The premise was to be a dinner in the home of a Sicilian grandmother. That means abbondanza and amore – plenty of food, cooked with love. As we ate the family style servings at the Kitchen Table of Next: Sicily, we were frequently reminded to not worry about finishing everything. There was simply too much food to finish it all, certainly there was an abbondanza! The food was cooked with love too, but it wasn’t the love of a Sicilian grandmother. Instead, it was the love of cooks who enjoy their craft and enjoy the challenge of cooking outside of their box. They did their job admirably and as well as people who have not spent their lives cooking Sicilian food could do. They also covered many bases of a rich, multi-hued cuisine. The meal was a very tasty, very filling experience, but ultimately, it fell a bit short.
The island of Sicily is, perhaps, the world’s original melting pot. Situated in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has been controlled and settled over the years by people of many different nations and cultures and it has seen trade with even more. As a result, it absorbed much from each of those cultures, especially with regard to food. From the Greeks to the Romans, the Arabs to the Normans, the Spanish to the Italians and beyond, Sicilian food has incorporated many influences in varying degrees of cultural specificity around the island.
Sicily is also a home to a number of microclimates. Being an island, the sea and its products are certainly prominent in the Sicilian kitchen, but the interior mountains and their products are similarly important.
At one time, Sicily was the breadbasket of Rome. It was where the bulk of the wheat was grown to feed the extensive Roman legions as they coursed throughout their vast empire. As with many other cultures, Sicily has always had a bit of a socioeconomic divide between the poor and the rich. Simple street foods and “lesser” cuts of offal featured in the daily lives of most, while the affluant enjoyed a wider variety of culinary treats and delicacies. Though it included no offal and failed to cover all of the different influences, the meal at Next:Sicily did an impressive job of curating this variety.
The contributions of the Arabs to Sicilian cooking were numerous and integral to what Sicilian cooking has become. Two very important contributions – citrus and nuts – were prominent at various points of the meal, but the most surprising omission from the menu was cuscusu or couscous. Commonly known as a a dish from the north and northeastern Mediterranean coasts of Africa, couscous is perhaps the major staple from western Sicily, especially the area around Trapani, which is also very much known for its sea salt, which has been harvested for generations. While not an essential dish, I was surprised by its absence given the otherwise near encyclopedic nature of the dinner.
The meal opened with a flurry of street food items served as an antipasto. Panelle are a simple food, fried chickpea flour, but delicious and classic Sicily. I’ve always had them crisp on the outside and soft and pillowy on the inside. That is also how I learned to make them at Regaleali from Ana Tasca Lanza. These were crisp through and through., They weren’t burnt, but they lacked a deep chickpea flavor that has been present in the best panelles that I’ve eaten, both in Brooklyn (at Ferdinando’s Foccaceria and in Sicily). Chef Beran told me that they discussed this with Fabrizia Lanza, the late Ana Tasca Lanza’s daughter and they did them this way purposely because they wanted people to use them to scoop up the caponata. The texture was interesting in its own right, but the reality of my experience was that these were too fragile to scoop anything.
Caponata is a classic Sicilian dish with many variations. At its most basic, it is a salad of stewed eggplant, capers and celery in a sweet and sour sauce. Even though it contained “99%” dark chocolate, the dish at Next was more sweet than sour. The eggplant took what seemed like a secondary role. The overall construction of the dish was much less stew-like and much more refined and elegant than any caponata I have had in the past. It was also rather tasty.
Next’s arancine or “little oranges” were classically constructed, but had elements showing significant refinement that would not be typical for Sicilian street food. Small hand-rolled balls of saffron-risotto rice were filled with lamb tongue rilletes and a sauce of tomato and lamb. These were lightly fried and delightful. When done well, arancine are amongst my favorite street food items anywhere, but they are deceptively difficult to execute. These were spot on and some of my favorite bites of the dinner.
I tried not to read too much about this meal ahead of my visit, but one of the items I couldn’t avoid hearing about was the grilled artichokes. I ate many artichokes during my formative years at home and occasionally cook them myself, but these were very different than what I was used to. In my family, we ate our artichokes steamed and stuffed with breadcrumbs, cheese and herbs. Eating them that way, the exterior leaves are a vital part of the pleasure. Scraping the stuffing along with the small amount of artichoke “meat” from the inner parts of the leaves as they attached to the stem was simply a delight and a prelude to the wonders of the heart, slowly uncovered in a form of culinary foreplay. Though I tried, the outer leaves offered no such pleasures. They were tough and charred. They did, however, protect the hearts, which were sublime. Eating these artichokes proved to be a learning experience for me. While I don’t think I prefer this way of eating artichokes, I did enjoy it very much. We were all thankful for the cold, wet towels that were provided for clean-up. They were particularly welcome on this hot, hot day that capped out at 105 degrees.
