(Most photos in this post appear courtesy of Christian Eggers. You should follow him on Instagram. Seriously.)
It feels a bit weird to be writing this blog post. Looking back, I posted only once in 2018, and once in 2017. I stopped blogging about FRANK dinners in 2016 because we started doing them back-to-back, so I didn’t have time to chronicle each menu in detail, as I had so often done before.
But all that is changing! FRANK has been wrapped, at least in its previous form, and I have some time to rediscover all the other things I loved doing before that! Which is traveling, and cooking, and writing about it. (And revamping my website. It’s a disaster, I know. But I’ve enlisted help, so it should be done by the end of the year!)
I’ve been in Sicily for the past two weeks, having the most incredible trip. But today was special. Today we entered the home of a lovely young Sicilian couple to learn how to cook a traditional Sicilian “Sunday Lunch,” which basically means about 4 hours of cooking and eating. I lucked into this encounter through a super cool organization called Traveling Spoon, which curates food experiences for travelers all over the world. I heard about them through a friend, and since their mission statement is really at the heart of my own passions, I contacted them, and it turns out they were looking to expand their offerings in Sicily, and were in need of a representative to “audition” this couple to see if the culinary experience they were offering is up to the standards of Traveling Spoon. (ie, If people in the future want to book a similar experience with this couple, will it be over-and-above amazing? My job was to find out.)
Eleonora and Totò live in the small village of Siculiana (pronounced “see-koo-lee-AH-nah”) on the southern coast of Sicily. The few tourists who make it to this area primarily come for the beaches, superb strands of golden sand on the crystalline Ionian Sea, and just a 20 minute drive from nearby Agrigento, which surrounds the Valley of the Temples, a major Greek ruin. But the little village that hangs on the hill above the beach is charming, unaffected by tourism or even the modern world. Life here looks much like it did a century ago, and the majority of buildings, including the one Eleonora and Totò inhabit, were constructed in the early 1600s, along with the church across the street from their home, which houses an ancient “Black Crucifix,” a depiction of Christ on the cross with black skin, brought here in 1611.
Eleonora was born to Sicilian parents, but in Montreal, so she was raised speaking Sicilian (a distinct dialect of Italian), as well as Italian, English, and French. (And later picked up Spanish.) She spent a year in Siculiana with her uncle, where she met Totò, whose family has lived in the village for 4 generations. Totò is a typical Sicilian in that he is more passionate about Sicily than anything else in his life. And for a typical Sicilian, food is at the very center of life. While he learned some techniques from his Nonna (grandmother) and Mama, he really honed his cooking skills while living in Rome in a home with other guys from all over Italy. Within Italy, there is FIERCE rivalry as to which region is host to the best cuisine. Calabrians will insist that theirs is the best, while Modanese will turn up their nose at such “backwater” cuisine. Fist fights are common when this subject comes up. And it comes up often. So Totò was tasked with representing Sicilian cuisine when his housemates competed, and that is how he came to be a renowned cook in Siculiana.
They welcomed me, my partner Christian, and mother-in-law Vitoria into their home yesterday to prepare and serve a traditional Sunday lunch, when Sicilians spend several lazy hours cooking, eating, drinking, resting, cooking, eating, drinking, resting, and repeating that several more times. They welcomed us with a sweetened almond milk from nearby Agrigento, scented with a fresh mint leaf. Then the first thing we were served was a grilled slab of a local cheese called caciocavallo (“kah-cho-kah-VAH-lo”), a sheep’s milk cheese that comes in two textures: soft and hard. Totò had selected the hard version at the market in Palermo the day before, and he dipped slabs of the cheese into beaten egg, and then dredged in seasoned bread crumbs, fried until the cheese was a bit softer on the inside. They served this with sun dried tomatoes, olives (from a friend’s orchard, of course…a giant 2-gallon jar of them stood on the floor nearby), bread, caponata (more on this in a bit), primosale (a young sheep’s milk cheese dotted with black peppercorns), and crema di pesce spada…basically a pâté made of swordfish and aromatics. Swordfish is the most commonly eaten fish in Sicily, due to an abundance of these fish in the waters around the island. Needless to say, it was all supremely good.
