in a restaurant before but it is common sense that the microwave will be used to heat up food, and that a lot of things need to be prepared in advance. My suocera came in to help out when she heard about the cook’s incompetence. She is delighted to be back in her kitchen but doesn’t feel like she can tell the cook what to do since he is still claiming to be the professional.

The result of the cook’s lack of coordination was that a couple of tables actually walked out on Saturday night because they had been waiting so long. The shame of it. I had to keep going over and apologising for the delay. Then they passed me on the stairs on their way out. Terrible.

I reported this disaster to the kitchen and shortly after the cook freaked out and insulted everyone, including my suocera the only person in the kitchen who knew what she was doing. He ranted about the space being too small, the stoves being too weak, the orders not being clear enough, the pans not being good enough. The thing is he had had ample time to investigate the equipment and the workings of the cooker, and request improvements if necessary. ‘He insulted my kitchen with his whole performance,’ said my suocera. And all in a perfect Sicilian dialect which he hadn’t used before. He generally hunches over to speak and mutters in a barely audible mumble, with a hint of the Milanese accent about his speech. Often with his back to you and usually without eye contact. All very suspicious. But for his fit he suddenly raised the volume and burst out, not just in dialect, but in deep country bumpkin dialect, said my suocera, nearly wetting herself with laughter. ‘Ah, finally, this is who you are,’ she thought to herself.

On Sunday we met them early in the afternoon to plan and distribute the workload (which we had left up to the cook, but he clearly can’t do it). The cook came out with, ‘Io non sono siciliano, sono milanese’. And the aiuto cuoco, for once, managed to cut to the quick; ‘Si, tu non se Siciliano quando sei Milanese, ma quando ti arrabi, sei puro Siciliano’ … hahaha, perfect, loved that line -(Sure, you’re not Sicilian when you are Milanese, but when you get angry you are pure Sicilian!) Apparently some Sicilians who go to the north of Italy for work are keen to forget their humble backgrounds and acquire Milanese accents to cover up.

I think our menu is too big, that a lot of food will be wasted, and its enormity and scope is part of the reason things aren’t working. I had tried to insist on a smaller more compact and clever menu but since I am the person with least experience in the field, of course no one listened to me … Also, we have been trusting the cook so far when he tells us everything is ready at 7pm, but no more of that. He is so arrogant and overbearing that you feel you can’t say anything to him; also he is the one who supposedly is the expert, and I have no such experience, which makes it difficult to ‘advise’. Plus my husband is afraid he will walk out – and whose fault would that be (again)? But we need to go there with the menu at the end of the night and make a list of all the things that need to be done, as he clearly is not competent.

Opening night - Not exactly a success 16/05/09

Now we realize why the kitchen was so calm at 7pm yesterday – the cook believes in doing everything fresh and on the spot. Which had sounded good at interview, but is of no practical use whatsoever. We all want freshly made gnocchi, but freshly made in the morning is fine, not at 10.30 at night when the order arrives! Unfortunately, there were huge delays with orders, and the food was poorly presented. The cuoco blamed it all on the aiuto-cuoco, but, since we ended up having to spend a great deal of time in the kitchen sorting things out, we could see that the cuoco simply hadn’t prepared the basics. As my soucera said, it doesn’t take an expert to know that you need to have your basics - tomatoes,onions, garlic and parsley chopped up, parmesan shavings freshly grated, grilled vegetables ready etc. This guy was so out of it that he actually started making up a fishstock when the order for the fish couscous came in. I happened to see the face of the woman who ordered it – not good. The aiuto cuoco has no clue about presentation – he sent out a squashed flat meringue with fake cream on top – despite the fact that I had insisted on them using fresh cream and whipping it up.

The cuoco had assured us he knew how to make everything on the menu and that he knew how to manage orders as they came in – he’d had his own restaurant in Spain for 12 years. But what were the dishes in this restaurant? Was it really his? This is the problem of not asking for references in this country. There is this kind of embarrassment around references here as if it suggests that you don’t actually trust the person you are thinking of employing. Plus the cook’s insistences that he ran this restaurant for so long in a different country made it difficult to obtain them anyway. It looked like he had no idea what he was doing. He kept shouting commands at the aiuto cuoco (which distracted the aiuto cuoco from the orders he was dealing with) and another girl who was giving a hand, while he lifted the odd saucepan and squinted at orders as if he couldn’t read them. Some tables waited two hours for a simple pasta course. Some tables didn’t even get their second course. Orders went into the kitchen and never came out.

There were some funny moments. The Cameriera A showed me how to take an order, leaving lines, filling out the table number etc. Waiters A and B moved very swiftly to clear tables. But Cameriere C lived up to his nickname ‘cristallo’ since he broke quite a few glasses in the course of the night. I would see him gaily sailing up the stairs with one glass of prosecco on a tray and then hear the tinkle of broken glass smashing on the stairs.

We had the smoking law tested several times - Sicilians behave as if it doesn’t exist or at least, doesn't apply to them. Two men were on their way up the stairs smoking and I asked them to go outside, but they said they would put it out in the toilet and I had the horrible image of the butts floating in the toilet bowl, hardly the right image for the place on opening night, as you would expect them to understand. But it took two more waiters accompanying them outside to ensure they put them out outside.

Also a table of 4 tried to sneak off without paying! No sooner had I brought them the bill than they got up smiling sneakily at each other and at me, so I said, ah you are going to pay downstairs then? And they smiled sneakily and then made a big performance of going down stairs, with one couple going noisily into the toilet, saying pointedly, ‘OK,see you down stairs then?’ and the other couple went off fake nonchalantly, the girl twirling her hair and looking around her, and the guy behind. So I went downstairs too and heard them mutter, oh, she’s actually going to accompany us. So I went down and watched the girl leave and muttered to Cameriera 1 look I think they are going to leave without paying, what do I do! She smiled and said yes, classic situation, watch out, all you do is go up to them outside and say scusa ma avete pagato? And if they say yes, then say, ok allora potete venire con me per chiarire un po ci dev’essere uno sbaglio. What a nasty thing. Hopefully they won’t come back.