These first bites of “street food” were accompanied by a Prosecco cocktail. Zardotto Prosecco was blended with Averna Amaro and chamomile. This was tasty and like all of the pairings, nicely matched with the flavor profiles of the food. It surprised me that this and a number of the other pairings, though Italian in origin, were not Sicilian. I was not surprised because the wines lacked in quality (they did not), but rather because Sicily’s own wine industry is large and diverse with a wide variety of grapes and viticultural styles. While the ultimate quality of the meal was not adversely affected, I was somewhat disappointed by this apparent oversight, which may have contributed to my sense that while still very good, the meal did not capture the essence of Sicily.
A round of seafood dishes followed the street food. Referred to as the “Seafood Attack” these dishes, served only to the kitchen table, consisted of fish and seafood that were intended to show the specific nuances of each piece of seafood. Though tasty, I’m not sure they accomplished their objective. Rather than served simply and directly, all had been treated in some significant fashion to provide significantly altered or different flavors to the products.
Tuna had been aged and treated in a fashion similar to prosciutto. These thin slices of tuna were reminiscent of a Spanish mojama. The words mojama and mosciame come from the same root and the same Arabic influence. This was salty and full of umami, very different that a simple piece of raw tuna or simply cooked tuna. It had been dry aged for 25 days and treated with lemon, olive oil and basil.
Grilled mussels were served with grilled red peppers that took a consistency of a puree, caramelized shallots and garlic and a stock made from the mussel shells. It was garnished with fresh oregano. This was a tasty dish. The pepper sauce was the dominant flavor, but the mussels could be distinguished within.
Shrimp with watermelon. This dish was a bit of a surprise and unlike anything I’ve ever had, whether in Sicily or elsewhere. It was quite enjoyable, though the shrimp did not play as prominent a role as I expected them too. They were somewhat lost within the totality of the dish. That is not to say that they did not contribute to the overall flavor, but they were not readily distinguishable as shrimp and their flavor did not really make itself known to me even as I searched for it.
This was another dish, in which the product that received star billing, in this case clams, really played a subordinate role to other more dominating flavors. Both citrus and fennel are major elements of the Sicilian palate. The overall effect here was delicious, but not because the clams or their flavor were easily discernible.
Octopus is common in Sicily as it is throughout the Mediterranean coast. Agrodolce or sweet and sour preparations are also a common Sicilian culinary deceit. This octopus was perfectly cooked. It was tender and flavorful, however, the flavors and the syrupy texture reminded me more of a barbecued octopus than my previous experience with Sicilian agrodolce flavors, which tend to be more agro than dolce, while this was more dolce than agro. Chef Beran introduced the dish somewhat tongue-in-cheek as General Tso’s Octopus. It wasn’t an inaccurate description.
These seafood dishes would not come from any grandmother’s kitchen, let alone from the home a Sicilian nonna. Instead, they were influenced by Sicilian flavors, textures and ingredients, but the team at Next developed these from a fine dining perspective, even though they were served family style. They were all full of bright flavor, well prepared and creative, but they failed to truly highlight the characteristics of the primary seafood ingredient, which was what they were intended to do. With the exception of the tuna, each of the seafood items was overshadowed by the flavors of its complements.
From Liguria on Italy’s northwest coast not far from the French border, this white wine made from the Bianchetta Genovese grapes was crisp and a nice match for the seafood dishes, but Sicilian varietals such as Cataratto, Grillo, Zibibbo and others are also good matches for seafood. I’m still not sure why the Sicilian theme wasn’t maintained in all the facets of the meal.
Pastas followed the seafood. The genesis of this pasta was the quality of the grey mullet bottarga that the restaurant was able to get. It came from Greece and was mild and creamy. It was served with some of the best gnocchi I have ever had. The ricotta gnocchi was ethereally light and simply perfect. While the bottarga was good with butter and basil, the gnocchi was the standout of this dish.
The bucatini as well as the other pasta were made in house with the same pasta machine/extruder that was used for the macaroni and Cheese dish in the Childhood menu. They were excellent. This had garlic and lemon to go with the sea urchin. I’m a sucker for anything with sea urchin and this was no exception, but again I would have preferred the other elements of the dish to have been a little more muted to let the sea urchin shine even brighter.
It wouldn’t have been a Sicilian dinner if it didn’t have Pasta con le Sarde, a signature dish of the island. The Next team took this one to heart, going to Northern california to procure the necessary ingredient of wild fennel. With raisins, bread crumbs and other traditional ingredients, the only controversial addition was that of tomatoes. This was not totally inappropriate, but the tomato question is one of those little things that pits one town against another. Another difficult decision involves the type of pasta used. I would have preferred the bucatini to be used with this dish, the gnocchi with the sea urchin and the gemelli with the bottarga, but that is because those choices, especially the bucatini with the sarde more closely follows my own family tradition. Regardless, the pastas were all good representations of Sicily.
