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Mulinazzo's Nino Graziano moving


albiston
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Nino Graziano, chef of Il Mulinazzo the only 2 starred restaurant in Sicily will be closing down his restaurant June 12th to move to Moscow. Graziano will become the chef of Semifreddo, an Italian restaurant in the center of the Russian capital, for which he has been consulting since the restaurant's opening in 2003.

It is very sad news, and to an extent also a sad picture of the Italian restaurant scene today. Sicily looses one of its best if not the best restaurant on the island. I have not tried Graziano's cooking myself, though I might still manage to - a short holiday is planed for May - but I've only heard enthusiastic opinions about his cooking, creative yet definitely Sicilian. It would seem the reason behind the decision is the economic situation of Il Mulinazzo; if rumors are true, the restaurant is hardly making a profit, just surviving although it probably offers the best priced menu for a two starred place at only 60 €, and the Russian offer must have been a very good one.

We've had a few discussion on this forum about Italian cuisine and its possible evolution in the last months. News like this one, and the comments Igles Corelli made on Vissani, put all the interesting and stimulating ideas emerged in those threads into a different, dispiriting perspective. Before discussing if a new Italian creative cuisine con come to exist and how, we should perhaps ask if Italy has a big and lively enough restaurant scene to support this.

Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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I found my lunch at Mulinazzo last June to be unimpressive at best. If fell far behind the Duomo in Ragussa in terms of quality and creativity. It is a restaurant to which I would never consider returning. I can well imagine that they will be able to make a greater impression in Moscow.

The restaurant is located in an essentially non-descript roadhous located well outside Palermo, beyond the suburbs, along a busy road in a charmless area. After some difficulty in finding it, we walked in to its standard upscale dining room, where there was a palpable lack of energy. I can no longer remember many of my individual dishes, but I do recall my impressions. My overall impression is that there didn't seem to be any coherent approach, but a lot of experimenting in different directions, but not profound in any way and the results were good, but not impressive. The best dish was the tuna prepared 3 ways, which I recall was quite interesting, but the tuna quality was less than the best and seemed a bit old. We were quite up on tuna at the time, as it was prime season and we were having it at virtually every meal. In general, the ingredients used were not pristine. Perhaps the restaurant was having difficulties and trying to save money. The medium large dining room was about 40% full, but I didn't think that this was too bad for a weekday in an out of the way location.

There was a certain didacticism and lack of real imagination throughout, and the dish I remember best, because it really illustrated what I found wrong, was the specialty desert, a deconstructed cassata. This is just what you would expect, a cassata separated into its component parts. Just that, no imagination. To my mind, all of the elements of a cassata are quite distinct, clearly apprehendable, and one doesn't learn anything new by tearing it apart. I remember thinking that this could be good if they put it back together.

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I found my lunch at Mulinazzo last June to be unimpressive at best.  If fell far behind the Duomo in Ragussa in terms of quality and creativity.  It is a restaurant  to which I would never consider returning.  I can well imagine that they will be able to make a greater impression in Moscow.

.....

marcus,

thank you for the well explained and intelligent criticism of Mulinazzo. It is still a place I would try if I got a chance to visit it before it closes. Given the contrast of opinion between your experiences and others I have read I would be even more curious, even at the risk of being severely disappointed.

Yet, putting aside the opinion one might have of Il Mulinazzo, the issue that makes this news interesting and, to me, depressing, is that Nino Graziano's situation does not seem to be unique in Italy, quite the contrary. While not everyone is moving abroad, restaurant as a business seems quite slow at the moment in Italy. I don't think a restaurant with one or two Michelin stars in France, Spain or the UK whould find itself in a similar situation. There might be an ensamble of reasons for this: slow economic growth and the effect of the Euro introduction on Italian wages for example. My impression, on the other hand, was that there is a growth of interest for fine dining in Italy. Maybe I'm wrong, or maybe my perception is distorted by knowing simply too many people who are interested in the subject, and general interest is actually waning.

I would be curious to know if my assumption on the situation in other European states is true: is this really only an Italian phenomenon?

Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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Well that sure stimulated my appetit.

I am on my way to Palermo in March and will go by.

What put it on my list is that he has a book published by Bibilioteca Culinaria.. which seems to be a recogonition of who Italy thinks is great.

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I don't claim to have extensive knowledge of the restaurant situation in Italy, but I think that there are many other reasons that might account for Il Mulinazzo closing. The location is horrible. You might have the impression that it is near to Palermo, but from a practical point of view, it really isn't. I can't imagine that its rather drab area has the capability of providing the repeat clientele that most every restaurant needs to be successful over the long term. The dining room and service lack warmth and have that generic upscale ambience, that I at least do not find appealing. It is very possible that one could have a much better meal there than we did, but even in that case, and I do encourage you to try it for yourself, I would ask you whether you have any desire to go back, or whether you would say, been there -- done that.

