Walking to Palermo, a new Sicilian restaurant in North Beach, we were smilingly accosted by a young woman trying to drum up business for one of those live-action sex palaces on Broadway.
“Come on in, come on in!” she said with great gesticulations of her arms.
“Maybe later,” we said. “We're hungry.” (One of the classic beg-off lines.) And we escaped around the corner — down a block of Kearny Street aglow with the neon signs of sex shops, adult book stores, yet more girlie shows. Then across Columbus.
Palermo's interior decoration — bright red and green lights, striped awnings over the tables — harmonizes oddly with its honky-tonk neighborhood. “It looks like a Christmas tree,” said one of my dinner companions. I thought it looked like one of those pizza parlors that specialize in throwing birthday parties for small children.
The restaurant being no more than a third full, we were offered our choice of tables. It is a curious fact that service tends to worsen when a place isn't busy; during rush hour, a restaurant's staff is flying on adrenaline, and the entire operation is like a smoothly high-revving engine. Palermo's service was friendly and knowledgeable but so disappointingly slow that at the end of our meal we were offered a profuse apology — and a slice of tiramisu. We waited nearly 10 minutes for a simple basket of bread and butter; another lengthy interval after that for the first courses.
Hungry and impatient diners (not to mention overirritable food writers) can be tough nuts to crack — but Palermo's food, while not perfect, was worth the wait. Sicilian cooking makes heavy use of the tomato, an icon of summer that translates well into hearty dishes. After a warm, clear day, the fog had abruptly returned, sharpening our appetite for plates of sustaining food.
One such dish was melanzane al forno ($5.75), slices of roasted eggplant topped with melted mozzarella cheese, like a snow-topped mountain rising from a sea of rich, garlicky marinara sauce. One of my tablemates was an inveterate orderer of eggplant dishes; I incline toward wariness, because while I like eggplant if it's well-prepared, I find it inedible if it's bitter or soggy or tough. These wretched states are too easily achieved (I've achieved them in my own kitchen), but Palermo managed its eggplant beautifully. The slices were tender and firm, the taste smooth and just slightly sweet.
The bruschetta ($2.50) consisted of four rounds of plain bread, generously topped with a dice of red and gold tomatoes that looked like piles of autumn leaves. The bread held up well underneath the moist topping, but if it had any flavor of its own, it was overwhelmed by the sharp raw-garlic assault of the tomatoes. Garlic and tomatoes are a quintessential combination of Italy (and California), but roasting or blanching the garlic would have made it a little less strident.
Our waiter, after making sure none of us were high coronary risks, recommended the spiedino ($5.99): mozzarella cheese, dipped in batter and deep-fried, then served in a pool of anchovy butter. The chunks of cheese arrived looking like dinner rolls, and they were pleasantly crusty on the outside, tender and half-melted within. But the anchovy butter was too salty and fishy, and it dominated the more muted flavors of the cheese.
Sicilians eat more fish and poultry than they do meat, but one of the nightly specials was a mixed grill ($8.95). The plate included a free-range chicken breast, a filet of beef, and a patty of housemade sausage — the meats bracketed at one end by tender new potatoes trimmed in the shape of mushrooms (or penises?) and at the other by well-cooked green beans. At the bottom of the plate was a pool of red-wine sauce that none of us liked (too sweet) but I admired for the cleanness of its flavor.
The sausage had been cooked until it had caramelized slightly at the edges. It was intense with garlic and the licoricelike taste of fennel seeds; it had that dense texture of sausage that's been made by hand from better cuts of meat. The chicken breast, too, had been grilled to a slight crustiness, but it remained tender and juicy. The beef filet, though medium rare, was tough and anemic, but not quite dry — the kind of beef you find at Safeway.
Lobster linguine ($9.99) featured half a lobster, split lengthwise and presented on a bed of pasta with lobster cream sauce. The sauce, like the lobster, was an unnatural orange color, and a bit sweet; we salted it up to balance the flavors. The dish had the virtue of a star flavor uncluttered by attempts to accent it; all the clutter was left on the plate in the form of lobster shell. The presentation was visually striking, but it made eating inconvenient.
Like my friend who always orders eggplant, I am drawn to risottos on menus as others are to boxing matches or car accidents. I want my worst fears confirmed. Good risottos are all alike, but each bad risotto is bad in its own way — and restaurant risottos are so often bad. Palermo's porcini-mushroom risotto ($7.95) was good, a hefty oblong plate of rich brown kernels punctuated with big chunks of fresh porcini (which were briefly in season). The risotto didn't need salt, but a sprinkle of fresh Parmesan cheese would have been nice.
The tiramisu, our consolation prize for having waited with such forbearance, was a large, creamy block that would have been enough for four people. It tasted mainly of liquor and fat, with not much evidence of coffee. Why has this confection become so popular? You get all of the calories and none of the taste.
On our way home we walked once again past the Broadway live-sex emporium, where the young woman was still out front, trolling for customers. She beamed at us as if we were bold explorers safely returned from some unimaginably exciting expedition, instead of dinner down the block. She invited us in, arms pumping, but we nodded and smiled and kept walking. Enough sensual pleasure for a Sunday evening.
Palermo, 939 Kearny, S.F., 296-9796. Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.