Tag Archives: Sicily

Arancine for St. Lucia Day in Sicily

December 13 is St. Lucia Day, celebrated in various countries, but perhaps most prominently in Sweden, and Italy, specifically Sicily. In Sicily, the holiday is strongly celebrated in honor of St. Lucia blessing the island with a shipment of wheat after a long famine in the 17th century. Traditionally, the dish eaten on this day in Sicily was cuccia, a sweet or savory boiled wheat berry porridge, which is supposed to be the only form of wheat eaten on the day. However, to current palates, this is perhaps not the most exciting dish. In modern-day Palermo the most popular Saint Lucia food is now arancine! Arancine are delicious deep-fried rice balls filled with cheese and/or meat ragu that are popular year round in Sicily. In Palermo in particular, arancine is eaten with gusto on St. Lucia’s Day, and conveniently these rice-based treats do not contain much wheat (though they are typically breaded). In Palermo, too, the dish is always spelled arancinE in the plural, and arincinA in the singular, as opposed to arancini (pl) and arancino (singular) in Eastern Sicily and in much of Italy. This year we will be making cuccia, but perhaps next year some arancine would be in order.

Arancine at Monteverde Restaurant in Chicago

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Pupi di zucchero: Sicilian Treats for Festa dei Morti

November 2nd is the Day of the Dead, a remembrance day for deceased ancestors celebrated around the world. In Sicily, the day is called the “Festa Dei Morti,” and is celebrated with a number of unique, seasonal dishes. Far from being morbid or somber, some of the treats for Festa dei Morti are particularly colorful, including the realistic-looking marzipan fruits known as Frutta Martorana and the even more complex Pupi di Zucchero.

Pupi di zucchero means “sugar puppets” in Italian, and these edible, brightly-colored treats are formed in molds in the shapes of Italian folkloric characters, including knights and dancing girls. The tradition of actual pupi marionettes, particularly in Opera dei Pupi performances, is a major Sicilian art form dating from the 13th Century, and is still visible (in diminished form) throughout the island, particularly in Palermo. The origins of the sugar versions of pupi, and how they came to be associated with the Day of the Dead, are relatively obscure, and various historians place them as having French or Arabic origins. I haven’t ever seen these sugar treats outside of Sicily, so those of us outside of the island will just have to enjoy the visuals!

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Watermelon Ice for Ferragosto in Sicily

ItalyAugust 15, Ferragosto, is a national holiday in Italy, and one of the biggest events of the year. It originally was celebrated in Roman times as Feriae Augusti, the festival of emperor Augustus, however it was later syncretized with the Catholic holiday of the Assumption of Mary and moved to August 15. It is a day of food and fun, and also marks the peak of summer vacation for many Italians (and the closing of all of the shops for at least 2 weeks). Each region of Italy has different specialties for Ferragosoto. Watermelon is popular as a refreshing treat throughout the country, but particularly in Sicily, where it is used for the Ferragosto specialty Gelo di mellone (in Sicilian dialect: gelu di muluna/miluni). Gelo di Mellone is an iced watermelon dessert, similar to granita, but thickened with cornstarch. Traditional toppings include pistachios, chocolate shavings, and sometimes jasmine blossoms. It doesn’t seem very hard to make, and there is no special equipment needed. Check out these recipes from Food Nouveau, Italy Magazine and Memorie di Angelina. We are entering the dog days of summer here, and we think we may make some this weekend!

Gelo di mellone

Gelo di mellone from Italian Wikipedia

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What is Fiori di Sicilia?

We recently put in an order for tea from one of our favorite Chicago purveyors, Rare Tea Cellar, and one of their varieties is Sicilian Wild Flower Chai, featuring the the flavor “Fiori di Sicilia,” which literally means “Flowers of Sicily.” We were intrigued, so we took a chance (and it turns out we love the tea)! We looked up the extract, and it is not from any Sicilian flower per se, but is actually a combination of citrus and vanilla extracts. You can buy Fiori di Sicilia from King Arthur, or a variety of online sources. Food 52 has a cookie recipe that calls for Fiori di Sicilia, and it can be easily substituted for vanilla extract in most sweet recipes. If you are feeling especially DIY, An Edible Mosaic has a recipe to make your own Fiori di Sicilia extract. A similar flavoring is called Panettone Extract, which combines both vanilla and citrus flavors, along with some additional spices. This variety is also especially popular in Brasil, where it is known as Essência de panetone.

