Sicilian zing in a Savile Row suit


8 Charlotte Street, London W1


The last time I ate pasta alla norma, that fine Sicilian mescolare of tomatoes, aubergines and ricotta salata, was a few years back in Catania, not far from the Palazzo dei Gravina Gruyas, birthplace of the composer Bellini, the perfection of whose opera, Norma, was said to inspire the dish. Nothing remarkable about that. Like bouillabaisse in Marseilles, or ma po tofu in Chengdu, the dish is near ubiquitous. What was a lot more interesting was my dining companion, a small, trim lady with a neat bob and deep brown eyes.

She had four brothers, all involved in local, ahem, ‘affairs’. The first had been killed by the police, the second locked up, the third on the run. While the fourth was in hospital. Not, as you may expect, for gunshot wounds. Rather, an excess of pasta.

The food is a selection of Sicilian greatest hits, along with a few more modern dishes that wear its history like a heady scent

The food is a selection of Sicilian greatest hits, along with a few more modern dishes that wear its history like a heady scent

Still, she had taken control of everything, keeping, as my friend Luca so euphemistically put it, ‘the brothers’ interests alive’. Anyway, what started as a fairly civilised lunch descended into a terrifying drive around that grey, volcanic city, as she proceeded to get rip-roaringly drunk, screaming abuse at all and sundry, while ignoring red lights and pedestrians alike. We didn’t dare say a word. She eventually pulled up, was sick out of the window, then passed out. Her last words, before we slipped off into the inky night? ‘Pasta alla norma? Rigatoni. Solo rigatoni.’

Now, many other Sicilians would disagree. They always will. But there was no way we were going to argue with the acting sister of a mafioso family on her home turf. So rigatoni it is, and rigatoni it also is at Norma, the new Sicilian restaurant from Ben Tish. It’s a splendid plate of pasta, the tomatoes still possessing the very last spurt of zing, the aubergine soft, not greasy and the ricotta adding its coolly lactic kick. A simple dish, well done. Just like the panelle, that classic Sicilian street snack of deep-fried chickpea fritters, crisp, burnished and served piping hot. Though at £4 a portion, you know you’re a long way from the back streets of Palermo.

But Norma is a good-looking, lavishly fitted-out place, with a soft sultana glow, with marble, Moorish curves and foliage weaved among the hanging lamps. The walls are already suffused with succour and good cheer. And service is equally warm, although our waiter’s kind offer to explain how the menu works is sent, like Luca Brasi, to go sleep with those fish. The food is a selection of Sicilian greatest hits, along with a few more modern dishes that wear its history like a heady scent. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Neapolitans and Pied-montese have all invaded or ruled this magnificent island over the years. All leaving their culinary mark. As food writer Clarissa Hyman points out: ‘Sicilian cookery is living history, its gastronomy born out of serial rape.’

Caponata, that Moorish mélange of the agro and the dolce, is not quite aggro enough for me. I like the vinegar to strip the skin from the roof of my mouth. Here, it’s more sweet than sour. Well made, but subdued. More agro dolce with a chicory, pumpkin and fig salad, at once bitter and slyly sweet. A fig vinegar gathers it all together in a discreetly acidic embrace.

Pizzette fritte, bite-sized deep-fried disks, have a smudge of burrata and a wisp of spianata, and are expertly done. There’s a fine take on the classic pasta con le sarde, with sardines, raisins, breadcrumbs, fennel and pine nuts. A dish that captures the spirit, if not the grunt, of great Sicilian cooking. Because some-times, those rough edges are too smoothed. A touch ‘finickity and expensive,’ in the words of Grace. But despite the West End polish, I adored Norma, a languorous, lingering lunch, in the most lovely of rooms, where rights are wronged, enemies cursed and friendships lauded loudly. Sicilian, then, to its core.

About £40 per head