Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Best of Sicily - Fine Dining

This is a continuation of my previous post "Best of Sicily - Trattorie", this time highlighting the fine dining experiences I had in the region. Given that these meals cost $60 and above (well above in some cases) - the main questions are "Was it worth it? Would I come back?". Let's take a look at 4 restaurants, in my preferential order.

#1 - La Madia

This is one of the two most talked about fine dining restaurants of Sicily, together with Duomo.
La Madia is located is Licata, which is a bit out of the way, or I should say quite in the middle of nowhere. In fact, you would have almost no reason to visit Licata, if it wasn't for this restaurant.
Overall this was my favourite fine dining restaurant considering food and service versus price. It cost about half the price of Duomo, but it delivered no less in culinary terms. The food style is completely different though, and both restaurants are superb, so it is very subjective which one is "best".

Chef Pino Cuttaia proposes a cuisine that is very attached to the territory and its traditions, with very interesting innovative touches, and an impeccable technique. The dining room is spacious and sober, and the service is much less "stuck-up" when compared to "Il Duomo". Our waiter gave us some excellent advice, proposing a lunch menu for 2, but giving us the flexibility to have different mains.

Looking back at the dishes, without a doubt the amouse bouche was the most impressive one. It was basically a reinvented caprese with a large mozzarella-lookalike on top of tomato water. In reality, tht large white ball is a milk mousse wrapped into milk skin. An amazing technique that results in an equally amazing texture, and what I would consider the quintessential Italian flavour: Tomato, basil, milk.
Other dishes I would recommend are the Octopus on the rock, the Arancino di riso with red mullet, and the Cannolo Siciliano.

Was it worth it? Yes. Would I go back? Defnitely.
La Madia

Signage at the entrance
Caprese with milk mousse 10/10
Milk mousse in section
Spatola “a beccafico” con caponata croccante 8/10
Polpo sulla roccia 9/10
Arancino di riso con ragù di triglia e fi nocchiett o selvatico 10/10
Greilled Greater Amberjack 8/10
Maialino nero dei Nebrodi leggermente aff umicato 7/10
Granita al limone 7/10
Il cannolo Siciliano 9/10
La cassata Siciliana 8/10
Il ricoperto al cioccolato 7/10

#2 - La Fenice

We stayed at Villa Carlotta, a great hotel just outside of Ragusa, which happens to include a Michelin starred restaurant called La Fenice. The traditional stone walls of the hotel building have been extended with a structure made of steel, glass and wood finish that create a very modern, sleek dining room overlooking onto the wide garden and swimming pool of the hotel.

The service was outstanding in my view - it went beyond the usual attentions you get in a fine dining restaurant, it was in fact very educational. Our waiter spent a great deal of time educating us on the territory, its seasonal products and traditions. I have learned a great deal about Ragusa and its culinary background from him. He even took us down into the amazing wine cellar they have built making use of the old well that was part of the historical building.

Chef Claudio Ruta offers a very rich menu at a competitive price - in fact it was hard for us to decide what to select, given the choice. In particular, the pastas looked very appetizing, and unfortunately I had to limit myself to trying only one of them. The standard was consistently very high, and the dishes had very prime local ingredients well prepared and well presented.
The highlights for us were the carbonara, the red prawns and the fillet of tuna (see pictures below).

Was it worth it? Every penny. Would I go back? I will.
La Fenice:

The dining room from the outside
Bread selection 8/10
Ricciolini di calamari e gamberetti rossi, crema di tuma fresca con panzanella di pomodori datterini 10/10
Bocconcini di Ricciola al sale di Mothia su passatina di patate novelle
e sorbetto di melanzane violette alla mentuccia 8/10
Carbonara di spaghetti freschi di grano “Mongibello” e Sgombro alla maggiorana 10/10
Bocconcini di Cernia con caponata di mele
e pere dell’Etna e sciroppo di pomodorino 7/10

Tagliata di Ala Lunga al pepe cubeba e sale chardonnay
con insalatine aromatiche e gelato di cipolle bianche 10/10
Cannolo Siciliano 7/10
Caffé di carrube
The fabulous underground wine cellar

#3 - Il Duomo

I heard so much about Ciccio Sultano, the eccentric Chef of Il Duomo, that I couln't resist visiting this place, despite the cost. The service and ambiance are quite "high class" compared to most restaurants I have been to in Italy, and it was fully booked on the evening we went there (and probably most evenings) which is an indication of its incredible popularity.
The cooking style is quite progressive, in fact Ciccio Sultano was a pioneer of fine dining in Sicily. His innovative touch earned him 2 Michelin stars, and it sets him a world apart from most other chefs in Sicily. As I mentioned earlier in this post, whether this is the food you would enjoy the most is a different matter, and in my opinion Duomo is to be tried, but I wouldn't do that again, unless I really didn't know how to spend it :)

The service was prompt, and we had a great recommendation for the wine, a smooth Nero d'Avola that we drank till the last drop.