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Reginelle / Biscotti Regina for St. Joseph’s Day

March 19th marks St. Joseph’s Day (check out this previous link to find all of our previous St. Joseph’s day posts), a traditional feast day in Italy honoring St. Joseph and his sparing of Sicily from famine. The tradition has now spread widely throughout Italian diaspora communities, especially those with many Sicilian origins. This St. Joseph’s Day is bittersweet since we are unable to go to New Orleans this year, and are celebrating at home, alone. Typically, New Orleans has some of the most elaborate and ornate St. Joseph’s altars and homes, churches and community groups go all out (though not this year of course). Since we have nowhere to go, we are making a small altar of our own this year, including baking some St. Joseph’s Day treats.


St. Joseph’s Day in New Orleans 2019

Traditionally, on a St. Joseph’s Day Table altar there are copious citrus fruits, cakes, lucky fava beans and other offerings, as you can see above. You also usually sit down for a vegetarian meal, typically including pasta con sarde (which we are making for dinner tonight). After visiting an altar you also usually get a bag of cookies and some lucky fava beans to take home. The types of cookies vary, but you will traditionally get some cucidati and some reginelle / Biscotti Regina (sesame seed cookies). This year we decided to make reginelle, as you can see below, since they are one of our favorite cookies any time of year, and are super easy to make. We used the recipe from Southern Italian Desserts by Rosetta Costantino. I can’t find that recipe online, so there are dozens of other versions to try: Ciao Italia, Marisa’s Italian Kitchen, or A Sicilian Peasant’s Table. Buon Appetito!reginelle2a.jpg

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Cuccìa for St. Lucia’s Day in Sicily

Today is St. Lucia’s Day, a day I have always associated with Scandinavia, though St. Lucia’s Day is also a big deal in parts of Italy. She is particularly venerated in Sicily, where she is the patron saint of Siracusa. One of the typical dishes you would eat for the Feast of Santa Lucia, and throughout the Christmas season, in Italy is Cuccìa. Cuccìa is a dish made of boiled wheatberries and sugar, and can have a variety of other add-ins including almonds ricotta, candied fruit, chocolate, or even chickpeas. I am not a major fan of porridges, but I have never tried wheat berries in this context, so I think I am willing to give it a try! According to tradition, no wheat is eaten on St. Lucia’s Day except for the Cuccìa. You can find a variety for sweet or (more rarely) savory  Cuccìas, but feel free to improvise your own. Here are some versions from Slow Food,  Mama Lisa and Serious Eats (pictured below). Don’t forget the accent on the I when you are searching though, without the accent, the word “cuccia” means “dog’s bed!”

Photograph: Vicky Wasik for Serious Eats


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Pastry Post-Doc: Sicilian Cuccidati cookies and Buccellato Cake

SicilyToday is Three Kings Day / Epiphany – which officially marks the end of the Christmas holiday season! In addition to Epiphany (Epifania in Italian), the eve of January 6th is also when La Befana arrives in Italy. Similar to St. Nicholas Day in other parts of Europe, La Befana (who takes the appearance of a witch on a broom) leaves presents and candy for good children and coal for bad ones. In honor of La Befana and Epifania, we are heading to Sicily, where the holiday season is celebrated with a myriad of sweets including the fig and raisin-filled cuccidati cookies.


We have made cuccidati before, but we have recently learned that there is a similar holiday dessert that is basically a giant version of a cuccidati – a Buccellato ring cake. To add another layer of potential confusion, it seems that sometimes in Sicily buccellato refers to small-sized ring-shaped fig cookies, too. Now I am not really a huge fig or raisin fan (though M is) and even I like cuccidati cookies (which I guess are the distant ancestor of the Fig Newton). There are tons of cuccidati recipes with slight variations in filling according to region, family and personal taste so I will only include a few: A vintage Milwaukee recipe from 1965, Washington Post, Brown Eyed Baker and Savoring Italy (seen above). If you want to go all out, Cooking with Rosetta has a traditional buccellato recipe, as does L’Italo-Americano (seen below).



