The Strait of Messina is always crowded – especially in July. Between Villa San Giovanni in Calabria and the port of Messina, ferries – some carrying cars and trucks, others using deconstructed trains – appear to make 168 trips a day, counting all the different companies. We tell the same story every time we make the 7km journey: that Vincenzo’s grandmother Lilla once swam across the strait. Although if that’s true, and we hope it is, she probably crossed the narrowest point between Capo Peloro and Cannitello, which is still 3.2 km long and presents a gorge with strong tides and whirlpools. We also talk about the largest suspension bridge that was never built and what to have for lunch.
Greek colonists named the city of Messina Ζάγκλη or Zankle because its natural harbor is shaped like a scythe. It feels like sailing into an embrace and is a great way to arrive in Sicily. The port is also a way of navigating the city. Lose the smell of the sea and you might get lost on your way to lunch.
Arriving late for lunch we were desperate and I asked for a table, any table, and told the man who looked like the owner that we would eat whatever they brought us. It was a relief to everyone when I stopped talking and two mats and cutlery were placed on a table outside a place called Casa e Putia. A few minutes later two squares of frittata – one plain, the other green with spinach – arrived and the same man assured us that he suggested swordfish while the kitchen was still open and we could order whatever we wanted. Moments of happiness are often a combination of relief (a table), contentment (frittata), and letting others decide.
The swordfish had been fished out of the strait just a few hundred yards from where we were seated the night before. A thick square steak, it was grilled and the most satisfying swordfish I’ve ever had. Equally good and memorable were the veggies – grilled zucchini and eggplant. But instead of being big discs with olive oil, salt and red wine vinegar, they were cut into 1cm wide ribbons, a small (common but awesome) detail that can be duplicated more than once.
It’s been four times now and since I’ve made the recipe my own it’s changed a bit, also due to the different caponata and sweet and sour aubergine dishes we’ve eaten in Sicily this summer. While the veggies are subject to availability, my favorite combination is zucchini, eggplant, and red or yellow peppers. You’ll need a cast-iron griddle or a (carefully) balanced grid on the gas stove or grill, as contact with the metal and searing is important for both flavor and texture.
There may be some sweet and sour syrup left over. Save it because after sitting for a while, the veggies may take a little longer. Four times in a row, and I can confirm that grilled sweet and sour vegetables go well not only with fish, but also with chicken, cheese and bread, as well as last week’s pork and lemon polpette.
Sweet and sour grilled vegetables
preparation 10 mins
Cook 20 minutes
1 red or yellow bell pepper
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp powdered sugar
Slice the courgettes and aubergines lengthwise into 5mm thick slices and the peppers into large pieces that are as flat as possible, discarding the stalk, seeds and white skin: it doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as they are of a similar thickness. Put everything in a bowl and mix with olive oil.
Heat a ridged griddle and place the strips in batches on the hot base and cook until tender, cooked through and lined, then flip and cook on the other side. Lift onto a plate.
Meanwhile, heat the vinegar, sugar and a tablespoon of water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil to form a sweet and sour syrup.
Cut the grilled vegetables into 1 cm wide strips and place in a bowl. Add three tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt, then gradually add the syrup, tasting repeatedly until the level of sweet and sour suits you. Serve warm or at room temperature.