Monday, November 12, 2007

Al Gabbiano

On my first trip to Catania I was lucky enough to be taken to a local fish restaurant called "Al Gabbiano." It was there that I tried for the first time, Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia. Of course, it was immediately obvious to me that the food here was good, but it took eating at several other places in Catania and Sicily to realize just how good and special this place really is. Although it has been my intention to bring everyone who visits here, due to sickness, weather, and circumstances in general, it wasn't until this past Saturday night that I finally got over there, with Christa and Mary in tow.

Interestingly, this place has yet to show up in anyone's guide books. Maybe it's because menuwise, their offerings are so typically local, so narrowly traditional, that folks have just missed it, not realizing the hidden treasure. Of course, it's just as well, really, because the locals know all about it and would probably prefer that I stop telling other people--it's packed every night, and its clientele is almost exclusively local. What makes Al Gabbiano special is not what they prepare, which is largely the same stuff you can get in any other local sicilian trattoria, but the fact they hands down make it better than any other place in town. Well, that I'm aware of at any rate. Maybe they get the freshest fish of anybody in town or maybe they have some secrets that don't leave their kitchen. I don't know why. The end result, though, is that it's just uniformly delicious. And if you want an authentic Sicilian experience, you need to eat the traditional cuisine at least once. You wouldn't let someone visit NC without eating the BBQ would you?

When you walk in, the first thing you'll see is a large table covered with fish and other marine animals. Wonder what they have tonight? Take a look. That's what they got. Before you've even sat down, they'll ask if you want the mixed appetizer of fish, which includes both marinated (some of you know it by the Spanish name, ceviche) and fried fishes. I've never seen anyone say no to this and I'm not sure why anybody would. You've barely sat down and already you have a bread basket and they start bringing out plates of marinated shrimp, alici (small fish, filleted, larger than anchovies, smaller than sardines), octopus and not long afterwards you'll have a plate of a number of different fried fishes of various sizes--with my favorite, hands down, being the tiny little baby squid that are fried whole--so tender and succulent.

Shortly afterwards they'll come and tell you which first courses (pasta) they have (they do not have a menu) and ask you what you want. Second courses aren't usually listed out explicitly, since you can see what fish they have and they can cook it any normal Sicilian way. The other night, though, they kindly suggested the mixed grill for us out of towners and we all jumped at the chance to not have to make a real decision. For the first courses, there was one I hadn't heard of before--spaghetti with something that sounded like either "neonata" or "neorata". I finally decided that it must be neorata because neonata (which means newborn) didn't make any sense to me. After some digging around on-line, though, I've realized they were saying neonata and meant it--spaghetti with newborn fishes. It was, not surprisingly, incredibly delicious. Even not entirely understanding at the time what I was eating. The mixed grill turned out to be a small piece of grilled swordfish, the best grilled squid I've ever had, and a couple of giant prawns that were alright, but didn't hold a candle to the squid.

As a special treat, a Sicilian folk group wandered in and played for us. I had heard recordings of music like this before on a CD of field recordings made by Alan Lomax in Sicily. But this was the first time I had heard it live. Check them out in Christa's video footage below. They were incredibly good at what they were doing, and were playing quite frenetically and with abandon. It was a real treat--I wish they could have stayed all night, but they moved on fairly quickly. Presumably to hit another restaurant somewhere. I do recommend that Alan Lomax CD, though, linked to above if you are interested in the traditional folk music of Sicily. It's a neat way to get to know another culture, and it's neat for me to think about my great grandparents and their parents and grandparents having grown up with this kind of music--not to mention puppet shows like the one we saw in Palermo.

The only disappointment came at the end of the night when they brought us all a complimentary dessert--we were all too stuffed to even think about eating another bite of food. We were quite intrigued by the sweet filled pastry with powdered sugar on top--we simply couldn't physically eat another bite. I tried to ask the waiter if we could take them away (home, with us) but he apparently understood only "take them away" which he did. And then gave them to another table. I felt sad that we had refused this kindness and hoped they didn't feel insulted. They will recognize me if I come back. I don't exactly blend into the crowd around here. If I could have possibly eaten another bite of food I would have found room for it in my tummy somewhere.

But, oh, in the end, what a night!