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My favourite restaurant by James Pembroke: Cantine D'Amico, Saline, Aeolian Islands

Blog | By James Pembroke | Nov 02, 2023

Giuseppe Mascoli - founder of 30-odd pitch-perfect Franco Manca pizzerie

Here’s Dean Martin, on stage, in Vegas, nursing a bourbon on the rocks: ‘I wanna say one thing in all seriousness ... I feel sorry for you people who don’t drink ... I mean it ... because when you wake up in the morning ... that’s as good as you’re gonna feel all day.’

I felt just as sorry for my son and his friend, Jasper, on 25th July, on the tiny island of Lipari, one of the empty Aeolian islands off the north-east coast of Sicily.

We had just enjoyed the best Mediterranean lunch of my life and I knew the two boys would never have it so good again. They are destined to spend Odyssean decades in search of just such a lunch; one just so unassuming, so original, so cheap – and in such company.

Of course, it wasn’t at a real restaurant. It was held on the first-floor terrace at Salvatore D’Amico’s enoteca which sells wines and caperberries from his farm. When I say farm, I doubt Salvatore has more than three acres but, in spite of the absence of water, the farmers of Salina produce the most amazing Malvasia wine – the very Malmsey in which the Duke of Clarence was executed by drowning. ‘What a way to go’, as Dino might have said.

The organiser of this event was Bill Knott’s great friend Giuseppe Mascoli, famous, to my son, as the founder of 30-odd pitch-perfect Franco Manca pizzerie, and to me as the erstwhile padrone of Blacks in Dean Street. Giuseppe, Salina’s most eligible bachelor, lives on an ancient farm, where he makes a thousand bottles a year of his orange wine, in an underground medieval winery. We had to drag the ladies from under his chaise longue, so desperate were they to be abandoned there. But lunch waits for no one.

Salvatore welcomed us and showed us upstairs, where four other friends of Giuseppe and an East Coast oldie beauty named Patsy were waiting. We sat at two unlaid wooden tables. And paradise was bestowed on us from a central table, as effortlessly as we might reheat soup.

If Elizabeth David had written about this lunch, on reading her account we might well have concluded that it was yet more post-rationing fantasy. But all this is true: first, caperberry leaves on little toasts with Salvatore’s oil; then, deep-fried polpo with tomatoes, potatoes and capers. A pause for more free-flowing Salina wine; then a large ceramic bowl arrived, filled with oily, tomatoey spaghetti crowned with two enormous lobsters, which Giuseppe had seen leaving a boat that morning. The meat was plucked from the lobsters and mixed into the spaghetti. Later that week I had spaghetti all’aragosta in my desperation to repeat this ecstasy, but it is a dish that has peaked for me. It will be downhill from here on.

After lunch, Patsy told her story. Fifty years ago, she left New York to meet and marry Pasquale Spadavecchia (‘Old Sword’) of Molfetta in Puglia. They bought their house on Salina 30 years ago, but, sadly, she buried Pasquale there a while back. Now she spreads her time between New York, Salina and Florence. Her accent, honed in Greenwich Village, was part Katharine Hepburn and part Katharine Ross, and waxed ever more sexily with the fortified Malvasia and grappa with biscotti.

Forget Santiago de Compostela; this is the true pilgrimage.

Via Liberta 27, Leni, Salina; www. cantinedamico.it; by arrangement: 0039 335 7878 795. Just 30 euros a head. Why are the best Mediterranean lunches the cheapest?