Caponata is a typical Sicilian dish that is usually summed up as “sweet and sour eggplant.” But that’s really not an adequate description. I fell in love with caponata upon my first bite over a decade ago here in Sicily, and it was the dish that changed my mind about eggplant. The most basic forms are a mixture of salted eggplant seared in olive oil, mixed with tomato, onion, vinegar and sugar, but most also have garlic, olives, capers, and basil. Caponata is a foundational dish in Sicily…it’s on every single menu, it’s eaten daily, and there are as many recipes for it as there are cooks. I have my own recipe I’ve developed over the years, and it appears that I’ve never shared it, so look for that in the coming weeks. And I’ve had several caponatas on this trip that were outstanding…but Totò’s was, without a doubt, better than any I’ve EVER tasted. I pressed him for his secret, but he didn’t have one. “It’s just caponata,” Eleonora translated, “eggplant, tomato, onion, garlic, olive, olive oil, basil, vinegar, sugar.” It turns out that virtually all of the ingredients came from Totò’s family farm, a few kilometers away. “His brothers take care of the garden and bring us these fresh vegetables every day.” So if there’s any doubt about the quality of local ingredients, cared for diligently, cooked almost immediately after harvest, let those doubts be banished now. It’s simply not possible for someone to be out-cooked when they are cooking with those kinds of ingredients. And while recipes count, to a certain extent, the quality of the ingredient will always be the most important factor in the perfection of any dish.
We washed all these lovely “antipasti” down with a local soda called Spuma, flavored with rhubarb root and orange peel. It’s an old-school drink, almost forgotten by the younger generation. The older folks remember drinking it out of tiny glass bottles as kids. Now they mix it with wine on hot summer days and think of their youth. It was yummy…not as sweet as our sodas in the US, and indescribable in flavor. A little tart, a little sweet, with a certain depth.
Then it was time for a break. (That was a meal, in and of itself, for me.) We retired to the little back terrace to chat for a bit, while Totò did some work on the next course…a pasta dish with a pesto of pistachios, or “pistacchio” as they are spelled here. (And pronounced “pees-TACK-ee-oh”). This is an extremely common dish in Sicily, a pesto that uses finely ground pistachios, salt, pepper, olive oil, and water, blended into a very fine paste. This gets extended with bits of anchovy (only enough to add saltiness and complexity), fresh tomato, some pasta water, and fresh basil. Then there are variations…the addition of sardines and wild fennel is a very popular combination, called “pasta con le sarde,” which is Vitoria’s very favorite dish. Totò was keeping it simple, though, and using his preferred pasta for pistachio pesto, which is called “paccheri” (pronounced “pak-KARE-ee”). He likes this shape because it is a little smaller than rigatoni, smooth on both sides, and lets the sauce roll inside easily.
Totò also had an interesting method for cooking his pasta. He did not salt the water before adding the pasta. He brought the water bath to a boil, then he added the pasta, and waited about 1 minute. Then he added salt…not fine salt, but a handful of coarse granules of sea salt from nearby Marsala (which has been producing salt since at least 400 BC). He said that salt makes the water “soft” so he likes to give the pasta a minute in the “hard” water first, before adding the salt. He DID set a timer for the pasta, saying, “It’s easy to lose track,” and cooked it the exact amount of time recommended on the box. The pasta came out slightly softer than the texture that we’ve been served at most restaurants here in Sicily…which has been VERY “al dente,” almost too hard for me to enjoy at some places! At home, I cook the pasta 30 seconds less than the “al dente” recommendation on the box, but those are clearly American recommendations. I do enjoy al dente pasta, but the pasta here is served just a hair past the crunchy side!
While the pasta was cooking, Totò finished the sauce by sautéing some onion and garlic in olive oil (from his family farm, of course), then adding anchovy bits. Then the cherry tomatoes (also from his farm) with some water, cooked until the tomatoes were soft. Then the pesto went in, thinned with a bit of pasta water. No additional salt beyond what was in the pesto and what was in the pasta water. He said, “I don’t even have to taste it to know if it is properly salted. I can smell it when it’s right!”
The pasta got drained and tossed in the sauce, and then we set down to eat. No additional cheese garnish, just some finely ground pistachio and fresh basil.
The dish was transcendent. Vitoria is a fierce critic of this kind of pasta, as it is her favorite. And she has clearly-established favorite restaurants around Sicily for making this dish. And Totò’s was the best she has had…and the most memorable dish of her entire trip thus far! I happened to be served a helping that was about twice the size of everyone elses, and about halfway through I slowed down. But I was not going to let a dish this extraordinary go to waste, so while everyone else was finishing with “la scarpetta” (more on that in a second), I was chatting and popping a bite of pasta every few minutes.
