Saturday, November 7, 2009

SoSushi - why sushi in Palermo is so good...


Angela and I have been in Sicily for well over a year now and as you all know, we've been eating pretty well. While Balestrate is pretty quiet in the winter, we're not that far from Palermo, so most weekends we hop on the train and go to the city - we love to go to the market (usually Ballarò, our favorite), or just grab a snack and walk around. The street food in Palermo is famous for good reason - you can easily eat awesome stuff like panelle, pane ca' meusa, boiled octopus, and sfincione on the cheap. Palermo is a town for eaters, and so far, we've never left the city hungry.

Amidst all of this great food the one thing we've been missing is sushi. We were serious sushi hounds back in Philly, making frequent trips to our favorite restaurant in New Jersey, Mikado (good and cheap), or occasionally splurging at some of the nicer spots closer to home. Actually, the best sushi I've ever had came from our friend Han - when I was working at Di Bruno Bros., my desk was in the basement, far away from the rest of the offices (it's not as bad as it sounds, I enjoyed the peace and quiet). My work area was right next to the prep room where all of the sushi for the store was prepared by Han, who had come to work for Di Bruno's from Genji. Han was a little crazy, with a thick Indonesian accent that made him hard to understand half of the time, but he was pretty skilled when it came to making awesome sushi. I would take a couple of minutes to sit down at my desk and Han would come out of the prep room, ask me if I wanted anything and then come back with a plate of sushi, regardless of my answer, the rice still warm, everything really fresh and clean. I'd wolf everything down and go back out on the floor happy and full.

Anyway, I miss those days and I know Ang misses getting her sushi fix as well. You can imagine how excited we were when I found out about a new sushi restaurant that just opened in Palermo a couple of months ago called SoSushi. SoSushi is a fast growing chain of Italian sushi restaurants, mostly focusing on take-away and delivery service. We hopped on a train yesterday and headed to the city, with the sole intent of trying this new place out.

Without going into every little detail about our lunch, I have to say that SoSushi was very good. The owner, Andrea, and the head chef, Shien (not sure on the spelling, but I'm pretty sure he's not related to Martin or Charlie) were very welcoming - our excitement was pretty obvious and it was rewarded with a couple of extra items that we didn't order. Shien talked about how they have to keep everything pretty standard for now, as people in Palermo warm up to the concept of sushi (for a population with such access to exceptionally fresh fish, you'd think they'd be lining up for this stuff), but the fatty tuna sashimi and the additional plates that we tasted gave us a pretty outstanding example of how good sushi could be in Palermo.

The key to all of this is the fact that the local fish merchants don't normally have much of a market for some of the key cuts used to make the finest sushi and sashimi. For example, I was surprised to see tuna belly as part of the standard lunch combo. Shien explained, with a devilish smile, that most restaurants in Palermo don't use the belly, so he can buy it for much less than you would expect. I haven't had a lot of experience with tuna belly, but this was a real "wow" moment for me - it was so buttery and silky, I felt like all of my senses were switched on to appreciate this moment of pure enjoyment.

This was also true for tuna cheek, which we watched Shien prepare with a pocket blowtorch, lightly cooking the outside for a warm exterior and a cool interior. Tuna cheek is another rarity - normally a costly ingredient that merchants reserve for their best customers. Here in Palermo, Shien knows what to ask for and the merchants are generally happy to sell a part of the fish that otherwise might go to waste.

The other standout was the sardine - a more widely utilized ingredient in la cucina povere - served sashimi style with a tiny dollop of minced pickled ginger and chive. Pretty, delicate and delicious - Ang and I turned to each other, smiling, our mouths full, our stomachs happy. When we left, we walked on to our next destination, going over each dish, feeling like we had discovered something new and exciting about Palermo - we want to spread the word, but don't tell the guys selling the fish!

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