My favourite dishes were the pastas, the cannolo siciliano with red prawn, and the dish with triglie (I can't recall what else was in it, though!). I must say that by the end we were too full, and the quality dropped substantially when we got to the second main (beef) and the dessert - a wild strawberries tart, which was not nearly at the level of what you'd expect from a 2* restaurant.

Was it worth it? Probably. Would I go back? Only if I won the lottery.

The entrance at night
Cannolo con ricotta, caviale e gambero rosso crudo. 10/10
Spaghetti con gambero rosso e lenticchie nere. 9/10
Sgombro con arancia rossa. 9/10
A magnificent Nero d'Avola - 10/10
Dish with Triglie 9/10
Spaghetto con alice cruda, salsa di catota e salsa di bottarga. 10/10
Grilled tuna loin and belly 8/10
Beef 6/10
Wild strawberries tart 6/10
Petit 16 :)

#4 - Al Fogher

Finally, my least favourite of the 4. Al Fogher is located in Piazza Amerina, near Enna. You would only reach this place if you visited the Villa Romana del Casale (which I did). I am not sure whether the area has better culinary attractions, but Al Fogher is incredibly popular with the locals.
The main reason why I am not too keen on this restaurant is that being a tourist in Sicily, I was looking for Sicilian food - ad this is not. The Chef is in fact from Veneto (my same region) - and his menu proposes a more north Italian/French style of cuisine, which wasn't really what I expected in Sicily. 
From that angle, I can understand why the locals like it - if they want something different, then you can get it here - and not in many other restaurants in Sicily. As a tourist, this is perhaps not what you would be looking for, unless you've had enough of Sicilian food (but I didn't!).

The ambiance is very cozy, and the interiors made me suddenly feel like I was teleported to North Italy. The service was quite stuck-up, very French style.

The food is quite good, although a bit more elaborated than I would prefer it in some cases. The main highlights for me were the ravioli in a zucchini and basil sauce, the quail and the ricotta dessert.

Was it worth it? Probably not. Would I go back? No.

Restaurant exterior
Amouse bouche of minestrone with dumpling
Assorted starter of red prawns and eel - 7/10
Omega-3 bites - 6/10
Quail with bietole - 7/10
Fish ravioli with basil and zucchini sauce - 8/10
Ricotta dessert - 9/10

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Best of Sicily - Trattorie

Following my culinary trip to Sicily, I would like to summarise some of my good experiences. I decided to divide my top preferences into two categories: the "trattorie", and the "fine dining" restaurants, since  I really cannot compare across these two categories. The distinction is based on price, with the trattorie falling below 40-50 EUR per person, and the fine dining restaurants positioned well above that price point.

A couple of big disclaimers:
  1 - I am sure that there are many more wonderful eating venues in Sicily - my summary is based purely on my own experiences and selection, which was largely based on Gambero Rosso - one of the most accredited Italian food guides.
  2 - Although I have rated these restaurants in numerical order, this is only based on slight preferences or academic differences, but I must stress that anything on this list is of the highest quality, and worth visiting multiple times. Don't be discouraged from visiting #6 or #7 for instance - they are just as good in their own rights!

#1 - Ristorante Crocifisso
It's perhaps unfair to position this restaurant under the trattorie category, given that this is very technical cuisine, with a high degree of skills involved, as well as excellent presentation and concept behind each dish. Yet, given the very reasonable price - equal to what you would spend in many trattorie, it deserves the 1st place in this category.

Located in the heart of Noto - a place also famous for Caffé Sicilia, also worth a visit, the exterior has a really clean, classic look which protracts into the dining room.

I am putting this restaurant at the top of my list since every dish was a hit. Their philosophy of the owner and Chef Marco Baglieri is to represent the territory through his menu, using local, fresh products, prepared according to traditional Sicilian flavour profiles, with more advanced techniques as compared to the classic approach.

The pictures below should give you an overview of what the food looks like. In particular, I would like to recommend the Casarecce alla Palermitana, which were extremely well balanced, juicy and rich in fresh sarde, and the Cannolo Siciliano, which had a delicate crispy texture and was the best we had in our whole trip to Sicily.

In summary, this is highly recommended, even if you have to detour from your plan in order to get to Noto.