In general we did not observe that the restaurants in Sicily were lacking customers. When we had lunch at the Duomo in Ragusa, the restaurant was full and was turning away drop-ins. This restaurant is attractive and well located in a palazzo just alongside of the Duomo in Ragusa-Ibla. Lots of affluent local people and tourists. Ciccio Sultana, who is compulsively gregarious, was working the front of the house, talking, clearing and delivering dishes, strangely he spent almost no time in the kitchen. His partner was very knowledgeable and helpful with wine selection. The food was really excellent, creative yet satisfying. In particular, I remember a wonderful pasta dish with dried tuna roe and carrot juice in place of tomato sauce. I was very sceptical, but somehow it really worked. My point being, that well located restaurants with ambiance and excellent food can still succeed. Don Camillo, the traditional fish restaurant in Ortigia was also always full and required a reservation at least a day in advance. There were also restaurants in Palermo that we failed to get into for lack of calling sufficiently ahead.

As an aside, any trip to Sicily should include a visit to the Cantina Siciliana in Trapani. This is a classic trattoria with a fierce commitment to traditional local dishes, excellent ingredients, and careful preparation. Very well priced and extensive winelist as well.

I understand that a few anecdotal experiences will not characterize the entire Italian restaurant scene, but I do believe that one can't generalize an individual situation such as with Il Mulinazzo, and one also needs to look at local circumstances. I wonder how Torre del Saracino is doing, I haven't been, but this is a restaurant with a very well reputed up and coming chef in a promising location on the Amalfi peninsula.

I don't have any specific knowledge as to what is happening in other countries today, but the impact of location has always been a decisive factor. The most well known example was Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant when it was located in St Etienne, a small conservative industrial city far from the autoroute. Despite his Michelin 3 stars, and despite many people regarding him as among the very best chefs in the world, the restaurant went bankrupt. He moved to Paris, and has been a big success.

With regard to Divina's point, for some reason, I believe that there has been a serious disconnect between the Italian food and restaurant reviewing organizations, and the restaurant going public, both Italian and visitor. There has been a lot of championing of the nuova cucina, although some of it has been less than successful from a culinary perspective. I have never been to Vissani, so I can't speak with personal certainty, but this is a restaurant that has been lauded by all of the guide books, yet I have never spoken to anyone who's opinion I respect, who has liked this restaurant at all.

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I have been living here for 20 years now.. and find it hard to go out to eat. ( I teach cooking for a living)

But the point is in Tuscany, you get a certain type of menu, almost every where you go.. in normal restaurants.

Most Italians don't go out very often , perhaps the Sunday lunch crowd, or lunch during the week when away from home,everyone seeking what they would have at home.

when I was planning a week's meals for a Canadian gourmet club, I found that staying within a 60 Euro budget.. most of the meals were repetative.. although with some variations. Theyw ere happiest with the michelin starrede restaurant (serving foie gras ravioli, certainly not regional food)

The higher end Nuovo cucina restaurants are so highly prices for the Italians budget that it is a once a year sort of meal.

With the intro of the euro, a tasting menu at most higher end places is around 80 Euro plus wine..enoteca Pinchiori around 140 Euro, considering the normal Italian makes about 1,200 a month..

going for Pizza with the family is already pushing the dining buck or euro!

Edited by divina (log)
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but Location location location.. the mantra of success.

I do like to go to the Piatti di Buon Ricordo restaurants, and usually finding them is like a road rally, with the prize being a good.. if not great meal.

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But Moscow? This is not an intuitive choice at least to me.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I understand that a few anecdotal experiences will not characterize the entire Italian restaurant scene, but I do believe that one can't generalize an individual situation such as with Il Mulinazzo, and one also needs to look at local circumstances.  I wonder how Torre del Saracino is doing, I haven't been, but this is a restaurant with a very well reputed up and coming chef in a promising location on the Amalfi peninsula. 

I don't have any specific knowledge as to what is happening in other countries today, but the impact of location has always been a decisive factor.  The most well known example was Pierre Gagnaire's restaurant when it was located in St Etienne, a small conservative industrial city far from the autoroute.  Despite his Michelin 3 stars, and despite many people regarding him as among the very best chefs in the world, the restaurant went bankrupt.  He moved to Paris, and has been a big success. 

Interesting hindsight and something a few Italian chefs would do well to think about a bit more. Some Italian restaurant locations seem particular ill choices, either far from bigger cities and main tourist areas, like Vissani for example, or simply terrible, like Perbellini, close to Verona but practically in an industrial wasteland. That is not always the case clearly, Pierangelini's Gambero Rosso near Livorno is not exactly in a prime location and yet it still manages to be well visited. This brings back a comment from Igles Corelli in the chat we had with him, regarding the lack of managerial approach italian restaurants often have and how, often, top end restaurants are simple family-run trattorie that have evolved through the years, like dal Pescatore or Torre del Saracino.

Going back to Torre del Saracino it was half empty when I dined there last September and I've been told that getting a reservation is not too hard even in July-August when the costiera is full of tourists. Still it seems the customers they have are enough to keep the establishment running, on my evening there they turned down a couple because they had no reservation, even if there were plenty of free tables.