They served the dish with a lovely, dry white wine from their favorite winery near Marsala. Normally, Sicilians serve wine in great abundance, so wine here is sold by the jug or box, both at wineries and at stores. There is NO shame in picking up a 4-liter jug of wine, because a jug of wine in Sicily is vastly different from a box of Franzia in the US. The wine here is of truly exceptional quality. (Some of my well-dined customers from FRANK remarked that “table wine” or “house wine” in Sicily is the highest quality they’ve found anywhere, and it’s almost silly to order off the formal wine list when the house wine typically runs about $5 for a full liter.) Sicilians rarely buy wine by the bottle. But since Totò and Eleonora were expecting Americans at their table, they opted for the bottle (even though we cleared 3 by the end of the meal), but poured the wine into a decanter before serving.
I finally finished the last bite of pasta, and Eleonora smiled and said, “It’s time for la scarpetta!” Translating as “to make the little shoe,” La Scarpetta is a southern Italian tradition, at the end of a pasta course. You take a small piece of bread (never a full piece) and wipe up all the leftover sauce on the plate. Totò and Eleonora were not fully able to translate how this relates to “little shoe.” It could have been that the shape you trace on the plate is the shape of a small shoe. It could be that, in the post-war days, when food was scarce and hunger was the norm, people often thought of eating the soles of their shoes…(made from tanned cow hides, so basically meat)…and thus they never wasted a single bit of food. A little research confirmed that there’s no real understanding of the relationship between “little shoe” and wiping your plate with bread, or how and where this tradition got started and got named. But it’s a near-sacred tradition in southern Italy and Sicily. (Not so much in northern Italy, where pasta is NEVER served with bread.) They mused that “la scarpetta” is more common at home than in restaurants, but that they do see it in more family-oriented restaurants. Some people prefer to use a forked piece of bread at a restaurant to seem more formal. But it is expected, if you enjoyed the pasta enough to finish it. And, clearly, we all did.
Now we were full, so it was time for another break on the terrace. We also took a short stroll through the medieval alleys of Siculiana. Totò is a town council member, and the chief officer of tourism. He and Eleonora are very active with the local museum, which has placed interpretive signs all around the village, both in Italian and English, to help lure tourists off the beaches and into town.
After a break, it was back into the kitchen for the “secondi.” A traditional Italian lunch (always the biggest meal of the day) begins with “antipasti,” (or, the stuff you eat before pasta), then the “primi,” (a pasta course, or occasionally rice), and then the “secondi,” which is a meat or fish course, accompanied by “contorni” or some sort of vegetable side dish. Of course, sweet “dolci” follows, and then sometimes a bit of fruit to cap off the meal.
The secondi today was “polpo,” or octopus! One of my very favorite foods. And I was rabidly curious to see how Totò prepared it. Italians adore octopus more than any other culture on the planet, and there are many traditions involving the best preparation for this tricky seafood. Octopus can be insufferably tough and chewy…as anyone who has ever eaten it at a sushi restaurant can attest. (The Japanese revere that chewy, tough texture, so octopus is deliberately prepared this way for sushi.) Most cooking methods in the modern era in the US involve a very long cook, to break down the connective tissue in the octopus and thus tenderizing it. At FRANK, we have used both the sous vide method, as well as a long overnight poach in the oven. (Usually preceded by a lot of bashing of the octopus with a rolling pin to tenderize it…a tradition in both Italy and Mexico.) But not here in Totò’s kitchen. He simply thawed the octopus in cold water (the freezing DOES help tenderize), and simmered it for 12 minutes after a ritualistic “thrice dunking” which he counted out loud.
The simmering liquid was carefully prepared with 2 bay leaves and a pinch of oregano (both from his family farm), coarse sea salt, a splash of white wine, half a lemon, and the cork from a bottle of prosecco, soaked in white wine first. He waxed poetic about how important the cork is to the cooking process. That it takes the toughness out of the octopus and draws it into the cork. This is a long-standing Italian tradition, and nobody knows how it got started. While modern controlled experiments have proven that the wine cork has no noticeable effect on the final texture of octopus, you couldn’t convince Totò, or any Italian for that matter, to abandon the cork. And while I know full-well that the cork doesn’t have any real-world tenderizing effects…I still toss the cork into the pot at home, and smile inside when I do. There’s a value to cooking with tradition that goes beyond the molecular level. Rituals exist for a reason, they have a powerful effect on the human psyche. It refills my soul just a bit when I add the cork to the octopus pot, even though the mollusk would be just as tender without.
When the pot was simmering, Totò pulled one octopus out of the cold thawing water and dipped it once, twice, thrice into the pot, counting aloud as he did. “Uno. Due. Tre.” Then he let the octopus slip into the water, repeated the baptism with the other 2 mollusks, and then set the timer for 12 minutes. Then he pulled them from the water, sliced off the arms, and dressed them with a simple sauce of olive oil, salt, pepper, raw garlic, and a squeeze of lemon juice, called “pinzimiono.” 12 minutes! And here I’ve been cooking octopus for 12 hours. Apparently octopus are like squid…you either barely cook them, or cook them to death. The middle ground is where things get tough. (Though, with smaller squid, the cooking time is more like 1-2 minutes before they begin to get tough. The very best calamari is dunked in screaming hot oil for only a matter of seconds, just to crisp the breading and warm the squid through.)
