Arrivederci, Sicilia! What we loved, and what we’ll never understand.

The thing about being a fish out of water is that people are walking around on their two legs and breathing air, and being a fish, you spend a lot of top flopping around on your side trying to get some water in your gills.

Traveling in any foreign country requires embracing the unknown, which can be uncomfortable. There’s the language difference, of course, but adjusting to the rhythms of life can be just as difficult. As I’ve noted, shops open and close with little rhyme or reason. As in many European cities, they close at lunchtime, which is remarkably civilized. Shopkeepers go home for lunch or a nap, or something, then stay open into the evening. This is just dandy, except when you want to mail a package at 2PM. I wandered past the corner grocery on Wednesday at 3 and it was closed at midday, it was closed on Wednesdays, and they were closed for some kind of vacation – the Sicilian trifecta! Today, the supermarket was closed at 2. The supermarket! Restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7 or later, although I’m told that in Argentina they don’t start the party until after 10.

Oh, and I’ve really enjoyed watching Sicilans park their cars. This would never fly back home.

"Parallel" parking in Sicily

“Parallel” parking in Sicily

I will also never wear a man purse.

Nope, sorry, not gonna get one.

Nope, sorry, not gonna get one.

We made a grudging farewell to Ortigia.

Farewell, Ortigia.

Farewell, Ortigia.

We were sad to go because we had just started to find our groove there. We knew where the good restaurants were and we had our sights set on a few others. The other night we wandered into this really cute place that felt like a tapas joint in Madrid. There were lots of wines by the glass, and plates of meats, cheeses, and just yummy stuff in general. The hosts were gracious and friendly and the tiny café was filled mostly with young, hip locals who were having a dandy time. Places like that just make you happy. As promised, we returned to the ridiculously good deli (which was even better the second time, if you can believe it) and felt like regulars. (I had a moment with one of the busboys last time when he cleared a small piece of bread off our table and I started crying. It took him a second to get the joke, and then we all had a nice chortle. When we came in again it was like an old friend had come back.)

One more look at Fratelli Burgio.

One more look at Fratelli Burgio.

The aftermath

The aftermath

Then we pushed on for Noto – a city that is said to represent the best in Sicilian Baroque architecture, and which was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 2002.

Noto

Noto

Things started slowly when we couldn’t find our apartment. It’s in the center of the old city, just behind the famous Duomo, but 1) we were having trouble negotiating the one way streets and alleys, and 2) our host neglected to mention that our apartment is on an unmarked alley off a long street of stairs. Having been failed by google maps, we triangulated on what we thought might be the place, and eventually connected with our host, who speaks even less English than we speak Italian. After an hour of driving, walking, and crawling in circles, we finally walked through our door. And yes, there was the tiniest bit of bickering.

The town itself reminds me of a wedding cake – it looks pretty good, but it feels like it lacks a bit of substance. The people seem kind of standoffish, and once you’ve walked the length of the main street, you’ve kind of got the place covered. To be sure, the architecture is quite amazing – there are more palazzos (palazzi?) than you can count, and, like everywhere else we’ve been, they are charmingly crumbly without actually falling down.

Our day at the museums was entertaining without being terribly educational. The Notoans (Notoites?) need to up their museum game just a bit. On the one hand, you can wander into a gem, like the jewel box theatre in Noto called the Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo. It’s pretty new – it was built in 1870. It’s one of those theatres with all the boxes, like in Amadeus. Our visit continued our tradition of visiting theatres without actually seeing any theatre. It was also singularly uninformative. There was no commentary, no information, no nothing. You show up and a guy points you to the theatre, and you go in a look around and take pictures. That was about it. We also had the place to ourselves, so we could have climbed into one of the boxes and taken a nap.

Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo in Noto

Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo in Noto

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We also had a hilarious visit to the Palazzo Ducezio, which houses the Noto city offices. The tour consisted of a visit to the Hall of Mirrors, which now serves as a meeting room for official city business and such. The ceiling was painted in 1826 and restored in 2001. It’s lovely, but I felt a little like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation. A woman led us into the room, and said, basically, here’s the room, and then she stared at us. We went, we looked, we left. We also toured another palazzo that houses a rather sad collection of paintings with mildewing mattes and other underloved pieces of art. Janine and I found ourselves tallying up the value of each visit, kind of like one of those ladies of a certain age you see on the Upper West Side bus – you know, with the fur coat – might. For our five dollar ticket, we figured the art collection at about a dollar, the hall of mirrors at about a quarter, and theatre came in at, oh, two bucks. You win some, you lose some. On the other hand, in Ortigia we saw a real live Caravaggio in the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia for free. It’s also free to look at the outsides of the buildings wherever you go, so there’s that.

On the other other hand, if you try to take a picture of Elmo in Times Square, he’s liable to tackle you to the ground and start beating you if you don’t give him a buck or two. So maybe I should be a little more forgiving.

Ok, enough with the culture and onto the food.

We’re leaving Sicily tomorrow, and the food has been distinctive and really great, so I thought I’d try to remember the dishes that stood out.

At that little tapas place, we had little rectangles of cheese that turned out to be ricotta mixed with honey and orange juice and baked in the oven. Baked ricotta – who knew? Those made me weep. They were creamy, sweet but not too sweet, and they made my heart sing (after I was done weeping). We also had eggplant parmigiana that was just eggplant sliced thin and stacked like a lasagna and cooked with a simple tomato sauce and topped with ricotta salata. So simple, but killer.

Janine says that the Pasta Norma I made when we arrived in Forza was the best she had in Sicily. All you need are good eggplants – you chop up eggplants, cook the bejeebers out of them in olive oil, add tomatoes (they add ricotta down here, but I didn’t have any) and top with ricotta salata. Good stuff.

One day we went to the local market in Ortigia and bought some of those jumbo prawns we’ve been devouring whenever we have the chance.

The outdoor market in Ortigia.

The outdoor market in Ortigia.

Janine made a great pasta with eggplant, tomato, and peppers, and I broiled the prawns simply with garlic, oil, and salt, and I must say, they were as good as any we’d had. It stunk up the apartment, but it was worth it.

Our dandy dinner.

Our dandy dinner.

By the time we reached Noto, we had acquired a medium-sized collection of condiments and marinated things. (We can’t help ourselves. An entire shelf of our refrigerator back home is dedicated to pickles, olives, and other condiments). We had bought olives, marinated mushrooms with mint, sun-dried tomatoes and capers with oregano in oil, and we still had some of Janine’s pasta sauce. I had the contours of a chicken dish in my mind as we pulled out of Ortigia and we found a butcher shop that was actually open and I bought half a chicken. When we arrived in Noto, the kitchen had almost no equipment, but inexplicably, it had a tagine. So Sicilian Chicken Tagine it was and I’d have happily paid real money for it at a restaurant. Sadly, we forgot to take a picture.

There were other great things – the arancini (deep fried rice balls) and the anchovies marinated in orange juice, vinegar, and sugar in Taormina, the cannoli at Giuseppi’s place in Forza, and all that great, cheap, flinty, bracing white wine.

Finally, on my deathbed (after I’ve had a Peter Luger steak), I will ask for one of those mini mozzarella balls in cream topped with olive oil and ground pistachio at Fratelli Burgio in Ortigia, and I will refuse to die until I get one.

It is on to Rome, where if I don’t finally see the Sistine Chapel I will go on a hunger strike which will make my blog entries considerably shorter. What are your favorite things to do in Rome?

Praise the lord and pass the statins – our pilgrimage to the mecca of meat, Peter Luger.

Oh, I sing a song of meat.

Not just any meat, mind you, but the meat of the gods. Peter Luger meat.

If you are a vegetarian, or heaven forbid a vegan, I beg you to turn away. This will not be pretty, and I don’t want you to hate me. Come back some other day, when I write an essay about the glories of carrots or yeast, or somesuch. I have deep respect for your excellent choices, but as my beloved former boss Paul Brest used to say, if god had meant us to be vegetarians, he wouldn’t have made animals out of meat.

I can’t tell you how many times I have made my way across the Williamsburg Bridge and been tantalized by the glimpse of what may be the world’s greatest steakhouse, Peter Luger. There it sat, lurking beneath the bridge, beckoning to the hungry, the gluttonous, or to the seekers of meaty self-actualization. Someday, I would often think, I’ll have a Peter Luger steak. And yet nearly a half century went by and I failed to keep my promise.

