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Caveat Cenare

I first heard the name “Kokalos” mentioned by two well-traveled American couples in a restaurant in Erice, a spooky, perfectly preserved medieval fortress town overlooking the Western coast of Sicily. They had just come from the stunning Greek ruins at Agrigento as part of a luxurious 20-day driving tour of the island. My girlfriend Emily and I were on our own abbreviated exploration of Sicily in May to celebrate her graduation from medical school. We had begun in Palermo three days earlier; Agrigento was our next stop.

Over dinner we exchanged stories about the places we had visited and bonded over the fact that we had gotten our rental cars stuck negotiating Erice’s tiny cobblestone streets, which are too narrow for midsize cars and are actually off limits to tourists. Inevitably, the conversation turned toward food. In Sicily, where culinary traditions, influenced by Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, Spanish colonizers, date back hundreds if not thousands of years, and antipasti tables overflow with succulent platters of sautéed spinach, anchovies, mushrooms, omelets, roasted potatoes, zucchini, artichokes, and four different types of eggplant (four!), how could it not?

Despite this gastronomic heritage, our new friends had not been impressed by the food in Agrigento. The only restaurant they enjoyed was Kokalos. They had heard about it from a gas station attendant in town and liked it so much they returned a second night, which brought back memories of returning to the same restaurant in Nice on consecutive nights with my family when I was 10 years old. Kokalos did a brisk business with tourist groups, they cautioned, but “don’t be put off by the buses parked outside.” If you go, they said, “ask for Maurizio, the owner. Tell him the four Americans sent you.” Before we parted ways they even drew us a little map.

The next morning, after a breakfast of corneti, distinctly non-distinct Italian pastries, whose sole purpose is to be followed by multiple cups of strong espresso, we set out for Agrigento. Along the way, curiosity compelled us to stop in Trapani, a hardscrabble seaport with a long history of trade with North Africa, now home to a large military presence; and Segesta, where a magnificent Greek temple and amphitheater dating to the fourth century B.C. lie sprawled in the countryside like two lovers napping. By early afternoon, as we meandered down a two-lane highway passing ancient villages flattened by long ago earthquakes only to be flattened again by more recent ones, and modern cities overloaded with shockingly ugly modern architecture, we began to see signs for Kokalos. They appeared with increasing frequency, like a Sicilian version of the “Pepe’s South of the Border” billboards plastered along I-95 between North and South Carolina.

By the time we reached the exit at about 2:30 PM, we had Kokalos on the brain. Fortunately, while most everything else closes for siesta – churches, museums, shops, and even gas stations – restaurants in Italy remain open for lunch well into the afternoon. Signs for Kokalos pointed to a steep road leading to the outskirts of town. Perhaps the Americans were confused; the restaurant was actually just outside of Agrigento. Emily consulted the hand-drawn map. The landmarks were different, but we seemed close to Agrigento. How many Kokalos could there be?

We pulled into a dusty parking lot. This must be where they park the tour buses, I thought. A bored-looking man with long curly hair and a thick mustache dressed in a navy blue Adidas sweatsuit met us at the gate. Was this Maurizio, the owner the other couples had spoken of? Our presence seemed to puzzle him. I asked whether they were still serving lunch. “Not really,” he answered. Changing tactics I told him in my best Italian that we had been sent by the “four Americans.” “Ah, yes,” he mumbled, “come, we’ll see if the kitchen can fix you something.”

First, he gave us a brief tour of the grounds. In addition to being a restaurant, Kokalos was apparently also a country club. Our host proudly pointed to “la piscina,” a severely stained swimming pool filled with brownish-green water. These are the tennis courts, he said, pantomiming a forehand stroke in the direction of two weather-beaten tennis courts with a huge fault line running across the service line. Kokalos was in a bit of disrepair.

Stepping inside, he gestured energetically at the walls. Oversized pictures of young teenage couples in identical poses – a smiling groom bent on one knee to support a blushing bride – lined the walls. Emily and I looked at each other in disbelief. In addition to being a restaurant and country club, Kokalos doubled as a Sicilian wedding hall. I was beginning to question the sanity of our American friends.

While Emily sought out the bathroom, Maurizio led me to a large modern dining room with views of the translucent Mediterranean Sea in the distance. He sat me at a large circular banquet table and disappeared. We were obviously the only guests in the whole place. Ten or fifteen minutes passed without sight of either Emily or Maurizio. My mind started to race. What had happened? What kind of restaurant was this? The dining room, hot and stuffy, buzzed with flies. A bright green lizard with an enormous tail darted up the wall.

