Food & Travel / Words & Photos
“What’s that cool hotel you were telling me about in Portland?” I asked a buddy.
He couldn’t remember. Or I was asking the wrong buddy.
I typed ‘portland oregon hip hotel’ into Google and there it was – the Ace Hotel.
My reasons for loving it? Along with the high, ceilings and a clean modern-meets-old-school-cool design, there’s a Stumptown Coffee connected to the lobby. There’s also a snack tray in every room with the beautifully-labeled Lurisia fizzy water and next to it, Dutch stroopwaffels – my favorite cookie to have with coffee. I love the idea that, instead of throwing some Lay’s and Kit Kat bars in there, somebody put the effort into sourcing some really good stuff.
Downside? The secret’s out. Canadian families in North Face Jackets are mixing with the dressed-in-black (and talking loudly about their lives as composers and art directors) crowd. Sitting at the big lobby table the morning I’m there is a bossy chump who looks like an extra from “The Matrix” and his doomed, sweet-as-gold girlfriend.
There’s also a grumpy kid who kicked a chair at me when I asked if anyone was sitting there.
“It’s a free country,” he added.
Until the coffee kicked in, I had fantasies of whapping them all with a rolled-up newspaper.
PORTOPALO DI CAPO PASSERO, Sicily
“Francesco – let’s grab my folks and get dinner on the ocean. You know that place I went for pizza at this place a couple years ago… in one of those towns at the southern tip of the island…you weren’t there…know the place I’m talking about?”
I fear for my memory when I’m older.
Strangely, he knew. Or thought he did. Maybe we’re both doomed.
In any case, the place we went – La Giara – was much better than the one I could only vaguely remember.
The good stuff comes first – we get fish called neonatu if you’re Sicilian, bianchetti if you’re Italian and gianchetti if you’re Ligurian (it’s big up there, too.)
Three names for a fish that’s as long as my thumb is wide? Turns out there are many species that can fall into the neonatu category – the baby form of anchovies, sardines and many other fish lumped into a group known as pesce azzurro – the veal of anchovies.
Until this night, I couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about. Bianchetti are often breaded individually, fried up and served on a plate – in Barcelona, they pay through the nose for this stuff – but being so tiny, their delicate flavor is overwhelmed by breading and fry oil.
Here, they make fritters out of them. Little balls of little fish where the outside stays nice and crunchy – that good fried-ness – and inside, you get sweet, delicate fish flavor. Realizing there’s only one left, Mom and I briefly glare at each other, but I realize I should be a good Sicilian boy and defer with a grunt.
We also have an octopus carpaccio – which almost seems like a contract between chef and customer that says, “You trust us and we’ll do it right.”
They do. Serving it on a bed of rocket and spiced up with red pepper flakes, Mom, who prefers everything she eats well done has several bites.
Wine worth noting: 2006 Sicilia by MandraRossa using the fiano grape. The father/uncle of the Planeta clan LINK, shows the grace and restraint of a proud patriarch.
The pasta (a bit more photogenic than fried fritters) is honest and good. At the end of my meal, I make a note – ‘There are thousands of places like this in Italy, and we’re lucky every time we eat in one.”
La Giara MAP
Portopalo di Capo Passero (Along the port.)
+39 0931 843217
To prepare for the cookout, Dad sits with the English-Italian dictionary to figure out the first thing he’d like to say upon meeting our gregarious host, Guido: ‘Your are my brother from another mother.’
Guido, my pal Francesco’s uncle, was born with the gift of making whoever he’s with feel like they’re two peas in a pod and this day was no different. He lent me his daughter’s scooter the first time I lived here and though I only have what the French would call notions of Italian, language never seems to be a barrier when talking with him.
My parents came to Sicily on vacation to learn about the Motherland and our family history here – Dad’s maternal grandparents emigrated from the tiny town of Altavilla Milicia in the early 1900s – and being together in the place where our ancestors were from is a potent emotional experience connecting us with the past and each other.
Guido’s wife Pina and Francesco’s mother make a feast that includes roasted peppers, sautéed mushrooms and grilled meat a go-go and I’ve smuggled an entire jamón Ibérico – black hoof and all – through customs as a gift from our family to theirs.
Today, however, food (very tasty food at that) was simply a way to bring us together and I’d trade every amazing Sicilian restaurant meal for this one feast.
Being made to feel like family can be as important as finding the real one.
Driving through Sicily, Mom asks if there are many foxes roaming the island – a question completely out of left field, and as likely a subject as if she had a sudden interest in stock quotes.
Dinner at Nangalarruni in Castelbuono is a snapshot of Sicilian cuisine. A starter salad of blood oranges and pearl onions is served with thin slices of tobacco-smoked pork, sprinkled with salt flakes and dappled with olive oil and deeply-flavored musto cotto from 1987. The dish shows a native love for sweet and savory, reverence for history and an inventive playfulness. Much of that can also be seen in the following course - a bread pie served next to a big, comma-shaped swirl of ricotta cream.
It’s at this point in the meal where chef Peppino Carollo, who I’ve blogged and written about, sits down one table away to have dinner with his brother on a quiet Monday night. Staying undercover would have been nearly impossible, not to mention really awkward. Besides, it’s hard to braise a wild boar shank (our next course) in 10 minutes.
Instead, we talk. The brother is in town from Rome to hunt mushrooms with Chef in the hills above town – Nangalarruni may mean ‘jew’s harp’ but the restaurant is a mushroom-lover’s heaven and the walls here are covered with paintings of fungi and pictures of Chef and friends after successful mushroom hunts.