With regard to Divina's point, for some reason, I believe that there has been a serious disconnect between the Italian food and restaurant reviewing organizations, and the restaurant going public, both Italian and visitor.  There has been a lot of championing of the nuova cucina, although some of it has been less than successful from a culinary perspective.  I have never been to Vissani, so I can't speak with personal certainty, but this is a restaurant that has been lauded by all of the guide books, yet I have never spoken to anyone who's opinion I respect, who has liked this restaurant at all.

Good point though I'm not sure where I stand on this. At times I share the same feeling of a missing connection between Italian food and the critics, yet this is only one aspect. Part of the critics have realized that and are trying to change direction. Gambero Rosso wrote a sort of mea culpa concealed as a call for a return to tradition about two years ago. My impression is that, while the Italian restaurant critics have dropped the more "extreme" forms of what you call nuova cucina, they're still in the process of redefining the direction they intend to follow. Reading some of the articles that appear on the Italian press the lack of a clear line is a constant element. I'd much prefer to see GR and Espresso, just to name two, pick a clear "party line" and approximately stick to it.

The risk with this attitude is that, as too often the case, when the press starts championing a certain style or cooking philosophy it also tends to loose objectivity. On the other hand I have to admit I'd be at loss if I had to indicate a critic (food, music, book) that does not have a clear personal taste, so I guess this is inevitable. And still, I do not want to attack the Italian press with this. While it can be reasonably argued that what has been done and written in the past 20 years has had some negative side effects, I still believe it had the great function of stirring a world where only little was moving.

Funny you should bring up Vissani. I haven't been there either, but was talking with someone about him only this Sunday. I have noticed that most of the people who dislike his place are foreigners. The Italians I personally know who have eaten there do mostly agree that it is one of the top places in Italy, and curiously this judgment comes from people who often have very different opinions on restaurants. Although these are only anecdotal references it makes me wonder if the Italian public has a tasted that is markedly different from say that of the Americans or British.

BTW doc, why Moscow? It seems he got a really good offer and that the restaurant he'll be working for is doing very good business.

Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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As they say, "Money talks". It just seems to be as far from Sicily as one can get climatically, but then I have never been there. I would have thought he could have had decent money elsewhere.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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  • 1 month later...

The New York Time online edition (and I would imagine it is in the printed one too) has an interesting article on modern Sicilian cuisine? dedicating a lot of space to Nino Graziano of Il Mulinazzo and, to a slightly lesser extent to Corrado Assenza and his Caffé Sicilia in Noto, Ciccio Sultano of Il Duomo in Ragusa and Saverio Piazza running Catania Sheraton's Il Timo. There's also a little "love declaration" to Sicilian ingredients from Faith Willinger, which I absolutely second.

I found Marion Burros's article informative, giving plenty of curiosity-tickling information on what is going on in Sicily's top innovative institutions. Still I cannot refrain from noticing the complete lack of any reference to Il Mulinazzo moving to Russia. An anticlimax maybe, and something that should have probably moved the spotlight of the article on someone else, but an information that NYT readers might have wished to know, especially if they are planning a trip to Sicily. Nothing more disappointing than organizing a trip with the desire to sample a certain restaurant's cuisine and find out it is closed or the chef has left.

Maybe Ms Burros should drop by here on eGullet from time to time :wink::biggrin: .

Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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  • 2 weeks later...

This is my first post to eGullet.

To be honest, criticism of Mulinazzo was what got me to pay the $50 to get to write on the site.

Many of you know more about food than I do, but I have been around -- once to El Bulli (great), once to Fat Duck (not so much, but couldn't get the tasting menu), twice to French Laundry (wonderful both times), Berasategui (atrocious), Zuberoa (brilliant), Charlie Trotter's (brilliant), Tru, Arun's, Ambria (three times -- very underrated), Don Alfonso 1890 (splendid), Torre del Saraceno (surely the most overrated restaurant in Italy), Il Desco (perhaps the most underrated restaurant in Italy, except perhaps Trattoria della Posta), Fleur de Lys (worst meal I've ever eaten), Le Cordeillan Bages (really good), to name a few off the top of my head, not to anything in my home city, LA. In two weeks, I'm off on a 23-day tour that will include, at a minimum, Le Grand Vefour, Guy Savoy, Le Meurice, Pre Catalan, Can Fabes, Cinc Sentits, Abac, Ca L'Isidre, and all the best that Mallorca has to offer (assuming my girlfriend is planning well...)

OK, so I'm name-dropping. I'm only doing it to make a point. I can say with little reservation that Mulinazzo was the single best meal I've ever eaten. As will be explained below, I might have caught them on a particularly good night, but I don't think so. This is a marvelous place, and if it is closing, I'll shed a tear. My after-dinner email (written last July) is attached.

++++

Greetings, all --

For three reasons, it is with some trepidation that I sit down to

write this very long missive.

