Monday, 11 July 2016

Eating South Eastern Sicily

I've fallen in love with Sicily. Well, the tiny corner of it where I spent a week in May. Sicily is a big island and you'd be crazy to spread yourself too thin covering its vast, diverse geography- from Palermo in the North West to Etna and Catania in the East and down to the baroque hillside towns and ancient Greek cities of the South East.

Sicily is also quietly becoming a destination for food and wine lovers looking for an unspoiled corner of the Mediterranean. My Instagram feed has recently been a steady stream of snaps of Sicily's white washed towns, empty beaches and stunning plates of food. There is no greater advocate for the island than my favourite food writer Marina O'Loughlin, whose gushing fangirling about the food and drink of Sicily had me set on visiting.

Marina has written extensively about her tips for eating and drinking on the island, and was generous on Twitter in dishing out a few more. Each one was 100% on the mark, and I found quite a few other places that were well worth a visit. Almost anywhere you go will be great because there is so much pride in local food and wine, because the produce is so so fresh - straight out the sea or picked at a nearby farm. You will weep.

All I can say is get over there, and get a car so you can get to the most stunning beaches, nature reserves, more off the beaten track towns like Scicli. Off season is amazing - we went in mid May and couldn't believe how quiet it was, although the weather was mixed. I reckon June and September are ideal times to visit.

Ragusa is perched on two dramatic hills, with jaw dropping views between Old and New Ragusa and across the surrounding valleys. Ragusa Ibla (old) is the more beautiful and where most of the action happens.

Il Barocco
We rocked up late after a mad dash to the airport (caught our flight with 5 minutes to spare), a long flight, a tired night time drive down unfamiliar roads. Our Airbnb hosts showed us to Il Barocco and we couldn't have been happier with our first meal. The antipasti platter was sublime and generous, with salami, cheese, ... I had tagliatelle with sun dried tomatoes and pistachio, classic Sicilian ingredients combined simply for a rich, earthy, tangy set of tastes. Mmm. We were knackered so ordered wine by the glass. House is €2.50 and they have a more interesting white and red at €4. We went for the latter, and though I can't recall the wine, it was very very good.

La Bettola
A Marina rec, La Bettola is an old school little trattoria in Ragusa Ibla, all chequered table cloths, menus of the day and locals drinking wine by the carafe for a late dinner. We make our way through the daily specials - a gorgeous fennel, orange and sun dried tomato salad, spaghetti with anchovy-herb-breadcrumbs - historically a poor man's parmesan, but very delicious. The prices are low cheap, so make sure you reserve - it's booked up pretty much every night.

Ortigia (Syracuse)
Ortigia is the island part of Syracuse. the third biggest city in Sicily and once the third most important city in Ancient Greece.  It's a bustling metropolis compared to everywhere else we visited in SE Sicily. Be warned though: parking is a nightmare. Just look up the Talete paid carpark at the mainland end of the island and go there - you'll never find a free parking space on the island.

Fratelli Burgio
Everyone recommended this place to us. It's just at the end of the food market (watch massive tuna get chopped up with massive knives!) and is a salumeria, wine shop, and restaurant. We make three visits here during our stay - we get the most delicious sandwiches to take away. All DOC cheese, ham, sundried tomatoes, herbs, oil. Utterly dreamy. We come again for a lunch and enjoy buratta with the most excellent grilled courgette antipasti and more cheese, ham and sandwiches. And finally we clear them out of wine. They delight in our enthusiasm for the wine of Sicily, ask our price range and come up with a diverse selection of the most interesting wines we can get. I'm using all my restraint to make the haul last.

Apollonion Osteria da Carlo
This is another Marina rec, and one of our most memorable meals of the trip. A seven course fish menu for €35. It starts raw, with giant oysters, red prawns and anchovies, then mussels with almonds, mint and tomatoes, seared tuna with caponata, fried squid and fish cakes with a dollop of agrodolce puree, then a prawn spaghetti, followed by some grilled white fish. It was epic, and perfectly finished with a zingy lemon granita. Apollonion's wine list is excellent and incredible value. We like our €13 grillo so much we buy a bottle to take back to London.

Sicily fish and chips
Tucked away in a backstreet is this cute little chippie. Despite the anglicised name, this is a great spot to go for some fried fish and a glass of prosecco or a crisp white wine in the sun. We tuck into a big box of assorted fish (lots of squid, anchovies, small fish and a couple of prawns and anemone) and a big portion of chips. It's all super simple, but hits the spot.

We visit a vegetarian restaurant on the recommendation of a non-vegetarian friend. And now we non-vegetarians recommend it to you. It's a cute hipstery restaurant on Via Roma, not far from the main square. They have a nice selection of natural and organic wines and the mwnu is great. There are lots of Sicilian vegetarian dishes as well as some more international flavours. Of course there's the fried Sicilian fried caciocavallo cheese, some of the best caponata we have during our stay, and I have a blue cheese, pear, honey and walnut risotto.

Movimento Centrale
Another sign of hipsterism in Ortigia, this cycling cafe/natural wine bar is just over the square from our Airbnb. We only make it for breakfast (I fail to convince my other half of the merits of second lunches and aperativo every day) and love the home made organic ricotta with home made organic brown bread toast (a special ancient recipe) with local organic honey. The coffee is a cut above too. The menu has some deliciously well sourced panini filling on the menu, and the wine list is an exciting selection of local natural and biodynamic wines.

