Food & Travel / Words & Photos
Cue the rock music, throw on a cool T-shirt and hop in the L train to Williamsburg – Roberta’s cures what ails you. While the possibility of a lamb dish worthy of a spot in Daniel next to a pizza might sound a bit schizophrenic, here it works just fine.
With its woodsy feel and merry, multicolored light garlands on the walls, Roberta’s, est. 2008, has a feeling of a saloon that sits not too far from the 49th parallel – one that hits full swing by 7 and stays that way till the last tippler is pushed into the Brooklyn night at closing time. I was invited by my sweetheart, Elisabeth, who’d picked up on some very strong hints on where I’d like to celebrate my birthday and we were not let down.
These guys, particularly chef Carlo Mirachi, have some serous friends in the food sourcing business. ‘Beef Carpaccio’ shows up with the marbling of something noteworthy and turns out to be Wagyu from a farm on a big, flat state out west. A drizzle of stellar olive oil creates a dreamy, one-two-three-four adagio progression between vegetal freshness, slick vegetable fat, beefy meatiness and Wagyu fat. I got as much pleasure nibbling away at it as watching Elisabeth enjoy it – something she readily encouraged.
One plate over, tiny bay scallops with crispy bits of trout skin, Meyer lemon and poppies snuggled in a bowl, reminding me of not one but two childhood favorites – Mom’s broiled scallops, and, thanks to the poppies and the almost bread-y flavor to the broth they waded in, the frozen Pepperidge Farm rolls she’d make in the oven when I was little.
The big gun, however, was the lamb breast main course, cooked sous-vide for a long time then sizzled for a short time to create a crispy/melting combination that recalls the textures of a savory crème brulée. Nearby, a comma of yogurt, dollops of a light mint aspic and gently-braised leaves of, I believe, radicchio and Swiss chard provided punctuation marks of acidity, bitterness and a faint sweetness. Any three-star restaurant would be proud to serve the dish at three times the price.
Next to the lamb, we’d ordered a pizza – this is a pizzeria, after all – and maybe because it was next to something so spectacular, our pie was the evening’s only relative whiff. The ‘Tracy Patty’ pie features tasty mozzarella, ricotta, lip-smacking boquerones (vinegar-drenched anchovies), garlic and savoy cabbage, but it lacked some juicy agent like tomatoes or more of that amazing olive oil to shuttle each slice it to its final home.
No matter. Next time we go, we’ll likely try another pie. Perhaps the ‘Voltron’ – it’s got sopressata.
While some crow that the bar-like atmosphere is an odd or uncomfortable place for food this sophisticated, we could have cared less. This is the kind of spot where you want to grab good friend or three on your birthday and have one of the best nights of the year, fussiness be damned. Mirachi’s created an American doppelganger of Sicilian chef Francesco Cassarino’s wonderful Pizzeria Caravanserraglio.
On the subway and once nibbling some of Elisabeth’s fantastic birthday cake at home, we got talking about the best dishes we’d ever had. Rare are the meals that engender that sort of conversation.
“What were the tens?” Elisabeth asked, a question that brought us around the world and back to the meal still in our bellies.
Our lamb, we agreed, was a 9 ½, the scallops a scarce point and a half behind.
“What about the Wagyu carpaccio?” I asked. “A solid eight?”
She responded without hesitation.
“That was a ten.”
261 Moore St.
(Editor’s note: No reservations at Roberta’s - go early or wait in line.)
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.
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.
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!”