First, I am an extroverted, heart-on-his-sleeve, enthusiastic guy. At

times past, I've been somewhat prone to exaggeration and predisposed

to the unnecessary ranking of things, and I want to be careful neither

to overstate nor unnecessarily to rank my experience of the other

night.

Second, I am limited by words and this feels like a weighty limitation

right now. There was a completeness that cannot fully be conveyed

except in the experiencing, and attempting to do so will undoubtedly

cheapen it.

Finally, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (from quantum mechanics)

states that the act of observing an object changes the very nature of

the object, and I feel that this is queerly applicable here. I fear

the experience alone has changed the nature of the thing that was

experienced (as, hopefully, I will bring you to understand), and my

relating the experience to all of you changes it all the more. The

discovery and the novelty was a big part of it, and, by telling you

about it, I'm both preventing you from discovering it yourself and

also taking all of the novelty out of it. It is as if I am telling you

about the ending of a great movie before you've seen it. You now won't

possibly be able to enjoy it as much as I did -- precisely because I

am telling you about it. And, on the off chance any of you ever try to

replicate the experience, your expectations will be so inflated that

it will be impossible not to be disappointed. For that matter, if I

were to try to replicate the experience, it would be impossible for me

not to be disappointed. This is why I haven't already tried. Maybe it

would be better for me simply to say "Go do this." But that wouldn't

be enough, and even my effusiveness is unlikely to lead any of you to

make the opportunity for yourself. And so I write...

On Thursday night, I ate dinner at Il Mulinazzo in Villafrati, Sicily.

It was the best meal I have ever eaten. It did not have the circus

atmosphere of El Bulli, the seamless seriousness of Charlie Trotter's,

or the whimsical opulence of The French Laundry, and the cost of the

meal was well under half of what one would pay at any of those places.

There were no truffles, no foie gras, and only trace amounts of

caviar. There wasn't even any meat, save a garnish of bacon on the

evening's least remarkable dish.

That said, the meal had plenty of flourishes. I'm a discerning critic, and

there's no way a simple, rustic meal would get me waxing this

rhapsodic. At most 20% of the food was anything that I could begin to

approximate in my own kitchen, and I fancy myself a very good cook. It

does not have two Michelin stars (the only two in Sicily) for nothing.

The presentation of the food was breathtaking, so much so that I took

pictures of every course except the amuses and the petit fours. That

said, it had a restraint, an elegance, an authenticity and a humility

that would be impossible to translate to New York, London or Paris,

and certainly not to showy Los Angeles. And if it were any of those

places, it couldn't have been the best ever.

In researching my trip to Sicily, it became clear that Mulinazzo is

the consensus gold standard among its restaurants. It is by far the

highest-rated restaurant in Sicily by both Michelin and Gambero Rosso.

And so, about a month ago, I made my reservation.

Villafrati is about 20 miles from my hotel, and I assumed that a

somewhat expensive cab ride would be involved. When I got here, I was

told that we were talking about something on the order of 100 Euros

($125). Ouch. So I looked into renting a car. This wasn't going to

result in much of a savings, so I bit the bullet, did a little

hustling (in a pale attempt to be Sicilian about it), and got the

price down to 90 Euros. Hardly a victory.

The winning bidder, Roberto Napoli, arrived to pick me up at 8:00.

He's a conventionally handsome 31-year-old guy, who had been effusive

during my overpriced trip earlier in the day but seemed a little

miffed that I negotiated him out of the extra 10 Euros this time.

Fortunately, I got him to lighten up fairly quickly (that is, until I

started asking him questions about the mafia). As we drove down Via

Francesco Crispi (who, incidentally, is my friend Ann's

great-great-grandfather), we talked about Roberto's family -- a wife,

Marchesa, whom he has known since they were three and dated since they

were 15, and three children: Alessandra (5) and twins Domenico and

Antonio (4). Pictures were brought out, stories were told. Please keep

in mind that Roberto doesn't speak English any better than I speak

Italian.

My hotel is in north Palermo, and the restaurant is southeast of town,

and it was 20 minutes before we were close to getting through town

(Palermo has the worst traffic of any city I've ever visited, but I

suspect Athens may break that record in about two weeks).

Truth be told, Palermo is a seedy town. Like any big city, I suppose

it has its nice parts (for example, my hotel is spectacular), but

those are overwhelmed by the urban blight of the less nice parts.

Among European cities I have visited, only in Turin have I seen urban

poverty of similar intensity, and that was on a much smaller scale.

I had not yet been through southeast Palermo, and it is the most

depressed part of the city. South Chicago and Detroit have nothing on

southeast Palermo, except maybe the element of racial segregation.

There are massive apartment blocks that look like a cross between

Cabrini Green and the Soviet-era apartment blocks I saw in Moscow.

There are dozens of buildings that appear to have been bombed in World

War II and never repaired. There are a disturbing number of

half-completed buildings that are no longer under construction, with

people living in the completed portions.