Why didn’t I just go, you may ask? There were any number of reasons. For many years I would have had to sell my baseball card collection and a few quarts of blood just to make it past the shrimp cocktail. And for heaven’s sake, it was in BROOKLYN, and in Williamsburg, no less. But times have changed in oh so many ways. I’m all grown up with gainful employment (sort of) and Williamsburg is the BOMB. And if you have been following my recent journey, you will know that I am finding any opportunity I can to go back and either perfect the past or fine tune the future. I recommend it, by the way. When we decided to spend part of our trip in New York, I swore to myself that we would at long last make it to Peter Luger.

What’s so special about this place? Certainly not the décor. It’s a room. It has wood floors, it’s nice, it’s old, but if they didn’t make steaks that made you want to weep, you wouldn’t think twice. The waiters wear long aprons, which bring to mind a Bemelmans sketch, so that’s nice, but still.

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Nothing fancy. A little too bright, a little plain, but just right.

No, what’s special is the meat. They buy these fancy, shmancy USDA Prime cuts of beef and then hang them in some special room for a month until they get good and funky and covered in mold (good mold, they say). They say that this concentrates the flavors. Then they hack off the mold (I assume) and cut up the hunks of beef into steaks on the day they’re going to serve them. The cut of choice at Peter Luger is the porterhouse, or what you and I know as the t-bone. The t-bone has a piece of filet mignon on one side of the bone and the strip steak on the other. Then they take your t-bone and throw it in an 800 degree broiler that creates a crust that you could stand on, but which leaves the inside a very comfortable medium rare. Don’t be afraid. The steak looks really rare, but with all that aging and tenderizing and whatever else they do to it, you won’t die. On the other hand, if you were to order your steak well done I suspect that the rotting corpse of Herr Luger himself would rise up out of the floor and strangle you with his moldy hands, and good for him I say.

So they take this crazy good meat and blast it with a krillion degrees of heat and then they start improving on it. When it comes out of the oven, they slice for you, which coaxes the juices onto the platter, at which time they drown the whole operation in a stick of butter, which somehow never undermines the structural integrity of that magical crust. The salty, fatty, buttery sauce seems to wick its way back into the steak through some kind of magical capillary action. The filet mignon becomes the foie gras of meat – livery and tender and spectacular. When I took my first bite I groaned. The strip is marbled and fatty and ridiculous.

Quite simply, the world's greatest steak.

Quite simply, the world’s greatest steak.

By this point, every cardiologist in the tri-state region orders a new Mercedes. They serve your steak with a boat of Luger’s famous steak sauce and a defibrillator. For dessert, you can order the carrot cake or a bowl of Lipitor.

I might add that the sleeper of the evening was the creamed spinach. Mercifully, they seemed to go easy on the cream, but somehow found a way to make the spinach even spinachier. I think they put spinach on the menu at steakhouses as a joke, but Lugar’s doesn’t mess around. If they’re going to serve spinach it will be the best damn steakhouse spinach of the plant. We order the mysterious bottle of private label Peter Luger Napa Cab that was, as everything else was, right on the money.

And how do I describe the steak? It’s easy. It was the best damn piece of meat I’ve ever eaten. I went back and read some reviews and some of the jaded restaurant critics crapped and moaned about indifferent service or the fact that they don’t take credit cards (although they take debit cards and who doesn’t have one of those?) or their location or some other cranky pants minor infraction. But my good god people, this is one of those instances in which somebody has perfected a task that requires time, money, and skill, and for that I am eternally grateful.

The happy couple, right before the paramedics came.

The happy couple, right before the paramedics came.

And for the record our waiter Ivan was funny and sassy and we wanted to take him home with us. Like our friend Larry from Russ and Daughters, he knew that what he was feeding us was poetry and he was damn proud of it.

On the other hand, there are any number of fussy, expensive, self-important places that send the gastronorati into a frothy frenzy but which then close before we can remember what we ate. Don’t get me wrong, I like hipster food as much as the next guy, but if you gave me twelve hours to live and made me pick a last meal, it might just be a Luger steak, the mystery cab, and that crazy spinach.