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Pastry Post-Doc: Frutta Martorana for All Saints’ Day in Sicily


Martorana in Sicily by Wim Kristel

SicilySomehow in the past week of posting downtime, it has gone from a balmy 80 degrees to a cool, blustery, fall-like 45! Moreover, that Halloween chill is in the air and we are seeing pumpkins everywhere! Accordingly, we’re going to start featuring some seasonal treats. First up are the classic Sicilian treats for All Saints’ and Souls’ Day (Nov 1 and 2), the famous fruit-shaped marzipan confections called frutta martorana. These almond-paste candies can be found year round in Sicily, but they are particularly popular this time of year, when artisans around the island take pride in making the most realistic fruit shapes possible. In Sicily, children traditionally received these marzipan fruits and other gifts on November 2nd.  Check out this video of an assortment of martorana from Toronto. If you want to make your own, the recipe is not that complicated, but the key is in the intricate design and details!



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Pastry Post-Doc: ‘Mpanatigghi

SicilyA few weeks ago we did a feature on the surprising Mexican origins of Modica chocolate in Sicily, which was brought over by the Spaniards. While researching Modica chocolate, we learned of another quirky Modica recipe with a Spanish connection – the Mpanatigghi cookie (Impanatiglie in standard Italian). The word “‘Mpanatigghi” is a Sicilian-ization of the Spanish word “empanada/empanadilla”, and its half-moon shape is certainly empanada-like. The filling of a ‘Mpanatigghi cookie is chocolate, cinnamon and almonds, but also something pretty unusual – a little bit of beef! Sounds pretty weird until you think of savory Oaxacan moles with chocolate-tinged sauce. Perhaps this cookie also has a bit of Mexican influence somewhere? Even being familiar with Sicilian cookies – this unusual concoction is a new one for us – here’s a recipe for the culinary adventurers out there.


Photo from Anita’s Italy

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The Mexican Roots of Modica Chocolate

Mexico FlagItalyThe story of Modica chocolate is one of our favorites, and we are looking forward to bringing it to you in advance of of the most visible Mexican holiday in the US, Cinco de Mayo. So we know that chocolate is a new-world creation, and was popular among Aztecs (where it was known as Xocoàtl) for centuries. So now that chocolate has spread the whole world over, where can you still find the most traditional Aztec recipes? Sicily! No, I am not joking. It turns out that Sicily, conquered many times over, was under Spanish rule while the Spanish were also colonizing the new world, and these colonizers brought back the Aztec recipes for chocolate to Sicily. These traditional recipes are still made in certain parts of Sicily today with nothing but cacao, sugar and (maybe) spices.ModicaChoc

The process of making the chocolate by grinding it on a metate (as it was originally in Mexico) imparts a pleasantly gritty, natural texture to the chocolate, which is delicious and completely unique. A historical and picturesque Sicilian town in the province of Ragusa, Modica, is known for its expertise in all things chocolate, and is home to several longstanding chocolate shops producing chocolate the traditional Aztec way, which has become known in Italy as “Modica Chocolate.”AnticaBonajutoOn our trip to Sicily, we took a visit to Modica to see this piece of chocolate history for ourselves, and stopped at the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (Corso Umberto I, 159, 97015 Modica RG, Italy), one of the more famous chocolatiers, in operation since 1880. This shop in particular is known for their wide variety of Modica chocolates made on the premises. The chocolate bars here come in almost every cacao percentage, plus unique flavors like lime, marjoram, almond and orange peel. Fortunately they let you sample, so we were happy to taste a bunch of varieties before we arrive on our two favorite picks: sea salt and hot chili.ADBCannoliWhile you can find good traditional Mexican chocolate in Oaxaca and other places in Mexico itself, what Sicily has to offer is on par with these treats. And truth to be told – we could see that this chocolate and that found in Oaxaca were cousins, maybe even siblings. If you are unable to visit Modica itself, you can get the Modica-made Sabadi chocolate bars at Eataly. P.S. If you visit the Bonajuto shop they also have the best cannoli ever!