Palermo sits between the northern coast and quite a number of hills,

and as we pulled onto the highway south toward Agrigento and up into

the hills, the urban blight gave way to rural blight, which at least

had the virtue of being more pastoral. By now it was golden hour, and

the sun reflected off the the beautiful hillsides, radiating

green-gold, broken up by the occasional dilapidated barn or house.

It reminded me of driving from Roses up the coast to El Bulli -- same

time of day, same radiating hills, anticipating a fine meal (ok, to be

honest, not as much anticipation here as with El Bulli...), not

knowing what awaits me.

After 10 or 15 minutes drive through the hills, Roberto slows down and

says, "Here Mulinazzo," pointing out the right side of the cab. I

didn't even know that we were in the proper town (and I'd been riding

in the front seat), let alone at the restaurant. There had been no

signs for either. Glad I didn't rent the car...

As we pull into the parking lot, I notice that there is in fact one

faded sign, which looks as if painted in 1977. To be fair, I can

clearly see the word "Mulinazzo" but have to squint to make out

"Ristorante." The low-slung exterior of the building is totally

unassuming.

I walk in. The interior room is classily understated -- surely the

most tasteful room of any kind I have seen in Sicily, with dark wood

floors, oriental rugs, sprays of fresh flowers, wood-framed oil

paintings and gold curtains. On the tables sit tall, elliptical vases

each containing three long-stemmed pink roses resting in about 1/2

inch of water.

I am greeted at the door by a blonde, Slavic-looking woman in her

mid-late 40's. She is tan and attractive in a severe, classical way.

Although it is 8:45, I am the second arrival of the night (within a

half-hour, the restaurant is 2/3 full -- 9:00 is the dominant

reservation time here in Sicily).

They know I am coming and give the impression they are expecting me

but seem totally ambushed by my attempts to speak English. Seeing the

light blonde hair, they trot out their best German. Apparently, "Parlo

l'inglese?" has fallen on deaf ears. Only when I say, "Sprechen Sie

Englisch?" do they take remedial measures and summon their lone

English speaker.

Much later, I learn that her name is Deborah. I would guess that she

is about 23 or 24, and absolutely beautiful in a very Sicilian way --

olive-skinned, tall and lean with big, Moorish/Arabic but still very

feminine features.

The wine steward is perhaps the second blonde Sicilian I have seen

since I have been here. He's maybe 26, and his English doesn't extend

even to "Hello" -- he's like a deaf-mute unless I'm trying to speak

Italian, to which he, naturally, responds in brisk, unintelligible (to

me) Italian.

There is a menu written in nearly flawless English. Along with the a

la carte choices, it includes two tasting menus: the Menu "Fantasia"

(60 Euros) and the Menu "Tradizionale" (55 Euros). The "Fantastia"

menu has some El Bulli-like affectations -- foams and the like. The

"Tradizionale" menu seems fairly straight ahead. Since there is no

out-Ferraning Ferran (and that's certainly not why I came here), this

is an easy choice. I go for "Tradizionale."

The wine list is downright pornographic -- unquestionably the best

Italian wine list I have ever seen. I have been trying to stick to

Sicilian wines while in Sicily, but with those there is a qualitative

ceiling that one hits pretty fast. This list has 8-10 vintages each of

Sassicaia and Tignanello, numerous Gaja Barbarescos, Vigna

L'Apperitas, Redigaffis, high-end Brunellos, etc. The Italian section

alone is 30 pages single-spaced, all priced to move, irrespective of

the feeble dollar. You get the idea.

So I decide to geographically compromise and order the most famous

wine from south of Rome, Montevetrano from Campania, of which they

have about seven different vintages. I go with 1997. Even with the

currency situation, it's no more than what I would pay at U.S. retail,

but nonetheless comparatively more expensive than some of the other

gems on the list.

They bring it out, and I nearly send it back. It has a strange funk to

it at first and tastes prematurely old. I ask the sommelier (or, more

precisely, ask Deborah to ask the sommelier) to try it -- not because

I was sure it was bad, but because I was sure that it was not as

expected. She reports back that he thinks it is "correct for its age,"

seeming to imply that this wine doesn't really keep. Who knew? Anyway,

within 10 minutes, the funk blows off and the wine is great, tasting

like a mid-80's second-growth Bordeaux -- certainly old beyond its

years, but as I write this, I realize that's an absurd criticism for

meofallpeople to levy. After all, in a way I'm sort of old for a 1972.

OK, OK -- the food. As I see it, there are only two types of eaters

who might not be impressed by this meal: (1) haters of seafood and (2)

haters of mint, as they do use a lot of it. Along with the obligatory

glass of Prosecco, they bring me three amuses bouches. The first is

two tiny slices of eggplant with ricotta and mint oil. They look like

little tacos, with eggplant shells and green sauce covering white

filling. They are indeed very minty, light and delicious, with great

texture. Amusing...and that's the point, right?

