It is perhaps difficult to pinpoint an episode that really triggered my interest and passion in food and wine. Like every passion, it developed over time.
But nothing has left its mark on my philosophy of eating and cooking more than an island neighbouring the island where I was born. Memories of Sicilian food do not just trigger a sense of nostalgia but in a way they mark my culinary roots. My love of cooking started with Sicilian food, and the philosophy I appreciate most in cooking, which is to showcase exceptional ingredients, comes from there.
What strikes you most when you visit Sicily and eat Sicilian food is the simplicity of the cuisine. Here, most chefs will let the ingredients do the talking without intervening to complicate matters or enhance flavours. But its also a cuisine that can be complicated mixing sweet and sour flavours in one dish.
Whenever I meet a chef, I like to ask what their best meal has been. While this question may sound simple, I’m not sure I could answer it myself. A memorable meal is one which you remember from start to finish even as the years go by. There is no need for photos or notes. It is just so special that it is there at the back of your mind ready to be remembered whenever you want to trigger those memories.
Luckily, I can remember quite a few memorable meals. But maybe nothing can match the simplicity of Sakalleo, a fish restaurant in Scoglitti, a fishing village in the south of Sicily. The first time I went there, many years ago was on a cold March winter evening. The place was still empty when we arrived but Sicilians tend to go out late so by the time we were eating, the restaurant filled up even though it was midweek. We were welcomed into the restaurant and asked what we wanted to drink. From then onwards we experienced what would be a eulogy to the sea. Fish and shellfish was prepared without much fanfare. It was fresh and incredibly simple. But in that simplicity there was a pure taste of the sea. And an exceptional respect to the produce which makes you fall in love with Sicily and its food.
It’s probably from this time that I took an interest in cooking, starting slowly from seafood and fish before I moved to other more complicated things.
So today, I want to share two Sicilian recipe books which I constantly use as reference when I am cooking.
The first is by Giorgio Locatelli and is called Made in Sicily. This Northern Italian chef is in love with Sicily and this can easily be seen from his book. Part recipe book and part chronicle, it pays tribute to what’s best about Sicilian cuisine. From vegetable recipes to pasta dishes and fish, the classics are all there. I’ve tried many of the recipes in this book and you can never go wrong especially if you can source good produce.
If you are stuck, just try one of the different pasta with broccoli dishes. Everyone knows how difficult it is to get children to eat broccoli. But the different combinations of pasta dishes with broccoli are so good that our young daughter of three says it’s her favourite pasta dish and gets extremely excited whenever we cook it. The pasta dishes in this book will take you on a trip to Sicily. Try the spaghetti with prawns and pistachios, a dish we first tried in Taormina. For something simpler you can try the spaghetti with bottarga (a salted, pressed and sun-dried roe of tuna or grey mullet) or with anchovies and breadcrumbs. Simple but delicious.
While Italians can be extremely rigid when it comes to mixing cheese and fish, you will find a few recipes which combine the two to perfection such as the Sardine balls (polpette di sarde).
Another reference book I find incredibly useful is Mary Taylor Simeti’s book Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle. This is a no frills book without any photos. But in here you will find many treasures of Sicilian cuisine from pasta to fish, vegetables and Sicilian sweets such as the cassata siciliana and cannoli. What’s great about this book is the research and the history that accompanies the chapters and recipes. The book is full of authentic recipes which are simple and easy to follow. It is organised so that the recipes reflect the external influences of a series of conquerors that passed through this Italian island. It is like taking a trip to Sicily while staying at home.
And to tickle your taste buds we leave you with a video of two-Michelin star chef Ciccio Sultano of Ristorante Duomo in Ragusa. While his cuisine is sophisticated as you can expect from such a restaurant, he is known for his creativity and his respect for ingredients. We’ve been following him for many years and hope to visit him soon.