Palermo Ristaurante: Biananci Reinvents Palermo

Under new ownership, a trattoria in Leopoldstadt flourishes, with haute cuisine, select wines and fish straight from Istria

A replica of an original Sicilian stove is used for baking at Ristorante Palermo | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

In Vienna, Italian restaurants are often avoided. Dime-a-dozen trattorias serve tired pasta concoctions with the occasional fish and meat dishes that are neither fresh nor interesting, leaving any semi-competent cook to wonder why one shouldn’t just make this stuff at home.

But you don’t have to tell Antonio Biananci. In fact, the new co-owner and head chef at Palermo, a pizzeria-turned-trattoria in the 2nd District, would even go further: “There are actually not that many good restaurants in Vienna at all,” he said with a smile after welcoming us on a Friday night in mid January. An Italian who brought his cooking tradition to Croatia, America, Norway and now here might just be ready to give his Viennese counterparts a run for their money.

For some 30 years now, Ristorante Palermo has served a wholesome Italian menu on Gausplatz, straddling the 2nd and 20th districts next to the Augarten, and always with a solid reputation. But with Biananci at the helm, a new wind is blowing. The interior may not have given it away at first, but a closer looked reveals something unique. A massive brown brick oven at the front of the restaurant is a replica of those still used in Sicily; large yellow lilies stands next to bamboo stalks in large vases next to thick red curtains and white table cloths with red napkins. The dark, candle-lit dining room is dotted with Mediterranean paraphernalia, fishing like nets and life preservers hanging from the wall, hinting to the restaurant’s specialty.

The first bottle of wine was poured for our group of four, a delicate but powerful South Tyrolean sauvignon from the Erste & Neue winery, with overwhelming scents of rosemary and hints of cherry. If this was any indicator, it was not going to be your ordinary Friday evening. (In the interests of full disclosure, our identities were known and our mission clear, and the chef was determined to show us just how serious he was about bringing the restaurant out of obscurity. We knew we would get the best.)

Our first course was a small but charismatic appetizer, garlic toast with smoked salmon, spinach, egg, and porcini mushrooms, drizzled in truffle oil. The toast contained a piercing amount of garlic and the whole dish lacked salt, which was counterbalanced by the brackish salmon and traded off for an aftertaste of peppercorn. The dish and the sauvignon made for a strong alliance, but it seemed like a bold move to begin a five-course feast with something so intense.

Given ample time to finish our glasses and have more sauvignon if desired – a gesture that would be repeated throughout the night – we were brought a new white for the next course: a savvy Grüner Veltliner from Steinschaden, in the Wachau region of Lower Austria.

“Wine in Austria: my god it’s beautiful!” glowed Biananci, emerging from the kitchen to share a glass with us.  Italians have a way of expressing opinions that is both unnecessarily theatrical and entirely genuine… It was clear that our host meant to keep more than just our stomachs entertained. This soft, peppery white would go with scallops wrapped in bacon, roasted tomato, thyme, zucchini, and a lone shiitake mushroom. A nicely balanced composition, with a pleasant wine – probably the way the dinner should have begun.

There was more wine, another visit from the chef, and the stories of past lives began – periods of cooking on yachts and cruise ships, the difficulty of starting a restaurant in Norway, falling in love with Dubrovnik and again with woman from Vienna. As we finished the second dish, a delivery of fish arrived – a Palermo ingredient that was never frozen and driven from Istria several times a week, directly to the restaurant. Biananci withdrew to the kitchen and promptly re-emerged with a tray of whole fresh sea bass, going from table to table to show his guests what awaited them.

And come to us it would in the form of a thin fillet atop a mound of risotto and accompanied by leek and spiced with pesto. The risotto lacked the heaviness that makes weight-watchers wary, and we soon found out why: it was made not with cream but with a reduction of vegetable consommé, which gave it an aromatic rather than buttery taste. The pesto, we were told, was more pure than most, made simply from fresh basil, olive oil and garlic. The fish was conspicuously fresh and brisk, an anomaly in landlocked Austria, and it was served with a chardonnay from the winery of Lukas Markowitch in Lower Austria. The oaky crispness of the chardonnay was refreshing after three rather rich dishes.

One last course was still on its way, and a Ripassa Zenato helped prepare for it – in fact, the first Italian wine of the evening. It was a deep ruby red, full-bodied and almost heavy after the whites. Its companion was a steak medallion with Biananci’s special reduction of beef bones and vegetables, which he proudly claimed had boiled slowly down from 28 liters to a mere half liter. It was clear the sole purpose of the dish was to give us a taste of the reduction: it was rich, almost tangy, and a simple finish to a rather complex menu.

We enjoyed another glass of the Ripassa Zenato, and just when we thought we were done a dessert found its way to the table. It seemed we were coming full circle, as this one held the intricacy of the first appetizer: oranges and raspberries over vanilla ice cream, speckled with whole peppercorns. It was sweet, tart, rich, creamy and evocatively spicy all at once.

The dishes and silverware were swept away by two extremely competent waiters – also rare enough in Vienna – and we were left with a new bottle of the Ripassa Zenato. I was too full of food and wine to talk, so it was easy to absorb the surroundings and conversation. Biananci and his wife, the other owner of Palermo, joined our table along with several guests still lingering after midnight. Biananci was describing his respect for pure ingredients and the heavy responsibility that came with being a cook as other parts of the table broke off into separate conversations. “A chef is like a conductor,” he proclaimed, swirling the wine in his glass and gazing lovingly at his wife and restaurant. “Nothing can dominate – it is all one composition.”

Cooking is indeed an art that enraptures the soul of those, like Biannci, who devote their lives to it – not matter which corner of the world they choose to do so.



Open daily, 11:00 – 23:00

2., Gaußplatz 1

(01) 332 73 24

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