Dining in Sherwood Forest
Al Covo dei Beati Paoli
The Giardino Garibaldi, one of Palermo’s largest parks, contains a grove of gigantic trees which the Blue Guide identifies as ficus magnolioides. Their branches send long shoots back into the ground as aerial roots, living metaphors of a cyclical peasant society. (Mary is the ghostly figure at the bottom, giving scale to the stupendous.)
Around the park’s perimeter is a floating flea market whose carefully laid out detritis is a reminder that the irrevocably poor will shell out their pennies for practically anything that will decorate their dwellings or lend itself to functional improvisation.
And nearby in the Palazzo Abatellis is the wall-sized 15th century fresco, Il Trionfo della Morte, in which the Fourth Horseman strikes down rich and poor, cleric and layman, with fine impartiality. The skeletal horse was to reappear in Picasso's Guernica, a reminder that humans can be as savage as the gods they worship.
Such ruminations only serve to give me a healthy appetite and so as soon as the restaurants opened we nabbed an outdoor table at Al Covo dei Beati Paoli. The Beati Paoli were a band of mediaeval vigilantes established to protect the commoners from the depredations of both church and state—a sort of Sicilian Robin Hood and his Merry Men. (The Mafia have claimed a spurious succession, attempting to bask in their reflected glory.)
From our seats we had a panoramic view of both the park and the endless trading of worthless trifles. The courtyard rapidly filled up, and so we offered to share our table with two late-arriving members of our tour who were about to be consigned to the stygian depths of the secret sect's labyrinthine grotto.
It was fitting that our antipasto should be our first experience of Caponata Siciliana in its native habitat. It was not like the condiment we had experienced in England in more modest quantities, but consisted of a generous helping of large-cut aubergines, celery, fennel, onions and olives in tomato sauce—a quantity which, bought in a London deli, would cost a bracchia and a gamba. It had the freshness and ebullience of a dish not destined to survive the setting of the sun.
For my seconda I ordered lo stinco de maiale (pork shin bone), a dish I had happily experienced twice in a Turin Slow Food Snail-awarded hosteria. Properly cooked, it is not unlike a German Schweineshaxe, slowly brazed to falling-off-the-bone succulance. This time—as with most of the meat I would experience in Sicily—it was so barely cooked that it would have been useless even to grasp it in both hands and attack it with my teeth. Perhaps the Beati Pauli added the remnants to their midnight stew.
Al Covo dei Beati Paoli Piazza Marina 50, Palermo, Tel: 091 6166634
©2006 John Whiting