Also downstairs I found two older men in their late fifties smoking, and over I went, thinking I was being polite (but it maybe sounded too over the top) ‘si prega di non fumare’. They said, ‘scusa ma tu chi sei?’ ‘Hang on a second, who are you anyway?’ Really rude! Then they fell over themselves apologising but in a rude fake way, and the other was saying, ‘it’s spento look? Spento!’ Later the same man caught me going past and was all pally, ‘So whose girlfriend are you then?’ I said, ‘ragazza? That man is my husband.’ Like as if I am someone’s arm candy. Then he tried to speak English: ‘You from London? You speak English?’ Oh no, what a lowlife. I had to smile and say I was from Ireland and it turned out his nephew was in Ireland with a Brazilian girlfriend. Then he called me over all smiles later when I was surveying the scene, but what did he want but drinks brought over, I had to repeat several times what they wanted because I have never taken a drinks order in my life and didn’t know the fancy Italian cocktails they required. I called over the waitress to do the honors. He went on, ‘I know your father-in-law, I know your husband, I know the brother-in-law,’ … yeah, I got the general idea, so I said sarcastically, ‘Si, ho capito, sei ben connesso’ … well-connected. My husband said later, of course we need to tell people to smoke outside, but you had the luck of getting Franco XXX who got out of jail yesterday. A known Mafioso type! He apparently said later, ‘Ah, tua ragazza mi ha detto due cose,’ –your girlfriend told me off!’

At the end of the nihgt Cameriere C started fighting with a customer who insisted on being served drink after the bar had closed at the late hour of 3am. The man insisted (being drunk) and C came out from behind the bar and shouted at him and it became a kind of standoff between this town (our waiter) and the drunk (from the next town), an inebriated brawl of campanalismo, how awful to have this provincialism played out on our opening night. Then the barman got involved and the guy roared, tu chi sei? This is locals’ favourite phrase, they think they are better than everyone else it would seem, and he said, you are just an employee, an operaio, and the barman replied, no I’m the owner, or part of the management team or something! It turned out they had been drinking too, and so with the stress and fatigue it got out of control. Tomorrow night we’ll make it Rule no. 1- no alcohol while working.

It's opening night tonight 15/05/09

When I organize things, everything is planned in advance and sorted out ahead of schedule, guaranteeing a calm running order for the event itself. But here in Sicily there is no such thing as forward planning. Everything runs on the basis that things can only be achieved at the last minute and only if you stress people enough to do things for you. It certainly doesn’t feel like we are opening tonight.

There is still a mess in the bar area; workmen’s’ tools, painter’s pots and brushes, things the previous manager left behind. We have been to the supermarket and vegetable shop and cash and carry to do the massive shop and compare prices. The cooks are hard at it in the kitchen, the first frowning and looking meaner by the minute, the second talking non-stop in his high pitched monologue.

The restaurant outlet calls us with the disappointing news that the blackboards won’t arrive in time despite reassuring promises to the contrary. They were to go behind the bar with the tapas and wines on them. Quite a novelty since blackboards are not used much here, but often a focus-point in a tapas bar. Anyway, the excuse is that the suppliers in Palermo didn’t have the right size and so rather than send on the smaller size they waited to hear back. The outlet had arranged for them to arrive yesterday with another order they had put in, even though we ordered them over three weeks ago …

The barman arrives and fills up the fridges with beers and juice and starts setting up the shelves: the left hand side with wines, and filling in the right hand side with rums, whiskeys, vodkas etc …

The man comes with the till and sets it up in the midst of all: drills from the last switches and lights going up, friends and gossips coming in for a sneak preview, family coming in to give a hand and see how we are getting on. Instead of showing us the simple basics of entering the data for a drinks bill or restaurant bill, he goes into the complications of making out a tax receipt which requires special codes. I have already said I don’t want to be on the till at the beginning, as I have seen how impatient Sicilians get when in line for something, and don’t want to have to deal with crowds of drunk people waiting impatiently. However, the till man has decided to tell me exclusively how it works, as if this will be my special job. It is all too much; so far none of the men (lawyer, accountant, contract lawyer, suppliers etc has wanted to have much to do with me, preferring to deal with my husband, and anyway all the technical explanations are wasted on me.

The three waiters arrive and start setting up tables and sorting out their own table at the side of each of the three rooms with cutlery, glass, napkins etc. One of them has also brought the menu, which looks good thankfully. All the names in Spanish and Italian, with the rigorous description of each dish. Such a lot of work.

A final check on the kitchen – surprisingly calm – and we’re off to get ready.

a few last-minute hitches 13/05/09

Countdown: three days left before we open.

The kitchen has been cleaned and scrubbed and is ready for use.

We are still going back and forth to the Catering outlet for knives, glasses, placemats and all the things that are coming into our heads at the last minute.

I unscrewed all the shelves in the jumbled mansarda (attic space above the estaurant) and carted them down to the storeroom and the younger cugnata and I screwed the huge metal strips back together, making sure we put them all back in the right slots so the shelving won’t be wonky. A very finicky job.

We have at last unpacked the new dark wood chairs and tables which have been stacked up at various strategic points and washed off the dust. My husband and his friends have finally after two weeks of sawing and smoothing and sandpapering, painting and varnishing, managed to fix the wooden strips to the bar and it is now looks like a proper bar, with the long mirror opposite framed in the same blue-painted planks.