At last Maurizio returned. I was now having serious second thoughts about Kokalos. “Maybe we should come back for dinner,” I suggested. “No,” he said. “Sit down. I will find the cook.” It was probably only my racing imagination, but I felt as if leaving was not an option.

A few minutes later a group of Sicilian teenagers wearing baseball caps and baggy shorts sauntered in and turned on the stereo. Italian pop songs, some of them covers of perfectly respectable American rock songs, began to flow from immense speakers. One of the teenagers, a tanned young man wearing a ponytail and sporting a Miami Vice-style beard, must have lost a bet for he stepped to the table carrying two leather-bound menus. The menu had the Sicilian seafood suspects I craved: spada alla griglia (grilled swordfish), tonno (tuna), langostino (giant shrimp). Famished, I ordered two pasta dishes, the mixed seafood grill and two salads for both of us.

Finally, Emily reappeared. She wore a pained look on her face, one part amusement, two parts fear that said, “You don’t want to know.” We watched in horror as our pony-tailed waiter set down a bowl of potato chips, pretzels, peanuts and Rice Chex on the table. A small gift from the chef, he seemed to say. By now, Emily had spotted the gecko crawling up and down the wall behind her back.

Soon after, the pasta was brought and we plunged into two bowls of uninspired rotini al salmone (corkscrew-shaped pasta with salmon), and farfalle con noci e basilico (butterfly-shaped pasta with walnuts and basil). Maurizio watching contentedly from a distance reappeared to ask if everything was “tutto bene?” I smiled weakly, raising my hand to make the universal sign for OK. We tried to make light of the situation as best we could: Emily morbidly joked that Maurizio must surely have enslaved some poor soul in the kitchen and forced them to make our meal against their will. But when the colossal platter of shrimp, swordfish and an unnamed pesce locale (unnamed local fish) arrived – more food than even Homer Simpson could handle – it was hard not to feel deflated. Our appetites were gone, overwhelmed by the Fellini-esque atmosphere.

In Kokalos’ defense, the food was more than adequate, with the exception of the salad, which looked to have been reverse engineered ingredient by ingredient, canned corn and all, from the salad bar at Sizzler. When the waiter finally brought the check, after offering numerous varieties of anisette, grappa, vin santo and other after dinner libations, we quickly fled.

Back on the road, we laughed hard forcing each other to recall every part of the meal in excruciating detail. I pounded the steering wheel shouting, “I want my meal back, I want my meal back.” How could this have been our friends’ favorite place? Although it was a single bad meal, with just a few more days left to our trip in Sicily, where it seems like serving a mediocre meal is tantamount to murder, we felt cheated.

We reached Agrigento 40 minutes later passing another Kokalos restaurant on the way to our fancy hotel. Emily, two steps ahead of me, pored over the hand-drawn map we had been given to determine if the scribbles matched up. “Do you think this is the real Kokalos?” I asked, the sick feeling in my stomach migrating to my head. “At least there are a couple of stoplights near this one,” she joked, pointing to one of the landmarks drawn on the paper.

Now we were both almost certain we had eaten at the wrong Kokalos. The name of a Greek king, who once ruled Sicily, it turns out that Kokalos is a popular folk name in the Agrigento area, not unlike “Kokopelli” in the American Southwest. Though we didn’t stay long enough to investigate, Agrigento is likely chock-full of businesses – car dealerships, jewelry stores, and even laundromats – all named after beloved Kokalos.

That evening, after some debate, we decided to try the second Kokalos. The sumptuous Greek temples of Agrigento, illuminated by floodlights, shimmered in the night so seductively they appeared to be computer generated. For a moment, I thought of ordering the same meal again, a la “Groundhog Day,” but the memory of lunch was still too visceral. Appetizers were brought and like yo-yo’s our appetites rebounded. The food at the real Kokalos was as good as promised. After our experience at lunch, each slice of pizza topped with fresh mushrooms and proscuitto, its crispy edges charred from a real wood oven, each bite of [gossamer gnocchi] inched us toward redemption.

What we had been treated to at the first Kokalos may have been what they thought we, as Americans, wanted. Chex Party Mix, way cool! The great irony of such sincere cultural imitation, which after all is a form of flattery, is that we had traveled to Sicily for its authentic cuisine as much as for the unforgettable architecture and antiquities. As America’s cultural dominance continues to spread around the world, finding a bowl of potato chips in place of bruschetta may become more commonplace. However, although our Kokalos experience was far different from what we had come there seeking, it was nonetheless memorable. The unexpected is what helps to make travel so beguiling. It is also somehow comforting that country club food is pretty much the same the world over.

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