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Friday, 20 April 2007

recipe of the month : Involtini di pescespada

My Grandma Providenza's only job was that of raising her three, extremely spoiled, children and she used to spend entire days in the kitchen. I can still recall the delicious aromas, when she was organising her usual Sunday gathering, right after mass.
When she passed away a few years ago , I inherited her recipe book. The recipe I'm going to post today is one of my favourites: Involtini di pesce spada. (swordfish rolls)
I also remember when I was a child, anytime she was preparing this particular recipe and I happened to be "helping out" in the kitchen, I used to ask her to sing a particular song for me: "Lu Pisci Spada" (the swordfish) by Domenico Modugno. It is a famous song in sicilian dialect, which recounted a fishing expedition from the eyes of both the fishermen and two amorous swordfish.

Sicilian cuisine, especially the "Baroque" one, can be very complex at times, because of this it is always best to have somebody with you to show you all the "magic".
For those who would like to master this old traditional Sicilian recipe, Mamma Lucia from Ristorante Cin Cin in Palermo knows all the culinary secrets about it.

Swordfish rolls (involtini di pesce spada)

Ingredients (serves 4)
12 slices of swordfish (600-700g)
Extra virgin olive oil
100g grated mature cheese (pecorino if possible)
20g pine kernels
20g raisins
Lemon juice
1/2 a small chilli pepper chopped
Salt and pepper
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 small onion
12 bay leaves
4 skewer sticks


The filling: finely chop the onion and garlic and gently fry in olive oil until soft. Add salt and pepper, the pine kernels, the raisins, the finely chopped parsley, the cheese and the chilli pepper and mix well until it is fairly solid (though not too dry).

The sword fish: using a tenderiser, flatten the swordfish fillets and then add a spoonful of the filling and roll up. Once ready roll in olive oil and bread crumbs and place 3 rolls onto each skewer, divided by a slice of onion and a bay leaf.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Sicilianised foodies

OK, I admit. I am a bit obsessive when it comes to food.
Being devoted foodies, Dean and myself had done almost 50 gourmet trips over the last four years, travelling together in search of the ever illusive meal par excellence. We have eaten pad thai and curries on the streets of Bangkok, sipped High Tea in London, explored the back roads of Tuscany, feasted on roast duck in Beijing, dim sum in Hong Kong, rump-steak in Argentina and so so. We were and still are extremely privileged to be exposed to such a wide range of food and cuisine from around the globe.
But despite this, nothing beats Sicilian food, and especially the street-food.
I will never forget the horrified expression on Dean's face, when we were still dating in Australia and I said I craved street-food. This was of course, before his first visit to Sicily. Forget greasy burgers from a dodgy stall – in Sicily shoppers can eat like kings as they buy their weekly groceries. Once Dean had experienced the unique flavours of such a complex culinary culture. Since then, he had developed a compulsive obsession toward Sicilian food, and in particular toward "his majesty" - as he calls it - the Arancina. He is also slowly turning into a real Sicilian, calling my mamma in typical Sicilian fashion, right after stepping out of the plane to ask her for his favourite sauce. And once home, he eats it like there is no tomorrow.
The list of other Sicilianised individuals is long, like our longtime friend, high-flying merchant banker Phil, who is now addicted to sicilian caponata and begs us to ship the "goodies" to Australia.

If you are a street-food fanatic, then Palermo is for you.
Even food professional Jamie Oliver was stunned at the quality of the food served in Sicily's street markets. Marinated artichoke, fresh salads with olives and ripe tomatoes and fillets of fried fish are just some of the tasty dishes on offer, and I am sure these delicacies would sicilianise even the most exigent, fussy palate.
A perfect example of typical Palermitan street food and another Dean's favourite is "Pane e Panelle":
golden, fried fritters made from ground chickpea flour, water, and parsley.
Surprisingly, I have seen these chickpea fritters in the menu of some of the most elegant Italian restaurants in Sydney. Pane e panelle is a street food and traditionally is eaten standing up and not in a plate with fork and knife. If only Palermitans saw this…
Here's an old recipe from my grandmother, for those who might try and experiment in the kitchen. Enjoy!