We’ve had the brother-in-law in doing all the electrical and handyman work, putting up the lights and switches while we trip back and forth to the DIY shops in town (always packed!)A graphic designer has made us a print of our logo to stick on the centre of the bar and the glass counter is set to arrive tomorrow, as are the menus. Nothing like last minute business. The till has yet to arrive too.

We’ve also had to spend a lot of time in lawyer’s and accountant’s offices these last few days before opening. Unfortunately there is no one person or entity who can tell us exactly what we have to do to legally set up shop, and so each of our encounters with bureaucracy usually immediately necessitates or triggers another. I am concerned that we don’t have the full picture, that somewhere along the line we may have missed an important detail, but there is so much to do and so little time and I am frustratingly powerless in these matters here, so I just have to go along with it. My husband appears to be embarrassed by the number of questions I ask in the various offices we end up in, but they are only necessary for clarity. He says I don’t trust anyone who is not Irish or from my family (bizarre indeed coming from a Sicilian), as I keep comparing procedures in Ireland, where things would work a little more smoothly.

We went to see a potential consulente di lavoro (the lawyer who will do the salaries and contracts for our employees). She was firmly ensconced in her leather chair, quite the lioness with her highlighted hair and red varnished nails, but she answered my questions very briefly in her high faluting lingo and then smiled, jingling her gold and screwing up her well-kohled eyes as if she had been most expansive. Her ‘spero di essere stata chiara’ made it difficult for me to ask for more explanations. So we rejected her and opted for a man with clearer explanations based in the next town. He better be good because these people are fundamental for the success of your business.

We also saw the commercialista, the accountant, who will be advising us on the onerous taxes to be forked out in Italy. He recommended we get a copy of the contract we will be signing with my husband’s sister who is leasing the licence to us. If not, the lawyer will just read it out as a formality and then expect us to sign it. Also, the contract itself is the price of a second hand car, or a return flight to Brazil, or a month’s salary here!

We definitely feel we need to open and start making back some of the money we have been spending.

Monday, November 16, 2009

the little matter of bureaucracy 12/05/09

Two places I hope I don't have much to do with in the future: the health centre and the comune, or town council, centre of all civic parts of an Italian's life and dreaded hell of bureaucracy.

I need the libretto sanitario to get medical treatment here. I am not sure if this is a little book I get given, or if it means my name will simply be registered on the system: it appears there is a new version just out, and no one is clear about it. This looks hopeful…

We queue up at the appropriate door in the medical centre only to be told it's just closing and we'll have to come the next day. So the next day we are there bright and early and we get sent from one office to the next. There is an ancient man smoking cigarettes, which he holds under the table every time the door opens (as if no one can smell it!), as technically you are not supposed to smoke in public buildings in Italy, least of all the health centre. In Sicily though, this law is largely ignored. So I choke on the fumes and wait while he painstakingly enters my details into the system, including my codice fiscale, equivalent to the National Security number but with even more big brother powers involved over here. It turns out there is some confusion because it comes up on the screen that I had an old libretto sanitario issued in Arezzo when I lived there (I had explained this when we got there – I had thought it would have been a simple matter of transferring details … as if ). Anyway, I'm going to have to bring it in before can be issued with another one. What we would have done if I hadn't found it, I don't know. Luckily I have it in the house.

So we come back with it the next day, with my codice fiscale on it and the doctor's name in Arezzo and everything. We're back in the office with the ancient smoker and it is as if our mere presence disturbs him. Not a hint of courtesy or greetings, he enters the details again and prints off something we are to take to the next office. But not today, that office will only be open for such things the next day. Complete lack of coordination in this place.

So we are back the next day at the office queuing up as usual with the others who are being pushed around from one office to the next. The locals have a surprisingly resigned attitude to this. For all their explosiveness in face-to-face contact, they are very subdued when dealing with the slow wheels of state institutions. Years of being fregato (cheated), says my husband. Everyone knows there is no point in questioning the malfunctioning state, in might even get you in trouble. The people around us shrug and smile as if to say, ‘What can you do?’ finding solace in solidarity.

The next clerk is so busy texting on his mobile and frowning and shouting at his colleagues that he has hardly time to deal with me. Of course there is a problem with my card. ‘No,’ he says, ‘no, these details aren't right, you are not coming up on my screen.’ Oh man, I just want to come up on the screen and get out of this terrible place. He checks all the details slowly and then arrives at the problem. The chainsmoker has entered the wrong date of birth for me. So we are back at square one? I ask fearfully. Yes, basically, but he has a glimmer of sympathy and says he will sort it out. But I still have to come back the next day for the print out which will tide me over until the real card comes in the post (he is unable to give me a more specific estimate – anything from 6 weeks to 6 months, he says!).

We go to the comune to get my residency sorted out. For contractual matters and the way our business will be set up it will just be easier if I get registered as being resident here. So again we are passed from one office to the next and then have to fill out a document where I state that I am actually resident here (a self-declaration), and then we're supposed to wait at home for the next few days while a police man comes by to check if I live there! In the next few days sure enough a guy comes along and encounters my suocero who assures him I live at the address in question. With this important proof we can now go back to the comune and get my residence registered in the system. Once there, though, they tell us we now need a bolletto, a stamp from the tabaccaio, basically a tax to get his special status of residency. So my husband goes off to get the stamps and I start the boredom of filling out the numerous forms with the usual personal details, including qualifications and profession (?)

When we eventually have all the details, the unhelpful tired, bored and unsmiling clerks assure me that I am now resident – disappointingly, after all that effort I don’t even get a card to prove it. I am merely free now to declare myself as resident wherever I wish, at my Sicilian address ...