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Sampling Sicilian Food in Siracusa: La Gazza Ladra

SicilyUp and down the picturesque old town – Ortigia – in Siracusa, Sicily, tiny osterias line the alleys, and it is nearly impossible to choose which one to visit. In Osteria La Gazza Ladra (Via Cavour,8 – 96100, Siracusa, Sicily) or “Magpie” we found a spectacular hole-in-the-wall serving up tasty, homemade Sicilian food at reasonable prices. The moniker osteria used to refer to an inn, but now just refers to a rustic bar or restaurant where you are likely to get a good home-cooked meal. The menu is small and consists mainly of specials that are updated daily. The restaurant had only 8 tables and we had the sheer luck to arrive at about 9:30 PM JUST as a table was vacating. Sicilian food is very different than what most Americans associate with typical Italian food, and Sicilian cuisine focuses on fish, nuts, citrus and olive oil. GazzaLadra Continue reading


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Archestratus: Sicilian Food and Cookbooks in Brooklyn


SicilyThere is nothing we love more than a bookstore/cafe combo, and though they are already popular in other parts of the world, it seems that more and have been popping up in the US recently. A good example of this trend is Archestratus Books & Foods (160 Huron St., Greenpoint, Brooklyn), a cookbook/food book shop with a Sicilian bakery and cafe. Food books and Sicilian cuisine – two of our favorite things! Named after the Greek-Sicilian philosopher Archestratus, owner Paige Lipari calls on her heritage to serve classic Sicilian treats like cannoli and arancini in the cafe. In addition to the books and food, Archestratus also hosts demos and events. Continue reading

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St. Joseph’s Day Tables and Treats in Chicago

ItalyToday, Italian-Americans are partaking in a celebratory feast of St. Joseph. This weekend, elaborate, food-filled St. Joseph’s day tables went up all over Chicagoland (and Italian communities scattered around the world), and people are partaking in special holiday treats like zeppole, pasta di San Giuseppe and pasta con sarde. Some of Chicago’s more traditional Italian bakeries, like Alegretti’s in Norridge, turn out special treats for the influx of visitors on this holiday. Eater Chicago even has a map of 10 bakeries where you can get your St. Joseph’s Day treats (a handy list for any baked good need, really).

St. Joseph's Day Table

St. Joseph’s Day Table / San Guiseepe in Sclafani Bagni, Sicily by La Tartien Gourmand

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Supplì vs. Arancini

ItalyWe are extremely intrigued to learn about Suppli, a Roman fried rice ball that is a cousin of the Sicilian arancini. Suppli traditionally have a cheese filling (MOST traditionally with chicken giblets), while arancini have a filling of meat ragu and peas. Of course the fillings of each can vary wildly depending on the creativity of the chef. Overall, arancini tend to be bigger (sometimes even baseball sized) while suppli are smaller. Both suppli and arancini were traditionally found in fried snack shops, but now are popular antipasti at pizzerias and other casual restaurants. We are dumbfounded that we did not have any suppli while in Rome (we need to correct that error ASAP). In any case, we think the US needs some more fried rice treats, whether suppli or arancini.

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Greenbush Bar: An Italian Speakeasy in Madison

Greenbush Bar
914 Regent St
Madison, WI

ItalySicilySpeakeasy. Tiny. Crowded. Delicious. That’s Greenbush Bar in a nutshell. One of our go-to places in Madison, we have been there countless times since Matt started graduate school in 2006. Serving Italian-American fare (though the website says “Sicilian“) with Midwestern charm, we have been so often, until two days ago we were not even sure if we had taken photos there or not, or even gotten started on a review. Perhaps that’s fitting for a place that is difficult to find for the uninitiated. Greenbush boasts no oversize, catchy sign advertising its existence; no large windows to let jealous passers-by gaze inside. Instead, Greenbush thrives on being a bit of a hidden gem, yet seemingly everybody knows about it.