Ingredients (make about 30 fritters):

2 1/2 cups (8 ounces) chickpea flour
3 cups water
3 tablespoons finely fresh parsley or oregano (optional)
4 to 6 cups vegetable oil
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon fine ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
vegetable oil


Dissolve the chickpea flour in three cups of cold water and add the salt and the baking powder. Cook and stir it for about 20 minutes. Stir in the parsley. Divide the mixture with a spatula, stack the panelle next to each other and let them cool for a couple of minutes. Heat the vegetable oil to 375F in a flat pan. Fry the panelle until golden. Drain them on paper towel and serve them warm.
A true Palermitano will eat Panelle in a sandwich, with a dash of lemon juice.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

behind the Siesta

A bit of Wikipedia first:
Siesta is a short nap taken in the early afternoon, often after the midday meal. Such a period of sleep is a common tradition in hot countries. The word siesta derives from the Latin HORA SEXTA - "the sixth hour" (counting from dawn, therefore noon, hence "midday rest").
Siesta has nothing to do with a simple cat-nap. This is a whole different concept, as siesta means the deep, dreamy, and "comatose" postprandial sleep.

I really HATE siesta, the whole country goes dead and you literally cannot do anything for four hours! Business hours in Sicily are usually 8:00 to 12:00 and 16:00 to 20:00 and in the black hole of Siesta, getting anything done becomes next to impossible. Need to speak with a call centre operator? The phone will ring through. Need to report a crime? The police officer will tell you to come back at 16:00. Need to shop for supplies? You can starve...
But worse thing is, instead of having rush hour traffic only in the morning and the early evening, main cities in Sicily have rush hour traffic four times a day: Morning, beginning of siesta, end of siesta and end of work day. Secondly, those two hours of spare time are too long to hang around in the office, but too short to do anything meaningful. Third, when I finally get home and have made myself dinner it is too late to do anything of substance if I want to get a full night sleep before work.
Getting started is half way to getting the work done, what happens with productivity when you have to get started twice a day???

My mother took siestas this all her life, to a point that her body had adjusted to the nap time, and literally '"shuts down her system"' everyday at 14:30 on the dot. After lunch each day, she disappears into her bedroom and like clockwork, fall into a deep sleep. The entire house falls into a religious silence and the telephone absolutely must be off the hook. By doing so for many years, my mother would party hard until 4 am, be up by 7 and to the office by 9, then sleep from 2 to 4 in the afternoon. Then back to the office and party again. And always feeling fresh.
I had started to wonder what all the fuss is about Siesta and what the positives might be, so I started to research a bit more about this Latin beloved habit. Here is some interesting facts I managed to uncover:

FACT: A siesta goes beyond the 30 minute rule at which the brain suddenly goes in to deep sleep with undesirable consequences. Naps are short, refresh the mind and body and, according to scientists, improve night time sleep.

FACT: Siesta lovers... Winston Churchill did it, even during the London blitz. Spanish and Portuguese gentlemen do it, not to mention Italians. Most upper-class Greeks used to do it -- although the practice has stopped because there are no real Greek gentlemen left. Gianni Agnelli, of Fiat fame, does it every day, as did Aristotle Onassis, Charles de Gaulle, Benito Mussolini, the Duke of Alba, Juan Peron, the King of Spain, and Lucky Luciano, among others.

NEWS: France's health minister has floated the idea of making the siesta official government policy on
the grounds that "a short nap is good for efficiency and safety at work".
Under his proposal, French workers would be encouraged to doze off in special "quiet rooms" provided by their employers and also be equipped with a "sleep passport" in which they could record how much napping they fit into their day.
Why should only the French, the Spanish and the Italians have all the fun? Should the Anglo-Saxon world adopt the siesta too and thus relax, enjoy life more and generally "chill"?
Or is the siesta a symbol of everything most decadent about life "on the continent"? Is it just a rationalisation of the Mediterranean countries' natural laziness?

