Tag Archives: caponata

Sicilian Sunday Lunch

(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.

Totò waxes poetic about the important of using a wine cork soaked in wine to tenderize octopus…a long-held Italian tradition that is more wives’ tale than reality. But I still do it anyway!

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!!!

A FRANK Tale: The Godfather

Photos in this blog appear courtesy of our friend Stephanie Casey at Real Fine Food.  Follow her on Facebook and Instagram, also!

With FRANK pulling in some crazy press recently (a Dallas Morning News article called us “The Best Restaurant in DFW” and Modern Luxury featured us with 3 other restaurants as “Best of the City”), the pressure has been on to do MORE of them.  “Why not try 8 seatings for the next one?” Jennie proposed.  We had never done that before.  7 was the max.  We’re never afraid of a challenge, so 8 it would be.

Yours, truly, as Don Vito Corleone, with an actual bottle of the Corleone family's "real" business: Genco olive oil. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

We’ve developed a tradition of hosting an Italian feast at FRANK every winter.  While Italian is great in any season, there’s just something about the gray, dreary winter that makes you crave pasta and spicy tomato sauce and crusty bread and good red wine.  Adrien, who has now become a FRANK fixture, and Jennie were sitting around tossing out menu ideas one night and The Godfather came on TV.  For both of them, NOTHING is more important than The Godfather, so menu planning stopped while they watched the film…until they got to the spaghetti and meatballs scene, and they both simultaneously screamed, “FRANK GODFATHER!!!”  We had long been tossing around the idea of menus inspired by our favorite films and bands, so it seemed to be a perfect fit.

The only problem was that I had never actually seen the Godfather, so as they were excitedly babbling to me about menu ideas, I was a bit lost.  Until the word “Sicily” was tossed out.  Because Sicily is a special place for me.  My partner’s sister and mother live there.  Some of my fondest travel memories are from Sicily.  I adore the food, the island, the people…

Yours, truly, below a crumbling fairy-tale castle perched on a rock crag in Erice, Sicily. Sicily is my favorite European travel destination. Castles, Greek temples, Norman ruins, beaches, volcanoes, wine, cheese...and almost no tourists.

So all that really remained was for me to watch The Godfather for the first time.

I know, I know…it’s pretty inexcusable that I had never seen it.  One of the greatest films of all time, by most standards.  So I saw it.  And it was great.  In fact, I felt like I had seen it before many times…it’s that good.  (Or just that omnipresent in pop culture.)

We wanted the menu to both be an accurate introduction to Sicilian cuisine, and also have direct inspiration from the film, and here’s what we came up with:

Image courtesy of Stephanie Casey

For the amuse bouche, we decided to start with a dish that’s so distinctly Sicilian and is so pervasive in their culture that there’s not really anything else MORE Sicilian that you could start with.  Arancini, pronounced “ah-ran-CHEE-nee.”  A crispy fried ball of cheesy rice that sometimes has a nugget of meat or peas in the center.  Arancini is the first thing I ever tasted in Sicily…we literally drove straight from the airport in Palermo to a gas station nearby, and I was told to go inside and get an arancini.  I had no idea what to expect.  The clerk pointed me to a case that looked not unlike a hot dog case, filled with giant crusty balls the size of softballs.  I shelled out my 2 euros (about $3 at that time) and sank my teeth into a food memory I’ll never forget.  Crunchy-crisp on the outside, sticky and gooey and rich on the inside.  So filling.  So fulfilling.  Arancini are the hot dog of Sicily.  Every gas station has them.  Street carts sell them on every block.  For our version, we made it considerably smaller and used wild mushrooms and white truffle to flavor the risotto on the inside, so technically it was arancini di funghi.  And while we’re talking technicalities…arancini is the plural, so if you’re only eating one, you’re eating an arancino.  (More on this later.)  And if you’re familiar with Sicily, you know they have their own distinct language that’s similar to Italian, but not quite.  So you may encounter the spelling and pronunciation “arancine” in some areas of Sicily.  This is one of the more popular amuse bouches we’ve ever served at FRANK.  When Jennie does her end-of-meal quiz about which course was the diners’ favorite, it’s rare for the amuse to get more than 1 vote per night, but the arancini got multiple votes every night for best dish.  It was pretty freakin good:

Wild Mushroom and White Truffle Arancini. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

To get things started, we served up a panzanella salad.  Panzanella (“pan-zuh-NELL-uh”) is popular across much of Italy and Sicily, though it originated in Tuscany.  It was a way to use up stale bread left over from the night before.  The bread would sit out all night and get dry, and the next day they would toss those crusty crumbs with tomatoes and let them get a little moist, and serve it up as a salad.  We made our own bread (of course) and then tore it into chunks and sauteed it in garlic olive oil until crisp.  Then we tossed the chunks with a citrus vinaigrette and heirloom tomatoes, and some lovely baby beet greens from Garden Harvests Farm in Waxahachie, which is co-run by Jessica Longoria, the sister of the awesome artist Sarah Jaffe, who’s a friend of Jennie’s.  Jessica delivered our beet greens in the rain the morning before our dinners began, and I’m not sure I’ve ever worked with a more lovely salad green.  (Find Garden Harvests produce at Green Grocer on Greenville Ave, or Urban Acres in Oak Cliff!  For those of you who seek out local produce, you know exactly how hard it is to find in the winter, so this is a gold mine!)  To complete the panzanella in true Sicilian fashion, we had to have seafood on the plate.  Sicily is an island, and seafood makes up the vast majority of the protein Sicilians consume.  And if there’s a quintessential Sicilian seafood…it’s octopus.  “Polpo.”  The waters of the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian Sea teem with octopus, and every Sicilian grandmother has her own secret for transforming this normally tough, rubbery creature into a tender, mouth-watering masterpiece.  Adrien’s favorite meat is octopus.  He made it on MasterChef.  In fact, it’s the very first memory he has as a child…seeing and eating octopus for the first time.  Octopus makes a lot of Americans squeamish.  Those brave enough to try it typically have it at a sushi restaurant, where the traditional Japanese preparation leaves it quite rubbery and tough.  The Japanese appreciate this texture.  But Americans typically do not, so one taste of octopus, and most Americans wash their hands of it for life.  Which is a shame.  Because octopus is truly an extraordinary meat in the hands of an Italian cook.  I will never forget my first taste of Italian grilled octopus.  I actually wept, it was so delicious.  Fork tender, smokey, almost dissolving on my tongue.  So we serve octopus as often as we can at FRANK, to help change people’s minds about it.  And every night, people were tasting it either for the first time, or VERY reluctantly for the second time.  I don’t believe a single bit of octopus was left on any plate during all 8 dinners:

Octopus and beet green panzanella. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

Next up was something I knew had to be on the menu…caponata.  (Or capunata, depending on where in Sicily you are.)  The Sicilians invented this dish, and it’s served on virtually every menu at every restaurant on the island.  It’s a combination of vegetables, always with eggplant as the primary, stewed in vinegar and honey.  It is served both hot and cold, often as a salad or side dish, but occasionally as the main dish.  And I can’t get enough of it.  I’ve been perfecting my own version of caponata for years and have served it at dozens of dinner parties.  Mine has eggplant, celery, onion, shallot, garlic, and tomato, seared hard in olive oil until crusty, and then combined with capers and green olives.  Then the seasoning is made perfectly sweet-sour with homemade apple cider vinegar and honey, and I fold in lots of fresh basil.  It’s a flavor explosion.  We served it on top of a crispy polenta cake, with a 63.5 degree egg from our flock of hens.  On top of the egg was a pesto of basil and pistachio, a nut which made Sicily famous across the ancient world for producing the finest pistachios (or “pistacchios”).  It was a great course, lots of unique textures and flavors, and a big hit:

Crispy polenta cake, eggplant caponata, 63.5 degree egg, pistachio pesto. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey

Boozy sorbets have become de rigueur at FRANK as a palate cleanser before the main course.  And to this point, our food has been largely Sicilian, but not necessarily Godfather.  So when thinking about what type of boozy sorbet could accomplish both tasks, we immediately went to brandy, since so many scenes in the film involve the drinking of it.  We don’t drink enough brandy in this country.  Brandy is what you get when you distill wine, and for the majority of brandies, that means grape wine.  (Some classic American brandies are distilled from pear wine, cherry wine, etc.)  Somewhere along the way, brandy fell out of favor, but it’s really an amazing spirit.  Especially the ones that are carefully aged.  We decided to pair the brandy with blood orange, for several reasons.  First, because the most famous blood oranges in the world are grown in Sicily and have a protected geographic status within Europe.  And second, because oranges are a major symbol within the Godfather film series.  It started out as an accident.  During the early shots of the film, Coppola realized that the set and lighting was very stark, dim and monochromatic.  Scrambling around for a splash of color that wouldn’t interfere with the shot, oranges ended up getting placed in various scenes…and coincidentally, they seemed to appear in scenes that related to that particular character’s imminent demise or disaster.  When Vito Corleone gets ambushed and shot, oranges spill all over the road around his body.  Just before producer Jack Woltz’s horse gets beheaded and placed into bed with him, a large bowl of oranges sits in front of him as he converses with Tom Hagen.  At the meeting with the heads of the five families, bowls of oranges line the table.  (Weeks later, all the heads are murdered.)  On the day of his own death, Don Vito Corleone cuts up and eats an orange with his grandson just before plummeting to the ground.  Coppola mused that this was all an accident in the first film, but they loved the theme so much they continued in the subsequent films, and oranges are all over the place.  So we combined the orange and the brandy into a sorbet of such high proof that we had to freeze it with dry ice to get it to solidify…and folks devoured it:

Blood Orange Brandy Sorbet. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

And now…the main course.  In Italy, meals have a very specific structure.  First comes the antipasto, or appetizers, then comes the primo or first course, which is usually pasta (but can be soup, polenta, risotto, etc.), and then comes the secondo or primary course, which is the meat course.  Pasta is almost NEVER served as the main course in Italy.  But we did it, because of The Godfather.  There’s not much actual cooking in the Godfather, but there’s a famous scene where Clemenza is teaching Michael to make spaghetti and meatballs…because if he ends up in prison, he’ll need to know how to cook for the boys.  When Coppola was adapting Mario Puzo’s book, he really wanted to keep the spaghetti and meatballs scene intact, because he wasn’t entirely certain the film would be a success.  He mentioned, “If it’s a flop, at least the audience will know how to make a decent spaghetti sauce!”  We knew our main course HAD to be spaghetti and meatballs, and in true FRANK fashion, everything had to be from scratch.  Ever made homemade pasta for 160 people?  No easy task.  It took us an entire day, assisted by our lovely server Lindsay, who is also a brilliant chef herself.  By the time we were done, it looked like a cocaine deal gone terribly wrong…the loft was absolutely covered in flour!

Jennie and Linsday making homemade spaghetti

But there’s nothing lovelier than a nest of freshly-made pasta:

Housemade pasta. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

The sauce would have to be truly epic.  Chef Jennie chose the “arrabbiata” style, which is a bold, spicy sauce of tomato, garlic, and red chili flakes.  Making tomato sauce in Texas in December always necessitates turning to a can of tomatoes…it’s actually really hard to get tomatoes worthy of a sauce at ANY time of year, even when you have tomatoes in your garden and let them ripen on the vine.  The best sauce tomatoes are varieties with a high flesh/low moisture content, like Romas and other plum-shaped tomatoes.  You definitely don’t want a “juicy” tomato when making sauce.  The big beefsteak tomatoes have too much liquid and too many seeds to make a superior sauce, and that’s what most of us raise in our gardens.  Luckily, the best sauce tomatoes in the world are grown in the Campagnia region of southern Italy, near the town of San Marzano sul Sarno, and are widely available around the world…though definitely not inexpensive.  I get really annoyed when people turn up their noses at a sauce made from canned tomatoes.  Most canned tomatoes, in particular San Marzanos, are allowed to vine ripen and are canned immediately after picking.  On the other hand, ALL supermarket tomatoes, the vast majority of Farmer’s Market tomatoes, and even many home grown tomatoes, are picked from the vine before ripening, and allowed to ripen off the vine.  This results in a totally different texture, flavor, and sugar profile than if they were allowed to ripen on the vine.  I can make you a far better tomato sauce from the cheapest can of tomatoes than I can from the best-looking and most expensive tomatoes in the produce section of the grocery store.  Every single time.  So unless you have a source for vine-ripened, just-picked plum tomatoes grown in perfect soil in a perfect climate, don’t ever EVER think less of someone for using canned tomatoes in a sauce!  Incidentally, the omnipresent “Roma” tomato is a hybrid of the San Marzano variety, bred for a thicker skin (ie, easier transport from farm to market).  This may have been the best tomato sauce I’ve ever had, Jennie nailed it.