We then go to investigate the possibility of me becoming an Italian citizen. But no one in the appropriate office really knows. They do know it involves a lot of form filling, and convalidation and translation of all my qualifications and ID documents. It would all take forever. It would be much better for your husband to seek Irish citizenship anyway, they say, who in their right mind would want Italian citizenship? There is no good in it!


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Getting to know the local ways ... 10/05/09

Yesterday we got lamps from the Argentinian lady married to the man who has the Ethnic Store with her. She was full of stories about her mixed lineage and the life in Buenos Aires and her return there in a few weeks and all the while her long hair falling over her eyes knowing she is attractive and using that to sell her products. But I like her she is intelligent, and calm (not like the locals) and she joked about that too. She let us change the lamps later when we discovered much to our chagrin that they gave a very lunar cold light and not pleasant to be in. We are putting them on the ceiling, one like a sail and the other the same shape but brownish made from banana leaves, very pretty and suit the Spanish corner corner.

We had fun at the capo (beautiful headland) when we ordered gelato at the bar. I had paid for two small cones, (due coni piccoli) at the cashier. There were loads of short oversized families and couples pressed up against the counter choosing ther version of chocolate icecream in loud voices – bacio or giandiuia or chocolate and coffee or what … and my Irish friend was getting a headache with their shouting but she hadn’t seen anything until it was our turn. The man said two mezzo gelati and didn’t understand what we were saying about the coni piccoli so I showed him the scontrino but he kept saying no no they are mezzo, ie. half size and I didn’t get it and he said let’s go down to the cash desk and you can pay a bit more and get your gelato and I said no but we have already paid for the two cones. I did’t get the whole mezzo thing, 'Will the cone be cut in half?' I enquired eventually. The man was kind of laughing but very insistent and repetitive, but the problem was his explanations were not helpful until the locals started joining in with great amusement – it is the QUANTITY that will be smaller. I was used to asking for PICCOLO in Tuscany cos usually that was abundant enough. Anyway, the mezzo, or half a cone, must be the same thing. I requested a pistachio one for my friend and the man started insisting in the loud voice again no but you can have two flavours even so! And I had to INSIST that she really only wanted one!! Incomprehensible to the locals who want the biggest range possible for the lowest price possible. When we left she said oh my god I can see now why you get stressed.

These people get so hyped up so easily over nothing. When my appointment at the beauty salon was delayed by half an hour they'd said a 5min delay) I said, look I called yesterday why did you offer me the choice of 10.30 11.30 or 12.30 if you were going to keep me waiting for 30 minutes anyway(I have so many million things to do!) The owner got all overexcited and angry and wounded and knowing she was in the wrong tried to make out I was the offensive party and went off lamenting to her colleague who then fired me dirty looks when it was my turn. Luckily I was seen to by the angelic Cristina who was calm and doe eyed and like a simpler purer version of Penelope Cruz. My husband had some good phrase for it, the making you feel like you are in the wrong knowing full well that it is your fault. Thorny grumpy flighty people. The Tuscans are much more gentle and wellmannered and all prego and scusi and letting you pass and holding doors for you. Here the people would walk over you and drive over you to get to where they are going! I am hoping underneath there is a heart of gold …


Getting a good deal ... 8/05/09

I did start to make headway this week with all the people we are having to deal with (painters, builders, technicians, electricans, carpenters ... and their corresponding lingo - pushing my Italian to the limit). We went to Marco the glass maker today at 2pm in the next town and there wasn’t much traffic because all the good locals were lunching punctually. He showed us all his lovely prints on the glass and I kept asking for the preventiva (the quote) but to no avail until he had shown us all the beautiful concoctions then we went back to the reception room where his uncle was and he came out with the unrealistic figure of €1100. He went bright red, poor guy, when he saw our faces and the uncle started crumbling 'Ah ma che vuoi, c’è la tela il vetro il lavoro di …'. I said, 'Yeah sure that’s fine, but we’re wasting our time cos we don’t have that budget available - that is why I have been asking you all along. Anyway, we have a quote for €600 from elsewhere and we’ll just have to stick with that.‘

SO immediately the calculator was produced and he started writing things down and I got out my pen and paper and started going through each item: glass cost, print cost, smooth edge cost etc and we got it down to €530. Ridiculous. Marco listens to me and I joked, look all this vocab is new but be patient cos I need to know what I am dealing with and paying for and my husband relaxed more, because usually he gets a bit uptight when I don’t understand. He seems to think the fact that I learnt to speak quite fluent Italian in Tuscany a few years ago should have equipped me for the technical jargon of glass, plumbing, painting, awning fitting etc.

Back at Pachamama the awning fitters arrive and my heart sinks. I know by the look of the equipe that they are going to make a hash of it. Two small teenagers with their jeans half way down their asses and their designer white pants underneath yanking them up as they hauled the awning up into our terrace. The sun beats all afternoon on our kitchen wall and patio door creating a kind of greenhouse effect in our house. So the plan is to attach the awning and screen ourselves from the ferocious rays. They explained they were going to attach a thing that would make the awning extend straight out (as they have a very narrow wall to attach it to and an arch to fix it over and uneven measurements as the wall is not straight. Not a job for amateurs). The aiuto-cuoco came as translator as the teens hadn’t been able to explain themselves the day before (speaking a mix of slang and Sicilian dialect) feeling very important in his temporary new role. The older man joked about having to explain things several times to me, 'No problem you have to pay me in the end so you must be happy, and I said 'Yeah, because you are going to go off and leave me with this thing on my wall.' They then said I was a pleasure to deal with since the locals would be screaming at them by now. (One of our friends told me the only way to achieve anything in Sicily was by shouting and getting angry and making a huge fuss. But I stil had the sinnking feeling that they would make a botched job.