It was appropriate that the dinner included a wine from the Regaleali Estate and the Tasca D’Almerita family, as they provided insights and advice on the Next:Sicily menu. This was a nice crisp white composed of Sicilian varietals that went quite nicely with the seafood inflected pastas. It’s not a fancy wine, but as with many Sicilian wines (at least not those made in the International style), it is very food friendly with good acid and low alcohol.
As an island, Sicily fishes a good portion of its diet out of the sea. The two large fish most closely associated with the cuisine of Sicily are the tuna and the swordfish with a marked seasonality between the two. When I visited in the fall of 2002, swordfish was in season and ubiquitous. As in the photo towards the top of the post, it was prominent in the seafood markets, and often quite visually striking. It was also a part of most of our meals as we coursed the island, prepared in a wide variety of ways. While it sure wasn’t fall in Chicago, they chose to highlight swordfish on the menu for Next:Sicily. The swordfish came from Costa Rica and was served grilled, highlighted by roasted garlic, wilted mint and a mint pesto. The fish was firm and meaty and the accompaniments finally accented the fish without overwhelming it.
Served with the swordfish, but as a separate preparation was a bowl of fried and mashed chickpeas along with grilled romanesco. This was lemony, garlicky and tasty. It was also my friend Ron’s favorite dish of the evening.
The wine service flew back up to northeastern Italy in the Friulano region near the Austrian border. This was a full bodied wine that held up well with the meaty fish and the lemony ceci.
The ceci may have been Ron’s favorite dish, but this braised pork shoulder was mine. It had the consistency and flavor of good, traditionally made “meat in the gravy” pork even though it was cooked sous vide. That cooking had been for eight hours and included the pork with tomato, onion and garlic. The liquid contents of the bag were then combined with additional tomato and reduced for another hour. Because the piece of meat was so large, they provided lemon and Sicilian sea salt for additional seasoning. The result was sweet, tender and loaded with porcine flavor.
As a side dish for the pork, Next:Sicily served zucchini prepared several different ways highlighted by nasturtium leaves and flowers. The odd thing about this service was that there were two bowls for the table of six people and each bowl had one fried squash blossom. Obviously, this odd distribution made the dish quite awkward to share. I would think there should have been one squash blossom per person.
Once again, the wine was lovely but not Sicilian.
The most disappointing course of the evening for me was the cheese course. The two cheeses in the foreground were pecorinos from Italy just outside of Sicily. The one to the right was aged for three months and the one to the left for a year. At the top from left to right is a Sicilian Piacentinu with saffron and black pepper, a cacciocavallo and a pecorino made with ig rennet rather than sheep’s rennet. The cheeses were served with toasted bread slices and bitter orange marmalade. The cheeses were ok, but non of them sang to me.
Finally a Sicilian red from the south central coast to go with the cheese. This was a high alcohol Internationally styled wine, though.
This was a welcome, well done refreshing transition to dessert. The blood orange flavor was not overwhelming, but it was tasty and just felt good. Desserts were paired with a Passito di Noto from the Sicilian wine giant Planeta. Most Passitos I am familiar with come from the island of Pantelleria off the northwest coast of Sicily. This one, though is from the Southeast around the town of Noto. Composed of 100% Moscato Bianco grapes, it is honeyed, but with good acid balance.
Typically used as a wedding cake in Sicily, Cassata is made with sweetened ricotta. This one is iced with house made marzipan actually colored with green food coloring and topped with candied walnuts and fruit.
The cake was sliced and served with a quenelle of nocino laced whipped cream and the decorative toppings from the cake. There were two layers of nocino soaked sponge cake sandwiching ricotta cream. Cassatas can be very, very sweet in Sicily, making many of them inedible for me. This one, while still sweet, struck a reasonable balance. It was very nicely done.
Our last bites of the evening were little pastries including (of course!) cannoli, strawberry stuffed fried ravioli and giugiulene (Sicilian sesame and honey cookies). The cannoli and the fried ravioli were fair, but the giugiulene were wonderful. I could have eaten a bunch of those had I still been hungry.
Overall Chef Dave Beran and his crew did a fine job. The food was tasty, copious and generally true to the culture, covering many different facets of Sicilian cuisine. Considering that this was a new style of cooking for essentially all of them, they did a remarkable job. As an overview of Sicily it was quite good with some real standout dishes. What it wasn’t was a start-to-finish knockout of the very best Sicilian cooking available. While it was very good, it was a facsimile of Sicily and didn’t quite reach the difficult to describe heart of Sicilian food as I had unfairly hoped that it would. These are talented chefs cooking very tasty food that makes a good homage to Sicily, but like with any cuisine to really make it outstanding, one has to really become a part of it. It is not necessary to be Sicilian to cook Sicilian food, just like it is not necessary to be Thai to cook Thai food or Mexican to cook Mexican food, but one must take it to heart to make it truly come alive.