A Summer in the Islands

By Matthew Fort

A carefree exploration of the culture and cuisines of the Italian islands

Friday, 7 April 2017

Ristorante da Zurro, Stromboli. June, 2015

Dinner at the Ristorante da Zurro, just above the beach. Zurro’s real name is Filippo Utano and he looks like an old hippy. His bearded face peers out from a bonfire of wiry grey hair that’s kept out of his eyes by a chef’s toque that looks like a pancake, brilliantly decorated with tomatoes, chillies and flowers. He wears an orange chef’s jacket with the arms ripped off and baggy trousers with flames leaping up them in the manner of Arthur ‘Fire’ Brown, who skimmed across the pop heavens in the 1980s. He dances around his open-plan kitchen and out of it with a mixture of nervous energy and fierce purpose, both conductor and orchestra.

A shiver of skittishness runs through the place.


‘Yes, bread.’

‘Coming up.’

‘Water? Fizzy or still? Wine? Of course, sir. Certo, signore. 

Right away.’ The charming waitress frowns and scurries off. A 

battered menu appears.

‘But what’s fresh in today?’

‘Well, there’s tuna and swordfish. Anchovies and gamberetti 

di nassa.’

‘Gamberetti di nassa?’

‘Little prawns. Very special. You eat them raw.’

‘I’ll have some of those, please.’ Damn the price.

‘With the antipasti?’

‘Yes, please.’

Gamberetti di nassa, little fleshy commas, pink as an Englishman who’s caught the sun, curl around a filling of paradise blue eggs, 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 is as soft as Turkish delight. Around them on the plate are small, blue-and-silver anchovies, split and with their backbones removed, lightly cured in vinegar with a touch of chilli; sardines in carpione – fried and then cooked in sugar and vinegar with onions from Tropea and black peppercorns; thin slices of swordfish have been lightly touched with vinegar, oo, and then immersed in neutral vegetable oil; and thick fingers of tuna cooked and treated with a different sweet-and-sour marinade with coriander and juniper in it.

It’s simple food, the cooking of fishermen, says Zurro as he prances out to deliver the plate personally. Fishermen didn’t have fridges in the old days, so they preserved their catch in oil or oil and vinegar or just vinegar, he says. He dashes off again, stops, has a quick word with a group of regular customers, another licking a pan of pasta and sauce over and over.

I’m ready for a plate of spaghetti alla strombolana, a mighty mound of pasta slathered with tomato, capers, olives, breadcrumbs, anchovy, chilli, mint – a touch of Zurro here and of the Levant here – all minced up and slithery, sensual, saucy, substantial.The sun’s setting. The sky slips from primrose to pale blue to deeper blue to blue velvet. A few stars stipple the velvet, and out just beyond the compound of the restaurant, the volcanic black beach has all but vanished, the sea darkens, and the lights of fishing boats and cruise boats and yachts and pleasure palaces shiver over it. The restaurant fills with holidaymakers in shorts and deck shoes, dresses with sweaters thrown over the shoulders, with couples leaning together and groups of friends and family, all pantomimes in silhouette. The charming waitress and a young man with tattoos up his arm and a haircut like a peaked cap dash about among the tables.

A candle held firm in black sand in a glass burns with a steady flame on the table. A large plate with two substantial slices of swordfish on roughly chopped chicory. The swordfish is about two centimetres 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 strata of dense meat, Bovril 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 stew on the sweet-and-sour theme, small chunks of melanzane, zucchini, peperoni, olives and capers.

Now it’s completely dark, and I’m completely full. The light from the candles picks out details on the faces at the tables around in dramatic chiaroscuro. Thank heavens da Zurro doesn’t take puddings as seriously as it does the other courses. I finish with a plate of biscottini and a glass of Malvasia di Lipari. Some of the biscottini are the colour of sand and some volcanic black, and they both have a crumbly texture, and a sweetness that sits comfortably with the cold, fruity, dry wine.

The bill, please and grazie, grazie mille, I say. 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 to know that I’ve had a really good tim

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