Madison's Italian Workmen's Club (via Madison Trust for Historic Preservation)

Madison’s Italian Workmen’s Club (via Madison Trust for Historic Preservation)

More than any place else we have ever been, Greenbush feels like a speakeasy. You enter the front door of the old Italian Workmen’s Club, and descend down a small flight of stares to a wooden door that says simply, “Please wait to be seated.” Every time we open that door, without fail, we are shocked to find people on the other side. Yet we always do, and it is always full. Greenbush does not take reservations, and going after 6:30pm or so, especially on Friday or Saturday, virtually guarantees a long wait. We’ve learned to go around 5pm for the best shot at a table underneath Greenbush’s signature kitschy, yet surprisingly charming, year-round Christmas light ceiling display.


Every time we go to Greenbush, we order the same things. An order of the #1 crostini, topped with prosciutto, goat cheese, and tomatoes ($6.75). These are big pieces of bread, so do not expect small portions for an appetizer that could easily be an entree for some people. Savoring these, our entrees invariably arrive together, at the exact moment we finish our appetizer. Lindsay has ordered an 8-inch thick pizza, topped with nothing but mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce. Cut into four pieces, the constant assumption (but only occasional reality) is that we will split it equally. One of the best pizzas in Madison, this simple yet perfect preparation never disappoints for those seeking a high-quality version of the pizza we all known and love.


At the same time, Matt has ordered his go-to, the “Gorgonzola Cream Sauce,” a fettucine dish with smoked chicken, toasted walnuts, scallions, lemon, and mushrooms mixed its eponymous sauce. Again, like all good Italian cuisine, nothing sophisticated about this preparation: well-sourced ingredients (many from Wisconsin), balanced together. The heavy cream works wonderfully with the lemon and scallions, and the mushrooms add a distinct texture while absorbing the rest of the flavors from in the dish. Again, we are never disappointed – and we have never ordered anything else. We then spend the next hour or more eating back and forth off each others’ plates, switching when need be, until we slowly work our way through the pizza and pasta. Typically, if we still have room, we finish with one of Greenbush’s rotating dessert options. Frequently this is a cannoli – a real cannoli, filled with real ricotta, and real pistachios on the sides (not some other nut with green food coloring).

Greenbush may not be fancy, it may not be trendy, but remains romantic and comforting, just like the food it serves. We will be going back forever, ordering the same dishes every time, and always getting the same Italian Midwestern speakeasy experience. And we would not have it any other way.

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Real Sicilian Pizza: Sfincione in Palermo

SicilySfincione is traditional Sicilian pizza which is baked in large squares and is often served by cutting slices with scissors (our favorite part). Sfincione is akin to a thick foccacia bread topped with tomato sauce and (traditionally) anchovies and onions, and maybe some cheese, though definitely not as much as an American pizza. More exotic toppings are not an option. Sfincione originated in Sicily, and was the primary type of pizza on the island until the 1860s. While we were in Sicily, especially Palermo, we partook in many slices from street sellers known as sfinciunaros. In addition to being a street snack throughout Sicily, sfincione is also available in many restaurants and bakeries throughout Sicily and even Rome. Serious Eats has a Sfincione recipe that has been declared to be “spot on.” Looks like we’ll have to try making it this Christmas season, when it is traditionally consumed (though it is definitely a year-round food).


Cross Section of Sfincione by Scott Wiener

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A Visit to Sicily on St. Joseph’s Day

SicilySt. Joseph’s Day is one of our favorite food holidays. It is easy to see why: just look at the spread on the St. Joseph’s Day Table below. La Tartine Gourmand went to Sicily in 2012 during the Festa di San Giuseppe shared some amazing pictures of the food for St. Joseph’s Day they discovered there. The pictures are amazing, and help to give a real picture of what everyday Sicilian Cuisine is like. While we’re happy to be in Rio de Janeiro, we wish we could be in Sicily today!