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Get set for a glorious food lover's weekend

Source : Epicurious.com
Bon Appétit Magazine - Mara Papathedorou writes :

I fell in love with Sicily the moment I set foot there. Stepping down from the plane, I walked into a warm breeze so fragrant it stopped me in my tracks. "What is that delicious smell?" I asked a man near me. His reply was enthusiastic. "Signora, that is la zagara — the orange and lemon blossoms. The trees are all in flower now!" Could there really be enough blossoms to perfume a whole island?
I was soon to discover that Sicily abounds in such resources. Its flavors, scents, and colors are more intense than anywhere else in Italy. Ripened by the sun and tempered by the salt air, fruits and vegetables take on a greater depth of flavor. They form the basis of Sicily's complex gastronomic culture, the roots of which are buried in the island's history.
As on all islands, Sicily's winds, when they come, have names and identifiable characteristics. When lo Scirocco blows in from the Sahara desert, the air is thick with yellow-ocher or brick-red sand. And then there is la Tramontana, the cooling wind from the north. The tiny thin-skinned brown lentils of Ustica, an island near Palermo, grow best when facing such a wind. The same lentils, planted elsewhere, are just not as flavorful.
Those lentils have been taken up as a cause by the Slow Food movement, the Italian organization (which now has members worldwide) that is devoted to protecting artisanal foods from the encroachment of globalization and mass production. In fact, all across Sicily, foods and culinary traditions are being rediscovered and celebrated. From the island's unique grapes, to cheese, candies, even salt — all are being safeguarded as the treasures they are. For those of us who love Sicily, these developments are both comforting and exciting.

There's no better place to start exploring Sicily than at the heart of Palermo, in the island's oldest food market, La Vucciria. On this Saturday morning its narrow streets seem like a maze, lined with tables and crates stacked with bright pyramids: the satiny purple eggplants; pale green cucuzza squash like long curlicues; dark green artichokes; yellow citrons as big as grapefruits, and lemons as sweet as oranges; round sheep's-milk cheeses. I buy a few plums to eat as I walk; they are wrapped for me in a cone of rough paper, like a bunch of flowers.

My favorite stall is the deep-red one of tomatoes and peppers, the air around it exotic from sweet and salt, herbs and spice. Here the tomatoes come in every shape and guise: fresh; sun-dried; vine-dried, then tied in tangled bunches; preserved in oil; ground with herbs for pesto Palermitano; or pressed into salty slabs of concentrated paste — l'estratto — that are sold from an open tray by the spoonful. To accompany them are blisteringly hot peperoncini, woven strands of pink-veined garlic, and sprays of wild herbs.

"This area has been a market for centuries," explains Lia Verdina of the city tourist office. "Its name has evolved from boccheria — from the French boucherie, or butcher's — to Vucciria."

It's time for a midmorning snack, so we walk around piazzas ringed with palm trees and weave through chaotic traffic past eighteenth-century palaces to a bar known for its pastries. "Salato o dolce — savory or sweet?" asks Lia, opting for an arancina, a hot golden orb of rice that reveals a nugget of cheese at its center. It's hard to choose, but the cannoli look irresistible. The shells are filled with sweetened ricotta only after I order them, so they remain crisp to the last bite.

Our tour continues past the splendidly restructured Teatro Massimo opera house to the Kalsa, where Arab emirs lived a thousand years ago. One lofty section of an old wall has been strikingly converted into a cocktail bar, bookshop, and meeting place. It is a symbol of the rebirth of this once run-down quarter — at night, the streets around it are alive with restaurants and wine bars.

The autostrada west from Palermo toward Trapani follows the coast between imposing hills and sea so blue it's dazzling. I'm going to visit Marilù Terrasi, whose restaurant and hotel, Pocho, in the seaside town of San Vito lo Capo is renowned for its couscous. Called cuscusu in Sicily, this dish is an Arab legacy that is now the Trapani area's most popular meal. Indeed, San Vito lo Capo hosts an annual couscous festival, where cooks from around the Mediterranean compete.

