1 of 2
Chef/owner Giuseppe Scafidi's fennel and orange salad with pomegranate seeds Photo by Isaac Harrell
2 of 2
Zuppa di pesce (seafood stew) Photo by Isaac Harrell
The island of Sicily has a deep and varied history. It has been ruled by the Romans, Greeks, Byzantine Empire, Normans and Spaniards. When properly executed, the food of Sicily will show all of these influences: the lemons of Greece, the pine nuts of Spain and the spices of the Byzantine Empire.
It is a cuisine that morphs in many chefs' hands into the classic Italian-American style that we all think we are familiar with. As with lots of ethnic cooking traditions, Sicilian food has been softened around the edges to gain more widespread acceptance. Until now.
Prepared by an excellent chef who knows the soul and heart of Sicily, this cuisine sings. Richmond is lucky to have such a chef. Giuseppe Scafidi truly knows this food and is passionate about sharing it with the customers at Deco Ristorante.
Sicily is known for its street food — rice balls, chickpea fritters and fabulous little meatballs with a texture unmatched anywhere. These treats live on at Deco.
Our first visit happened on a busy night late in the week with friends who had dined there before. We simply let the chef serve what he thought was best that night. Many dishes came out, but I clearly remember the grilled calamari, a lovely fresh salad spiked with fennel and delightful vinaigrette, and pasta that made me think my friend's Sicilian grandmother was cooking. Among the four of us, a wonderful bottle of wine and good conversation, the table's dishes were emptied quickly.
Our second visit was early in the week, and things were quite calm in the restaurant. The tiny bits of street food caught our attention, so we ordered the polpettine (meatballs with currants and pine nuts), caponata Siciliana (eggplant salad) and the arancino con carne (rice balls stuffed with meat sauce, breaded and fried).
Caponata can be very tricky to do well. It is what I'd call an eggplant relish, with peppers, raisins and other treats the chef may have on hand. It is intended to be slightly vinegary and sweet-and-sour, but that balance is tough. Scafidi has achieved it perfectly, adding a few green olives to give the spread more depth. The meatballs were perfect. They were not overly mixed, and the addition of a little panade (a paste made with breadcrumbs and milk) made them delicate and flavorful. The chef also brought out a couple of slices of fried cheese he had just finished making, along with the very characteristic almond pesto that is loved in Sicily. We sipped our wine while making the difficult decision on the main course. Be sure to pay close attention to the specials, as they include some real treasures.
My husband decided on pasta with seafood, which is much more difficult than it sounds. The old rule for cooking calamari is 45 seconds or 45 minutes, but nothing in between. Shrimp overcook quickly, as do both clams and mussels. The red sauce that is traditional in southern Italy needs to be light enough to not overpower the seafood but must also provide enough acid to round out the dish. My husband, who grew up in New York, loves this dish when it is made properly as it was that night. The only things left on his plate were shells.
I selected chicken Marsala because it's challenging, and so many people make it with sweet, rather than dry, Marsala. And I can't count the number of times canned mushrooms were used when I've ordered it. That certainly was not the case at Deco. What arrived from the kitchen were moist, lightly breaded chicken breast cutlets with just enough Marsala for pan sauce, along with beautiful mushrooms. The side dish of the day was a classic tomato, green bean and potato salad. After all the wonderful appetizers, I wound up taking home half of the main course, but it made a smashing lunch the next day.
Dessert in Italy is often fruit, but when my husband sees tiramisu on a menu, the decision is quick. Scafidi's version was creamy, fluffy and sweet with a perfect texture and a generous serving.
The neighborhood has already discovered this gem, and the weekends can be a little hectic. But early in the week, the fresh flavors and history of Sicily that are evident in the chef's food allow for a delightful discovery (or rediscovery) of what true Sicilian food should be. With good service and decor that is both beautiful and comfortable, this is a new place not to be missed.
2901 Park Ave., 342-4278
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers and salads $4 to $12; entrées $14 to $24.