Italy

Buon Appetito!

Buon Appetito!

Ah, Italy. Home of pizza, pasta, panforte and propaganda. After a series of foodie fiascos, Richard Asher sinks the boot into Italian cuisine.

During my time as a motorsport journalist, I knew exactly where to go for a good lunch. With any of the Italian teams, although supposedly racing, they always had time for bread, olive oil, espresso and pasta. They troubled to cart these things halfway across Europe, and I remember being impressed. Clearly these people knew something about food.

I’m less convinced now. Not after Sicily.

Hold your stones, foodies! I speak from bitter experience.

The trouble started at the airport, where the car rental guy suggested I wouldn’t find a feed along the autostrada at night. Fearful of starving in the wilds, I grabbed a pizza at a Palermo servo. It was thick and square and filled with enough boiling mozzarella to anaesthetise one’s mouth for dental surgery. Chewy isn’t the word – it was like eating a hot shoe with salami on top.

That was as good as it got. Next day in Noto, my beautiful hillside base of 20,000 souls, I thought I’d find a charming trattoria for a cheap, relaxed lunch. Naïf that I am! Sure, I did come across a cosy restaurant down a cobbled alleyway that offered cucina tipica Siciliana. Just one problem: Ristorante Meliora was closed until the evening.

Noto was deserted. A beggar woman came to me, making an eating gesture. At last, a Sicilian who was thinking about food! She’d probably been looking for a restaurant for years. About 150 of them by the looks of her. I wanted to cry. If she was still struggling after all this time, what hope did I have of getting a meal?

I’m used to swathes of southern Europe being closed on random weekdays, but this was too much. I couldn’t even find a place claiming to serve food on days when the owners did get out of bed.

Was a bowl of pasta, or, God forbid, a risotto so much to ask? This was Italy, wasn’t it?

At last a good samaritan led me to a sort of pie shop, which was dark and echoed. Its owner just stood there. It was rather like the shopkeeper sketch in Little Britain, but I managed to emerge with a few take-away arancini and something resembling a Cornish pasty, but filled with spinach and ricotta. It was viciously dry. Yes, another truth Italy’s culinary apologists don’t want me sharing: Italians are not good at pies.

Exhausted from my lunch quest and refusing to face another restaurant hunt, I went home and made do with a packet of chips and cold arancini for dinner.

The next day, I drove into the hills. I saw amazing things: hermitages in caves, spooky convents, towering viaducts. I explored a deserted for-sale house and found – not kidding – a skeleton on the driveway. And yet, I couldn’t find a ristorante for lunch. Not even a place that would sell me a small take-away sandwich. No wonder southern Europe was in recession; I had a wallet full of cash and couldn’t find anyone enterprising enough to take it.

Grumpily I went back into Noto, where I stumbled on a cafeteria-style place that looked pretty dubious. Behind the glass counter, however, I spotted something resembling tortellini; pre-cooked, slathered in red sauce and dumped in a bowl. Still, it was something I could point my finger at, and I was hungry. It reached my table at an indifferent temperature and had the texture of stale orange peel. Maccas could do pasta better.

That night’s gourmet Italian dinner at the B&B was French bread, Dutch cheese and Greek yoghurt. I know, right?

Then it was the weekend, and I hoped the local eating scene might burst into life. I thought Ristorante Meliora might be worth another try. But no. Closed. A suspicious local leaned out a window and yelled words to that effect, while looking at me like I was bonkers.

I pushed past a portly teenager in a bid to secure a pizza at a place labelled “pizzeria”, but all I found was a woman doing paperwork. She didn’t look up and I didn’t speak Italian. So I pushed back past the large lad (at least someone in Noto was well-fed), and it was another doomed night.

Italy had one more day to leave a good taste in the mouth. I gave nearby Siracusa a chance for Sunday lunch. And lo, I found an open trattoria with ease! Then they cooked me a tasteless, watery ragu and brought me a sizeable carafe of wine I didn’t want, for which they then tried to charge me. Foodie fail.

Look, Italian food is fine when it’s in a Jamie Oliver cookbook. But if you’re planning on going to the country itself, you might want to do a little more research than I did. Unless you’re planning on a weight-loss retreat, that is.

February 2019 from issue 48

Tags: confessions, Europe, food, italy, Sicily, traditional food

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