Next is, as Deborah describes it, "Zee, uh, bayuhbee feeshuh." These

are (I'm pretty sure) those tiny baby eels that they serve so often in

Catalunya and southern France - the name escapes me -- the ones that

look like Chinese cellophane noodles except for the tiny, almost

imperceptible black eyes. There is some lemon juice on them. The

texture is great, but the flavor is all lemon. This is one small bite

of lemon-flavored great texture, and if that's all they are going for,

then they are achieving it.

The third amuse is the first indication that I might be in for

something truly special. It is a "yellow zucchini" puree with balsamic

vinegar reduction. I generally don't dig squash, but this is

sweet-'n'-sourly smooth with incredible complexity despite an

apparently small number of ingredients. I suspect (but can't figure

out) that there is some secret seasoning at work. It remains a

mystery.

OK, that is just the amuses -- three bites and two spoonfuls of food.

Now on to the six courses I'm paying for.

What comes next is the most inspired, brilliant dish I have ever

eaten. Now, for sheer "How the f--- did he do that?"-ness, El Bulli's

"Imitation Caviar" blows this away. But for elegance of presentation,

taste, and, comparatively most importantly, resemblance to real food,

Mulinazzo's "Red Shrimp 'Flower' with Green Marzuelo Tangerine-Infused

Extra Virgin Olive Oil" takes the cake.

When I return, any of you that are curious can see the picture I took.

For now, I will have to try to describe it. It is the most visually

stunning dish I have ever seen. Out comes a teardrop-shaped plate,

about a foot long, with the pointed end pointing down at me. And on

the plate is a painting of a flower. Except it's not -- it's the food.

The stems are a combination of chives, julienned peppers, and caviar.

The yellowish middle of the flower is a shrimp mousse timbale,

surrounded by pinkish petals of red shrimp carpaccio (with an

undetermined green wrapper on each, just to set it off from the white

plate) and some geometrically diced red pepper for added color.

Drizzled over everything is the marzuelo-infused oil.

Everything on the plate is raw, but the plate itself is very, very

hot, and it serves to cook (ok, really mostly warm) the ingredients.

Without being told to do so, I start to eat from the bottom up (this

is an El Bulli trick). The best description I can give it that it is

very much like my good friend Julian's outstanding scallop carpaccio

with sea salt, lemon, caviar and jalapenos (which some of you have

eaten), except, alas, it is a hell of a lot better. The flavor is

similar. The seasoning, with textured salt you can crunch, is similar.

But the marzuelo olive oil and the insane presentation make all the

difference. At this point, I begin to suspect that I may have

underestimated this place.

Next up is "Almond Couscous with Rockfish Soup." Couscous is a staple

of Sicilian cuisine, due to the historical Tunisian/Moorish

"influence" on the island (as an aside, it doesn't take long in Sicily

to realize there's some real truth to Christopher Walken's ...er,

uh... shall we say... "aubergine-related" comments in "True Romance"

-- but I digress). It's a nice dish -- certainly the best couscous

dish I've ever had, but as far as I am concerned that's like saying

it's the best coleslaw I've ever had. And it's nothing more than that,

except that he gets high points for presenting a very refined version

of a local staple.

My feelings about the third course are very similar. It is a "Fava

Bean Puree with Bacon". It is surely the best split pea soup I have

ever had, but I am not really keeping track -- I'd have a hard time

identifying a silver medalist in this rather minor competition. It is

also the only dish where if I had the ingredients I think I could make

something just as good on my own. Sicily has the most incredible

fennel ("mountain fennel" they call it) I have ever tasted and, while

present in this dish, I think a bit more would be better. I don't mean

to be too critical -- I am nearly licking the bowl -- but this isn't

in any way refined in a haute cuisine sense.

At this point, I'm thinking that this meal can go one of two ways. It

can be one great dish leading off a lineup of skilled but uninspired

local flavors, or it can be inspired work with a few elegant local

staples thrown in.

The fourth course settles this. It is the "Fazzoletto" (handkerchief

pasta) Siciliana and, more importantly, the finest pasta dish I have

ever eaten. It is as beautiful and as fancy-looking as anything you

will ever eat, and its visual deconstruction of "pasta con le sarde"

(pasta with sardines, perhaps the single most traditional and

important staple dish in Palermitan cuisine, and soon to be added to

my repertoire) is stunning. It's one of those dishes that you don't

even have to taste first to know that it probably will change your

life.

In the center of the square-ish plate with rounded edges is a sort of

deconstructed lasagna, with two-inch square "fazzoletto" pasta that

look like they have been perfectly trimmed with pinking shears --

perhaps one of Martha Stewart's prison projects -- interspersed with

the best ever salsa sarde. On top of the stack is a beautiful sardine

fillet. Along the top of the plate is a dusting of ground nut

(hazelnut, as I recall). Down each side is a drizzling of brilliant

green, concentrated fennel-infused olive oil. On the bottom is a line

of sticky, bright orange sauce with various things stuck in it (fennel

fronds, pignole, saffron, dried tomato skin), all geometrically

trimmed and beautifully arranged.