"Our couscous is traditionally served with fish," explains Terrasi as I am served a heaping platter of it adorned with a host of sea creatures. "We season it with bay leaf, but some people also like it very piccante."

I drive on through seas of vineyards — Trapani produces more varieties of grapes than any other province in Italy — and then climb the steep, winding road to Erice. This stunning medieval hill town with narrow, intricately paved streets was built beside an ancient Greek temple dedicated to the bee goddess Aphrodite. This is the stuff of mythology: Virgil mentions the temple as a landmark in the Aeneid. Today, the views from Erice's peak are spectacular, and in summer its breezes are always cooling.

But there's another reason for my visit. I'm here for the delicious cookies and pastries that are produced by Maria Grammatico in her little shop. Grammatico learned her craft growing up in a convent, as did generations of sweetmakers before her. Grammatico's recipes, and the story of her life, have been published in Bitter Almonds, the book she wrote with Mary Taylor Simeti.

Down again, and a drive farther west toward Marsala by way of the coastal road that runs along the Mozia lagoon and past ancient — but still productive — salt flats. I love to come to this magical world halfway between sea and land. If you are lucky with the weather, you can have an aperitivo at the bar by the salt plant and watch the sunset reflected in the salt pans.

"Taking the best, mineral-rich salts from the sea and leaving the impurities behind is an ancient art," explains Giacomo D'Ali Staiti, who has restored a handsome sixteenth-century windmill here and created a salt museum. "It involves pumping sea water through a series of shallow insulated fields whose salinity increases under the hot summer sun until salt crystals form. The salt is then gathered into pyramids." At the end of the season, these large mounds are protected from the autumn rains with terra-cotta tiles. Without them, the salt would wash right back into the sea.

For dinner I treat myself to a plate of busiati — pasta that has been hand-rolled around a reed stalk to give it a spiral form. It is dressed with chunks of locally caught tuna and sprinkled with intensely aromatic capers preserved sotto sale — in sea salt.

It's lovely to explore the hills of southeast Sicily, where the extraordinary baroque towns of Ragusa, Modica, and Noto are situated. This landscape is unique, whatever the season — in spring when the pastures are colored by wildflowers, and in summer and autumn when their parched gold is broken only by the network of white dry-stone walls. Even the cattle blend into this monochromatic world of whites and browns. Their milk is used to make caciocavallo Ragusano, a well-salted firm cheese that is pressed into large rectangular blocks and matured hanging from ropes. A consortium has been formed to ensure that local farmers and artisans will continue to produce the cheese just as it has been produced for centuries.

Indeed, this is where some of Sicily's most interesting food artisans are to be found. In Modica, at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Franco Ruta makes pure, aromatic chocolate using the methods of the Aztecs. In Noto, maestro gelataio Corrado Costanzo carries on an ice cream tradition that was begun by the Arabs a thousand years ago using snow and infusions of jasmine and rose petals. Also in Noto, the Assenza brothers, at their Caffè Sicilia, produce a range of honeys scented with chilies, wild herbs, fruits, and spices. Their pastries range from classic favorites like cassata to innovative desserts that successfully use vegetables in place of fruit.

Such modern twists are not unusual in twenty-first-century Sicily. "Modern Sicilian cuisine bridges the gap between the future and the past," points out Ciccio Sultano, the talented young chef and owner of Ristorante Duomo in the ancient town of Ragusa Ibla. Sultano has built an inspired cuisine around the area's uniquely flavorful ingredients, like cherry tomatoes, pistachios, bitter almonds, and the delicate long-stemmed pears from Mount Etna. "There are excellent wild foods, too," he says, "from the herbs that have chosen to grow here — fennel, mint, thyme, and oregano — to the game, mushrooms, wild berries, and chestnuts."

My final stop, the pretty fishing port of Syracuse on the east coast, is a good place to find the varieties of Mediterranean fish that star in so much of the island's cucina. Swordfish — traditionally caught in the Strait of Messina — and tuna are often accompanied by tomatoes, as well as raisins and pine nuts, mint and garlic, or capers and olives. Sardines, red mullet, and inky squid are popular, abundant, and affordable. They are best when cooked with delicate Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil — never butter — and eaten with chewy fresh bread.

