Palermo brings Sicilian cuisine to San Jose

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One of the greatest culinary marriages came about when dried pasta, introduced to Sicily by the Arabs in the 12th century, met tomatoes grown from seeds brought to 16th-century Spanish Palermo, after Hernan Cortes she had collected from the gardens of Montezuma.

Regardless of their international roots, red sauces and pasta dishes have become hallmarks of popular Italian cuisine. The Palermo Italian Restaurant at 791 Auzerais Ave. in San Jose stays true to this tradition by interpreting great Sicilian dishes.

“Our menu is, apart from a few things, a very typical southern Italian and Sicilian menu,” said Diane Cusimano, who co-owns Palermo with her husband Renato. “Lots of tomato sauce, lots of vegetables, aubergines, peppers and fish. The cream sauces are all from Northern Italy and we have them because Americans love alfredo sauce.”

Before retiring, the Cusimanos, both 69, ran two other iterations of restaurants in Palermo — one in San Jose for 20 years and another in Redwood City for five years. Then, in 2017, they received a call from Tony Paradiso, who wanted to close the family-run Paradiso Deli after 50 years.

“He said, ‘I’m ready to retire and I want it to remain an Italian restaurant,'” Cusimano told the San Jose Spotlight. “Renato has always loved this place and when he got the chance to buy it he was hooked. So we bought it, we opened up and here we are.”


The only major change the Cusimanos made was the reopening of a spacious covered patio surrounded by trees and overlooking Los Gatos Creek. The terrace is currently the standard seating area for clients, but two indoor dining rooms are also available.

“As the Palermo family got older, they started closing parts of the building,” Cusimano said. “We’ve been using the patio again and when COVID hit, we expanded it even further to give us more space with lots of air movement.”

What the menu offers

Of course, since Renato was born and raised in Palermo, the menu remained mainly Sicilian. But there are exceptions.

“We have pesto, it’s not Sicilian, but vegetarians really like it,” Cusimano said. “And spaghetti carbonara isn’t Sicilian either, but it’s one of our most popular dishes. We make it with guanciale, which is Italian bacon made from pork cheeks.”

Chicken parmigiana is such a standard menu item that it easily serves as a restaurant’s litmus test. Here, the dish is prepared with the usual ingredients — a chicken cutlet, thinly batted and breaded, topped with a red sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. The flavors are so well balanced that the flavor of free range chicken is prominent and not buried in the mix, which harmonises with a smooth and rich red sauce that has a slight acidity on the finish that brings out the quality of the tomatoes.

“We use imported San Marzano tomatoes, which are the #1 canned tomato in Italy,” she said. “And then we add the fresh basil and fresh garlic and the right amount of salt and pepper. But then you have to know how to cook it. My husband and our employees grew up in Italy and in gastronomy. They know that quality ingredients and proper cooking always make a successful plate.”

If you really want to immerse yourself in Sicilian cuisine, start with the original dish, aubergine alla parmigiana, and ask for spaghetti alla carrettiera – pure Sicilian peasant food not always featured on Italian restaurant menus.

The name “Carrettiera” comes from the donkey carts that brought the pasta to the workers in the field, where the basic dish was prepared. This dish is made with only extra virgin olive oil, chopped garlic, parsley, and crushed red peppers when prepared properly. There’s a knack for cooking simple dishes to perfection, and Palermo’s version has just enough chopped garlic to heat up the dish and just enough red pepper to add a slight kick to the finish.

“People love our bar,” Cusimano said. “We have a great bartender and serve Italian drinks like Campari, Limoncello, Negronis and Aperol spritz, as well as old fashioned drinks or anything else you would like.”

It was the bar that first lured customer Michelle Aldape to Palermo’s five years ago. She recently visited the restaurant to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

She and her group enjoyed the burrata special — mozzarella, prosciutto di parma, marinated artichokes, roasted red and yellow peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes — and a margherita pizza, along with tortellini and meatball soup.

“Honestly, I just love the old-fashioned vibe of the place,” she told the San Jose Spotlight. “I come here because I can get really good grounding food; Home cooking that is nostalgic and tastes homemade.”

La bella vita, indeed.

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Copyright © 2022 by Bay City News, Inc. Republication, redistribution, or other reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.

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