Italian restaurants are a dime a dozen in the diverse landscape of Sydney’s culinary scene but Sicilian cuisine holds a special place in my heart. Playing by its own rules and serving as a triangular football to the peninsula’s boot, its cuisine is not just Italian but a fusion of Arabic, Greek, Spanish, Norman, and North African. Catching up with friends we delved into the 19th century Art Nouveau interior, transported back to a romantic golden age while the heartfelt tones of Andrea Bocelli fills the air with an operatic hue. Staffed by waiters with Italian accents and you get the impression that you might be getting an authentic Sicilian experience.
Seated to the rear of the restaurant, we were handed the menu to place our order. I was quite eager to try some genuine Sicilian cuisine but was rendered speechless as I peered into the menu, page by page, reading what was the most uninspired offering since last entering a fast-food chain in a desperate search for an inoffensive snack. I wanted to flee, but I knew my fate was sealed and away we ordered.
First out of the kitchen was the safe bet Garlic Bread, drenched in butter with finely diced garlic studding the surface offering a strong bite to the doughy bread. As we munched through, the texture became chewier prompting me to look at it more carefully to uncover signs of staleness. This was not a good omen.
Surrounded by sea, Sicilians are inspired by their local marine produce and so the Calamari Fritti became an obvious choice. The salt and pepper squid strips where coated with a thin batter meshed with chilli, eschallots and fried rice noodles. The calamari felt tender but instead of being crispy, the crust was oily and limp barely clinging onto the squid like barnacles on a ship. As I scrounged around the dish in search of some chilli I wondered what the flaccid, lifeless, coral-like fried rice noodles were doing there. Once found though, the chilli was a tepid geezer instead of the fiery fighter I sought after. What redeems this dish is the basil mayonnaise dressing the calamari with an opulent taste and cheeky tang.
Just as bread can differ from region to region, so too does pizza. But here the toppings listed on the menu were pandering, seeming more at home in a Pizza Hut restaurant than a place meant to represent Sicilian cuisine much less Italian food. But there’s hope as the wood-fired Siracusa Pizza came steaming out of the kitchen. A modern interpretation of Sicilian flavours, eschewing the pungent anchovies for kalamata olives, it is peppered with chunks of honey pumpkin, haloumi cheese, slivers of capsicum, Spanish onions, and a mound of rocket. Oval in shape, the base isn’t as thick as a focaccia, a hallmark of a Sicilian pizza, but rather thin, resembling a Neapolitan pizza. Biting into it, I tasted the varying shades of sweetness from the pumpkin, capsicum and onions rivalled by the saltiness from the olives and haloumi while the rocket breaks it up. This was decent, but not a whole lot better than Crust Pizza.
I was handed a few slices of a friend’s Mediterranean Pizza to try. Asinine naming aside, it had the makings of a proper pizza featuring ingredients like a tangy artichoke, sweet eggplant, red capsicum, a handful of rocket, some Spanish onions and a demure parmesan. It’s only failing was the base. This was meant to be Sicilian not a carbon copy of Neapolitan pizza.
Scorned by the pizza, I looked toward my partner’s Aragosta and Granchio Ravioli for solace. Apparently the whole dish is made from scratch by the chef, filled with lobster and crab meat lending it an aristocratic air about it. At least that was the intention, for it tasted closer to a fishcake than anything else. With each bite, I struggled to picture a lobster or crab ever going into the filling having been very finely minced and blended with dill to the point of oblivion. But maybe, just maybe, I looked at it wrong. Perhaps, it was never a dish of luxury but a rustic peasant dish. From that perspective, the watery sauce is more like a buttery shellfish soup that paints a vision of a seaside town with a vegetable garden filled with dill, onions, spinach and cherry tomatoes. To the kitchen’s credit, the pasta was cooked al dente, retaining bite for the hardened peasantry rather than the spoilt aristocracy. I certainly have mixed feelings about this dish.
Finally an actual staple of Sicilian food culture, the Cannoli was presented with great visual gusto as they were studded with a generous amount of crushed pistachios on each end alongside a spliced strawberry nearby. Covered in powdered sugar, it felt like Christmas had arrived on my plate as it looked like it just snowed. But whatever joys was to be had, it disappeared with my first bite. Far from being the milky and luscious ricotta filling I had at Papa Pasticceria, this tasted cheap, oily and simply soulless.
Sicilian reminds me of those restaurants in Chinatown, blazoned with dragons, lions and whatnot all claiming authentic ‘Chinese’ cuisine to reel tourists and rubes in. Beneath the veneer is a generic place without heart. They are the antithesis of Sicilian cooking, having about as much heritage as a Dolmio jar of pasta sauce. Tropicana, Mesicana and BBQ Carne have no place on a Sicilian pizza menu let alone an Italian one. The point here is that there is nothing really Sicilian about this place and I feel cheated. The sooner Sydney educates itself about Sicilian cuisine, the sooner places like this can be dead and buried.
~ Jambon Cochon