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On Many Menus: In Sicily

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in Europe

Fall Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(3) page(s): 15 and 16


Sicily is a province of Italy, but Marco Polo did not bring pasta from her to China. Nor did he ever visit this island province, but he should have. Arab, Greek, Roman, and Phoenician origins underlie the historic sites he might have seen and they had culinary influences long before he ever went to China. The historic places left by the four aforementioned cultures are impressive. Few places, for example, match the Greek theater in Siracusa and the nearby Ear of Dionysis. These and other sites have been there a long time and are well worth visiting as is tasting this country’s traditional cuisine.

More recent, there is attention to foods non-Sicilian and more specifically Chinese. There may have been one or two Chinese restaurants years earlier but no one could corroborate such a non-historic bit of information before our arrival nor when in that auditory rock formation when we heard our stomachs rumbling. Were they telling us our Chinese food withdrawal symptoms needed attention? Believing that, we consulted telephone and guide books and located three not so nearby, but within walking distance, Chinese restaurants. They were near another ancient location, the island called Ortygio. Off we went on a long but leisurely stroll the couple of miles needed to get there, and on the way worked up quite an appetite.

Across the bridge we found one boarded up Chinese eatery, another closed for repair. At a third one with not a single customer had a Chinese lady behind the bar who said in flawless English, “The chef has gone home and I do not know when he’ll return.” When outside again, a passerby suggested a Chinese restaurant on a mountaintop a few miles away. When we went to that one for dinner later that day, we found it had gone out of business some months earlier. Our withdrawal symptoms remained.

But nothing like this happened some days later when we got to Palermo. There a dozen Chinese eateries awaited and choices needed to be made. We planned to stay a couple of days in that western Sicilian city but extended our stay so we could load up indulging frequently in foods of our favorite cuisine. Before setting out to do so, we checked guide and telephone books and queried touristic and hotel personnel. Except for a pair of managers at our hotel, the people consulted were of zero help.

LA GRAND CINE at Via Cavour 42, SHANG-HAI at Via XII Gennaio, and DRAGO d’ORO at Viale Regione are the best of those we tried. One was across the street from the Motel Agip and their hotel staff did not even know it existed. We also went to HUNG FU at Via G Carpolo 94. The first of these was our favorite, the second the choice of some at the hotel, the others were runners up on our list, but not on theirs. At all of them, we had Italian-Chinese adventures in eating with foods prepared by Chinese chefs, many from Shanghai or China’s interior, served by Chinese waiters.

Here is our picture of Chinese food eaten in Sicily, composited into one scenario. We would place our order for appetizers, soup, plain and fried rice, a noodle dish or two, several meat and vegetable main courses, and green tea. Their menus called these Antipasti, Zuppe, Primi Piatti, Secondi Piatti, and Bibite or drinks. Looking around and chatting with diners while waiting for food and beverages, we learned that the diners saw, as one said, this was 'an exotic experience.' Most were young couples attached or not and those with young children. There were very few middle aged patrons and not one senior among them.

Our Involtini Primavera or spring rolls, the Verdura Misto Fritta or batter fried vegetables, Antipasto Assortito, and Ravioli alla Griglia et al Vapore or fried and steamed wontons arrived quickly. The fried items were a darker brown than we are used to, the meat or shrimp in them drier, too. The Uova Marinate was cut up thousand year eggs whose only marinade that fortunately did not come to the table was the ash they were buried in. The best appetizer we had was Alghe Fritte which translates to 'fried seaweed.' It came as a delicious and large portion of fried greens, and was probably spinach. On the days we were there, no place had Trippa al sugo Freddo nor Pollo Freddo in Vino Cinese so we know not how good the tripe or cold drunken chicken might have been.

After the antipasti were cleared, soups were served. The Zuppe di Toufy was thin as was the Zuppa di Wanton and the Zuppa Agro-Picante or hot and sour soup. After a couple of experiences we skipped this course but noted that those at other tables did not. The next course served brought us Rico Blanco, Risotto con Ananas, Riso Cantonese, Gnocchi di Riso or Spaghetti con Brodo di Carne. The white rice, fried rice with pineapple, Yang Chow fried rice, plain fried rice, or pasta with meat sauce came alone. Some minutes later while viewing the serving at other tables, we realized that the meat and vegetable dishes we and Chinese use to flavor carbohydrates were not on the way.

We called our waiter and needed to explain that we really did want our secondi piatti of meat and vegetables with out primi piatti or orders of rice and/or pasta. Their responses can best be translated as “Oh, you want your dishes served Chinese style?” While waiting for items that most locals were ordering that were not deep-fried, the favorite Chinese dishes on other tables, we let or rice and pasta get cold until our Tofu Piccante or Ma Po doufu, Spadini di Gamberoni con Piselli or sizzling platter of shrimp with peas which the waiter translated as “stewed spitful on iron plate,” or the Pesce al Vapore which was steamed fish, our order of Anatra i Funghi e Bambu or duck with mushrooms and bamboo or the Pollo Salsa Agro-Dolce which is better known as chicken in sweet and sour sauce.

When main courses did arrive, they were small and some were savory, but none were anywhere near hot or even piquant. The tastes reminded us of New York City Chinese food circa the 1950's. Some time during the meal the mineral water or beer we had ordered would make it to our table, the tea never did without considerable prodding on our part and we do know why. No other table was graced with a pot of tea.

Foods from the Frutta e Dolce or the dessert course did have several items on each table. There were the usual ice cram, on the menu written as Gelati Vari, the flavors were vanilla and chocolate with more of the latter, several chef’s choice items that almost always were cakes with caramel or a Napoleon-like pastry, and often a fried ice cream listed as Latte Fritto along with some puddings made with soy milk and beans or ordinary chocolate and coconut puddings.

All tables were set with knives and forks and we always had to ask for chopsticks and almost always were the only ones using them. Dishes came small and simply put on small plates; and if there was a decor, shrimp chips wins as the most popular among them. The restaurants themselves were either more than glitz and kitsch or unbelievably plain. Most had red lanterns outside their doors declaring their ethnicity. Their kitchens, not unlike the local Italian eateries were small, maybe fifteen- or twenty-foot square, and the staff often consisted of but one or two men. Cash registers were all attended by women, and the small-fry of the staff played quietly or even rode tricycles around a back room reserved for larger parties. A few advertised Piatti da Asporto or take-out, but we never saw any food leaving a restaurant, not even leftovers.

After ordering only foods through the Primi Piatti and then just before sensing it was to arrive we then ordered our Secondi Piatti. When we did this, we requested that it arrive immediately and be served as the Chinese would eat it. We also learned to order tea early, almost immediately after we were seated. We would request it a second time allowing those places with but one or two burners time to boil the needed water. That way, we enjoyed some reasonably good Chinese food in Sicily Chinese style.

We recommend you try it using the above hints. We can attest that it holds its own when compared to the several three or four star restaurants serving local food, but only after we learned how to order Chinese style. The chefs were eager to please and please they did. They felt we really knew about the foods of their cuisine, and when we allowed them to order for us, we delighted in their fine Calamari in Salsa Piccanti, Pollo in Salsa di Ostrica, Stufato di Gamberoni and their Anatra alla Pecchinese, to name but a few fine Chinese items we ate in Sicily.

                                                                                                                                                       
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