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[whitespace] Palermo Ristorante Italiano
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Ta Da! Old Country specialties dressed up for a modern audience.

Take A Bow

This bit of urban Sicily in downtown San Jose has lost none of its stylish influence

By Christina Waters

IT'S OPERATIC, it's over-the-top ... it's Palermo, birthplace of the delicious Sicilian threat to make our taste buds an offer they can't refuse. In the midst of the blue Mediterranean, Sicily has been seduced by Greeks, Saracens, Tunisians, Romans and Normans. The resulting cuisine is robust, gorgeous and hearty.

Palermo Ristorante Italiano, the downtown San Jose haven of authentic Sicilian-style cooking, takes full advantage of this history of culinary conquest. It's a babe of a restaurant, sculpted of high ceilings, billowing curtains, enough wall sconces to light a cathedral and tile work straight out of the Old Country.

Part piazza, part basilica, the cavernous Palermo is fronted by a tent of yellow and purple silk drapery encircling a cozy cloister of booths. Waiters who actually are from Sicily add to the unmistakable feel that you're not in California anymore, to which I say, "Va bene!" Lusty foods that showcase fruity olive oils, full-bodied scaloppine and hearty roast vegetables and meats fill the nontrendy menu.

Every bite tasted straight out of Italy, with visuals dialed to Fellini. Jack and I took a table with a view of a life-size Mary Magdalene, who reclines like a mermaid in a glass case over the kitchen doors. But the place is lined with various other seating areas, some in front of the massive stone fireplace, others--like ours--hugging the side corridors near the glittering liqueur cart and intimate back alcoves.

We found a bottle of Cerasuolo di Vittoria 1999 ($38), a Sicilian red wine with the right amount of impudence and a hint of Stromboli in its volcanic nuances. Terrific and authentically not sourdough bread was served with butter, instead of a silly pool of oil.

A lavish caprese salad was the genuine article--very fresh golf-ball-sized spheres of creamy soft buffalo mozzarella joined by decent (for late winter) tomatoes, fresh basil and electrifying Sicilian olives ($16.75). Another salad, the Siciliana ($7.50), was also appropriately nondesigner--simply mixed lettuces joined by oranges, onions, olives and anchovies in a zippy oil-and-vinegar dressing. Mary Magdalene watched approvingly over every bite.

Entrees knocked us out. Jack had asked if he could have a few meatballs along with his order of homemade sausages and peppers ($18.95), and what he got was a plate piled high with sensuous red and yellow peppers, fat slices of fennel-laced sausage and miraculous miniature meatballs light enough to float. The whole gorgeous dish was perfumed with garlic and joined by roast potatoes and fresh green beans. Everything was bathed in one of the finest red sauces outside of Sicily.

I sampled everything, moaning in an Italian accent the whole while. But my entree was even more celestial. Before I ordered the pansotti ( $14.75), described as homemade round raviolis filled with chicken and spinach, I asked the waiter what he thought of it. He answered, "If you don't like it, I'll eat it." Huge pillows of pasta, transparent enough to see through, came arranged in a rich sauce of tomato, cheese and butter, and flecked with fresh parsley. Every bite melted--there's no other way of describing it--in my mouth. These were meaningful raviolis, raviolis that gave weight to the very idea of pasta.

Espressos, a tiny after-dinner Fernet Branca (bitters brewed by witches) and a shared order of cannoli filled with chocolate ricotta and dotted with maraschino cherries ($6.75) finished us off. Now I know what Alice Waters meant when she said that Sicilian food had changed her life. This is the world of serious flavor intensity rather than fuss and precious culinary art. Each dish seemed somehow more voluptuous, simpler and yet fuller than the usual wonderful Italian fare. Palermo plays the real game. It's your move.

Palermo Ristorante Italiano
Address: 394 S. Second St., San Jose
Phone: 408.297.0607
Cuisine: Southern Italian; Sicilian specialties
Price: Moderate

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From the March 28-April 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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