Friday, August 6, 2010

My Sicilianised accent and the Paella success

My accent has been Sicilianised. All traces of the Tuscan are gone. I heard it when a fake Milanese (the Sicilians who go to Milan for work and acquire the Milan accent because it makes them feel superior) asked for a Curuuna. A what? Do you mean a Corona? But what I heard myself say sounded like Cohrawna, with the typical broad Sicilian vowels. Probably akin to a Castlederg accent if you are from Tyrone. Oh dear.

But having a more local accent helps when dealing with the locals. They understand me better. It makes me less foreign to them, less daunting. I can rattle off the house antipasto without batting an eyelid (la parmigiana, la caponatina, involtini di zucchini, melanzani ripieni, cozze al limone …), tell you what meat you can have in your panino : bresaola, carpaccio di manzo, prosciutto crudo o cotto. These words are a struggle for me since I don’t eat meat and so don’t actually know what the ham in question is like. But I sound convincing. Likewise I am most convincing on the beers, Sicilian, Italian and foreign, even though I haven’t tasted a single one of them. The Menebrea we have on tap, for example, is an award-winning birra artigianale from Biella, near Torino. And I can tell you what grapes are in your wine – Grecanico, Cataratto, Insolia (white), Nero D’Avola or Syrah (red) being the most common in Sicily, or recommend fruitier or crisper white wines, full bodied lighter reds. I’ve come a long way, managing to get these culinary tongue-twisters rolling off my tongue like a native.

Our billboard with the paella picture must be working because last night the two terraces were full and there was a paella at every second table. There is an increasing optimism at our tables, an increasing appreciation of the way we deal with our customers. Courtesy, humour and culture are served up in higher doses than in other restaurants. So we have noticed some locals, holiday makers or boat people (yachting staff) returning for more. Now they say on their way out, See you soon, or We’ll be back to try more from your menu … to try the paella, or whatever. Most encouraging. In fact, we are more relaxed now with the new cook in the kitchen. There was one slight delay yesterday for a paella, the fourth or fifth of the evening …but it came from a family who were getting steadily drunker on cocktails, most unusual, though we’d brought them nibbles on the house and a cheese and ham platter to start. But we can be confident now that the meat will be good, the fish will be good, the pasta will be tasty, the paella just right, the salads nicely presented.

Monday, August 2, 2010


We're putting up a huge billboard advertisement with this picture of our paella at the motorway exit for Milazzo for the next two weeks. Let's hope it lures some tourists up from the port.

Dirty waters

Heard a couple speaking in French last night on the terrace so went over to see if I could help, but it turned out they were from here but lived in Switzerland and spoke in French for the benefit of their two young children. (they picked up one of our cards in a bar at the port -yeah! our publicity efforts work!) They said there was no way they could come back and live here. ‘In Switzerland things work,’ said the man. ‘When you ask for something, you get it straight away.’ Not like here, of course. We have the wonderful Norman/Spanish/Arabic castle on our doorstep here in the borgo antico, but since its opening (after two years of closure for reconstruction work), nothing has been made of its fabulous atmospheric spaces. Mio marito proposed, at a recent meeting with a town council member, that concerts and plays be put on in its amphitheatre space. The meeting was about what ‘rules’ would apply this summer for the running of locali in the borgo; opening hours, hours when music could be played outdoors etc … But mio marito and a few of the others added that proper maintenance of Milazzo’s greatest heritage be assured; proper street cleaning with hoses and daily rubbish collection. Several restaurateurs complained about the presence of cockroaches and insects coming from the fact that the streets are not cleaned properly. Mio marito asked for (the umpteenth time) recycling facilities to be set up, since we are all such consumers of glass and plastic bottles etc, not to mention the organic waste. The councillor agreed he would do it best, but it's all a foreign concept for these shores. You can only live in hope for so long, in Sicily. After a certain time you just get frustrated and resigned like the locals.