Every combination -- the pasta itself, the pasta with the sardine, the

pasta with the fennel oil, the pasta with some elements of the orange

sauce, the pasta with all of the elements of the orange sauce, etc.,

etc. -- tastes like a completely different dish, each of them

delicious. And how the wine-unfriendly elements of this strongly

flavored dish do not overwhelm the Montevetrano is beyond me, but they

don't. It is a work of art, a total masterpiece.

By midway through this dish, I realize that I am in the presence of

greatness. I am fidgeting and agitated and have begun muttering things

to myself.

Sensing my apparent discomfort, Deborah returns - "Eezuh everythinguh

all right?"

"No," I say. She looks concerned. "It is much, much better than all

right." She looks a little bit puzzled, as if she is not quite

understanding me but thinks I am paying the restaurant a compliment.

"Your chef is a master," I say. "I have eaten at a number of the

world's finest restaurants and this is as good as any of them." Now

she smiles. "Grazie," she says, seeming relieved.

"No seriously, Deborah, I have been to a number of the best

restaurants in the world and this right there with them. This chef is

world class."

Her eyes well up with tears. "Thank you, I will tell him." She

hesitatingly starts to walk away, then stops. Now her eyes are visibly

pooling. "Thank you," she says. "He is my papa."

"Well, your papa is one of the finest chefs in the world," I say. "I

hope you are proud of him." She is suddenly totally composed, beams me

a knowing, radiant smile, and walks off.

At this point, I'm getting pretty full, as each of these dishes is

full-sized. Shortly, my main course arrives, and it is stunning.

It is "Involtini di Mupa," or less elegantly sounding in English,

"Mupa Rolls" with "Crispy Caponata." Mupa is a white fish of some sort

-- I have yet to find a translation for it, even using Google. This

dish is predictably breathtaking in presentation. It looks almost like

a small burrito, cut in half, except the tortilla is the fish. Inside

is Sicilian pesto (including mint, raisins, tomatoes along with the

other stuff) and shrimp. On the side is a Chinese soup spoon full of

julienned celery gelatin -- thin geometric, translucent strips with

pieces of celery leaf suspended inside. I pick out a strip and taste

it. The celery flavor is overpowering -- I wonder how it is possible

to concentrate the flavor of celery to this degree, especially in

something that is largely colorless.

Underneath the mupa roll is the "Crispy Caponata." "Crispy" is not

quite the right word, and neither is "caponata." It is a perfect 1/4

inch dice of the various caponata elements, seasoned liberally with

mint. Apparently, there is some debate about whether mint belongs in

caponata, but I'm persuaded that it surely does. This is a

deconstructed caponata, each element crisped up and looking like the

best mirepoix ever. The satisfying vegetable "crunch" in each

component is what they mean by "crispy."

Again, it looks like a beautiful, undersized burrito on top of

impossibly geometric mirepoix with a side of these gelatin strips in a

Chinese soup spoon. But it works -- in a way that is so fancy yet so

elegant, so understated, and so traditionally Sicilian that it

literally moves me almost to tears.

By now, I know that this is the best meal I've ever eaten. They offer

me cheese, but I decline -- too full. The cart has at least 20

selections, all fascinating (and, to me, exotic) and I'm sure they are

all brilliantly selected, but there is simply no room at the inn.

Next are the two pre-desserts. I groan but capitulate. First is a

lemon granita, which is, as expected, a very delicious lemon granita.

Simple enough. Next is poached pear with mint ice cream and chocolate.

Like every else, it is delicious and seemingly effortlessly elegant.

Thankfully, it is only about three bites.

The dessert is a "Deconstructed Cassata", a version of the traditional

Sicilian cake made with ricotta cheese and candied fruit. I don't

really care for Cassata, but this is great -- the ricotta is done in a

whipped foam and the candied fruits are all little artworks and there

is a liberal sprinkling of pistachios, which is always a good way to

get me to like something. This is all presented on a black plate and

is beautiful as well (again, there are pictures when I return).

Finally is coffee with petit fours consisting of tiny pistachio cakes

and small chocolates. By now, I'm well and truly bursting. But the

coffee and the sweets are both excellent.

So that's the food. Incredible.

But the experience was something more. By now, they know that I think

this place is outstanding, that I scheduled my trip from Los Angeles

to make sure that I got a chance to eat here, that I've eaten at a lot

of other great places, and that I am blown away by the whole evening.

They have asked me how I heard about the restaurant. I tell Deborah

that with two Michelin stars, the secret is out. She gives me a look

that seems to say, "Yeah, that makes sense, but I had never really

thought about it." She tells me that they are honored that someone

from Los Angeles would come all the way to Sicily to eat their food. I

laugh, even though I know she is being sincere. She brings out the

literature, showing me that Mulinazzo has been recognized among the

finest restaurants in Italy. Yes, I know -- that's why I am here.

But in her face, I think I see a realization occurring -- she's

finally coming to understand that her family restaurant really is not

simply a better version of the place down the street and that she and

her closest people have created something truly special.