Then…the meatballs.  In The Godfather, when Michael Corleone has dinner with the police chief McClusky and the mafia family head Sollozzo (and ultimately murders them), as they walk into the restaurant, McClusky asks if the Italian food is good there, and Sollozzo says, “Try the veal, it’s the best in the city.”  Neither Jennie nor I are particularly mad for veal, and serving veal can be fraught with humanitarian concerns, just like foie gras.  But we were able to source pastured veal, which is becoming more common than the old-style way of raising veal (ie, keeping the calves tied up in a barn so they can’t move around and develop firm muscle structure).  Pastured veal is from calves that live their life as a normal calf does, grazing alongside its mother so it eats both grass and milk.  The texture and flavor is more similar to beef than old-style veal, but honestly…old-fashioned veal wasn’t really all that great to begin with.  What’s the point of going out of your way to produce a soft, bland meat?  Our meatballs were half veal and half pork, and chock full of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, shallots and garlic, and homemade bread crumbs.  Rolled and seared rustically, and perched atop a mound of that fresh housemade pasta and tangy, spicy sauce with some fried garlic, fresh basil, and tons of cheese on top:

Housemade spaghetti, arrabbiata sauce, veal meatballs. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

One of our first-time diners later confessed to me, “I was expecting FRANK to be this super fancy thing from your reviews, and when you sent me the menu the night before and I saw that the main course was spaghetti and meatballs, I almost didn’t come.  But this is the BEST spaghetti and meatballs I’ve EVER had…can I have some more?!?”  I really loved that moment.  Jennie and I never set out to make FRANK this ultra-sophisticated restaurant serving only haute cuisine.  Our mission statement says, “Our recipes are inspired by classic, traditional preparations, enriched by our collective creativity from years of travel and kitchen adventures. FRANK is food…to the point.”  This cuts to the very heart of my own personal food philosophy.  Some creative chef can come up with a new flavor combination and preparation, and it may be extraordinary and inspiring and incredibly delicious.  But it will NEVER have the impact on another human as a recipe that comes from their family history, something they’ve eaten since they were a child, prepared by those in their life who loved them the most.  A plate of spaghetti and meatballs will have more meaning to more people in this country than anything Jennie or I could dream up out of our own originality.  So rather than take the route that many chefs take…forging their own unique culinary legacy…we tend to focus on taking the foods that already have a centuries-old legacy, and making them as perfect and delicious as they can possibly be.  This is what sets FRANK apart from other restaurants of its type and price range.  FRANK is less about FOOD and more about PEOPLE.  Yes, the food is delicious.  But when you read our reviews, you’ll find, time and again, that people leave the experience raving about the EXPERIENCE.  The people they met and shared the evening with.  And that is fostered through the food.  Jennie loves to refer to FRANK as a culinary sociological experiment, rather than a restaurant.  And I couldn’t agree more.

