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Sicily, Old & New

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Photo: David Cicconi

At dinner at the hotel's Zafferano Bistrot—cooked by a spectacularly talented 21-year-old chef, Massimo Giaquinta, who is part Sicilian and part Kenyan—the couple elaborated on their vision for Caol Ishka: not so much a hotel for tourists who come to see the ruins in Siracusa as a quiet retreat for Italians and Europeans looking for privacy and seclusion. The dining room has a stone floor and a farm-style beamed ceiling. There are winking references to the Baroque in the gilded mirrors and the paintings of the Virgin Mary on the wall.

"These were painted by my brother," said Marino, gesturing around. She paused. "He is also in the paintings." Closer scrutiny revealed her brother, dressed as Mary, Photoshopped in.

Very New Sicily.

Giaquinta joined us at the table. Like many young chefs we met in Sicily, he points to Ciccio Sultano, of Duomo restaurant in Ragusa, as an inspiration. Sultano was the first local chef to receive two Michelin stars; more importantly for ambitious entrants like Giaquinta, he showed it was possible to achieve fame without having to leave the region.

But it's one thing to persuade the international food press of your talents; what's harder, Giaquinta said, was getting ordinary Sicilians to try something new. "In Sicily we don't have the tradition of experimenting—people eat to fill their bellies. If they go out, we have the trattorie, so that you can eat the way you do at home. It's hard—everyone just wants what their grandmothers made."

Giaquinta's tasting menu began with sautéed prawns, marinated in lemon and intensely flavored anchovies, offset with a little carrot juice. (Carrot juice is one of Ciccio Sultano's signatures.) This was followed by rare tuna with a balsamic vinegar reduction. (One of the great recent changes in Sicilian cooking in particular, and Italian cooking in general, is the acceptance of crudo, or raw, fish.) The next course was the highlight of my meal—grouper roe with ricotta and honey. It was as much a texture experience as a taste—the firm and cool roe with the soft ricotta, and the honey oozing out and enrobing the other ingredients. After that, Giaquinta made a traditional pasta with bottarga (tuna roe) and anchovy, again flavored with carrot juice. For dessert, he had prepared two traditional tortes—a white one with ricotta and a black one with chocolate.

Giaquinta's point about everyday Sicilian cooking was reinforced the following day, when we went to Arenella, the nearby beach. Although a trip to southeastern Sicily is less about the beaches than about the cities, if you want solitude, driftwood, and romantic ruins, this coast has them, in one of the largest nature reserves on the island. However, on this broiling day we were grateful for the big umbrella and beach chairs at the local beach club. We had lunch in the club's cafeteria. I ordered eggplant parmeggiano, which I could see under the glass counter; the server cut me a piece. Presented on a plastic tray, with plastic utensils, it was possibly the most delicious thing I ate on the whole trip. Everyday Sicilian food, made with the freshest, most flavorful ingredients you've ever tasted—the sweetness of the eggplant, the powerfully aromatic basil, and, of course, the earthy tomatoes—has to be the best home cooking on the planet. What's the point of tricking everything out (except, of course, that you can charge a couple hundred dollars per person) when traditional dishes like spaghetti alla Norma (pasta with eggplant and ricotta in tomato sauce) are so incredibly good?

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