This is a restaurant first recommended to us by our best friend and fellow traveler, Giovanni Matta. Over the years, we find ourselves coming back and bringing with us family and friends who have come to visit the magical island of Sicily. Enjoy the story behind the name and our descriptions of one particularly exceptional meal.
Telephone: 0924 30409
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Rostra rating: 4
The Sicilian town of Castellammare del Golfo, located 40 miles west of Palermo, has a long and tempestuous history. Two and a half thousand years ago it was the port for the city-state of Segesta, the political center of the Elymians, who were one of three indigenous Sicilian peoples. Quintessential survivors (like all Sicilians), the Elymians specialized in playing more powerful neighbors off against each other. They lured Athens into a disastrous invasion of the island in 415 BC that led directly to her defeat in the Peloponnesian War and permanent historical decline. Then the Elymians convinced the Carthaginians to wipe out Selinus, a Greek city-state rival. Despite being long-term allies of Carthage, however, the Elymians deftly switched sides to Rome during the First Punic War — an act of calculated treachery for which the Romans granted them autonomous rule and freedom from taxation. In late antiquity most of Segesta’s population removed to Castellammare, taking advantage of the commercial prospects offered by its well-sited harbor.
More recently, Castellammare became infamous for organized crime. It is the birthplace of no less than 31 notorious members of the American mafia, including Salvatore Maranzano and Joseph Bonanno. The town even lent its name to the Castellammarese war for control of organized crime in the United States during the late 1920s and early 1930s. By 1950, some 80% of the town’s adult male population had done prison time and a third had committed murder.
During the next three decades, Castellammare suffered from endemic poverty, the inevitable accompaniment to Mafia control. Mary Taylor Simeti, author of On Persephone’s Island, who first came to this part of Sicily in 1962 to work with social reformer Danilo Dolci, describes Castellammare as “a dump” in those days.
Beginning in the 1990s, however, the residents of Castellammare engineered an escape from the insidious combination of corruption and criminality that continue to plague Palermo’s southwest hinterland in nearby towns like Montelepre and Partinico. Today the town’s small fishing fleet, its location as gateway to the beautiful Lo Zingaro Nature Preserve, and proximity to the inland vineyards around Alcamo have created a virtuous intersection of gastronomy, hospitality, and shopping.
Castellammare is famous for its fish restaurants and the best of these is Egesta Mare. During our sojourn at the Simeti family’s organic vineyard and farm in May and June 2012, the Mago Team enjoyed two meals at this justifiably popular establishment. The restaurant’s name evokes the Elymian heritage of western Sicily (Egesta is the ancient Greek rendering of Segesta). Even if one does not have the pleasure of a stay at the Simeti’s farm (see www.boscofalconeria.it), Egesta Mare is a perfect place for lunch after touring the ruins of Segesta or for dinner after hiking in Lo Zingaro.
Egesta Mare is located at number 5 via Fiume, a narrow one-way street that runs almost due south from the palm tree lined Piazza Vincenzo Santangelo that affords a spectacular view of the gulf in the Tyrrhenian Sea from which the town derives its name. A pre-dinner drink at one of several bars located around the piazza at sunset is a wonderful way to start the evening, but be forewarned that a glass of wine or campari and soda is usually accompanied by enough nibbles to blunt one’s appetite and a second drink inevitably arrives with even more appetizers. It would be unfortunate indeed to blow one’s calorie allowance prior to arriving at Egesta Mare.
The via Fiume dead ends into a flight of steps right at Egesta Mare, allowing for a spacious and quiet outside seating area. The tables are completely shaded from the merciless Sicilian sun by large white umbrellas and the entire seating area is surrounded by an assortment of palm trees and other pretty vegetation in large antique planters. In the late spring and summer these are the most popular seats in the restaurant, but the interior of the restaurant is worth a visit even if you end up dining a fuori.
The inside space is a single large room divided down the middle by three vaulted tuffa arches, each with a central brick supporting column. The ceiling is a cross work of large exposed wooden beams surmounted by plaster embedded with smaller rafters. To the right of the entrance the wall is light grey tuffa chunks interspersed with brick columns. The stones in the walls, as opposed to the vaulted arches, were probably “quarried” over the centuries from sites dating to antiquity that are scattered around Elymian Sicily. This effect is enhanced by the placement of miniature amphorae and other pottery in niches along the wall formed by the irregular shaped tuffa blocks. Large windows are set high up in the wall while artificial lighting is indirect and recessed in woodwork that runs along the walls at table height. The effect is light and airy at either lunch or dinner.