Rubbish is a big problem along the beach, too. Most of the population not being civic-minded, bottles and coke cans and crisp packets get left behind, along with the rubbish the sea dredges up coming across the sea from the islands. Yesterday’s paper had pictures of some ‘exasperated citizens kitted out with rubber gloves and huge bin bags, collecting some of the rubbish strewn along the beach in front of their houses. Defining themselves ‘the Green Brigade’, they were watched by ‘incredulous’ and ‘curious’ passersby. Incredulous, I can imagine, at someone being civic-minded enough to take charge of something that the town council doesn’t bother about. It is rare to see such displays of citizenship. For all their pride in being Sicilian, Sicilians tend to disown, or shrug off responsibility about the state of their town/region, probably due to a sense of helplessness. The Green Brigade were also keen to water the Oleander plants (rose-laurels), highly poisonous but beautiful bushy trees with magnificent white or pink flowers. They are all over Mediterranean countries and often used as traffic separators in towns, or to separate lanes in the motorway (especially along mafia-financed stretches of the Messina-Catania motorway) because of their resistance to drought and hostile environment. But the palm trees planted last year along the beach were a lost cause, they said, already diseased when planted, now they are a playground for rats. So these locals had some disinfesting work on their hands too.

The council hasn’t even managed to sort out the sewage treatment plant's malfunctioning. Almost all of last summer there were warnings about polluted water, and last week signs went up again banning swimming from a few kilometres of the coast. The part of the beach we frequent is apparently safe; but I wonder what quantities of bacteria they use to distinguish safe from polluted … not encouraging. A marine biologist friend has seen many cases in hospital of people presenting with skin inflammations and stomach upsets after bathing; he won’t even consider swimming on the ponente side of the sea and prefers the levante, Eastern shores where the beaches are rocky and uncomfortable but, at least, clean. But there you have views of the oil refinery …

Great. The one good thing about this place in summer is the sea …

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Here are some photos of Milazzo's castle with its symbol grafted on to one of the outer walls; the volcanic island of Stromboli; and our gamberi in tempura and our famous paella!

Oops - telling the cook how to do his job

Today is the first day of August and I wonder will there suddenly be a huge surge in clients like there was last year. I have already noted a few returned faces. W have dj music on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays throughout August so that will no doubt bring in the punters, and damage my eardrums.

Last night the cameriere called me discreetly from the till. He had two bottles of wine in his hand so I thought he wanted to consult on which to bring to table. But no. His beady eye had spotted a sneaky cockroach on a table at the back of the room. Luckily no one was sitting nearby, and the dirty thing was brown in colour rather than the brighter pink-red they can sometimes be. SO it was camouflaged. We just had to get rid of it without anyone noticing. He gave me the two bottles of wine and went to grab it with a napkin. Ugh. It slipped off the table and scuttled towards the steps to the kitchen. But he got it just in time. Good for him.

I took lots of orders for paella last night. Our ads in some local magazines must be working. When I arrived a guy waylaid me on the terrace. ‘Thank God you’ve arrived, Can you explain the menu to her in Spanish?’ His friend was from the Dominican Republic and was over visiting, but they were finding communications difficult in their limited English and his culinary vocabulary was not up to it! She enjoyed the Tapas de Tierra and a simple pasta alla Sorrentina. It’s not on the menu and I found myself explaining it to the cook – it’s just passata with mozzarella melted into it … before realising I was telling a Napolitano how to make his own local speciality. Funny. Plenty of tapas and house antipasti going out, but we must sell more of our lovely homemade desserts. The problem is by dessert time I am usually needed on the till for bills and people arriving for drinks; but we’ve noticed that people will take my or mio marito’s recommendations more willingly than the waiters’. It’s only to be expected, I suppose, we have more confidence now in our food and our customers, whether new, regular or tourists, like to discuss their order with us.