Dessert.  When I posted on Facebook that we were doing a Godfather theme, virtually every comment mentioned the famous cannoli scene.  Clemenza and his henchman Rocco are ordered to kill long-time friend and family chauffeur Paulie for betraying the Godfather.  After Rocco shoots Paulie, he asks Clemenza what to do next, and Clemenza carelessly says, “Leave the gun…take the cannoli.”  (Little known fact…the actor that played Clemenza improvised that line, it wasn’t in the script, and it became one of the most-quoted and iconic lines of the film.)  So we knew we HAD to have cannoli on the menu.  (Quick Italian lesson…”cannoli” is actually plural, so if you have only one, you have a “cannolo”…or, if you’re in Sicily which has its own distinct dialect, a “cannolu.”  There is no such thing as “a cannoli,” that’s akin to saying, “I’m going to eat a cupcakes.”)  Cannoli are an iconic Italian dessert made of a crispy shell of fried pasta dough, filled with lightly sweetened ricotta.  They are a ridiculous amount of work, which is why they are typically only sold at specialty bakeries.  The pasta dough is like any other pasta dough…primarily flour and eggs, but instead of adding water to hydrate the dough, you add Marsala…a sweet dessert wine from Sicily.  This gives the dough a hint of sweetness and complexity.  We let the dough rest for a day in the fridge to fully hydrate, then rolled it thin in the pasta machine before wrapping around specialized stainless steel cannoli molds, sealing together with egg white, and deep frying until crisp.  Then you have to immediately remove the shell from the mold or it will stick to it…not an easy task when you’re dealing with a 320 degree piece of metal!  Just before serving, we filled the shells with ricotta which we lightly sweetened and scented with orange zest and vanilla.  And each end was dipped in pistachios, the quintessential Sicilian nut.

We were slightly concerned that a single cannolo wouldn’t be a sufficient dessert, and worried that 2 cannoli might be too much or too one-note.  So we rounded out the dessert with some tiramisu, which is an often-bastardized mid afternoon snack in Italy…rarely dessert.  The name “tira mi su” literally means “pick me up” and is commonly taken with coffee in the afternoon to tide you over until a late dinner.  Traditionally it consists of a circle of sponge cake soaked with espresso, sandwiching layers of mascarpone cheese custard.  The recipe morphed into the use of ladyfingers (finger-shaped pastries, normally of sponge cake, but occasionally of cookie-like biscotti), and some pastry chefs added liquor to the espresso for soaking them.  Tiramisu has the distinction of containing a pair of ingredients that are the two most bastardized Italian words in America: espresso and mascarpone.  Even some TV chefs rampantly mispronounce espresso as “expresso.”  I can’t count the number of times Joe Bastianich, an Italian restaurateur whose mother is one of the most famous Italian chefs in the country, mispronounced it “expresso” while we were filming MasterChef.  That’s wrong.  Don’t do it.  Next we come to “mascarpone,” a rich Italian cream cheese that is so mispronounced that the mispronunciation has become more common than the correct one.  You often hear it bastardized as “MAR-ska-pone.”  That’s wrong.  Don’t do it.  The ONLY acceptable pronunciation of mascarpone is:

MAHS – car – PONE – eh

In fact, ANY time you see an “e” at the end of ANY Italian word, it MUST be pronounced.  Like “pappardellE” or “tagliatellE” or “provolonE” or “profiterolE.”  99.9999% of Italian words end in a vowel, which is always, without exception, pronounced.  This is why Italians learning English often insert a vowel at the end of every English word that ends in a consonant.  “I live-a in-a the town-a of-a Dallas-a.”  So even if it doesn’t feel right at first, take a risk and properly pronounce your Italian ingredients!  ESPECIALLY mascarpone.  But I digress…so tiramisu is an afternoon snack in Italy, and consequently, it’s not very sweet.  American pastry chefs have transformed it into the sickly-sweet dessert most of us are familiar with.  But tiramisu in Italy is only faintly sweet.  I make a LOT of tiramisu…it’s my partner’s favorite “dessert.”  (Click HERE for my dessert version with pumpkin custard and caramel-soaked ladyfingers!)  And for FRANK, we did it the old fashioned way, with circles of sponge cake (soaked in espresso and hazelnut liqueur), and delicate layers of mascarpone whipped with espresso and a hint of sweetness, dusted on top with cocoa and a touch of cinnamon.  “Best tiramisu ever” was uttered a number of times, and even written on the FRANK chalkboard.  A fitting duo to end Godfather FRANK:

Orange pistachio cannolo and amaretto tiramisu. Image courtesy of Stephanie Casey.

An epic menu to celebrate an epic film.  But wait…there’s a Godfather 2…and 3.  Will there be FRANK encores of this theme?  Only time will tell.  Thanks for reading, feel free to comment below, and subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of your screen so you don’t miss any of my excessively wordy food blogs!