Back to Pachamama and the cashier man has come with a new machine, specially for us. A couple of buttons which give the scontrino (receipt) and the fattura (tax receipt)and all sorts of fiscal necessities and with a long fiscal memory. How long I enquire cos we aren't going to be here that long. 10 years he is proud to tell us, 3million scontrini you can do, 100 per day or something. I can’t think that long in Italian fiscal terms, it boggles my mind but I do need to know the price. €2000 and something he tells us and I say 'OK, no chance we don’t have that, what else have you got?' And we mention the little €600 machine he had in his office the other day. So again I cut straight through the crap of the exposition, how these Sicilians love to talk about the wonders of their wares, and how my husband loves to listen! But we have no time for that. The new potential cook has arrived so we go upstairs to chat and he had good ideas today and the aiuto-cuoco came up too and didn’t talk too much. But then I got the call to the house for the awning men and so I sent the cook to see what was missing in the kitchen and took the aiuto-cuoco with me. The teeenagers looked a bit worried but nothing compared to the depression settling into their dad’s dark eyes. He was all twitchy and squinty with nervousness. 'It doesn’t fit,' he said dismally. 'It won’t roll out the full way cos it gets stuck on the wall that extends perpendicular to our house façade.' Oh God, just as I thought. They tried to suggest that we could leave it at that and the sun getting through at htat hour was not so strong,! I said in the summer it is bloody roasting and what was the point of getting the thing fitted to my lovely wall and covering the lovely arch if it doesn’t work. The aiuto-cuoco assessed the scene rapidly and said he’d send my husband to me. I knew it by the look of them, what a haimes. They tried the ‘sure the sun isn’t too strong at this time’ on him too and he was even swayed for a minute but I said, 'look it is on the window and the door' ie the glass and the aluminium which heats up massively. No good at all.

You never new what new difficulty each day will bring round here ...

Weary Dolores

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Too few cooks 4/05/09

I am on my hands and knees behind the bar along with my suocera (mother-in-law) scrubbing the filthy fridges and their greasy vents when my husband returns, all pleased with himself, from a glass company in the next town with samples for the top of the bar. When we stripped the wall behind the bar we found a layer of cork which had been put in for soundproofing. It fit in so well with the natural, ethnic-chic look we are trying to achieve that we decided to leave it like that. It provides a nice contrast with the shelves for the wine and alchohol bottles, which we have painted white. We've put a strip of cork along the top of the bar too, and this glass will run along the top. But rather than just a strip of glass (clear or frosted? - another of the tiny decision we have to make), they can print the logo and the name of the bar along the strip. Much more interesting. Sensing my husband's delight, the aiuto-cuoco is overjoyed and gabbles away about the aesthetic advantages. 'Our third partner', I say to my cugnata who has just appeared bearing litte shots of coffee from the friendly bar down the road.

We are callng the locale PACHAMAMA - bar de tapas e ristorante ... Pachamama is Mother Earth in Andean culture, the goddess of fertility and the goodness of the earth. I came back from a year in South America after university thinking of opening a Pachamama café in Dublin, and my husband had the same idea after his various visits to South America for NGO work. His family have also warned us about the perils of changing the name from 'Agorà', the central meeting place where all the action took place in Ancient Greece. It will take a long time for people to accept the new name, they say. In a small town this is probably true, but since my husband and talked about this on one of our first rendezvous, we feel strongly about it. It also represents the kind of ambience and heartwarming foood that we want to provide.

Later in the afternoon I find my husband outside deep in talk with the cuoca and her husband whom she brings along every time we meet, even to the cookery lessons. He is as grey and thin as she is plump and effervescent, but she must need him for support to get her through new experiences. 'Look at you in your apron!' she says. 'Yes, I am cleaning the kitchen for you,' I tell her. Hmmm, she says. Mi marito (my husband) explains that she has had second thoughts, that she thinks Pachamama (she says Paca) is not the place for her. 'I think I'll be wasted here,' she tells me, smiling as if she is giving me good news. Well if that's the case, far be it from me to keep you here, I tell her, smiling back, feeling relief that she is going and panic that we are supposed to open next week and now have no cook. My husband frowns at me. 'But I have almost convinced her that we would be delighted if she would stay and have a trial run for a few weeks at least, that we really appreciate her cooking and suggestions.' Oops, so I have just put my foot in it. I was practising the art of diplomacy, I would never want to force anything on anyone. But it was not the time for diplomacy of that kind.

Mi marito told me later that it was my smile that sealed it. I looked too pleased that she was leaving. He also blamed it on a little chat we had had with her the day before, precisely on diplomacy, that dirty word. We felt it necessary to explain the ethos we wanted at Pachamama of cooperation and team spirit and were just a little concerned that she might not be happy to work along with the aiuto cuoco, nor to prepare the recipes we had chosen, preferring to impose her own favourite dishes instead (which at the end of the day, are fairly classic Sicilian fare). Her refusal to give a hand with any kind of cleaning and her attitude towards the aiuto-cuoco (as her scivvy) were somewhat worrying, and I firmly believe that if she was this stroppy before we had even opened, who knows what she would have been like under pressure. I had my doubts about her right from the sample meal she made for us. As with the aiuocouco, we gave her €50 to buy food to prepare antipasti,a primo, secondo and dessert; something interesting based on fish, local food with an exotic twist, after she had seen the ideas for our menu with us. Not only did she not come back with any change (the aiuto cuoco had come back immediately and worked out a very economic and tasty four courses), but she bought enough food for her entire family - and her son's girlfriend who happened to be there that night!

So good riddance. Though now we have to find another cook. And it is all my fault.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Too many cooks ... 3/05/09

Another week of all-day DIY. We have lots of callers coming to look in on the proceedings, give comments and advice (not always helpful)and generally nosy around so they can go around town telling people what it will look like.