The wall on the left hand side of the dining room is done in white stucco with two large wood framed apertures that reveal the tuffa stones behind the plaster. These faux windows are illuminated by small spotlights that supplement sconces mounted high on the wall. The right half of the rear wall houses a bar and an environmentally controlled wine cabinet. The tiled floors are a warm reddish brown. There is plenty of space between the dark wood tables that are set with two tablecloths, a large white base layer that reaches mid-way to the floor and a smaller brick red cloth that encompasses the top table surface. Folded starched white napkins and crystal stemware complete the layout.
Like many Italian restaurants, the best and most creative dishes are to be found amongst the antipasti at Egesta Mare. The appetizers are usually displayed on a large table at the rear of the dinning room, but this is a feast for the eyes only, there is no self-service buffet. Waiters will obligingly bring you whatever you want from the display, but we have found that the best way to sample this course is to order the antipasto “fantasy,” which comes to the table on large platters that have internal divisions for the various preparations. The presentation is stunning and the portions are sized to the number of diners.
Our fantasy contained some fifteen offerings. Raw shrimp were served shelled and head-on with a moistening of light green olive oil, which supplied a luxurious mouth feel to their sweet and slightly salty flesh. These contrasted perfectly with fried shrimp, whose crunchy heads were reminiscent of high-end sushi bar fare. The lightly smoked salmon brochettes with pineapple chunks were an interesting take on a fish that seems to find its way onto most Sicilian restaurant menus despite a native aversion to non-Mediterranean species in general and farmed fish in particular, but it was completely upstaged by the wild and local smoked tuna. An octopus duo consisted of salad with celery, julienned carrots, parsley, and olive oil as well as in the form of carpaccio. I was happy to find that the latter dish was allowed to come to room temperature, rather than hurried to the table still half-frozen as so often happens. Individual mussels topped up with marinara sauce were juxtaposed with marinated fresh anchovy bruschetta.
The final fish offering consisted of pan seared tuna tid bits in a sweet and sour sauce surrounded by sardines fig pecker style. In this dish, very small sardines are boned and stuffed with breadcrumbs, herbs, and dried currents. Egesta Mare’s version, however, differs from the classic Sicilian preparation in that the sardines are spread with a thin layer of the stuffing rolled up and then fried rather than baked. The result is that the texture is firmer, while the taste is lighter and less fishy than the traditional approach, which contains a much higher stuffing-to-sardine ratio. Even this superb array of fish appetizers, however, would have eventually turned one-dimensional on the palate without some non-aquatic relief supplied by miniature cous cous timbales, poached eggs with fresh mayonnaise and chopped pistachios on a radicchio salad, little squares of potato lasagna interspersed with layers of prosciutto, and caponata.
Having lived out our fantasy antipasto accompanied by a bottle of Planetta Chardonnay from the concise but well-chosen wine list, the other members of the Mago team complained vociferously that they could not eat another bite. As team leader, I offered a compromise that involved splitting two pasta dishes amongst the three of us, followed by a third course which I alone would consume in an act of self-sacrifice in order not to besmirch Mago Guide’s hard won reputation for gustatory excess. My compromise was accepted, and in order to cement our restored concordia I promptly ordered a bottle of Planetta’s Santa Cecilia (100% nero d’avola).
My dining companions soon forgot their over taxed stomachs with the arrival of the pasta course. We had ravioli stuffed with sheep ricotta and basil in a tomato-basil sauce that had a hint of cream and tagliatelli with shrimp, swordfish, cherry tomatoes and zucchini. Both dishes were very good, the pasta perfectly cooked and expertly sauced. The team’s consensus opinion favored the ravioli whose ingredients melded harmoniously, while the tagliatelli’s components remained disparate and lacked a unifying theme.
While my dining companions somehow found room to polish off the pasta, I wandered over to the fish display case located just to the right of the restaurant entrance. There I perused the denizens of the deep supplied by Castellammare’s fishermen that morning. I was quickly joined by our alert and helpful waitress who had no problem with me closely inspecting the fish, to include sniffing and poking them to confirm their pristine freshness. She seemed to take my nasal and tactile attentions as a complement to Egesta Mare’s ichthyian offerings.
I told her that I was interested in a fish soup, but could not make up my mind as to which fish should serve as the key ingredient. She suggested a Mediterranean cod (merluzzo), a surprising choice given its low amount of fat and cartilage, which is key to the robust flavor of Italian fish soups. I decided to trust her and she made off with the fish while I returned to the table and more complaints of gastro-intestinal distress (as well as pasta plates that looked like they had been licked clean in my absence).
