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In Sicily, an Appetite for the New


SICILY is fast becoming the next culinary destination as its imaginative chefs deconstruct generations of grandmother's cooking, reinvent the island's tradition of sweet and sour combinations and serve local ingredients in lighter and more creative ways.

Published in The New York Times March 30, 2005

SICILY is fast becoming the next culinary destination as its imaginative chefs deconstruct generations of grandmother's cooking, reinvent the island's tradition of sweet and sour combinations and serve local ingredients in lighter and more creative ways.

"Our passion for food and palate are different than it was in the 10th century," said Corrado Assenza, the chef and an owner of Caffè Sicilia in the gorgeous hilly Byzantine town of Noto. Mr. Assenza, the fourth generation to run the cafe, is among the most creative practitioners of the new Sicilian cooking, glazing capers with honey, turning bergamot into marmalade.

"We need to have new traditions to be in touch with our land, new kinds of combinations of ingredients, new fragrances," he said. "One side of our tradition is that the best recipes are made with the best ingredients. The other side applies to thinking with the modern brain what the food means today."

So the eggplant Parmesan of my childhood has become an eggplant flan with Parmesan fondue and velvet tomato sauce at Il Mulinazzo, a restaurant with two Michelin stars in Villafrati, just outside Palermo. The elegant French quenelle has been reinvented as fish gnocchi at the Sheraton hotel in Catania. Chocolate sauce, traditionally served with rabbit, is now gracing pork at Il Duomo in Ragusa, and basil has been given new life as a filling for chocolates and a flavoring for sorbetto at Caffè Sicilia.

This tipping point in Sicilian history, culinary and otherwise, is described in Nino Graziano's cookbook, "My Sicilian Cooking" (Bibliotheca Culinaria, 2003). Mr. Graziano, one of the foremost practitioners of the new Sicilian cooking, is the owner of Il Mulinazzo.

"After the dark years in which the island was associated only with the Mafia, people have begun to associate it with something positive," Mr. Graziano wrote. "Rather than ask who was killed where, tourists are now more likely to inquire about a particular grape variety, the late ripening peaches or a rare cheese. We have extraordinary ingredients at our disposal, transformed by artisans and not by agribusiness."

And some of the island's young chefs, having traveled the world, now realize how blessed they are at home. They are harvesting wild ingredients like fennel and saffron, there for the taking in the hills and fields.

"A few years ago you couldn't pay people to harvest the almonds," said Faith Willinger, the Italian food expert, writer and cookbook author, who lives in Florence. "Now Sicilians realize theirs are the best. Like the oregano, the capers, the grapes - everything is so vibrant. The vegetables are amazing because they are grown on volcanic soil."

These new chefs are also bridging the gap between peasant cooking and that of the monzù, the French-trained chefs the aristocracy employed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Monzù is Sicilian for monsieur.

There are at least a half a dozen places like Il Mulinazzo where the food reflects this innovative cuisine. When I visited Sicily at the beginning of the year, we made it to only four, whetting my appetite to someday go back and try the rest.

I found chefs who are putting together foie gras with pine nuts and basil sauce, and raw chopped tuna with olive oil flavored with green oranges.

The menu at Il Mulinazzo has many French touches: Mr. Graziano worked for several years in France. But the dishes highlighted on the menu are taken from the Sicilian tradition, like purée of fava beans enriched with scampi, ricotta and extra virgin olive oil. The earthiness of the beans and the sweet creaminess of the ricotta play off the ocean flavors of the scampi.

On New Year's Eve the tasting menu at Il Mulinazzo took its cue from the plainest of peasant ingredients, artichokes and potatoes. But the potatoes were coarsely mashed, the influence of Norman rule, Mr. Graziano said. And the luxurious Beluga caviar topping was an international addition.

Nuts About Sicilian Nuts and Products

Chef and Master Patissier Corrado Assenza and brother Carlo are passionate about nuts, and particularly about those growing in his hometown Noto, where his family has owned and run Caffé Sicilia for four generations.

Nuts, like almonds or pistachios that grow in Noto are the rare jewel of their species: rich, creamy, intensely flavored and fragrant.

They have found their way in torrone, such as Nougat with Pistacchios of Bronte by Caffé Sicilia ($32.50 fpr a 6.5 bar) - described by Florence Fabricant in the Dining Out section of the New York Times: "Another winner is this piece of decadent Sicilian confectionery: a soft nougat made with local Pistacchio from Bronte, egg whites, honey from the Iblei Mountains and orange peel…--. and Nougat with Avola Almonds by Caffé Sicilia ($22.50 for a 6.5 oz. jar).

From citrus marmalades such as the supremely fragrant Citron Marmalade ($19.50 for a 10.6 oz. jar) and pink grapefruit marmalade ($14.50 for a 10.6 oz. jar) from fruit grown in orchards in Noto, Sicly, to preserves, almond paste (you can make a fabulous "almond milk" with it!) and pistachio paste, Carlo and Corrado Assenza manage to maintain a rich variety of pure flavors.

The Preserves, the Jams, the Marmalades, and the Torroni (nougats) by the Caffè Sicilia confectioners are now available in the US and sold by

Bon appétit!

(photos and text by SZD)

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