Totò had already prepared the contorni (side dishes) on the serving plates. In this case, potato two ways, mashed and oven-fried. Italians almost always eat octopus with potatoes. Again, no one is certain how the pairing got started, but it’s a good one. Totò had prepared simple mashed potatoes (“NO BUTTER OR MILK” he insists!) with dried parsley, served at room temp, pressed into a ring mold and drizzled with olive oil to elevate the plating for us. He did not salt the mash, because the garnish atop it…thinly sliced sun dried tomato…would already have a high salt content, so he told us it was important to get a bit of tomato with each bite of potato. I am NO fan of sun dried tomatoes. I dislike their saccharine sweetness, but most of all, their leathery texture. I use them in pestos and other applications where I can destroy that texture, and balance it with acidity. But I never serve them or eat them as they come. Totò introduced me to a particularly genius way of using them…broiling them in the oven to caramelize the sugars (thus decreasing sweetness and adding complexity of flavor as the complex sugars break down into volatile flavor components), further drying them out and adding a bit of crisp texture. BRILLIANT! He then sliced the tomatoes very thin and placed them atop the ring-molded potato. Next on the plate were two slices of oven-fried potato…the crispiness would contrast with the unique texture of the octopus. He garnished with a bit of dried parsley, and explained that his concept for the plate was a representation of the sea. The mashed potato was the ocean, the strips of sun dried tomato were the seaweed, the crispy potatoes were the stones along the store. And the octopus was…well, the octopus!
Finally, Totò took a sprig of fresh mint and slapped it around the outer perimeter of our plates, releasing the essential oils and adding an aromatic finish to the dish. It was a unique touch I had never seen before. It was a beautifully simple plate with beautifully simple flavors, and light enough for me to devour without hesitation after the gargantuan pasta course an hour before.
After we cleaned table, Eleonora invited us to the terrace to eat some fruit before the “dolci” dessert. (This was a little backwards from tradition, but completely fine.) A basket of grapes from Totò’s family farm, along with cactus pears! I grew up calling them “prickly pears” but we rarely ate them in south Texas. As a kid, i would love knocking the purple fruit off the cactus pads with a baseball bat, and only once did my father brave the fine thorns to peel one for us to eat. It was full of hard seeds…a texture I couldn’t appreciate as a kid.
The prickly pear cactus (scientific name Opuntia) is native only to the Americas, but was introduced to Europe and Africa in the 1500s…along with many other ingredients now considered fundamental to the cuisine here, like tomato, eggplant, sweet and spicy peppers, and potatoes. NONE of these ingredients appeared in Italian cuisine prior to the 1500s, because they only grew in the New World. Cactus pears are relished in Sicily, more than in any other European location. Here, they are called “fichi di India,” or Indian figs, a clear indication that they got their name after Columbus believed he had discovered India when he landed in the New World, generically naming the native population “Indians,” which stuck in the American vernacular even to this day. Sicilians begin devouring these fruits in August when they ripen, as they are found growing wild all over the island and can be foraged anywhere, but farmers practice something called “scozzolatura” by cutting off the first fruits that form in the spring, forcing the cactus to sprout a second set of fruit. This means that each cactus produces far fewer prickly pears, but as they develop later in the season, when the fall rains begin, they are much larger and juicier. These monsters are called “bastardinos” or “big bastards” and in the local markets, starting in September, you’ll hear the vendors shouting “BASTARDINOS!” to lure in customers for their juicy bounty.
The Indian figs Totò and Eleonora shared weren’t technically bastardinos, as their family just lets the pears ripen naturally without practicing scozzolatura, but they were the biggest, juiciest cactus pears I’ve ever seen. They come in two colors, purple and gold, each with a distinctive flavor. (I preferred the purple.) Totò expertly carved them without even having to touch them, using a fork and a knife. First, he cut off about half an inch from each end. Then he sliced about a quarter of an inch laterally across the pear’s skin, and then ran the knife along the inside of the skin, deftly removing all danger of cactus spines on the tongue. He held the skin down with the knife and invited us to pluck the peeled fruit and put it on our plates. After peeling all the pears, he drizzled honey and sprinkled ground pistachio over them, and they disappeared in about 10 seconds. Absolutely divine. As with pomegranate, kiwi, and seeded grapes…the seeds just go down the hatch with the fruit. They’re probably good for you. And cactus pears are known to have the highest Vitamin C content of almost any fruit! In addition, their sugar structure is being investigated for potential treatment of treatment diabetes info. Sounds like we should be eating WAY more “Indian figs” in the US!