” Turbante ” di spatola ( pesce bandiera ), ripieno di mollica di pane ai profumi di Sicilia,
servito su una crema di finocchio e zafferano
Insalata di polpo tiepida con patate.olive e menta
Tunnina a “cipudadda” con salsa di cipolle,basilico,pomodoro e capperi - euro 13,00

Casarecce alla”palermitana” sarde,pinoli,uvetta,pomodoro,finocchietto e mollica tostata - euro 12,00
Filetto di tonno rosso in crosta di pistacchi e sesamo, su una caponata di verdure ( “la ghiotta” )
in agrodolce, olio extravergine e un filo di aceto balsamico ridotto - euro 16,00
Il cannolo Siciliano

#2 - La Locanda del Colonnello
This second "Locanda" is technically not inferior to my previous review, and it comes second only because we were not as blown away by every single dish as we were at Il Crocifisso. It is however another must visit!
Located in Modica, this cozy locanda serves a refined version of food from the territory, using locally sourced ingredients and technically solid preparation.
Chef Accursio owned a star at his previous restaurant - La Gazza Ladra, which is a few steps away from the Locanda. He then decided to move on with his team and embark into a new venture. His new challenge is to offer true flavours from traditional Sicilian cuisine starting from selected raw ingredients, at a very reasonable price.
My view is that he has fully succeeded in this mission - reason why this is a must visit if you are in the Ragusa area (an unmissable stop for any foodie visiting Sicily!). Just bear in mind that within a year or so, Accursio and his team will be moving to a new restaurant, in the lower part of the town. So do your research before visiting the restaurant to avoid disappointment!

In particular, I would like to highlight the following outstanding dishes: Cibo da Strada was  presented for what it is - Street Food - in a paper bag, with every mouthful roughly wrapped into its paper, just like they would no on the street. Beautiful, simple, tasty. The Arancino in particular was the best I have tasted in the whole of Sicily! Second best was the Ravioletti ripieni di pesce - a delicate, well balanced combination of flavours and textures.
Below a selection of the dishes we had at the restaurant, to wet your appetite!

Octopus in broad beans pureé and wild fennel
Cibo da Strada
Ravioletti ripieni di pesce su passatina di ceci, basilico e limone
Gnocchi di patate con polpa di ricci, ricotta e profumo di limone
Filetto di ricciola alla pizzaiola con capperi e origano fresco
Trancio di pesce alla palermitana con insalatina croccante di ortaggi
Gelato al cioccolato con ricotta montata, cialda di cannolo e pistacchio

#3 - I Rizzari
This true trattoria wins without a doubt for its setting and selection of simple but well executed dishes that fully represent the surroundings. The fresh seafood utilised in their preparations is without a doubt the freshest you can find as you would hope when eating right next to the sea. Yet, this can't be said for most Italian restaurants, despite their proximity to the sea. Most likely, the authenticity of this little gem is due to the fact that Brucoli, the little village where it's located, is not exactly a tourist destination. You will most certainly have to detour to reach this restaurant, however I would be prepared to do that every single time I will be visiting Sicily, and happily so.

A very rustic entrance :)
Must tries are the spaghetti with sea urchin (ricci di mare) or clams (vongole) - these are extremely simple dishes, done in the most basic way, and yet the likelyhood of finding a restaurant that serves them in all their splendor is probably less than 10%. So they deserve a praise for these!
I would also recommend very highly the grilled scampi. They are sweet, crunchy, packed with grilled flavour all around the shell. I ate everything - no single shell or head was left on the plate.
If you would like to enjoy what real seafood should taste like - just go to "I Rizzari" and experience the Mediterranean at its best!

 I Rizzari - TripAdvisor

Local bread - compact and tasty
Grilled Octopus
Tuna tartare
Spaghetti ai ricci di mare (sea urchin spaghetti)
Scampi alla griglia
Spaghetti alle vongole
Gelo di limone
The bill with price breakdown
Finally, a shot of the beautiful dining terrace

#5 - Osteria il gallo e l'innamorata
I read various reviews pointing to this osteria as the best Marsala can offer when it comes to simple, rustic food. They have been awarded both by "Osterie d'Italia - Slow food", "Gambero Rosso" and had high ratings on Trip Advisor, so I decided to pay them a visit. Located in the historical centre of Marsala, famous city for its controversial port wine, the entrance to the osteria doesn't particularly stand out, however once you walk in, the atmosphere is made special by the combination of bright colours on the walls, the old wooden beams, and the massive stone arch that separates the osteria into two sections.

