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Sicily, Old & New

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Photo: David Cicconi

Even so, the glimpse Caol Ishka had given of a new Sicily—the reinvention of a traditional farm into a contemporary oasis—had us in search of another kind of novelty: not a new place, but a new taste, and we found it at Caffè Sicilia, in Noto. The laboratory of inspired flavor-maker Corrado Assenza isn't exactly a secret, but he is such a fecund inventor that there's almost always something new and remarkable to discover there. Accursio Craparo, the chef at La Gazza Ladra, in Modica—another young star of the region—told me that Assenza was the main reason he had returned from Germany several years earlier to work in his homeland. "Corrado is my master," he said. "He took me for walks in the countryside and taught me to smell the rosemary, the thyme, all the different flavors that were growing wild. And after this experience I was ready for my own restaurant."

Noto is built on a long broad ridge of highland, with the center of the city at the highest point. (It's the inverse of Modica, where the center is at the bottom of a steep ravine.) We parked in front of the Cathedral of San Nicolò, a masterpiece of the Sicilian Baroque, and found Caffè Sicilia just down the street. There we met our new friends Katia Amore and Ronald Ashri, who run a local travel service called Love Sicily, for a breakfast of cappuccino and mocha granita with a warm brioche for dipping. Amore is from Modica and Ashri is Cypriot; like Emanuela Marino and Gareth Shaughnessy, they met in London, where Ashri was getting his Ph.D. in computer science and Amore her M.A. in European history; then, also like Marino and Shaughnessy, they decided to come back to the old country and start a business. Now they provide tours, arrange cooking lessons, and offer all manner of useful information on where to stay and what to do in the area.

Caffè Sicilia doesn't look any different from a thousand other Italian cafés, but in fact there is no other place in the world like it. Duomo's Ciccio Sultano may be the best-known chef in the area, but Corrado Assenza is the undisputed flavor master of the southeast. No one in the world is better than Assenza at making traditional Sicilian sweets like cassata and cannoli, as well as gelati and incomparable granita—fruit, almond, and coffee ices with whipped cream. His uncategorizable talent is actually a combination of several culinary achievements: he is a master pastry chef (his little cherry pastries have the lightest, flakiest crust I have ever tasted), gelatiero, granita maker, cook, and gardener. He mixes the flavors of the countryside, especially thyme, with cream, sugar, vegetables, and fruits. Among the ice cream flavors we tasted were nespola (a tart, golf ball-sized fruit known as a medlar in English), zucchini, sweet pepper, and basil. I also had a cassata with sweet peppers on top, pink-grapefruit marmalade, two kinds of cream, and sponge cake, while Katia and Ronald each had a zabaglione, hers with blood-orange sauce and ginger infused with honey and thyme, his with double-latte cream, white pepper, extra-virgin olive oil, almond flour, thyme, and honey. We talked about how 800 years of Sicilian history were present in each mouthful—the Arabs, with their almonds and honey, provided the base, while the Spanish contributed the Baroque swirls of cream and sugar on top.

Eventually Assenza emerged from behind the counter, wearing a paper pastry hat and a white smock, and sat down at our table. He explained that he had studied agronomy at the University of Bologna and had done a concentration on honeybees. "I believed I could be among the next generation of important bee researchers. But instead I was called home to work here in the business." To hear him tell it, his real skill isn't sweet-making or chemistry—it's beekeeping. Coaxing the same bees that pollinate the orange trees to also pollinate the thyme, and thereby produce a honey flavored with both, is a project to which Assenza devotes a lot of time and care. He said that Sicilian bees are different from the bees of the mainland. "They are a little more nervous than the Italian bees—a little wilder. Harder to manage."

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