I like to tell people that Sicily is where I’d go to die. From what I’ve seen of the world so far, this island is the closest thing to paradise on earth: it’s the light, it’s the traces of bygone civilizations in the architecture and in the food, it’s the strange sense of time, and your own insignificance, as you stand face to face with fragments of 2,000-year-old temples, it’s the grit, the unkempt streets, the closed shutters, the acres of wild cactus reminding you that this is a place where people live under extreme circumstances, where water will always be scarce, where survival is an art. Maybe that last bit doesn’t sound so paradisaical, but I like it – no one is putting on a show for you here.
I should know by now, though, that there is no such thing as an earthly paradise — and, at least according to tassista Daniele, you certainly won’t find it in Sicily.
“In Sicily,” he says, as we drive away from the Palermo’s Central Railway Station, “the only beautiful thing we have is the weather.”
Between the poverty and the oligarchs, it’s a terrible place to live, he adds. “If I did it all over again, I’d leave. If I were still young, I’d leave.”
“Where would you have gone?”
“Doesn’t matter. Anywhere. Anywhere away from here.” But it’s too late now: His family is here – his wife and two kids, a daughter and a son, 21 and 22 — and, anyway, at his house, in the eastern suburbs of Palermo, near the entrance to the highway to Catania, he sleeps like an angel: “You don’t even hear a mosquito at night,” which is important if you drive a taxi in Palermo during the day, which he has been doing for more than twenty years.
At first, the aggression of people on the road took some getting used to. Now he describes the job, the act of driving, as a dance.
Daniele has a face that looks like it’s been through a brawl, with cheeks that puff out as if they’re storing wads of tobacco. When I meet him at the train station, he’s unshaven, wearing a windbreaker vest that makes him look ready for an expedition in the mountains.
“Do you like barbecued fish?” he asks me, maneuvering easily through the lunchtime traffic, unfazed by the Vespas and the buses and the other cars boxing him in.
He drops me off at Trattoria da Salvo, a seafood restaurant where he says he’s been eating for most of the 20 years he’s been driving the cab, and introduces me to Salvatore, the owner, who rises from his perch at one of the plastic tables on the sidewalk and asks me if I want to sit in the sun or the shade.
I sit in the shade, glancing at the buffet of raw seafood on ice under a canvas canopy, at the barbecue next to the curb, crowded with fillets of swordfish and what looks like orata (dorade, or sea bream), at a woman I’m guessing is Salvatore’s wife, a striking, fifty-something lady with plump red lips and golden hair, who’s smoking a cigarette and looking me up and down like an auntie who’s worried I’m not getting enough to eat, and I thank Daniele for bringing me here.
By the time Salvatore brings over a pile of grilled seafood – swordfish, squid, shrimp, dorade – on a metal platter, I’ve thought of the questions I hadn’t had time, or hadn’t thought quickly enough, to ask Daniele. Has he traveled other places, to know that they’re better than here? Will his kids stay in Sicily? Doesn’t he think the food here is beautiful – at least as beautiful as the weather? Take this plate of fish —
A French couple walks by just as I’m squeezing lemon all over everything, about to take my first bite. “Is this local?” they ask Salvatore, pointing to the shrimp on the ice buffet. “No,” says Salvatore. “And this?” They point to the squid. Salvatore shakes his head. Only the swordfish and the orata are from here.
And I don’t know if it’s all in my mind now, but the swordfish and the dorade are the best things on this platter, especially the swordfish, which has the texture and juiciness of a properly cooked steak.
I hide the shrimp (mealy) and the squid (rubbery) under the bones of the dorade and tell Salvatore it was all good when he comes to take my plate, wishing it had been.
Trattoria da Salvo
Via Torremuzza, 19
90133 Palermo (PA) Sicily
Tel. +39 334 3351329
Note: The mixed seafood grill with shrimp, squid, dorade and swordfish costs 20 Euros here. I’m convinced you can find better seafood in Palermo, though I can’t tell you where yet. But I can tell you, if you’re looking for a peak seafood experience, to visit La Fraschetta del Pesce in Rome, a remarkable restaurant I learned about from a tassista named Rosella, where the owner, Marco Magliozzi, is a former fisherman who sources all his seafood from his family’s boat in Anzio.