We spent the entire morning with the falagname, the carpenter who is very good and obliging but insists we stay with him because otherwise he won't get round to doing it. So we had to stay with all the sawdust flying in the air and my husband's hayfever getting worse by the second. He kept taking handfuls of the mint and rosemary growing abundantly in boxes lining the railings of the carpenter’s garage if you don’t mind there was even a fruiting lemon tree in the midst of all the concrete. We are using the same planks that we've put along the front of the bar to frame a long mirror opposite the bar, also painted blue like the fishermen's boats. The falagname has the fattest fingers I have ever seen, they are like sausages on the end of his hand. His twinkling blue eyes nestle in his round little smiling face and the pot belly protrudes over the too-short trousers. He sawed and shaped and ‘smoussava’ the edges of the shelves and the planks searing the air with the noise of the saw while a dog barked on and on next door with a miserable keening kind of yelp. A joke a minute with the falagname and I struggle to keep up, bu he did listen to me when I expressed opinions on the shape and contours and checked I was happy. The usual joke – the wife must be happy …

Along came one of his friends from the appartment block across the road. He said he might as well keep Gigi company cos you could hear the din he makes from up there perectly. I said yeah we have the disco in the borgo, what can you do? He said, in his palazzo everyone has on average 4 dogs and two cars so the noise was awful. Nice to see that some Sicilians don't like loads of noise either. Vittorio is in his late 70s but was all delighted when I guessed he was around 70. He says, like the other peole in his palazzo, he is very refined, since he worked for many years in the huge oil refinery. Thirty or so years ago this town was given the choice of having a small international airport or the oil refinery ... The latter was chosen for various reasons, not least, no doubt, its ability to faciliate mafia money laundering. It employs thousands of people from the town and surrounding areas. Is it just a coincidence that the mortality rate for cancer is sky high here? Green scientific researchers prove the link while researchers for the council/mayor etc prove there is no link ... another curious Sicilian contradiction. But more regulations have been imposed so that there is less contamination. When the wind blows a certain way the fumes come across the large bay to the town. You feel like you would like a gasmask and you quickly go indoors.

While my husband loaded up the car with planks my suocero (father-in law) and I went to pick up the various paintings and batiks we were getting framed. Maria Giusseppina (Mary Joseph - full-on religious names abound in Sicily) had them all ready and I wondered whether to frame a few more prints I had for the toilets. but my suocero advised against it - don't put anything in the toilets! they'll only get nicked, he said! At lunch later the in-laws told me lively stories about all the things that had got nicked over the years - from the more obvious wineglasses, to driftwood sculptures my suocero makes and the signs or placks of the bar-restaurant from outside the door and even from the bar right under his nose. Some people fancy these things for their homes they said, laughing . Hmmm. The inlaws mused about how we were going to deal with the two cooks, they are quite a handful they reckon. The aiuto-cuoco talks non-stop and invades your personal space and these days has been calling at 9am to give us ahand in the morning and puncutally at 2.30pm right after lunch. What did he do before this, wonders my cugnata (sister-in-law). He's been trying out recipes for semi-freddi (a cold desert somewhere between a sorbet and an icecream)and today the doorbell rang at 2pm while we were having lunch - he had a whole box of semi-freddi for us to try. A funny situation - it is not correct to disturb Sicilians in the sacred act of eating. (at 2pm the streets are deserted and you an safely assume that everyone is at home with the family). So he handed over the desserts and went off to the restaurant to see what he could do in the meantime. He needs to be given specific tasks to do - and indeed has done a lot of the sandpapering and lifting jobs, giving me and my younger cugnata (sister-in-law) a break on the arms. But I wonder is it like this in the kitchen too, has he no iniciative? These forest fruit semi-freddi are no as good as the last ones he made, which were orange flavoured. There are too many seeds which make it difficult to eat them. As if they can read my thoughts, the suoceri tell us how important it is to be diplomatic in the restaurant trade, especially in this small town were people have nothing better to do but gossip about other people, and if you offend one customer, you have just lost all their family and friends too. I imagine my husband and I know how to be good with people, but my suocero scrunches up his eyes as if considering how to really drive this point home. They expect to be 'coccolati', he says, which translates as really well looked after, almost spoilt. Which really means discounts, antipastini and liquors on the house and a general humble attitude towards the customer. Sicilian diners are not as 'civil' or relaxed as Irish or Spanish diners; they are extremely fussy, come with a preconception that the food they get at home is better and that you are there to coccolare them as much as possible.

We can now get espressos from the bar next door, says the barista, popping his head round the door (just an excuse to have a good gawk). But our mate in the café down the road told us that he hopes we'll never open because he is doing better business! Some of my husband's friends never stop telling us how hard it is to live here and work here. How difficult the customers are, and how, no matter how hard you try, and how nice you make the place look, and how good the food is, if the locals decide it just isn't the place to be, well, then your business will fail, your restaurant beempty. I reckon half of his friends are all just waiting for us to fail.

Wow. My head is reeling.


San Francesco di Paola 2/05/09

Today I was woken violently by a string of shots being fired at 6am. It was so loud I nearly fell out of bed and I leapt up ready to defend both of us from the impending danger. The canon shots (around 8 of them in total I counted, fired at 10 second intervals) didn't worry my husband. He muttered something about San Francesco and rolled over back to sleep.