From the port, I walk across the bridge to the tiny, beautiful island of Ortigia, where the city center is located. Its creamy-pink streets are full of restaurants, shops, and wonderful architecture, like the baroque cathedral, which was built on the site of a Greek temple to Athena and houses a medieval church within it. The piazza here is a great place to sit, have a glass of the local wine, and watch the passeggiata, the parade of couples and families out for an evening stroll.

And it's a great place to reflect on Sicily's ancient allure. Here, in this city, are some of the best of the Greek archaeological ruins — Syracuse was one of the most important cities in the western world for more than a thousand years. Those ruins are now surrounded by a modern city and, beyond that, by orange and lemon groves that fill the Sicilian air with their exquisite perfume.

Couscous, Up From Africa, at Home in Sicily

Source: The New York Times

Couscous, the dish of steamed wheat grains most readily identified with the countries of North Africa, belongs to Sicilian tradition as well. Until recently, though, its elaborate preparations were undertaken only to mark some special occasion.

I first tasted Sicilian couscous about 30 years ago, when a childhood friend of my husband's who had emigrated to the States brought his small daughter back to visit his native land. His former schoolmates celebrated his return with couscous, prepared by their wives and served up at my in-laws' beach house.

We wives labored at length under the direction of another friend's mother, former chef to an aristocratic household in Trapani. A small, stout woman in black, she arrived midmorning, wedged into her daughter-in-law's minuscule Fiat amid bags of couscous, branches of bay leaves and crates of assorted fish balanced on stacks of ceramic platters and bowls. Cradled on her lap was a huge aluminum couscoussiera, a double boiler in which the tight-fitting upper pot is perforated like a colander. She was an exacting taskmaster and I was a hopeless novice, but for however little I contributed to the making of the couscous, I more than compensated in the eating of it.

In those days couscous was something of a clandestine affair. It was not easy to find it outside the area of Trapani, Sicily's westernmost province, or anywhere but private houses. Relatively few restaurants served it regularly, and few people outside Sicily suspected its existence. But now that the world has discovered Sicilian cuisine, the word is out, and many foodies arrive with couscous inscribed on their lists of dishes to taste while on the island. Although the Trapani region maintains its near monopoly, today there are a number of good restaurants there that include couscous on their daily menu.

That couscous is an immigrant from the Maghreb, or northwest Africa, is beyond doubt. Its origins are Berber, but just when it made the leap from North Africa to Sicily is a matter of debate. One school of thought believes that couscous arrived with the Saracen invasion in A.D. 827, and lingered after the 250-year Arab occupation ended, while other food historians claim that it was introduced (or reintroduced) only in the 19th century.

Couscous grains appear, however, on the price control lists of the Palermo markets during the 15th and 16th centuries, and the 1694 Christmas Day menu for the nuns of the San Salvatore Monastery in Palermo included a couscous dessert, similar perhaps to the pistachio-flavored cuscus dolce still made today by the nuns at the Spirito Santo abbey in Agrigento.

However long it has been here, the couscous that is served today in the homes and the restaurants of the Trapani area has evolved in its own particular fashion. In the first place, it is almost always served with fish, as opposed to the meat or vegetable versions characteristic of the Maghreb, and the rituals of preparation differ as well.

The proper Trapanese housewife disdains the precooked variety for the unprocessed, and sets great store by her ability to execute the 'ncocciata: swirling the rough-ground semolina grains around with one hand in a wide ceramic basin called a mafaradda, she uses the other hand to sprinkle it with just enough water so the individual grains gather into loose but not lumpy clusters.

Then the couscous, seasoned with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, is steamed over water rather than broth. Once cooked, the couscous is turned out into a large bowl, the fish broth is ladled over it, and then the bowl is wrapped in blankets and left to stand for half an hour, while the grains absorb the broth.

