Unlikely as it may sound, Lampedusa has something of a gastronomic track record. The Romans rated the garum, that pungent, potent, fishy HP sauce of the Roman world, very highly.
Fishing is the other side to the Lampedusan economy to tourism, and so the food was bound to be fish based, Fish, fish and yet more fish. Nothing wrong with that. All very healthy. I’ve eaten quite a bit of fish since I set out on this Odyssey, and the dishes I ate on Lampedusa were some of the best I’ve come across. The Lampedusan cooks showed a sense of adventure tempered by common sense and skillful precision that put some of the more highly touted eateries on other islands look distinctly ordinary.
Take the antipasto at the Trattoria Pescheria d’Azzuro : mini tuna burger; tuna in agrodolce; salted tuna with a slice of pear; fried, breadcrumbed red mullet fillet; potato, octopus and green olive salad; polpette di ricciola with peas and carrot strips; rings of very thinly sliced squid with fennel, red pepper & carrot strips. I rather took for granted that the quality of the fish would be pretty glittery, which it was. But the skill and thoughtfulness behind each element came as a very cheery surprise. The only disadvantage was that it made the linguine with squid and prawns seems distinctly ordinary, in spite of a very well made sauce based on prawn stock.
A few days later I went back to the Trattoria Pescheria d’Azzuro for a dish of caponata of divine squelchy mulchiness, in which the balance between sweetness and acidity was so perfectly modulated that it made me realise that Zurro’s caponata I’d rated so highly on Stromboli was unacceptably sweet. This was followed by a slab of roasted ricciola – amberjack – with a crust of potato slices made crunch with breadcrumbs, which was as handsome to eat as it was to look at. At the end of both these meals I had lemon sorbet, a Sicilian practice that cleans you mouth of any fishy after tastes.
On the other hand, after a dinner at Ciccio of an Insalata Lampedusana (tomatoes, onions, capers, salted anchovies and mackerel in olive oil); and a exemplary grilled tunnati, a flattish, thickset fish with firm, sweet flesh (it had been slashed and the grilled with its scales on so that they fused together, effectively steaming the flesh inside, while allowing enough of that sightly bitter carbon from the grill to season it) I went and had an almond granita at the outstandingly good Gelateria Gola. I went back another evening to have a cornet of ginger and fondant chocolate icecreams, painstakingly shaped to look like a rose.
The only relative disappointment was at the Trattoria Terranova da Bernado on the outskirts of town, which had been recommended by a couple of people, and was clearly Lampedusa’s destination restaurant. It had an old fashioned antipasto buffet, which is the kind of thing I like. Then I was sandbagged by a lasagna of mussels and clams. I’m not convinced that something that looks like a vast, pallid mattress, feels like flannel and tastes of mussels and clams is ever going to be a classic. Of course I finished it because I’m that sort of guy, but it rather put paid to my pleasure in an equally generous portion of fried squid and prawns, which actually were bloody good, their natural sweetness boosted by being dusted in fine polenta or polenta flour before being fried. I finished that, too, but with a sigh of relief rather than a sigh of content, and spent a rather resteless night as a result.