Forget your wooden chairs, dark interiors and red check tablecloths. In Palermo dining out means plastic chairs, harsh fluorescent lights and paper tablecloths. Whether at an upscale ristorante or a quiet trattoria, eating in Palermo presents travellers with a new system of meaning that forces them to revise their expectations for eating all’italiana.
Economics and guidebooks offer compelling reasons for the proliferation of cheap, family-run restaurants in Palermo: many palermitani don’t have the money to dine out regularly, those who do are more likely to splash out on a meal they couldn’t prepare at home. Tourists, on the other hand, want to taste the authentic, to discover what the so-called real people eat. This experience must be marked as different to be perceived as bona fide. So tourists head to the restaurants that resemble a grandmother’s kitchen where entrepreneurial cooks open tins of sardines and defrost shrimp to provide a budget-friendly meal. Economics and guidebooks ignore the dialogue between foreigner’s expectation of the menu and the alarmingly new vocabulary they encounter.
Dining at Trattoria Zia Pina — hidden in central Palermo’s tangle of crumbling streets — suggests that the divide between the tourist’s diet and the Italian’s isn’t as stark as visitors might anticipate. The meal begins informally; you seat yourself. Soon Zia Pina — or a teenaged waiter — hands you a printed menu encased in a plastic file-protector. The font is off-brand comic sans. There are no prices, just the dishes your guidebook promised epitomised the Sicilian diet: pasta con le sarde, pasta al nero di seppia, pasta con pomodori, pasta ai frutti di mare. The second courses are simple: pesce di spada, pesce di mercato, fritto misto di mare, gamberoni grigliati and a few meat dishes. There’s an antipasto selection hidden inside and house wines available in various sizes and colours. That’s it.
Finding a similar menu in America would mean leaving the realm of Italian dining. It might appear in a small town diner or a long-time local-favorite. The menu might promise nostalgic standbys like meatloaf and mashed potatoes or regional favorites like hoosier pie. There probably wouldn’t be wine but maybe beer and a selection of soft drinks. Americans would go there for nostalgia or tradition rather than quality.
Zia Pina presents the Italian version of this nostalgia. The pasta is cooked al dente, the fish reasonably fresh and obviously tinned. The wine sips easily. The free bread has a pillow-y interior. There is nothing wrong with a meal at Zia Pina. It’s familiar in its exoticism. Thus, for an American tourist it wouldn’t elide with their perception of Italian food. The symbols are absent. There are no red tablecloths and no hand-painted ceramic plates. Instead, the symbols should be read as indicators of nostalgia. Within its exotic veil, Zia Pina presents an immensely familiar experience.
Zia Pina, and Palermo’s proliferation of budget and tourist friendly plastic table restaurants offer a new sign system for tourists to integrate into, allowing tourists to understand Italian food not as an exotic other of red checked table cloths, but as a familiar and nostalgic cuisine. The printed menus and no-frills cooking bears a closer resemblance to mom-and-pop restaurants where the food served up evokes another time as opposed to another place. Eating a plate of pasta con le sarde doesn’t transport the diner out of Palermo, but rather roots them there through a new understanding of what the average Palermitano eats. The normal pasta, the tinned fish: these are the tastes of nostalgia. These are the tastes of travel.