Pronounced Sheegly, Scicli is a true gem of a town, set in a series of dramatic valleys and amidst a sleepy rural landscape off the main trail around the Province of Ragusa. We fall in love instantly, as we tuck into the amazing homemade snacks that our Airbnb host's mum has made for us, sitting on our roof terrace watching the sun go down and cast the most amazing golden light on the town. It's well positioned for towns on the coast like Sampieri and Marina di Ragusa, both of which were totally dead in early May, but are bursting at the seems through July - August.

A Marina O' Loughlin recommendation, Satra is a stylish restaurant just tucked off one of the main pedestrian streets in Scicli. It's in a big stone vaulted room, with luxuriously large circular wooden tables, linen napkins and fancy glassware. The menu is traditional and it's all about the techniques and best seasonal ingredients. I have a bean and wild fennel soup, which is unbelievably velvety, earthy, refreshing. We also have an almond cream and dried tuna pasta, octopus with a cheesy potato croquette, palamita fish with a rosti potato and wine reduction, and the best ricotta cannoli with have all holiday. It's pricier than most, but they also throw in amuse bouche and a glass of prosecco. The wine list is very reasonable and service is refined.

Trattoria da Carmelo
So, not technically Scicli, but you might find yourself down at the beach in Marina di Ragusa if you're staying in Scicli. This is our final meal and our final Marina rec of the trip, and definitely the best. Carmelo is a refined shack of a building, literally on the beach. Reserve a table by the water, ask for them to open the windows, and you can eat your meal with an uninterrupted view of the sky and sea. The food is exceptional - the most generous antipasti platter we have in our stay: scallops with breadcrumb and tomato, frittata with thin strips of baby courgette, caponata, octopus ragu filled arancini, and sardine fillets with agrodolce onions, raisins and pine nuts. It's a miracle we can even look at our main courses, which are the classic sea anemone spaghetti, and pistachio crusted tuna steak. Everything is exceptional, but nothing more so than the view.

Come what may with Brexit and a plunging Pound, I will find a way to keep exploring Sicily, a little corner at a time. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

My Neighbours the Dumplings, Lower Clapton Road

My Neighbours the Dumplings is the second of two interesting small-scale new openings on Lower Clapton Road. It's fascinating to observe which restaurants thrive and dive on this strip of road. More than half the new food and drink businesses that have opened here in the last few years have failed, but those that get it right do a roaring trade. P Franco, Yard Sale and 119 Lower Clapton are the big LCR success stories, and My Neighbours the Dumplings has smashed straight into the Top 5.

My Neighbours have been popping up around Hackney for a few years now - a regular gig at Palm 2, a residency on Wilton Way, and then a few nights at Klub Trop. They opened up their permanent place on Lower Clapton in April, and it's been busy every night since then, which is quite unusual without a big name and reputation.

Dumplings here are of the dim sum variety, and are mostly faithful to traditional recipes with a few interesting flourishes and using high quality meat from the Rare Breed Meat Company. Fancy provenance Asian food is proving popular across town (a trend spurred on by my absolute favourite from San Francisco, Mission Chinese Food), and the instant success of MNTD is proof of what a gap in the local market this was.

The menu is relatively short - a few steamed dumplings, a few fried dumplings, a couple of salads, and an assortment of other dishes including fried turnip cake (savvily: a vegetarian and non vegetarian option), steamed whole fish of the day, and crispy pork belly.

The Siu Mai dumpling is the classic pork, prawn and chive steamed dumpling. It is perfectly formed, generously stuffed with tasty filling and comes topped with fish roe.

On the fried front, we love the potstickers - think gyoza with northern Chinese flavours. We have both the lamb and coriander potstickers and the aubergine and sesame. Both deviate far from common expectations about Chinese flavours - the North has a large Muslim population and the cuisine wears the influences of Central Asian countries.

More traditional (and also fried) is the turnip cake. We opt for the meaty version, with pungent Chinese sausage, shiitake and dried shrimp. All of these strong flavours are subtly cut through the turnip cake, chopped fine so as not to distract. This is a couple of levels above the turnip cake at Dalston's long established Shanghai restaurant.

We get six decent size bites of pork belly for £8.50. It's been slow cooked, and is incredibly moist and tender inside while crispy on the outside and full of meaty flavour. The plum sauce is fruity, sour and spicy. The prices generally are a bit more expensive than you'd find in an old school dim sum joint, but the quality of ingredients easily makes up for it. It's still a relatively affordable eat - we end up paying about £26 per person for lots of food and two drinks each.

Drinks include a number of sakes, sake based cocktails, a house red and white from Borough Wines, Asahi beer, and the mildly sake-infused Japanese craft beer Hitachino Nest White Ale. The latter is particularly tasty.

The service is friendly, but slightly overwhelmed later in the evening. The day before they have a four star review in Time Out. It's a blessing, in a way, to not have all your small plates dumped on your table in one go, but there were definitely times we felt like we'd been waiting a while between dishes. It's also quite noisy - the music's pumping, the kitchen is open to the restaurant, and the communal tables notch up their volume accordingly.

With its current popularity I'd advise getting there before 7.30 at the latest to avoid waiting too long for a table. But it's worth it - a great addition to Lower Clapton's food scene.