As I am getting ready to leave, I overhear her address the severe,

blonde, Slavic woman as "Mama," and I realize that this is truly a

family operation. Mama is running the front of the house. And, sure

enough, the blonde wine steward is the son. Much like my family, he

looks just like his mom and bears little if any resemblance to his

sibling.

I leave, and waiting for me is Roberto's brother-in-law, apparently

called in for emergency relief. He speaks not a word of English

(except "brother in law"), and I bundle into the back seat.

On the return drive home, a certain weight (and not from the food)

settles in. It is about midnight and pitch black as we drive back down

the hill from Villafrati -- I know there are dozens of houses

scattered on those hills, but there's not a light to be seen.

Soon, we hit the outskirts of Palermo, with the housing projects and

poverty. As we slow down around a curve, I look out the window to see

a family of six sitting on a 15th-floor (the road is elevated) patio

of about 3'x4' in size. There is a sheet put up, acting as a curtain.

The building is not completed, and the parts that are done are old and

worn. Behind them, you can see the stark, tiny place in which they are

living. But they appear to be celebrating, the smiles seemingly

visible from 50 yards away.

And at this point, I feel a chill. I realize that eating this meal by

myself made it, in a way, all the better and, in a way, absolutely

terrible. I've rarely felt more isolated, jaded, detached, alone than

I did at precisely that moment in that cab. Here I am, a solo

blonde-headed American tourist stuck in a cab with an uncommunicative

driver at midnight in southeast Palermo, returning from the best meal

I have ever eaten, only 10 miles up the road from third-world poverty.

It was a beautiful and terrible moment all in one, and not being able

to share the evening with someone made it all the more stark.

I have already recommended Mulinazzo to at least 70 people, and I hope

that by recommending it to you, I somehow don't change it. Perhaps I

flatter myself in thinking that my enthusiastic visit from so far away

might have some influence on the place. I hope it didn't, but I

quietly fear it may have. What I mean by this is that I mostly found

Sicily to be a very crass, shallow, macho culture, full of hustlers,

strivers and all the bad stereotypes you probably already know.

Mulinazzo had an almost monastic restraint about it that was

brilliant. Unlike most Sicilians, they had no need to tell me how

great they were, to try to hustle me or strive too much. They let

their product speak for itself, and didn't even mess it up by giving

in to the temptation to make the product too talkative.

I thought about going back and trying the "Fantastia" menu the next

night (and I did see some of the dishes, which looked very

impressive), but I decided against it. I'm almost disappointed that

the chef (Nino Graziano) has given in to this temptation, but I

suppose he can be forgiven. If you are this technically gifted and

have any imagination whatsoever, I suppose you have to indulge it in

some way. I'm just glad that he had let his Menu "Tradizionale" remain

as traditional and elegant as it is.

Perhaps I should have quietly enjoyed my food, kept it to myself and

left -- maybe that would be best for Mulinazzo. And perhaps I should

say nothing to you and keep it to myself -- maybe that would be best

for me. But that wouldn't be my way, now would it?

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Vinobiondo, welcome to eGullet. As Kevin said, this is one stunner of a first post to the forums: thank you for the fascinatingly detailed account of il Mulinazzo.

One minor correction if I may: Mulinazzo is not the highest regarded restaurant in Sicily according to Gambero Rosso. On the 2004 and 2005 guides Il Duomo in Ragusa is no. 1.

P.S. It is not clear if il mulinazzo wil close or if the kitchen will simply pass in someone's else hands.

Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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Vinobiondo, welcome to eGullet. As Kevin said, this is one stunner of a first post to the forums: thank you for the fascinatingly detailed account of il Mulinazzo.

One minor correction if I may: Mulinazzo is not the highest regarded restaurant in Sicily according to Gambero Rosso. On the 2004 and 2005 guides Il Duomo in Ragusa is no. 1.

P.S. It is not clear if il mulinazzo wil close or if the kitchen will simply pass in someone's else hands.

Not to be pedantic, but my 2004 Gambero Rosso gives Mulinazzo an 86 (tops in Sicily) and Duomo di Ragusa an 83 (3rd in Sicily, also behind Casa Grugno at 84).

Anyway, thanks for your kind words, and I hope to be able to add something to this forum going forward. I have a lot of fond memories, but I won't be back to Italy until the fall (I think Le Calandre is on the menu, as well as maiden voyages to Flipot, Guido, Combal.O and returns to the brilliant Il Desco and Trattoria della Posta and the vastly underappreciated (at least it was in 2000) Giardino da Felicin. After all, there is absolutely nothing like Barolo country in the fall. The food and the scenery might be nearly as good in San Sebastian, but not the wine.

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What an amazing writeup, vinobiondo, and that's your first post?! With you restaurant dining dossier you'll more than hold you're own around here.  Allow me to be the first to welcome you to eGullet.

Thank you very much for you kind words. I'll try to contribute around here (especially in defending Il Desco, Il Mulinazzo and everything within a 50-mile radius of Alba, Piemonte, Italy).

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