Food & Travel / Words & Photos
PALERMO - There are moments when I come back to this city and wonder if it isn’t the coolest place on Earth.
(This is before I’ve been here too long and the too-close buildings become too close, but till then, hoo boy.)
I cooled my heels after some field research for my WSJ gelato story, sat outside of Caffè Malavoglia, ordered a whiskey (they were out of Fernet), and slow-sipped until peckishness settled in and I realized that even on a Monday, I could roll down to the nighttime fest of the Ballarò market for a panelle sandwich.
Who would have thought that a chickpea fritter sandwich from a street vendor could be so good?
Here’s why: extra-fresh bread laden with sesame seeds, extra hot fritters, along with a shot of lemon and a spritz of salt to wake it up, all in an atmosphere that makes you feel alive.
Hoo baby. So good, I burned the roof of my mouth. Twice.
After that, as my good friend Francesco says, the shutters go down. Time for bed.
This is Joe Ray reporting from The Motherland.
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.
A stroll through Ragusa Ibla will shave hours from the time you need to get to know people.
We’ve just had dinner at Pizza Nove. Suffice to say, Ristorante Caravanserraglio retains its Sicilian pizza crown.
We head up to Ragusa Ibla for a walk, stopping off for a completely unnecessary gelato at Gelati DiVini and Francesco orders cups of jasmine and olive oil. (The olive farmer pleases the ladies in our group with edible flowers and does a bit of marketing at the same time - genius!)
More importantly, how do you turn jasmine - still blooming across the countryside in the Sicilian fall - into gelato? And how do you do it so it doesn’t taste like cheap perfume? This is the place to find out.
We head back into the side streets, staring at the stars between the buildings. Smiling. Present.
PS - That fuzzy looking thing in the photo of Lex? That’s the gelato - she made us go back the next day. And the blissed-out grin? That’s the gelato, too.
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.
Lexy will be the only woman in the room when we sit down for lunch, but I’ll wait to tell her that until after we’re through the front door.
There’s no reason to know there’s a restaurant there and no name on the outside of the building - just a misleading circular sign that says ‘BAR.’ Cucina Casalinga Benevantano (“Beneventano’s home cooking”) - is a name used mostly to have something for the phone book and the business cards.
Inside, you might get a curious glance or two if you’re not a regular, but you’re welcome just the same. The sign on the wall opposite the TV no one watches tells you all you need to know - starters, pasta and meats all within the five to ten euro range.
There are about twenty items, from chickpea or fava bean soup, ricotta ravioli with ragu, perfect lamb stew and, aside from the addition of tripe one or two days a week, the menu never changes. This is daily food made for the local crowd and a primer on homestyle Sicilian cuisine.
Maybe all the men in here just miss their moms.
Cucina Casalinga Benevantano - MAP
Via Nazionale Modica-Ispica, 155/a
+39 0932 771250
Closed on Sunday.
Upon Lexy’s arrival, I looked to convert her as quickly as possible. Either that, or I just didn’t want to eat cannoli alone.
Pierpaolo Ruta, who owns and runs Modica’s venerable Antica Dolceria Bonajuto came out to say hello and had some very good news in the form of a question.
“How did you know to arrive when the cannoli shells are still warm?”
My knees buckled a bit and I put two fingers in the air as the form of an across-the-room order.
The shells were, indeed, still warm.
In a form of full disclosure, I know Pierpaolo, who put the cannoli in our hands so I’ll leave any sort of review to Lexy…
… A few nights after visiting Bonajuto, we drove toward Ragusa, the highway crossing a towering bridge with a jaw-dropping view of Modica with its homes and churches clinging to the valley wall. I expected a gasp from Lexy and a nostalgic cry of the city’s name.
Instead, three syllables, the cry of a convert: “Ca-noooo-liiiii!”
PALERMO - Dad can be very good at bonding with the locals. His eyes might glaze over with a museum guide or, say, me when I get going about food, but give him someone salty in a tweed cap or a tour bus driver and in five minutes, they’ll be sharing a bag of sunflower seeds with Dad telling the joke about the drunk twins from the County Cork.
In Palermo, this happens with Sicily guide Jean Paul Barreaud, the man who introduced me to pastry chef and gelato god, Santi Palazzolo, and spoke my favorite Motherland quote: “Sicilians eat like ogres.”
Their bonding subject was instant: Palermo traffic.