Within this general scheme there are many variations: our friend's mother used to line the upper part of her couscoussiera with bay leaves before she put the couscous in; a cousin remembers toasted almonds sprinkled on top; another friend claims that a pesto of garlic and blanched almonds added to the fish broth as it simmers is essential for an authentic couscous, and she adds that the broth must be made of 14 varieties of fish and shellfish.

Although Sicilians use spices much more sparingly than the North Africans, cinnamon gave a distinctive flavor to some couscous dishes that I have eaten in Sicily, while cloves were a distinctive note in a couscous that I recently ate at Alla Kasbah in Mazara del Vallo. This is a pleasant restaurant, only a few steps from the new museum that houses "The Dancing Satyr," a classical Greek statue in bronze that was recently swept up in the nets of a local fishing boat.

Here, perhaps because Mazara is a town with a very large North African population working on its fishing fleet and in its vineyards, the couscous is quite reminiscent of its African forefathers. It comes amply surrounded by fish (there is also a meat version) and is a meal in itself, especially if preceded by the house antipasto, which includes a miniature Tunisian brik, a fried egg pancake with a potato-and-tuna filling.

Elsewhere it is more common to serve couscous, accompanied by just a few morsels of fish, as a first course to take the place of pasta. That is what we were given at the Trattoria Garibaldi in the wine-producing city of Marsala, just north of Mazara, where we went in search of what is reputed to be the best couscous in the region. The crowd there that August evening bore witness: the tables spilled out the door and filled the small piazza squeezed between a Baroque church facade and the crenellated wall of the Renaissance town hall. The couscous itself was very good - straightforward, not particularly spicy but perfect in texture and balanced in seasoning.

I have a particular fondness for eating couscous at the Ristorante Monte San Giuliano in Erice, where it is served with fish broth on the side to add as you like. This enthusiasm is perhaps fanned by my love for this little medieval town, which crowns a solitary mountain overlooking the port of Trapani and beyond to the Egadi Islands.

I have had the good fortune to watch the San Giuliano chef, Matteo Giurlanda, do a couscous demonstration, to admire the dexterity necessary for a proper 'ncocciata and to see how he seals the two layers of the couscoussiera with a flour-and-water paste so the steam will not escape. Little rings of the same paste are placed on top of the couscous while it steams: when they are fully cooked, so is the couscous. According to his headwaiter and partner Andrea Coppola, these rings were once the first taste of festivity for the small children of the household.

It is not necessary for the curious to go farther afield to compare the Sicilian variety to the North African original. In recent years numerous restaurants have been opened by immigrants from the southern shores of the Mediterranean. The Trattoria Amilcar in Palermo, for example, offers couscous and other authentic Tunisian dishes that are as good if not better than many that I have eaten in Tunisia itself.

Finally, for the truly obsessed, the lighthouse on the rocky tip of northwestern Sicily is a beacon. It illuminates the pretty little fishing village of San Vito lo Capo, which celebrates the end of the summer with an annual international couscous festival, held during the third week of September. Each country sends a team of chefs who dish out their national couscous specialty to throngs of visitors and, on the final evening, to the international jury whose happy job it is to pick the winner.

Restaurant Information

An expensive wine or fish course will increase these prices considerably.

Ristorante Alla Kasbah, Via Itria 10, Mazara del Vallo; telephone (39-0923) 906126. Closed Monday. $30 to $38 a person, including wine, at $1.25 to the euro.

Trattoria Garibaldi, Piazza Addolorata 35, Marsala; (39-0923) 953006. Closed Saturday lunch and Sunday dinner; $30 to $38 a person, including wine

Ristorante Monte San Giuliano, Vicolo San Rocco 7, Erice; (39-0923) 869595. Closed Monday. $30 to $35 a person, including wine.

Trattoria Pizzeria Amilcar, Via G. Marconi 9, Palermo; (39-333) 1909238. Closed Tuesday. $25 to $30 a person, including wine.

Information about the annual Couscous Fest at San Vito lo Capo can be found at http://www.sanvitocouscous.com/.

In Sicily, an Appetite for the New

Source: The New York Times - Travel

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, pe"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."ople have begun to associate it with something positive," Mr. Graziano wrote. 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.