It took a pleasant half hour for the fish to reappear, which we spent checking out what everyone else was eating as a means of refreshing our flagging appetites. It was a good thing too, because the cod returned surrounded by mussels and shrimp with which it had been cooked along with a shallow tureen of fish broth that contained zucchini, carrots, onions and garlic. Our redoubtable server set to work instantly boning the white-fleshed fish. The broth was as savory as I could have wished and the cod had a wonderful firm texture as well as a subtle flavor that did not get completely lost in the broth. The mussels and shrimp were perfectly cooked. While I had to play the part of ubertrencherman with the bulk of this course, I did receive critical assistance from the rest of the Mago team who quickly acquired an intense fondness for sopping up the broth with the excellent bread, which had obviously been baked that afternoon.
Boning a fish
While we were at Egesta Mare, we had the opportunity of filming an expert as our wait staff boned the fish.
Now it was my turn to warn my team members about imminent danger of foundering, but they had somehow acquired a third wind (as the female of the species is wont to do when dessert is in the offing) and they formed an alliance with the waitress who urged us to try her “special cannoli.” Now, to begin with, the cannolies at Egesta Mare are hardly run of the mill, in that they are at least half a foot long and three inches in diameter. I had already witnessed a neighboring diner demolish one single handedly, but I have come to expect such table heroics from Sicilians. I did not think that the three of us could manage to collectively eat even a third of one of these cylindrical leviathans, but the spirit of Addaphagia (the ancient Sicilian goddess of gluttony) had invaded the otherwise sensible minds of my colleagues and I went along for the ride.
We ended up being served a kinetic deconstruction of the giant cannoli. The shell had literally been smashed and the chards gathered up and embedded with no little artistry into a central mound of sweet ricotta stuffing that was suffused with semi-sweet chocolate chips. The plate was then drizzled with molten bitter chocolate ribbonettes and given a final dusting of powdered sugar and candy sprinkles. It proved to be great fun to eat as well, using the cannoli chards as edible spoons. The meal ended with passito, the sweet raisiny dessert wine from the island of Pantelleria.
The Mago team returned to Egesta Mare about two weeks later vowing to eat more reasonably and immediately forsaking such ill-considered promises as soon as we were seated. Using steely determination, however, we were able to eschew the antipasto bounty in favor of pasta and main courses. We tried a seafood lasagna (millefoglie al ragù di pesce) as well as busiata (a type of pasta from Trapani) with scampi in a pistachio sauce. Both pastas were excellent as well as unusual, but the busiata revealed the Arabic influence that sets western Sicily apart from the rest of the island with its predominantly Greek-inspired culinary traditions.
Our main courses consisted of fried calamari and grilled tuna, two very typical dishes that, even in Sicily and in non-touristic restaurants, are often mediocre or worse. I am a stone Pavolvian when it comes to fried calamari, and I take it quite personally when it is not done correctly. Segesta Mare gave no reason for complaint. The squid we had was on the larger side (more calamaroni than calamari). This often leads to a rubbery, over-cooked dish or a greasy, under-cooked one. However, this squid was very fresh, battered only in a light dusting of flour and an expertly fried in very hot olive oil. The rings were tender and the plentiful tentacles had just the right amount of chewiness to compliment their robust flavor.
But the tuna was the real surprise of the evening. Any competent Sicilian kitchen can produce excellent calamari fritti, but I have found over the years that the preferred Trinacrian approach to grilling tuna (or swordfish for that matter) is nothing short of a gastronomic atrocity. Time after time I have witnessed otherwise sane Sicilians take a gorgeous hunk of freshly caught sushi grade tuna, slice quarter inch steaks off it, and then proceed to grill it to the consistency of grey leather. Perhaps this approach owes to the ever-increasing cost of quality tuna, but even a thin steak can be cooked medium rare with care and timing so that it reaches the table juicy sweet a la Gollum. I was therefore overjoyed to find my tuna tranche carved close an inch thick and served verging on rare in the center. The fish was served completely alone except for a judicious application of salmoriglio sauce (lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, and salt). It was simply the best grilled tuna I have ever had in all of Italy. Perhaps, back when it was abundant, this is the way the Elymians cooked tuna in thick slabs over glowing olive wood embers. Any people who could survive the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Fascists, and the Mafia would surely know how to grill tuna.