Then it was time for dessert. Deconstructed cannoli, or “Cannoli Scomposti” as it’s found in finer restaurants. Because cannoli are considered street food here, they aren’t “fancy” enough to serve at a restaurant. Also, cannoli are eaten with the hands…not acceptable in a fancy restaurant. But crush up the shells and plate everything nicely, and the same ingredients become an elegant dessert. (We were offered them at a Michelin-listed restaurant in Agrigento the night before, and the English menu had them translated as “Decomposed Connoli.” Appetizing, don’t you think!?)
Short interlude here regarding the Italian language. Anything ending with “i” is plural. So “cannoli” means more than one. You don’t eat “a cannoli.” You eat “a connolo.” If you eat more than one, you “ate cannoli.” So the common bastardization “cannolis” in the US is akin to saying, “cannoliesies.” Cannoli is already plural, so never say, “cannolis” and always order “a cannolo” unless you’re ordering more than one.
The concept of “cannoli scomposti” resulted from the fact that producing cannolo shells always results in some breakage of the pastry. And rather than waste those by tossing them in the trash, the broken shells are sold separately for the assembly of deconstructed cannoli.
Totò mentioned that the most traditional cannolo shells are not formed by wrapping the pastry around a metal mold (as we did at FRANK when we served them), but by wrapping them around a piece of bamboo. Apparently they slip off the bamboo more easily, and your fingers get less burnt when you have to touch the mold to remove the cannolo shell. (I have many unpleasant memories of finger burns when we did cannoli at FRANK.)
In the US, when you run across cannoli, they are usually filled with pastry cream, but traditional cannoli are filled exclusively with sweet ricotta. And in Sicily, that means sheep’s milk ricotta, as there are very few cattle raised here. Ricotta is an entirely different thing in Sicily. Back in the US, it’s used almost exclusively in savory applications, like lasagna and stuffed pastas. Here, fresh ricotta is used almost exclusively for sweets…breakfast and dessert. In savory applications, ricotta is served in the form of “ricotta salata” or “salted ricotta.” Fresh ricotta is salted heavily and pressed into a mold to extract most of the moisture. But instead of being aged, as you would a firm cheese like cheddar or gouda or parm, the cheese is served immediately after pressing for a few days. So it has that fresh, creamy taste of ricotta, but a firm, salty texture. It’s usually shaved atop a dish as a garnish. We also often encountered “ricotta al forno,” which is ricotta salata shaved and toasted in the oven, adding even more flavor and a lovely golden color.
But back to cannoli. The ricotta is mixed with sugar and beaten to achieve a lovely fluffy, yet rich texture, and then stuffed or piped into the cannolo shell. Then the ends can be dipped in either pistachio or chocolate chips. Cannoli are NEVER pre-filled. That would make the crispy shell soggy. They are filled the instant they are ordered, and devoured within seconds.
Totò crushed the shells and added the ricotta, then sprinkled everything with cinnamon. He also added a chunk of torrone, a traditional Sicilian confection that is associated specifically with feasts of the saints. It’s an almond brittle cooked in giant, rotating kettles. The caramel is not cooked as hard as our brittles in the US, so the resulting candy is a little sticky. Elsewhere in Europe, “torrone” is a white, nougat-like candy that is much softer, but here in Sicily, it’s a sticky brittle with either almonds or pistachios. They are mostly available from vendors at festivals, and are very, very popular.
Dessert was served with a sweet wine from Marsala…but not actual Marsala. The story of Marsala wine would take up another 4,500 word blog post, and I’m betting you haven’t waded through this entire article to reach this sentence. So it’s time to close.
Lunch with Totò and Eleonora was a meal I will not forget. Their hospitality was boundless. While many Americans have a Godfather-tinged view of Sicily, the people here are famous throughout Europe for their hospitality, and while the Mafia may still exist in the nooks and crannies here, organized crime in modern Sicily is less about guns, bombs, extortion, and family ties, and more about large-scale economic and corporate corruption.
This experience was made possible by Traveling Spoon. It’s not easy for an American traveler with a typically-short vacation to truly connect with locals on a trip. Traveling Spoon is working to change that. Reading reviews from other travelers who have used the service seem to indicate a common theme…an authentic culinary experience in the home of a local is invariably the highlight of a trip. Even a month-long trip, like mine, in a place where I have family. I HIGHLY recommend them!!!