Who’s manning the kitchen while chef is having dinner with his brother?
“He’s young,” Chef says of sous-chef Giandomenico Lammonica, but it’s not hard to understand why he is Carollo’s right-hand man – Lammonica has a mushroom farm above town that he tends to as a hobby.
A several-course tasting meal at Nangalarruni is a bargain at 30 euros and the great wine list has gentle prices, perhaps owing a bit to Chef’s wife running two small wine shops in town.
Walking back after a late-night stroll through town, a fox appears in front of our door.
When in Castelbuono, stay at the Casa Ilaria B&B. It’s hidden, quiet, beautiful, spacious and run by gracious owners. It’s also a steal at 30 euros per person per night.
Piazza Tenente Schicchi, 5
+39 0921 676268
RAGUSA IBLA, SICILY
We took my friend, almond and olive oil producer Francesco Padova, to lunch at Ragusa Ibla’s Il Duomo restaurant – not an easy feat, considering Sicilians’ amazing hosting skills. It was a great way to see what chef Ciccio Sultano’s been up to – more a check on concepts than a critique.
Chef, who I’ve written about previously, came out to say hello and explained a few dishes, but was almost completely knocked out by a cold.
Highlights from the tasting included fusilli lunghi alle rose – long fusilli supporting rockfish fillets, a bed of fennel and a tiny skewer of sautéed fish liver. The fish was firm, the fusilli floppy, the fennel … feral – at least in the ‘wild’ and more alliterate sense of the word. The liver? That just melts on your tongue.
The secret weapon, however, is in the sauce: rose water. Light, like you’re smelling perfume without drinking it, and, as Sultano says, a wink at Sicily’s history, where it showed up as a luxurious ingredient.
Rose water shows up again at dessert, this time in the sorbet accompanying a ‘pistachio couscous’ dessert. The dish is playful in concept – couscous being another wink at Sicilian history – but serious in execution, giving it a divine, cake-like quality.
At 100 euros including wine, the tasting menu is a splurge but still a great value.
I’m back in The Motherland.
It’s a work/play trip that includes bringing my parents to the land of our Sicilian ancestors for the first time. My sister and I are English, Irish, French, Italian, Dutch and German mutts, but it’s always been the Sicilian side – via our paternal grandmother – that we identify with most as a family.
While Assenza’s ideas and creations can be otherworldly, he’s a product-sourcing freak. If he can’t do it perfectly, he won’t do it.
His almond gelato not only tastes like an almond in another state, but even has the slight tannic tang from the almond skin along with a mix of minerals and salt in the skin that makes Sicilian almonds unique.
We also try a “Traversata del Deserto” – a cake that includes mint, black tea, lemon rind, sea salt and “lyophilized” (freeze-dried) algae. It’s the kind of thing that Mom would try but stop after one bite.
Instead, she makes a funny grunting noise, almost like she’s disappointed.
“I’m sorry for all the cakes that will come after this in my life.”
Caffè Sicilia MAP
Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 125
Full disclosure: Assenza, who I’ve interviewed and written about in the past, came out to say hello while we were there, but we paid our bill and you can’t bake a cake or make gelato on the fly.
Get there before it’s overrun with ministers.
Maybe because it’s brand new and hasn’t been discovered yet. Maybe it’s because it was a vacation week or just a slow day, but four of us had Le 122, smack in the heart of ministry central to ourselves.
Instead of that depressing, feel bad for the owners, ‘why are we whispering?’ feeling, it was perfect. The chef and his wife came over to talk once in a while and the waiter nosed in with an off the cuff crack that had huge crash and burn potential, but instead, he had read us perfectly.
Chef’s pedigree shows in his fish dishes like a toothy and full of flavor smoked sardine and anise-tomato marmelade appetizer and a cod pissaladière – a Provencal pizza cousin, this one doing a wonderful job of respecting the fish.
We share a Coteaux du Vendomois that Chef calls his wine of the month. It’s made by a friend of his and so good and well-priced, I hope everything on the wine list is made by his friends.
Dessert? Strawberries with a tea foam that sits in a glass bowl and looks like a floating flower.
A friend was supposed to leave early, instead, she asked for another spoon.
Le 122 MAP
122 rue de Grenelle
Call me a traitor, but here I go.
Though it might look like pink champagne, the apéro of the summer is a beer, and not one for the faint of heart.
Cantillon’s “Kriek 100% Lambic” is an eye-popper that will stand your taste buds happily on end.
It’s also a dive into the deep end of Belgian beer vocabulary. In short, lambics are natural fermentation beers that are aged for at least three years in oak barrels. A kriek, is a lambic (or a gueuze) made with sour cherries known as griottes.
While some companies have turned kriek into a sweet and sticky mess, those worth their salt are bracingly sour.
Cantillon’s kriek has just a hint of creamy suds on top and gets its cooked cherry color from the griottes. Poke your nose into the top of a glass and you’ll get a blast the grapefruit smell that is the hallmark of many good lambics, along with a hint of green apples. If your salivary glands haven’t kicked in by now, blow your nose.
Take a sip and you’ll get a kick of that fantastic sour and acidic grapefruit flavor.
If you can find any way to get your stomach and taste buds more ready for a meal, the comment box is one click away…
P.S. In Paris, I found my bottle at Pommier inside the Marché Beauvau - the covered market at Marché d’Aligre in the 11th arrondissement.
Cantillon has a handy place to start your quest with a partial list of wholesalers and places to buy your bottle here.