Apparently San Francesco di Paola is the adopted patron Saint of Milazzo (the real one being Santo Stefano who would have his volley of canon shots and festivities later on in the summer. It is said that this saint of mariniai, sailors and fishermen, walked across the straits of Messina to mainland Italy on his mantle, and so part of the festivities is a procession behind a prest carrying the saint's relics (a piece of the mantle). But the whole town and neighbouring villagers turned out for the main procession - a huge statue of the saint on a platorm is borne on the shoulders of a specially chosen group of men (competition is strong). He is carted out of his church (since there are so many churches in Italy, they are known by the saint or madonna they have been named after; San Francesco founded this one, the only church he founded in Sicily which is also why he is so special to these people), and taken on tour of the town and up through the old Spanish quarter, thus passing the restaurant. Traditionally, residents of the borgo (old quarter) throw rose petals down on the saint as he passes, to bring good luck for the following year to their home. Believing we need luck to successfully introduce tapas to the provincial town, my husband's family decided to throw petals from the balcony of the restaurant, and also use the opportunity to publicise the imminent opening of the locale by offering beer to the saint-beaarers and tired pilgrims. A uniting of the sacred and the profane; Sicilians know how to do it as well as South Americans. The churches are empty but the turn out for the Saint's processions was as good as that of a first division footbal match. People in their Sunday best jostled to get in a good position behind the priest and the brassband accompanying the pageant with jolly tunes. There was high drama when he passed below our restaurant - my inlaws were happily throwing down the rose petals (hundreds of them!real ones!) and my mother-in-law turned the basket upside down to shake out the last few, when a pair of gardening scissors came flying out! 'Signora, magari i forbici no!' called the near victim - go easy with the scissors, Mrs! Un vero miracolo that no one got hurt. Proof that San Francesco was looking out for us. He was brought safely back down the hill and even had a little dance - the saint-bearers jigged him up and down and back and forth - from our viewpoint we could just see the top of the saint bobbing around - and he was then carted back into his church to an impressive fireworks display while followers hurried off to get coffees and massive icecreams for their children. A lovely day out for all the family!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cookery lessons and deciding on the menu 30/4/09

With the May 5 deadline less than a week away, I have decided to give our two cooks lessons in making tapas... My husband and I spent hours working out the menu. Not a simple task at all. Tapas, fundamental to the social life in Spain and now becoming a lively part of Irish socialising, are not so famous in Italy it turns out. I had somehow expected culinary practices in Sicily (southern Italy)to be similar to those in Andalusia (southern Spain), given that Sicily was under Spanish domination (the Aragons)from the early 1400s to the early 1700s. I also expected there to be a North African flavour to Sicilian cooking,due to its proximity to Tunisia, just as Andalusia's proximity to Morocco is felt in lots of the soups and stews and tapas found in Southern Spain.

But endless menu discussions with my husband and the cooks revealed that Italians feel that the Spanish are their poor cousins and so their food could never be considered as good as Italian food, and especially not Sicilian food. Sicilians are very proud of their culinary tradition, and rightly so, but the whole idea was to bring new twists to Sicilian dishes on the main menu, and also introduce tapas as part of the antipasti. My husband is convinced that the locals will never sample tapas in the traditional Spanish way ordering them at the bar to accompany your drink, and his family, with all their years of experience of running the restaurant as a 'trattoria familiare' reckon that locals will be reluctant to try anything new. So with this in mind we decided to offer 'tapas mistas', a mixed antipasto, as a way of getting to know what is available.

Some things don't sound so exciting once translated. We have to have tortilla on the menu - but as the cook said, once we had gone through the whole effort of frying the potatoes and chopped onion in loads of oil ... 'Oh ... so it's just like a frittata, with fried onions and potatoes'. I also discovered that a lot of tapas dishes are basically what Sicilians consider as 'what you get at home' and therefore not worthy of restaurant cuisine. I really want boquerones on the menu but it turns out sardines in Sicily are thought of as 'poor man's food' being cheap and widely available at the fish market - what you might eat on weekdays at home with your family. I got them on though, as anchovies marinated in fresh orange juice and wild fennel,a more interesting twist to the traditional preparation. Also, I felt strongly that 'albondigas' should be on the menu, but it turns out that meatballs are what your granny might make you for lunch. We used a wonderful variation of ths classic tapa with white wine and almonds, since almonds are so plentful here, and when my husband and the cooks tasted them at the end they were surprised at how good they are. But they still reckon that few customers will be tempted by 'polpettini di carne'.

Everyone tells me that 'soup of day' will not go down well since again, this is what Sicilians might have for lunch at home, but would never dream of having in a restaurant. It seems strange to me since soup is a classic starter in Ireland, and I didn't want to give up on the wonderful Morcoccon harira soup to warm up winter months and gazpacho to chill hot summer nights. Making the harira soup was a surreal experience. I never imagined I would have to give Italians cookery lessons! It was already strange to have to instruct the cooks in Italian (my Italian is good, but my culinary vocabulary is somewhat lacking. So between looking up the words for 'slotted spoons' and 'chopping board' and keeping the two cooks calm and focussed (the cuoca kept getting annoyed with the aiuto-cuoco saying he cut the celery too big and the onions not neat enough and calling into question his training in general) it was quite a job.

It also became apparent that the cuoca was not keen on cleaninng or sharing the workload when necessary. She said years of doing heavier work in the kitchen had done in her back muscles, and she also had prblems with er shoulders and arms - she kept stopping and groaning and pointing to where it might be likely to hurt if she ever had to do anything like sweep the floor. 39 going on 70. I didn't much like her attitude to the tapas - she kept referring to them as 'these tabas things' and when it came to the main menu, she wanted to substitute all our suggestions with her own dishes. Of course we would welcome having some of her specials, we explained, but we also wanted to include dishes we had sampled on our travels. Her lip trembled, whether in rage or sadness I couldn't tell, but she was having none of it. It had been hard enough for her to adapt to the idea of cooking tabas in her kitchen, but now such international dishes as couscous and Greek salad and paella. To placate her we spent ages on choosing pasta dishes she was happy to prepare, and then copied thier flowery names from her sample 'portfolio' menu which she only allowed to us to briefly peruse it before whipping it away incase we might nick any of her flowery ideas. She was also happy to consider standards such as swordfish roulades and stuffed calamari and grilled tuna steak, although she was most perturbed by the fact that we wanted to cook the tuna with a sesame crust and dress it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and honey, since she did it with soya sauce normally (soya is very exotic in Sicily). I had to insist on that one because it was based on a wonderful dish we tried in Praia de Pipa in Brazil in another tapas restaurant run by a lovely couple.

