I learned the key to true Sicilian hospitality during a hazy post-exams summer with some girlfriends in the island’s capital, Palermo. One-man bands, liberal glasses of limoncello, and the kind of cuisine that inspires loyalty: mafioso-style.
Phnom Penh’s new Sicilian eatery, Piccola Italia Da Luigi, a cozy hole-in-the-wall that opened last month, is a city favourite in the making. At the end of Street 308, its lights and clinks of wine glasses enliven an otherwise subdued street, while some tables spill into the sidewalk for an al fresco feel.
Stereotypical connections between Sicily and mafia culture are not entirely put to bed. The owner, Luigi, has put up framed pictures of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in some of their more gun-toting roles.
Melodic, Italian-themed music plays soothingly in the background. Overlooking the floor space is a tiny balcony, with a single table perched in its curved nook. It’s an ideal place to devise schemes in secret.
It’s also pretty good for a date.
But the real draw is the owner, Luigi, who whips up most of the dishes himself. A Mediterranean man in the classical mould, he is usually wearing a pin-striped shirt, three buttons undone, and gesturing enthusiastically about the latest creation to come out of his kitchen.
“You are a couple, you go up here,” he said on my first visit, sweeping my dining companion and me up to the intimate nook. He recommended a dry Tuscan red – the wine selection, all imported from Italy, is exquisite and all hovering around the $15 mark. He’s a smooth operator, with a repertoire of stories behind every dish on the menu.
The deli counter on the ground floor offers cured meats, veggies, and daily specials. There are soft, tart artichoke hearts. Sweet red peppers filled with tuna in spicy olive oil. I thought about ordering some of the baked risotto balls to take home with me, but then I’d also have to take the home-made ricotta and freshly baked bread made from three flours.
We tried them all. The arancini is divine – cheesy, buttery balls with a crunchy fried crust and a hint of bolognaise sauce. Aubergine and olives are rich, sweet and slightly pickled. My partner in this dining delight had something of a religious experience. “He’s done the impossible, made me like aubergine,” he said.
Then the ‘appetiser’ arrives. The dish, sometimes called “falso magro,” depending on how it’s made, is a Sicilian special, Luigi tells us – a hodge-podge of eggs and meats: raw beef, bacon and salami, seasoned with basil and slopped in a hearty tomato sauce.
While some will be disappointed not to see pasta – though Luigi does make his own lasagna – the pizza quickly makes up for it. Soft, doughy crust, some with pesto seasoning, another with four cheeses layered throughout. The bold can venture into the smoky ham, potato gratin and walnut variety. Spot on harmony.
The one off chord is the service which, while earnest, can be slow, though part of that is the placement of the upstairs nook – it’s easy to forget the one table upstairs and the popularity of the place.
Leave room for desert. Amarena desserts are served in a martini glass. Vanilla, Galliano, cheesy cream – washed down with shots of home-made limoncello.
At the end of our meal, as service is winding down and the proprietor is settled in the corner with a plate of lasagna and a bottle of Angkor, a man in a suit rushes in, harried: “Have I missed the Tiramisu?” Reassured, he sits down, demolishes a glass of Tirimisu and leaves – one more loyal customer for Luigi’s.
That week, I spend another three nights there.
To contact the reporter on this story: Poppy McPherson at [email protected]
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