“I like your car Jean-Paul, are those claw marks on the bumper?” Asked Dad.
“The only pedestrians with untouchable rights are pregnant women,” replied Barreaud, not skipping a beat. “Everyone else is fair game.”
I couldn’t tell if Dad, a true road warrior, was terrified or agog in admiration for the Palermitans, but I can say that he never took the wheel and after returning home, he wrote a lengthy email thanking me for driving.
Barreaud brought us to U Zù Caliddu, a former smuggler’s safe house in the hills above Palermo run by a sprawling family that includes a grandmother in the kitchen and a four year old playing soccer in a Spider Man costume in the dining room.
There’s a 15-euro fixed-price menu that could put even the hungriest ogre under the table, but it’s also a great way to get a handle on family-style Sicilian. The antipasto includes great examples of the sweet and sour caponata, roasted ricotta and a pizza cousin called ‘old man’s face’ – a square and thick pie with a cheese-laden red sauce that Dad promptly got all over his shirt.
Seemingly from nowhere, the guide pulled out a bottle of miracle stain cleaner that he sprays on Dad’s shirt.
Barreaud looks at me and smiles, “He’s becoming Italian!”
U Zù Caliddu – MAP
C/ del Piano dell’ochio
PALERMO – Mom and Dad are gone and I have Palermo to myself for the morning. I walk behind the Teatro Massimo in the city center, find a bakery where fresh, hot, ricotta-laden pastries come out of the back room just as I enter.
Outside, a helicopter whoops mysteriously. I down my coffee and head outside with breakfast to see what the fuss is about.
The theater has moved outdoors.
“You can’t stand there,” says someone who I’ll later realize is a plainclothes policeman.
Twenty-odd mobsters have been rounded up and, one by one, under cover of the helicopter and an impressive line of carabinieri cars, they are escorted out of a special police station, down a set of stairs and into a waiting car.
Wives and grandmothers dissolve into tears and collapse to the sidewalk. News crews and families are pushed around. Tragedy! Comedy! Italians have a particular capacity for making the serious look ridiculous.
Some of the cons come out of the door and pause at the top of the stairs with a look of dread. Newbies. Others grin and give a handcuffed wave with a look that says, ‘Don’t worry honey, I’ll be outta the clink in a couple of days.’
One guy has a plastic bag that looks like it’s stuffed with a three-day supply of pasta and cannoli.
I pop the last bite of pastry, take a nervous picture of the chaos and wander toward my gelato.
Da Carlo is as fantastic as ever. I have scoops of yogurt and cantaloupe gelato in a brioche capped by a beautifully not-too-sweet whipped cream.
Later, I wash it down with a standup coffee at Caffé del Moro where the barista blurs the line between man and machine.
Without looking, he flips a clean espresso cup from the top of machine to his other hand, waiting for it next to the portafilter. Steam rises from the used grounds in the knockbox.
I ask if I can make a photo and while his machine gurgles, he sizes me up with a look that says, ‘Why bother?’ combined with ‘I don’t care.’
“Fa,” comes the response. Do it.
I’ll miss this city.
Caffé del Moro - MAP
Via Giovanni Da Procida, 3
Gelateria Da Carlo - MAP
Corso dei Mille, 72
I thought Ciccio Sultano was the only Sicilian serving sex food – the kind of stuff that makes you want to forget you’re in a public place, vault the table and make a meal out of your date.
One of the things I like about Chef Francesco Cassarino and his Ragusa restaurant is that he’s not afraid to do pizzas that tend to be in the 5-10 euro range on a menu that also includes a 58 euro tasting menu; both are great values, but it’s rare to see someone with the guts and skill to do it all right.
Naturally, Cassarino is a product freak and his menu lists four types of olive oil, six salts and five kinds of pepper. Apparently, we both share a dislike for Peugeot pepper grinders (no coarse grind) but he’s ordering a special German grinder normally used by scientists to extract the most from his peppercorns. Until then, he uses a mortar and pestle crushing pepper to order.
One of the first plates with a tasting menu is an index card-sized slice of fat from a Spanish pata negra cured ham atop a similar-sized thick slice of lightly-smoked beef carpaccio with Maldon salt and specially-imported Szechuan pepper so fresh that it actually fizzes in your mouth.
Everything happens at once: textures and flavors, smoky, salty and slippery, fizzy and raw.
Damn these public places. I want to vault the table.