Sotto Sale is a restaurant with ambitions, not least in price. At 81 euros for dinner for one, it was comfortably the most expensive meal I’ve had on this leg of the great odyssey. And that was with just two glasses of wine. It comes as something of a surprise to find it on a back street of Favignana, but it wouldn’t been the first time I’ve stumbled across an unexpected gem on a Mediterranean island. I still remember my astonishment at the brilliance of the food at La Madia in Licata, Sicily all those years ago.
Sotto Sale isn’t in the La Madia league, although one day it might be. The restaurant – and it is definitely a restaurant, not a trattoria – has many of the tropes of a smart place in a big city. The bread (made on the premises, naturally) is presented in a rolled down paper bag. There’s an amuse bouche (‘from the chef’). Olive oil is poured respectfully into a saucer. The candle on the table is in a jam jar resting on an old book. The bill is presented in an enamel mug. I’ve nothing against these peripherals. They add to the gaiety of life, albeit in a minor key, and the service by two young women was delightful and proper.
The intent behind the food is altogether more serious. The very fact that there’s an amuse bouche – a fried ball of fish with a thick pea flavoured potato cream, and two halves of a small tomato that had been softened in heat -is a statement of intent. The fish ball had a distinct flavour and taut density, and the pea/potato cream was mild and mildly interesting. The tomato halves, on the other hand, were sharp and fruity, and gave great point to the assembly. I couldn’t help thinking it would’ve been even better altogether if the pea/potato had been left out.
I thought this even more keenly when the next course pulled the potato cream trick again, although without the peas. It was used to sauce an absolutely fabulous piece of tuna tummy that had been confited in olive oil, very satisfying velvety stratas of fish, rich and elegant. The tomatoes ‘desiderati’, slightly dried, again, had that punch and fruitiness I really miss the UK. The potato cream worked a little better in this case, adding a smooth, sweet nutty substance to the dish
Blow me if potatoes turned up again in the next dish, too (I might have chosen differently if I’d known in advance that there was going to be potato in the amuse bouche), but it was an absolute stormer – exquisite ravioli like nuns’ wimples filled with refined black potato puree sailing over a magnificent, rollicking sauce of moscardini (tiny calamari) braised to soft magnificence in red wine. It was one of those dishes that combined novelty and classicism with particularly happy results.
The fourth course, a fillet of dentice, a kind of snapper, with vegetables – sweet peppers, strips of zucchini, French beans, tomato and no potato – confirmed for me that the chef was a serious cook and not a posing ponce. It was so simple. Just beautiful fish beautifully cooked, with vegetables each of which had a delightful purity of flavour. The only cheffy detail was the silky emulsion of fish stock and olive oil, of which there was just enough.
I called a halt at this point, even though the puddings looked promising. I simply can’t eat as much as I used to. Tragedy, but there we are.
But I’d eaten enough of Paolo Secci’s dishes to know that he was a chef of character and talent. Some of his culinary judgements, such as his passion pureed potatoes, might be called into question, but when it came to selecting ingredients, he was masterly, and careful and skilful in his handling of them. Worth 81 Euros? Well, that was a surprise in every sense of the word on Favignana, and one day, it may well be.
Sotto Sale, via Garibaldi 3, 91023 Favignana, Isole Egadi. Tel: 00 39 320 8432916