Zurro is an artist said somebody I spoke to. When he’s good, he’s very good. But, said another, yes, he’s like all artists… Zurro – his real name is Fillipo Utano – looks like an old hippy. His face is engulfed by hair, like the mane of a lion, only grey and wiry. His nose peaks out from among this bush, and his bright, darting eyes framed by glasses with bright blue side pieces. He wears Arthur ‘Fire’ Brown trousers, with flames leaping up them, a white chef’s jacket with the arms ripped off and what appears to be a cushion cover with a very bright tomato pattern on his head. He is rarely still for a moment, dancing around his open-plan kitchen and out of it with a mixture of nervous energy and fierce purpose. Watching Zurro at work is one of the many delights of eating in his restaurant. He is both conductor and orchestra.
This individuality, eccentricity even, extends to the restaurant as whole. It informs the whole character of the place. Dinner begins with a shiver of anxiety running through the place. Bread? Yes bread. Coming up. Water?Fizzy or still? Wine? Of course, sir. Right away. The charming and delightful waitress frowns and scurries off. A battered menu appears. But what’s fresh in today? Well, there’s tuna a sword fish. Actually, the menu doesn’t seem to change much. Some times there are anchovies and some times gamberetti di Nissa, small prawns with curious stripy bodies and blue eggs that the Strombolani eat raw.
So I’ll definitely have some of them. And a mixture of tuna, swordfish, anchovies, and sardines each prepared and preserved in a different way. This is simple food, the cooking of fishermen, says Zurro as he dances out to deliver the plate personally. Fishermen didn’t have fridges in the old days, so they preserved them in oil or oil and vinegar or just vinegar. He dashes off again, stops, has a quick word with a group of regular customers, another with two pretty girls. The next moment I can see him back in his kitchen, flicking a pan of pasta and sauce over and over.
The small, blue-and-silver anchovies, split and with their back bones removed, have been lightly cured in vinegar with a touch of chilli. The sardines have been given the agro-dolce in carpione treatment, that is fried and then cooked in sugar and vinegar with onions from Tropea and black peppercorns. There’s thin slices of swordfish have been lightly touched with vinegar, too, and then immersed in neutral vegetable oil. They have a bounce to them when I chew. Thick fingers of tuna have been cooked and treated with a different sweet-and-sour marinade with coriander and juniper. And at the centre of the dish, the gamberetti di Nissa, pink as an Englishman who’s caught the sun, with the red stripes running down their small, headless bodies. I eat them shell and all. The shells are so delicate, a thin rime, and the raw flesh soft as toffee and sweet. It takes a little time to eat and wonder about all this.
And now for a plate of spaghetti alla Strombolana, a mighty mound of pasta gleaming in tomato, capers, olives, breadcrumbs, anchovy, chilli, mint, a touch of Zurro and the Levant there, all minced up and slithery, sensual, saucy, substantial.
The sun is setting in a sky that ranges from peach to apricot to pale blue to deeper blue to dark velvet. I can see a few stars, and out there, just beyond the compound of the Ristorante da Zurro, the volcanic black beach has all but vanished, the sea is darkening, and lights of fishing boats and cruise boast and yachts and pleasure palaces begin to flicker. As the restaurant fills, up, the waitress and a young man with tattoos up his arm and a haircut like a peaked cap, dash among the tables, a candle held firm in black sand in a glass on each.
A large plate with two substantial slices of swordfish on roughly chopped chicory appears. The swordfish is about 2 cm thick and has been grilled so that it’s almost cooked through, with only the lightest shading of pinker flesh at the very centre. It breaks easily to my fork, fine curved stratas of dense meat, bovrilly where brown on the outside, milder, more like veal on the inside. The ribands of chicory are crunchy and bitter. There’s another plate, too, of caponata, that Sicilian vegetable variant on the sweet-and-sour theme, small chunks of melanzane, zucchini, pepperoni, olives and capers.
It’s completely dark now, and I’m completely full. The light from the candles picks out details on the faces at the tables around me. Thank heavens da Zurro doesn’t take puddings as seriously as it does the other courses. No, I’ll have a plate of biscottini and a glass of malvasia. Some of the biscottini are the colour of conventional sand and some the colour of black volcanic sand and they both have a crumbly, sandy texture, and a sweetness that sits comfortably with the cold, fruity, dry malvasia di Lipari.
The bill, please and grazie. Grazie mille volte. Era una cena splendida, magnifica. Una per la memoria. I know no Italian would say anything like that, but I want Zurro and my lovely waitress and everyone know that I had a really good time.