At Il Timo, the restaurant in the Sheraton hotel in Catania, Saverio Piazza, the executive chef and food and beverage director, has created what he calls fish gnocchi, borrowing from haute cuisine and recalling a quenelle or mousse of fish paste poached in a broth. His featherlike gnocchi are made with butter, flour, butter and sea bass. They are served in a sauce of scampi, tomatoes and garlic.
Mr. Piazza says outside influences, including Japan, have increased the popularity of raw fish in Sicily, where restaurants in coastal towns serve it just hours old. "The traditional way was fried tuna with onion sauce with vinegar, a type of sweet and sour," he said. "The first raw fish to be served were the neo nato, newly born anchovies or sardines. Little by little we got to swordfish carpaccio. Now there is prosciutto of tuna."
Mr. Piazza loves to play with uncommon combinations of spices and vegetables, often using them as a base for simply grilled or sautéed fish. He infuses eggplant with cinnamon and serves it with sea bass; red mullet rests on a bed of zucchini sautéed with cardamom. "I close myself in the office, and I imagine the taste," he said.
One of these sessions produced eggplant marmalade made with sugar and bay leaf and served in a tart shell topped with a lemon twist.
Ciccio Sultano, whose Ristorante Duomo has a Michelin star, was one of the first local chefs to be noticed abroad for his reinvention of Sicilian dishes and for returning lost ingredients to contemporary cooking.
Always playful, he serves shrimp and squid fried in a delicate batter of semolina. It comes to the table wrapped in a paper cone, like French fries.
"I like people to be entertained, to have fun," Mr. Sultano said. "My work is to rediscover and identify the lost flavors of traditional cuisine and to renew them, inserting them into a modern and innovative context, while at the same time remaining true to the historical significance of the territory."
His dish of octopus, pork and citron seems unlikely until you taste it. The octopus is boiled and ground "like a salami," he said. The pork is prepared like headcheese, but with orange and lemon, giving both the seafood and the meat similar textures. The accompanying salad of citron, onions and parsley contrasts with and lightens the richness of the octopus and pork.
But the most daring experimenter with the strong sweet and savory elements in Sicilian cooking is Mr. Assenza of Caffè Sicilia.
As we sat in his wonderful old cafe, housed in a 1749 building, he plied us with example after example of his startling honeys and jams, cakes and preserves. "Using a combination of ingredients," he said, "you pass from low use of sugar to high use at the end of a meal."
For example he marinates raw fish in honey suffused with extra virgin olive oil and orange, lemon and saffron, and then serves it with lemon granita. And he pairs oysters with almond granita and what Mr. Assenza calls chili pepper candy, hot peppers glazed with honey.

The combinations are fascinating and endless, and at times they seem improbable. But one bite changes all that, astounding and delighting the palate.

One of Mr. Assenza's gems is a basil marzipan filling for chocolate. The brilliant creations of his mad genius - dozens of marvelous little boxes filled with jars containing honey-glazed capers; honey combined with wild fennel, saffron, white pepper or bergamot - line the shelves behind the glass counters of the cafe.

"This is my link with the Sicilian tradition of sweet and acid," he said. "We have the best ingredients and we honor Sicily by amplifying the quality of the ingredients."

Brian Wingfield contributed reporting for this article.