But the cuoca clung tenaciously to some of her other recipes, refused to consider suggestions from the aiuto-cuoco (grilled palamita fish with breadcrumbs: she frowned and folded her arms and again the lower lip trembled ...) and I began to wonder who was really running the show here and how we would deal with this primadonna in the future...


Thursday, November 5, 2009

Volcanic tales 28/4/2009

Here in Sicily it's a whole new world. We've been here a almost a month already. All is chaos and we'll never manage to open before the 5th May when we have to start paying the rent. It is all so massive. SOOO much to do. The building is on two floors, the bar to the left as you come in, with the restaurant area upstairs, two terraces out the back, and a sideroom which we rent from the owner of the building next door, as it has a disabled toilet which we must have by law (despite the fact that it is not accessible by wheelchair since the entrance to the building is separated from the pavement by two steps and the comune hasn't bothered to build a ramp - just one of the many contradictions of Sicily).

We have now got the wooden planks to go along the front of the bar, and painted them blue, like the fishermen boats, but we are also repainting doors and old wooden trunks (sent back from Buenos Aires by the returning Sicilian emigrés who owned the building originally - the address is still legible in white paint on the side) to use as benches and everything needs to be sanded down and then painted then sanded again and painted again. After a third coat they can then be varnished and it is soo much work. Getting huge muscles in my arms though!

Plus organising the friends is another thing. My husband's friends try to give us a hand and also the second cook (l'aiuto-cuoco)who is a bit of a handful because he talks non stop in a loud highpitched voice, but organising these Sicilians is a job in itself. They all need regular coffee and cigarrette breaks; you could get three hours work done if you added together all the breaks! The painters haven't been able to come to do the ouside walls and the terraces because of rain and the fierce scirocco wind blowing up from Africa and whirling up dust and sand, so we are behind with that.

It sure takes getting used to. The people are very VOLCANIC; seriously, with all the volcanoes around and being on the faultline, it really influences them - and me. People get irate over nothing, and raise their voices at the merest hint of a challenge. I am having run ins with all sorts of people! Plus, here in the Spanish quarter where we live there are a few bars which put on live music outdoors until 3am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Well, you would think you could just call up the council about the public nuisance etc and the noise wouldn't happen again. I am getting a name for myself no doubt as I ring the carabinieri every time I can't stand it, (my husband doesn't want to ring, afraid they will recognise his voice! but how long will it take them to figure out who the foreign girl in the Spanish quarter is,I wonder?) and they keep saying I need to file a denuncia, but my husband and I have checked out the law and of course you don't need to make a written complaint, the mere fact that they have olympic size speakers outside their doors in a residential area is enough to have them shut down. Don't know how I will cope with that.

In the last two days, there has been a murder on the beach - a duel at dawn so to speak; an ex-cop killed a man he thought was having an affair with his EX-wife from whom he was long separated but since his own affair with a local lady had come to an end, he was suddenly consumed with raging jealously and beat up the ex-wife and hunted down one of her presumed lovers. Then handed himself in to his ex-colleagues who no doubt are building story of mitiagating circumstances and self-defence - the victim was found with a pistol in his hand (Hmmmm suspicious or what). Today I was in the car coming back from the market with the younger sister-in-law(buying rough linen to drape wave-like from the ceiling to the restaurant ... all three marketmen delighted to see us coming, this was our third trip since we had to order in the material, they even offered us coffee today) and we got stuck in a massive queue - why? the traffic warden directing the hectic market-going traffic, was beating up one of the truckdrivers leaving the market! Siclian-style, everyone in the queue was abandoning their cars to get a closer look, no doubt firing on the scuffle! The lorry driver had to be held down and shoved back into his lorry amidst the horn honking of the drivers who had stayed in thir cars. Then chaos as ALL the cars tried to move off at the same time.

Later I was outside the restaurant (taking a break from the varnishing the two old wooden trunks ) and a German tourist came looking for someone who spoke English because he had just been driven into by a driver 'in a bit of a hurry' he put it diplomatically. It was obvious from the position of the cars who was to blame, but the Sicilian, on his side of the insurance report, put down that the German hadn't indicated that he was turning the corner and that he had stopped and slid backwards (he actually asked my how to phrase it in Italian, hilarious!) I had to translate all these lies for the German who smiled calmly and said of course he had indicated. Of course he had. The carabinieri showed up an hour late - three of them, (I had been thinking scornfully about the waste of resources, but I see now that because of the volatile nature of people here, two are needed to deal with the two parties involved in the problem, and one then adjudicates from a distance). Our friend had been helping me deal with the form-filling but beat a retreat when he saw the carabinieri ('I 'ate the polis') and I was left with the hasty driver and the friend he had called up to take photos of the cars, the three carabinieri and the German tourist. It was actually a pleasure to help the German, the most lucid calm and polite person I have come across in the last few weeks. The carabinieri were delighted to find the boring 'incidente' involved a nice foreign girl, and were more than helpful once they had sized up the situation, they couldn't wait to show their knowledge of English (limited to 'excuse me', and 'no problem' and were full of helpful advice on the formfilling.