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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

PIZZA IN COUGAR TOWN

FRIGINTINI, Sicily

Spurred by a comment from Sofia, I’ve pushed a new Sicilian pizza post up in the schedule!

I wish they made pizza in the daytime here.

Just driving these roads - the Ragusa province’s white, round-topped stone walls and the olive and carob trees behind them - are enough to know this is stunning countryside.

Good luck finding Frigintini - I went pizza hunting with my pal Francesco who grew up one town away and we had to turn around two or three times before finding the town and restaurant, Le Magnolie. I realize the place is in such a small town that to survive, it’s gotta consistently pull people in from the neighboring towns.

Inside, there’s nothing to indicate how they do that other than the ever growing herd of locals wearing those peculiar clothes that make their way down here, often leaving grown women dressing like 16 year olds for lack of options. Welcome to southern Sicily’s Cougar Town.

Nevertheless, the menu is dressed to impress. They’re serving coral colored mushrooms pulled from carob trees and on this day there’s a whole prix fixe menu based around the fungi. We’re here for the pizza, as it’s rumored to give Ristorante - Pizzeria Caravanserraglio (a.k.a. Pizza Nove) and Modica’s Il Contea (Pizza Otto) a run for their money.

F. and I split an order of the mushrooms, stew-like and wonderful, but the real star is the dense bread next to it. Drizzled with a bit of olive oil and downed with a sip of local beer, there’s a wonderful flavor of almonds that fills my mouth.

“I’ll be that’s from the oven,” says F., “They’ll use almond branches to fire it.”

I plow into the combination like there’s no tomorrow.

Pizza arrives - one proscuitto and rocket and one margherita - and we go quiet, shift gears and tuck in.

The proscuitto alone is worth the trip. Generously layered on and contrasted with the in-season rocket’s fiery snap, the combination is divine. This is destination pie.

“Let me tell you what you’re thinking,” says F.

I look up, remembering he’s there and nod.

“Otto punto cinque.”

Eight point five, indeed.


Ristorante Le Magnolie di Macauda Emanuela - MAP

Via Gianforma n.179
Frigintini Modica
+39 0932908136
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
www.ristorantelemagnolie.it

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner and on Facebook.



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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The death of Pizza Otto

Ragusa, Sicily

Whenever I’m in the Motherland, Francesco, my good pal and stalwart guide, humors my quest to find the best pizza in Sicily.

There’s some good stuff in the south where he’s from, strong examples in Palermo and more unique, thicker pies in Trapani. We ignore the question of ‘what is real Sicilian pizza?’ and just go with our taste buds.

In the end, we got to the point where, instead of calling places by their names, we’d just call them by their score on a ten-point scale. The place in the hotel down the hill with Speedy Gonzales on the takeout box? Pizza Sette. The seaside place? Sette Punto Cinque. Reigning southern champion? La Contea in Modica, where a pie with rocket, cured wild boar and parmesan (a combination that tends to send me over the moon with glee no mater in which state I find it) which earned it the Pizza Otto title.

Before I came back to the Motherland, Francesco started hinting at a new find: a place he was calling ‘Pizza Nove Plus.’ The ‘plus’ being for the food at Ristorante - Pizzeria Caravanserraglio (which we’ll get to in another post) hidden in the outskirts of Ragusa.

As a group appetizer, we order a tomato, mozzarella and basil pie. The sauce is sweet and acidic, the crust crisp and soft with wood-fired flavor. Plus, there’s milky sensuality from the mozzarella and a crisp, fresh bite from the basil.

Pizza Otto was dethroned in one bite.

Later, after a full non-pizza meal, I get edgy, thinking that I might not be back here for a while.

After the cheese course, I find chef Francesco Cassarino wandering the floor and ask for another pizza.

Full to the gills, everyone at the table stares at me funny until it shows up, but Francesco dutifully has a slice.

The pie has a sort of flight path: “This won’t change my life,” I think over my first bites, but then the Parmesan and cured meat sweeten and begin working together.

I look over and Francesco has broken his fork-and-knife protocol and eats his pie with his hands. He pops the last bite of crust into his mouth with an ‘I-told-you-so’ smile.

Then he asks for another slice.

Ristorante - Pizzeria Caravanserraglio MAP
via P.Nenni 78
Ragusa
http://www.caravanserraglioragusa.com/



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Friday, May 29, 2009

Bianchetti Bingo

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.)
Sicily
+39 0931 843217
Closed Monday



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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Brother From Another Mother

ISPICA, SICILY

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.



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