When in Sicily, Do as They Do

Source: The New York Times - Travel

Dolce & Gabbana is as synonymous with Sicily as old ladies in veils and young Romeos on scooters. Since founding the label in 1985, the designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana have mined the island for inspiration with the zeal of latter-day Viscontis. They have made stylistic allusions to its sartorial traditions - ecclesiastic and aristocratic - named one of their fragrances after it and used it as the backdrop for some of their most memorable advertising images. They have also frequently vacationed there, spending two weeks every summer de-stressing on the secluded island of Stromboli and dancing under the mirrored balls in the bustling resort town of Taormina. "We love Sicily," says Dolce, a native Sicilian. "It is the perfect place to just relax - eat, read and not worry about the stress of work. And we always come back with so many ideas. It is very magical."
Gabbana's account of a typical day in Taormina certainly sounds enchanting. "We like to rent scooters or stay on the beach or meet friends in Mazzarò Bay," he says. "In the afternoon, you can go antiques shopping in the center or have a granita and brioche at a bar."
But it's at night that they come alive. "We meet our friends at around 10 in the piazza in front of the Chiesa Santa Caterina," Gabbana says. "We go to a restaurant or to a pizzeria if we want a light dinner. Then we might scooter over to a club. We usually finish very late, with a good cornetto in some small pub, or watch the sunrise."
So, who better to play travel guides than the men who helped put Sicily on the style map? The images on these pages were shot at some of Dolce and Gabbana's favorite haunts in Taormina. Given their passion for Italian cinema - Anna Magnani and Sophia Loren are their perennial muses - we cast two emerging stars of Italian film, Valeria Solarino and Adriano Giannini, as our models. Solarino appeared in the critically acclaimed "La Febbre" and "La Felicità Non Costa Niente." She was born in Venezuela and raised in Turin, but her heart belongs to Daddy's home. "To me, Sicily is my father," she says. "He lived there, and I would visit him every childhood summer. Going there to work felt weird."
Not so for Giannini, who is the son of the actor Giancarlo Giannini and who starred alongside Madonna in "Swept Away." Before acting, the younger Giannini spent several months as a cameraman's assistant on the island, which has often been mythologized in Italian neorealist films. "The image of Sicily in the movies is valid up to a point," he says. "There are definitely towns that look like they are stuck 40 years ago, but it's obviously evolved beyond the cinematic cliché. It's a really strange place, even for us Italians, but it has to be seen to be believed."

When in Sicily, Do as They Do

Seasoned travelers know about Taormina's gardens and palazzi - not to mention the Caffè Wunderbar, where Liz and Richard drank the locals under the table. Here are Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana's favorite spots.


Hotel Sant'Andrea (Via Zara 36; 011 39 0789 65205). "This place is great, especially in summer," Gabbana says. "It's an old villa facing the sea with a nice private beach and a good restaurant. And it's close to the market."

Grand Hotel Timeo (Via Teatro Greco 59; 011 39 0942 23801). "Beautiful views of Mount Etna, beautiful people, beautiful gardens and very close to the Greek theater," Dolce says, referring to the town's famous second-century auditorium, which holds the Taormina Arte festival in summer. "Bellissimo."


Gambero Rosso (Via Naumachia 11; 011 39 0942 24863). "I especially like the fried fish and spaghetti with ricci di mare" (or sea urchin roe), Gabbana says. "It's a little restaurant, not trendy, but very good. Il Delfino, near the Hotel Sant'Andrea, serves mainly seafood and is also worth trying."

Il Baccanale (Piazzetta Filea 1; 011 39 0942 625390). "The food in Sicily is fantastic, especially the fish," says Dolce, who is a particular fan of swordfish rolls, a local specialty. "But if you want meat, try Il Baccanale. It's really, really small, the size of a pizza."

Lighter Fare

BAM Bar (Via di Giovanni 45; 011 39 0942 24355). "For me, one of the simple luxuries in Sicily is to take granita" - flavored, crushed ice - "and brioche at the BAM Bar," Gabbana says.

Pasticceria Minotauro (Corso Umberto 8; 011 39 0942 24767). "The other great thing is to have Sicilian cannoli at an old pasticceria near Etna," Dolce says. "They're delicious, and the view of the volcano is unbelievable."

Bars and Clubs

La Giara (Vico La Floresta 1; 011 39 0942 23360). "There are so many great places for an aperitif or after-dinner drink," Dolce says, "but we like the bar at La Giara. After 7 p.m., it's possible to get a good cocktail surrounded by cute young people, but it doesn't get crowded until at least 10."

Marabù (Via Iannuzzo; 011 39 0942 653029). "For late-night dancing on the weekend," Gabbana says, "we scooter down to the Giardini Naxos to Marabù, a beautiful, open-air discothèque. But that's only when you want to have a late night."