Running a restaurant in Sicily

Pachamama, Milazzo

Ten tips on what to do... and what NOT to do

I'm not going to tell you about all the numerous procedures, protocols and other bureaucratic rigmarole involved in opening a restaurant in Sicily. Assuming you've done all this correctly and obtained your licence to open from the town council, health and safety approval, registration with tax authorities and various other certificates – no mean feat because commercial law in Italy changes all the time – here is some advice…

1. This one is for women and I put it first because it was such a shock to my system. Never assume you are boss along with your husband – in the eyes of staff/customers/regulators – even though you know the truth. First you are a woman and second you are a foreigner. That means you are pretty low down in the hierarchy, right down there with the dishwasher. I discovered this on opening day when the barman asked me for some help. Delighted to be consulted I approached, beaming. “There’s a leak behind the bar and there’s water everywhere.” He wanted me to get a mop and mop up!!! It took a few seconds for that to sink in. Then I told him where to find the mop.

2. Never expect bookings. Sicilians like to waltz in even if they are a party of ten and watch you line up their table, even when it is Saturday night and elbow room is scarce.

3. Never tell anyone that the restaurant is doing well because that would invite the Evil Eye. 

4. If things are going wrong, make sure you didn't get the Evil Eye. We had huge difficulties at first, especially with staff and finding the right cook for the job. Then in a remote mountain village, an old lady told my husband he had the Evil Eye. She was able to remove it, and after that things got better. And you think I’m joking.

5. Don't put anything too foreign on the menu. We started out as a tapas bar & restaurant, but locals weren’t into gazpacho, like their Spanish cousins, or hummous, like their Arab ancestors. If the description isn't seductive – cold tomato soup, chickpea and sunflower seed oil sauce (no one had heard of tahini)  – Sicilians won't buy it.

No tapas ... but our paella gets the thumbs up

6. Don't expect banter at tables when taking orders. They won't ask where you're from. This might be because they are afraid they won’t know your country, or that they won't like it (maybe you're Albanian – no offence to Albanians, but in Italy they generally aren’t popular, being one of the largest emigrant communities. I say: remember in WW2 when Italy invaded Albania? Now it’s come back time…). Sicilians just want to get the business in hand and feel confident that you will bring them good food presto since it is now ten o’ clock at night and they are starving along with the other ten tables that arrived at exactly the same time. Without booking in advance.

7. Know that Sicilians like to be served. Even when they finally realise you are not the hired help from Eastern Europe, and not the owner’s temporary girlfriend but actually wife and mother and partner in the business. They still want to be served. That means adopting a suitably sycophantic attitude and when you've just brought them every little thing to satisfy their dining whims, they will require a straw. Or an extra fork.

8. Be careful where you get your stock. A couple of years ago a fruit and veg shop in the centre was caught selling cocaine under the flour, and others were caught smuggling cocaine inside fish to the Aeolian islands!

Pachamama entrance, via Duomo, Milazzo

9. Never expose yourself, as mio marito once told me. It’s hard to avoid mentioning the M word … But you need to be aware and be firm. Luckily in Milazzo there isn’t much extortion or bribery – the so-called pizzo.  But for the first year we were plagued by mafiosi’s daddy’s boys – showy, tacky twenty-somethings who came in big groups, ordered the most alchoholic cocktails and then expected massive discounts because their fathers were big shots. All credit to mio marito, he was having none of it. My trouble lay in recognising the mafiosi. One day I told a short, mustachioed country-looking man not to smoke inside. He was sitting two metres from the open terrace door, outside of which were ashtrays. I’d already asked a girl at the same table not to smoke – she’d helped herself to an ashtray from the service board (spares for outside). So I didn’t mince my words and stomped off with the ashtray, because we could get a big fat fine if caught out. When he’d gone, mio marito said: “Be careful! That guy got out of prison yesterday, and he warned me to keep the figliola (young girl) under control. Couldn’t you see he was a mafioso?” Well, no, so many Sicilian men here are short, mustachioed and fit the general description… but I certainly didn’t want the restaurant to go up in smoke, so I’d have to watch my tongue in future…

10. Keep up to date with laws and regulations. Don’t assume your consulente or commercialista (accountant and labour lawyer) will always be informed. To this I add a realistic caveat: no matter how hard you try, regulators will catch you out. In this crisis economy, regulators are bloodthirsty. They want your money and they enter your restaurant determined to get your ass. There is no such thing as giving you the benefit of the doubt, or a reminder letter. Small examples: we didn’t have our till serviced after a year (we didn't know we had to – the man who installed it was supposed to come and check it and he forgot…) so we got fined for that. 

To this end, when inspectors come you must be nice as pie to them because your only hope is to flatter them into giving you the lowest fine possible. I had serious difficulty with this one, because there is no justice here. But I learned. When Health and Safety inspectors came (considering the loose application this term has in Sicily where pavements have huge holes in them and too-high kerbs and roads have craters in them and many street-lights lack functioning bulbs etc) they looked at the restaurant’s parametres and concluded that we didn’t have enough toilets (there’s one upstairs and one downstairs and one for staff); this, even though the town council had approved the restaurant plan and parametres when it opened and again when we took over. There were four ispettori feeling highly important in uniform, and when my husband was dispatched to photocopy some documents (they’d asked me of course but I actually had never used the machine), the atmosphere changed. They started flirting immediately. Where was I from and what was the local speciality?! I wiped the frown from my face and started complying with the unspoken rules – be nice and see how far it gets you. It turned out one of them wanted to go to work in Brazil – something my husband and I knew a fair bit about. By the time my husband got back I had them eating from my hands. No longer were we going to have to close for a month to get in line with their regulations, and the fine had decreased from €5000 to €500.

Pachamama's covered terrace
Pachamama's outside terrace

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