A little slice of Sicilian sunshine with that madam?Tessa Boase visits a London fast-food café with the flavour of Palermo on its shelves and a song in its heart.
From the Telegraph.co.uk 12:01am BST 06/05/2006
Carmelo Franchino is a homesick Sicilian. It was bad enough leaving his island and growing up in northern Italy - "like being a Scot in England" - but now he lives in rainswept London, where office workers graze on "rubbish" at lunchtime. And so he is a Sicilian with a mission: "I want to improve your quality of life." His weapon? A little-known Italian food, arancina.
On the outside, this Sicilian speciality bears a passing resemblance to the Scotch egg, but don't let that put you off. Bite into an arancina ("little orange") and you get a succulent, grainy mouthful of Italian risotto with a surprise at its heart. It might be a warm dollop of spinach and ricotta, bolognese ragu or creamed funghi. It might be a nugget of mozzarella, which, when molten, forms an elastic string as you pull it from your mouth. It's known as suppli del telefono, because it's like a telephone cord. According to Carmelo, Sicily has more than a hundred variations on the risotto ball.
Carmelo's desire is to make the arancina just as widespread in Britain. He hopes that one day office workers on their lunch breaks will be scoffing warm risotto balls rather than cold sandwiches.
"In London, when you go for a quick snack, you eat rubbish,'' he says. ''An arancina is much more nutritious. It's made with rice, saffron, vegetables, meat or cheese. Two make a real lunch." And what would lunch be without a little something to round it off? Not a claggy flapjack, but a delicately perfumed almond or pistachio biscotto, and perhaps an espresso chaser.
For those familiar with grimly-snatched lunch breaks in bland coffee chains, it sounds tantalising. What is Carmelo's plan of attack? He and business partner Michele Mortari recently opened their first Sicilian fast-food café, Arancina, in Notting Hill, west London. There are two more in the pipeline for central London and, over the next three years, the pair plan to spread some Palermo sunshine throughout the rest of the country.
The prototype bodes well. The shop, which is bursting with light, colour and sly Sicilian humour, is often thronged with customers. Today, half a car - an orange Cinquecento - sits in the window, its dashboard piled extravagantly with little pastries and savouries. A lanky guitarist strums Beatles ballads. A singer croons Sinatra songs.
An anvil-handed Sicilian pastry chef whisks yet another tray of fabulously decorative, almond-scented sweetmeats out of the kitchen and onto the counter. Put your nose round the door and you'll be transported to Taormina on a spring day with the oranges in blossom.
But surely this is food of a highly specialised nature; food that only a skilled pastry chef, or arancina moulder, could produce? How would this translate to a fast-food chain across the country? Carmelo is undaunted. He and Michele have already set up two Mondo Arancina cafés in Rome that are going great guns. He is using these as a training base for a battalion of Britain-bound chefs.
"The recipes are very simple," he assures me. "Any Sicilian chef can follow them. The most important thing is the quality of the ingredients."
That being the case, his pricing is refreshingly fair: £1.50 for an arancina, 70p for an almond mignon. "I want the café to be an ambassador for modern Sicily: fresh, witty and stylish," says Carmelo.
Some things, however, remain old-time Sicily. When I next visited, the pastry chef had left to go back to his village after an argument. The menu, full of his regional sweetmeats, was being rewritten. "Pastry chefs are like women," complained Carmelo. "They come, they take offence, they go."
But at least they leave behind their recipes.