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HERALD Restaurant review: Little Sicily, Penrose

“Another regular uttered the words: “Thank God for Little Sicily”. I agreed wholeheartedly, sipping my almond granita.”

Little Sicily
702 Great South Rd, Penrose
Open: Wednesday-Friday, noon-3pm and 5pm-8pm
Saturday, noon-8pm.
Special nights: Thursday seafood night, Saturday live music night.

Little Sicily is hard to define. As co-owner and veteran chef Steve Gilberd says, “People can’t really put their finger on what’s going on here, and I like that.”

It’s a food truck, for sure. But while Little Sicily has been transient – the truck spent its first summer, from November 2020, on the Coromandel – it’s now permanently parked in industrial Penrose. Round the back of a motorbike shop and Gun City (follow the signs for “Italian Kitchen”), right on the train line. There’s outdoor dining courtesy of red plastic tables on asphalt and a grassy bank for sprawlers, but also a grungy semi-basement decked out with old sofas and a big mural of the Sicilian coast. Musicians meander in and out of here, as it’s also part of a recording studio owned by Gilberd’s business partner, Dave Perillo.

The men, both 55, have been friends since they were teenagers. Gilberd’s the son of a former Anglican bishop, Perillo’s parents were refugees from Sicily in the 1950s. Gilberd got his first proper taste of Italian food courtesy of the Perillo family in the 80s and remembers thinking, “This is the food I like.”

Four decades later, they dreamed Little Sicily up as a Covid-proof hospo model and it’s been a raging success. There’s no giant lease. It couldn’t be more takeaway-friendly. There’s a large outdoor area. The menu is flexible, so are opening days and hours. The whole operation can be run by a single person. Its high-calibre nosh, reasonable prices, and undeniable coolness also help.

Speaking of the nosh, it’s exquisite.Don’t let the fact your arancini comes on a cardboard plate fool you; I believe it’s the best Italian fare you’ll taste in New Zealand. Though I should say, the best Sicilian. Sicilians are way more seafood-centric than their mainland counterparts, and hordes of invaders have shaped the island’s culinary traditions over millennia (Palermo, the capital, is the most conquered city in the world). The Arabs, for instance, sweetened Sicilian cuisine with citrus, dried fruits, pinenuts and spices. Gilberd will happily tell you all about it.
“I’m always thinking, ‘How can I change this enough to make it contemporary and interesting for people without f***ing it so much that it’s not even the same thing anymore?'” he says.

On a typical day, you’ll find a bunch of beautiful pizzas alongside specials like calamari ripieni (stuffed squid), kingfish crudo, anchovy zeppole (described as “little salty, cheesy, spicy donuts of joy”) and gorgeous, golden, grapefruit-sized arancini orbs. Oh, the pāua arancini ($16.90). It’s Gilberd’s partner’s mother’s recipe for creamed pāua in a ball of arborio rice that’s been rolled in breadcrumbs then fried until crispy enough to crack open like an egg. Served with salad and a fat wedge of lemon. I dream of it often.

An elusive special I’ve not tried, but long to, is the sarde a beccafico. This traditional Sicilian dish consists of fresh sardine fillets rolled up with orange rind, pine nuts, currants, breadcrumbs and pecorino cheese – skewered, then baked. Gilberd subs in kahawai.

Almond granita ($5.90) is a slushy-like staple. Semi-frozen, creamy (yet dairy-free) almond goodness in a cup. It’s also quintessential Sicily, where locals eat it for breakfast with brioche. Granita was born on the slopes of Mt Etna, a habitually erupting volcano near Sicily’s eastern edge that’s high enough to boast snow almost year-round. From the Middle Ages until modern fridge-freezers, this snow would be sweetened with syrups and pressed almonds to make the original granita: a refreshing treat for nobility during hot Mediterranean summers and sure to “impress the hell out of visiting foreigners”, Gilberd explains.

It had a similar effect on me one recent Saturday, at the food truck’s weekly music session. That balmy eve, a cowboy-esque duo crooned about liquor and sin until they retired for dinner and were replaced by 70s Jamaican reggae tracks. A crew of rockabilly-types occupied the grassy bank. A chap at Little Sicily for his 70th birthday party commandeered a bunch of plastic tables for his friends. Kids and dogs ran about merrily. It was all super-convivial. I sat with an old mate of Gilberd’s who, once upon a time, ran a goldmine in Da Nang and employed Gilberd to teach Vietnamese chefs how to cook Italian food for his cafeteria. (Both Gilberd and Perillo have swashbuckling CVs.)

A regular customer swung by, John from the motorbike shop round the corner.

“I come here every day,” he told me.

“We’re not open every day,” corrected Gilberd.

“That’s the only reason I’m not fat,” John replied.

Another regular uttered the words: “Thank God for Little Sicily”. I agreed wholeheartedly, sipping my almond granita.

Little Sicily is hard to define. As co-owner and veteran chef Steve Gilberd says, “People can’t really put their finger on what’s going on here, and I like that.”