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Thursday, December 23, 2010

“THIS PART OF SICILY IS LIKE A PROTEIN FACTORY”

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.

Ristorante Maria Fidone - MAP
Via Gianforma, 6
Frigintini (Modica)
+39 0932 901 135
www.mariafidone.com

Closed Monday. Cash only. Reserve ahead. Wednesday is vegetarian night.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

DIPASQUALE DUE

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.

Pasticceria Di Pasquale - MAP
Corso Vittorio Veneto, 104

Ragusa, Sicily, Italy
+39.0932.624635
www.pasticceriadipasquale.com



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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

CHEESE TIME IN RAGUSA

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.

Dipasquale - MAP
Corso Italia, 387
Ragusa
+39 0932 227485
www.dipasqualeformaggi.it

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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

STARS BETWEEN THE BUILDINGS

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.

Gelati DiVini - MAP
Piazza Duomo, 20

Ragusa Ibla, Sicily
http://www.gelatidivini.it

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.

PPS - Gelati DiVini has a host of other gelato flavors - check out writer and Ragusa resident Jann Huizenga’s take on it here, and read my Boston Globe Giro del Gelato here.

Follow me on Twitter: @joe_diner and on Facebook.



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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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Friday, June 05, 2009

Sicilian sex food

RAGUSA, Sicily

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.

RRROWWW!!!

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.


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



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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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