By David Corcoran (The New York Times)
THE LAST THING a restaurant critic wants is special treatment, and I thought I'd made a colossal mistake when I showed up at Taormina in the company of a regular. It was a busy Saturday night, and my companion, Joe, seemed to be the sun around which the entire restaurant revolved. He knew the specials before the waiter recited them. He had had all the best dished. Plates of goodies showed up at our table unbidden. At one point, a tall man in chef's whites paid a call.
Joe: "so how's the risotto tonight? Any good?"
Chef: "It should be" - poking Joe in the stomach - "all right!"
It was better than all right, with precise infusions of peas and artichoke, bacon and cheese, neigther dry nor soupy, every grain of rice distinct. It was wonderful. But was it the kitchen, or was it Joe?
So for my second visit, I choose maximum anonymity. It was a Tuesday in the darkest January. Snow swirled outside, on the wide commercial boulevard that bisects this little Union Country town. Taomina was warm and inviting but something of a desert island; only three tables were occupied. None of my guests had heard of the place. Many weeks had passed since my first visit, and my chance of being recognized was minimal.
But once again, we were the center of the universe. The headwaiter - a companionable, consummate pro with a sense of humor as dry as grappa -was if anything even more attentive than he was on my first visit. (He turned out to be Pasquale DiLorio, a native of Tuscany whos is a teacher during the day and who has been with Taormina since it opened four year ago.) And the food was as fine and as varied as anything Joe had coaxed from the kitchen.
Taormina (pronounced tah-or-MEE-nah) is the name of an astonishingly picturesque city in northeastern Sicily, its steep hillside streets and plunging coastal views depicted in a mural in the restaurant's main dining room. But it is also -go figure - the surname of the chef and owner, Sal Taormina, 40, who comes not from the namesake city but from Sicily's capital, Palermo. Before coming to the United States, Mr. Taormina spent time in Udine, in Italy's far northeast, and his goal is to present "cucina regionale": cooking from virtually every region of his native country.
The menu changes every day, and specials are marked with the name of a region: Sicilia, Piemonte, Puglia, Abruzzo. That is not easy. Mr. Taormina said wearily the other day. But then he brightened: "For people who came in here, it's a new experience. They don't always see the same thing."
One thing worth seeing again and again can be found on the regular menu: a great platter of fried long hot peppers that Mr.Taormina says he finds at a farmers' market in Newark. This dish is not to be trifled with, and certainly not to be eaten alone. The peppers, shriveled and dark and glistening, held enought V.T.U.'s to warm a small village, but the heat was modulated by generous shavings of excellent Parmesan.
Moscardini alla grigia, a special one night, was nothing more than white-and-purple chunks of brilliantly fresh baby octopus, grilled until smoky and crusty and lightly tossed with olive oil and lemon juice-one of those elemental, perfect dishes whose tastes and textures will stay fresh in memory for years.
Mussels marinara were fine, too, ample and tender in a robust sauce with subtle sweetness and heat. Other appetizers were less distinguished, from dull, heavy stuffed artichoke to veal soup that combined stringy meat and timid stock. Fig with prosciutto, olives and buffalo mozzarella was sabotaged by far too much salt in the dressing.
First courses are large, and it can come as a shock to realize that you still have a main-course mountain to climb. But Joe told me not to miss the rabbit, and as usual he was right. On this particular Saturday it was stewed in the style of Abruzzo, with white wine, herbs and wild mushorooms over silky homemade pappardelle. a Tuesday special, porterhouse steak, was not of the highest quality, but it was redeemed by a vigorous broiled topping of bread crumbs and hot peppers.
Pork tenderloin might be prepared in the Tuscan style one night, Sicilian another, we had the Sicilian version, with pine nuts and golden raisins in a balsamic vinegar sauce. The meat was juicy and full- flavored, as it was in beautifully browned pork chops with green beans and julienne vegetables. Beef liver, ordered mediumrare and served that way, was firm and tangy, with vinegary tangle of caramelized onions. Baked lemon sole was mild and meaty, with a leaning tower of mashed potatoes.
Pastas held much less interest. Penne Norma, with eggplant, tomato, basil and aged ricotta, was no better or worse than a thousand versions, and capellini Sinatra (angel hair with shrimps, scallops, olives and capers) left little impression.
It's worth whatever dining strategy you can employ to save room for the cheesecake, which is so famous locally that Mr. Taormina sells dozens of them 14-inch wheels at $95 each. He won't divulge the recipe, but I suspect ricotta, vanilla and lemon are involved. The hazelnut gelato called gianduja is lighter and superb, and so is vanilla-scented panna cotta.
Taormina is the kind of place that sends out a platter of smoky roasted chestnuts along with dessert, whether or not you're a regular. It is decorated in the basic, functional, slightly timeworn style of middling. Italian restaurants from here to Sardinia. Prices are gentle ($40 a person is a lot to spend). In short, it is a neighborhood restaurant. Mya I have one in my neighborhood?
- A basic trattoria, with a welcome mat the size of Italy
- Grilled baby octopus, fried long hot peppers, mussels marinara; stewed rabbit, pork tenderloin, pork chops, risotto, cheesecake, gianduja, panna cotta.
-Soups, salads and appetizers, &5.95 to $9.95; pastas, $12.95 to $14.95 to $26.50.
-American Express, Master Card, Visa.
- Recommended on weekends.
- Accessible, with everything on one level; passageways can be narrow.
Menu listings and prices are subject to change