Food & Travel / Words & Photos
Having found pizza 8.5, we went to see grandma in Frigntini. I’d heard about Ristorante Maria Fidone from a man who let his choice to live in Noto be based largely on proximity to pastry chef Corrado Assenza so I followed through on the recommendation.
Maria Fidone is the spiritual cousin of Casalinga Benevento, one notch higher in quality and one notch less expensive. This is about as close as yo8u can get to eating at a Sicilian grandmother’s house without an invite from a Sicilian grandmother.
The exterior has a art deco look more at place in Florida than here but the interior has that peculiar no-frills look that allows a flat screen TV to qualify as a decoration.
There are few choices to make. Red or white is one and it will arrive in a carafe fitting to the number of people at your table. There’s no menu to choose from either, but just by answering in the affirmative to every question the waiter asks, you’ll be eating what grandma is making. You’ll be wildly happy.
I know we’re on to something special when house-cured olives arrive with a bit of mint, but realize how serious this place is with one bite of ravioli di ricotta con sugo di maiale - something that instantly becomes one of the best-prepared pasta dishes of my life. The pasta is almost see through while still retaining a bit of al dente crunch. The ricotta within is transformed, with a cloudy, almost flan-like texture.
“This part of Sicily is like a protein factory,” quips Francesco.
The meat in the sauce along with the tomatoes create an acidic tang that gives the place immediate momentum: the more you eat, the more you want to eat.
“There’s a precision to this that reminds me of my grandmother’s cooking,” says Francesco. In all of the meals we’ve shared together, he’s never complimented food like that.
We share a pork dish, also in the tomato sauce, and the meal is crowned by stewed rabbit with veggies - again, a hint of mint - and each element retaining its own flavor.
The kicker? It’s a steal. Dinner for two, including wine, fizzy water, several courses, coffee and a shot of grappa and a handshake from the waiter as we head out the door is 26 euros. Total. Thirteen euros each.
Memories of grandma and her untouchable cooking are provided free of charge.
If you don’t get to a restaurant like this in Sicily, you’re missing the point.
Closed Monday. Cash only. Reserve ahead. Wednesday is vegetarian night.
When not in Ragusa Ibla for gelato, Ragusa proper can hold its own. The discreet Pasticceria DiPasquale - no relation to the wonderful cheese shop up the hill with the same name - doesn’t fool around.
The inside has a whiff of discreet luxury and there’s a room devoted to writer Leonardo Sciascia (seek out his Mafia writing - he’s blissfully good). God knows if he’s ever used the typewriter in the corner case, but it makes you dream anyway.
Unusually, the gelato is hidden from view - you choose from a short list on the bar. A pair of Sicilian classics are seriously good but what’s most intriguing is the difference in texture; the almond is cake-like and the pistachio more liquid and creamy.
I could be just a flux in the fridge, but I doubt it. The slight differences make each one that much better - a secret modern touch in an austere place.
RAGUSA—We arrive a bit early for the cheese and mill around in the mist - wandering through the garden courtyard of a church we never find before settling on the step in front of DiPasquale. We’re not alone; a pair of men wait next to us and two women wait in an old, minuscule baby blue fiat that’s nudged up against the curb.
We’re all waiting for the cheese.
Once in, the cheesemonger recognizes my face and I just say that I’ve been in before and would like to introduce my friends to some good Sicilian cheese. In Sicily, Dipasquale is where you go for the good stuff. The sourcing is impeccable and the cheese, wine and meat they procure has made them deservedly famous.
Show interest or let your eye rest too long and the cheesemonger cuts a slab for each of you to taste. One slab per person. The clever could easily make a meal out of a visit.
He guides us toward beautiful Ragusanos of different ages - these being the large, rectangular cheeses aged by hanging them on thick ropes, tumas (tomme), pecorino and a lovely, saffron-laced Piacentinu Ennese.
Above it all, there’s Lardo di Colonnata - melt in your mouth fatback typically aged in marble with herbs in the Colonnata mines.
In a larger European city, we’d pay twice as much for this kind of quality, but the real value is the contribution to the evening ahead.
Here, I wink to my great friends in the Ispica Social Club, whisper buonanotte, and disappear.
At the end of dinner at the anarchist’s in Siracusa, I asked the woman at the counter - the anarchette??? - where to go in town for good cannoli.
“There’s a fair one on the square, but if you really want a good one, you have to head up into the hills - to Palazzolo Acreide, but they’ll be closed now. It’s too late.”
We went to the piazza and ‘fair’ in this case was more than enough. We’re thrilled to be rediscovering the island, the architecture and the people. The Motherland.
The next day, Lex and I head to see winemaker Salvo Foti in Chiaramonte Gulfi, then head up and away into the hills and windmills, the sheep and the sunset. We start leaning vaguely toward home when a roadsign indicates “Palazzolo A.”
“That’s where the cannoli is!” I shout. I may have a memory like a sieve, but not when a town shares a name with one of my favorite Sicilian pastry chefs and gelato makers, Santi Palazzolo.
Had I not turned, Lex might have staged a putsch.
Palazzolo Acreide is an off-the-track find, cannoli or no. We hop a fence to explore the ruins of a hilltop castle, then wander between the town’s four gem-like churches.
Everyone in town knows that Corsino is the place for cannoli and there’s a bit of a momentary panic when it appears they’re out of ricotta filling. My word.
Instead, we get two cannoli on one tiny plate and have a seat outside. They’re wonderfully un-made-up - no chocolate bits, no candied fruit just the ricotta, just the shell and a dusting of powdered sugar - the Tilda Swinton of cannoli.
The filling’s perfect - the silky texture contrasting with the punch of good ricotta. Lexy may have had a life-changing experience at Bonajauto but isn’t above devouring this one. She does her little ‘pure pleasure’ gesture, eyes closed, huge smile, head thrown back a little, clapping her wrists together.
There we are again, grinning our way through another town. We sit on the stairs above the main square and watch a wedding party stroll by - photos of the bride and groom taken between the columns in the arcade of an old building.
In front of another church hidden up a set of stairs, Lex twirls and smiles. The moon comes up full and orange above the city.