Work Inspectors on the prowl

Last night, Friday night, again our aiuto cuoco is off – this time at a theatre performance where he plays a crucial part in the play apparently. We are going to have a serious talk to him about responsibility tonight. Then our waiter asked us for a loan of €2500 at the end of the night. What? What do these people think we are made of? Do they think that having 4 or 5 tables a night with moderately priced food and then selling cocktails for a few hours puts us in a position to offer bank facilities? Don’t they realise that we have big overheads? That we constantly pay, then owe then pay then owe our suppliers? He wanted the money to buy a scooter! These Sicilians ragazzi have not learnt basic work and responsibility ethics (I blame the indulging parents). Mio marito explained that the thing to do was save his wages and in October he would be able to buy a scooter. But he wants to go to Ibiza in October he says, on holiday. Ah yes, but at the age of 20 you can’t have it all, my friend.

The perfidious Inspettori di Lavoro were on the prowl last night. We got the warning from the bar next door that they were at the restaurant in the piazza just below our house. It has just recently opened, so like us last year, they were getting the full works. I walked down through the piazza to get a look at them so we would be able to identify them if they came our way while mio marito got out all the contracts and wages details. Even though everyone is in legal employment with us we still felt nervous. We had to tell the cook to get out of the kitchen because he is still on trial and doesn’t want a contract until August for reasons of his own. So mio marito was the official cook, with the dishwasher giving a hand and my sister-in-law doing most of the cooking. How are the gambas pil pil done, she came down to ask. Just garlic, white wine and chilli pepper? I took orders and tried to steer everyone towards panini, piadini or pasta or steaks which were within our competence – starting with the house antipasto, which most people went for too ( a fabulous mix of Sicilian seasonal treats, such as the caponatina, the parmigiana, stuffed aubergines, courgette roulades etc). Luckily, for the night that was in it, most people followed my advice. I had to offer the swordfish rolls (already made up earlier and just requiring the grill) instead of the swordfish tortino, which we didn’t know how to make, and we called in the cook briefly to do a prawn and courgette risotto and tagliata (beef steak). But the table in question, a Danish family, said it was the best food they had eaten on their holidays, and if vegetarian food was always this good (referring to the antipasto), that they would all become vegetarian! They said I was the first person who spoke English they had come across in two weeks’ holidays.

Meanwhile the Napolitano cook was stealthily monitoring the Work Inspectors' movements. He'd phone us every so often to update us, talking in such low spy-level tones, a mix of neopolitan dialect and RĂ©sistance urgency, that I could hardly understand him. An easy night's work for him. When the Work Inspectors drove off - five of them in total, serious (state money-making) mission, he donned his chef-gear again. 'Phew! Just as well we had all the antipasti prepared!' he said, sweeping his hand around the assorted dishes. Now let's get stuck in to work.' 'We've done it all,' said mio marito. And his sister whispered that her mother had prepared all the antipasti.

Apart from the newly opened restaurant, the work inspectors went to the noisy bar next to it and fined them for not having a permit for their musicians to play on the street (another state tax), and also visited a posh restaurant below the castle, where they had a heated discussion with the managers which nearly came to blows. The argument was keenly observed by bored locals delighted with the spontaneous entertainment.

Sexist advertisement removed

Cauldron took down the sexist advertisement. Result! The Donne Libere organised a petition-signing event for the ad to be removed, and one of the members held an interview with the director of the company on national radio, where he completely embarrassed himself. He offered a kind of written ‘apology’ where he said you can see worse images than these on Italian TV every day and on the promenade at the seafront in Milazzo! As if sharing the blame released him from responsibility … He also said that if the ad were placed in bigger, more cosmopolitan cities such as Torino, Milan or Rome, no one would bat an eyelid as the residents would understand the irony … yes, he entirely missed the point and didn’t learn much from his mistake.

The billboard now shows a family picture of mother and young daughter flashing white teeth at the camera in the understanding that the husband/father is off installing the solar panels … yes, progress is limited here.