Entrance to Il gallo e l'innamorata
The menu truly represents Sicily in its culinary traditions and simplicity, with a particular attention for local produce. Mazara prawns are a must-try - you will not have such beautifully tasting prawns anywhere else, especially for us, used to the tasteless prawns from Singapore (sadly). My other favourite was the pasta with prawns and pistachios - such a classic Sicilian combination, extremely well executed in this little osteria.
Prices are very reasonable given the authenticity of the products - this is a rarity nowadays, therefore this place is a true culinary find.

Restaurant interior
The menu
Local bread
Bruschette con pomodori e salame di tonno
Arancinette con pesce affumicato
Pasta fresca con gamberi, pistacchi e pomodorino
Gamberoni No5 di Mazara
Grilled swordfish
Cannolo Siciliano

#6 - Officina del gusto bye bye blues
This is actually a proper restaurant, not a trattoria at all, however given its price range and authenticity of the food in such a premium location, I placed it in the trattoria category. There is actually a Michelin starred restaurant in Palermo named Bye bye blues - and this is its sister restaurant, without all the fine dining frills, serving straight Sicilian food of supreme quality.
We were amazed by the beautiful setting - with tables well spaced within the courtyard of this historical building just a shot away from the quattro canti - the centre of historical Palermo. It almost felt idyllic, being away from the traffic and buzz, while enjoying the architecture of this beautiful building.
The service was extremely attentive, with particular emphasis on knowledge of the products. They werevery open to customise dishes to the customer preference - while maintaining the real flavours and authenticity.
For instance, I could "build my own tartare" combining the 2 highlights of the day: fresh tuna and amberjack.

The grand entrance
The selection of local wines deserves mentioning, and we had the best Frappato of the whole trip. The portions were amazingly large for such quality - for instance the tartare was really the size of a main rather than an appetiser - something I would really not complain about, and thankfully we ordered only one main, otherwise we would not have been able to finish the whole meal.

My recommendation is to go for fish specials, which change daily based on the best available in the local market. The pasta alla palermitana is another must if you like this slightly exotic flavour profile (alici, pistachios, wild fennel, breadcrumbs, onions, saffron, raisins).
This restaurant is a strong recommendation for anyone hitting the streets of Palermo, looking for a peaceful spot in the middle of the city while enjoying some of the best wines that Sicily can offer, paired with very well executed local cuisine. Such a combination is a rare one in any Italian city of this size.

Tuna and amberjack tartare
Rigatoni alla palermitana
Grilled Ricciola
Pistachio cake with white chocolate glaze and pistachio sauce

#7 - Majore
Last but not least - a culinary monument to a tradition that has been going on for 6 generations since 1896. Majore's pride is that they celebrate pork - and they have been doing that for 2 centuries. Chiaramonte Gulfi is unlikely to be in your itinerary, unless you planned for this visit.
The entrance hall to this restaurant is really impactful - so traditional and yet so neat. A large steel stove shines like a well kept jewel, despite the fact that it's actively used. And a beautiful wooden display almost gives the feeling of an Italian butchery, or perhaps a delicatessen, except there are only a few slices of salami on display.
Majore - an emblem of tradition
We were welcomed by a very kind and smiling host, who served us throughout the dinner making us feel at home. In fact the dining room, with just 5-6 tables in total, does feel like someone's dining room.
The menu is very brief - one starter, 3 pastas and about 4-5 mains is all there is to it - all religiously based on pork. Just follow the flow - and let the host serve you the starters - an assorted platter with a pork terrine and homemade salami - all religiously without any preservatives and nitrites - the only kind of salami I will eat, and unfortunately now a rarity even in Italy.
We were then served with pride some carote novelle di ispica IGP cut in julienne strips, together with some local olive oil. These carrots (see link) are specially grown in a specific nearby location (Ispica) hence the "IGP" seal. They are indeed tastier, crunchier and sweeter than normal carrots, and they go particularly well in-between meat dishes.

All the food we had tasted really old school - very simply prepared, based on the underlying product, with little sophistication or refinement. I would particularly recommend the ravioli in pork sauce, as well as the risotto with pork.
The bill was old school adding up to less than 30 EUR for all these dishes (see pictures) including 2 servings of carrots, a bottle of sparkling water, and a bottle of Nero d'Avola from the area. I must say we left pretty happy, satisfied and grateful at the same time that there are still people supporting the existence of such genuine businesses.

Entrance - the stove

Entrance - display area
Appetiser of homemade salami and pork terrine
Ispica carrots IGP
Stuffed pork rib
Risotto and ravioli with pork
Homemade pork sausage

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