St. Joseph's Day Table

St. Joseph’s/San Guiseppe  Day Table  in Sclafani Bagni, Sicily by La Tartinr Gourmand


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A guide to street food in Sicily

After our visit to Next Sicily we have Sicily on the brain. We visited the real Sicily last fall on our honeymoon, and we loved the food there (no surprise). What we especially loved was the abundance of cheap, tasty street food. Palermo in particular is a street food mecca – with fast and delicious morsels being sold from stands or tiny storefronts on almost all corners. When we were headed to Palermo we shortlisted a few types of street food we had to try while there, and fortunately we were not disappointed. We set out right away to start sampling street food, and made a beeline to the markets, where street food is king. Below are the favorite street foods we sampled (and one even we were not brave enough to try). So let’s go to Palermo….

Panelle – Panelle is a riff on a falafel – and is composed of chickpea flour fried up on a hot griddle. It is then served in a pita or eaten alone. One wouldn’t think that this carby concoction would work, but it is actually quite delicious (fans of falafel will approve). We had some handmade Panelle griddled up for us at the bustling Ballarò market, a cool food market with a lot of awesome African stalls.
Crocchè – We dodn’t even realize our Panelle would be coming with a special topping – crocchè- a little fritter made of mashed potatoes and parsley. Think of them as the most delicious tater tots you will ever have. The crocchè are the top layer of the snack below, and panelle is the bottom layer. Don’t forget to add a squeeze of lemon to help cut through all of the starch.

Arancini – The humble arancine is basically a fried dough ball filled with cheese and meat. However, the beauty of the arancine lies in its proper execution. If done wrong, an arancine is a gelatinous mealy blob that settles into a leaden ball in the pit of your stomach. Yes, we’ve had a few of those. However – when done right – the arancine is a warm gooey mess that does not leave you feeling like you ate a cannonball. Let’s just say – we had both varieties for Arancini on our Sicilian adventure. Arancine were found in pretty much every snack shop in Palermo, and one, Bar Touring, even specializes in giant arancini.

Pane cà meusa – Pane cà meusa is for braver stomachs than ours, and this street food dish consists of boiled calf spleen served in a roll. When happening across a pane cà meusa stall, you will usually find a hot bubbling cauldron of spleen. While its sheer popularity leads us to believe it is probably decently good, we would much rather take gelato in a brioche, thanks.
Gelato con Brioche – Saving the best for last, Gelato con Brioche is perhaps the most epic street food we have ever encountered in all of our travels. It is exactly what it sounds like, amazing gelato stuffed in a split brioche roll. Think of it as an ice cream cone carried to its next logical extreme. The first gelato in brioche we had even helped us get over the gruesome sites at the Convento dos Capuccinos in Palermo.

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Next Restaurant Sicily Non-Alcoholic Drink Pairings

As fans and critics alike know, where Next really excels is in its uniqueness, and this boils down even to their drinks. Every restaurant does wine pairings, so Next does one better by also offering some pretty awesome non-alcoholic drink pairings. Next Thailand blew us away with their drink pairings (including of course Cha Yen, which was part of the meal) so we jumped at the chance to try their Sicilian offerings. As usual, Next did not disappoint. For full coverage of the Sicily menu, check out our complete review post. This go-around the Next drink menu included five pairings for $48. Here they are in order, with the names from the official menu.

1. Honey, chamomile, saffron
The first drink started out on a fizzy and sweet note, and was brought out with our array of little street foods. In addition to the three ingredients listed on the official menu, the drink also contained Meyer lemon. Fortunately while the drink was sweet, it was not too sweet, and was cut through by the carbonation (done in-house). Of the lot, this was probably M’s least favorite drink (too much carbonation), though L quite enjoyed it.

2. Zucchini and Mount Olympus Flower
The second drink arrived with our first pasta dish. According to our server, Mt. Olympus Tea, rather than just being an ornamental name, is actually a floral herbal tea from the Mediterranean (if it actually is picked off of Mt. Olympus remains to be known). The flower in the tea is Sideritis, and since we enjoyed it so much, we are pleased to find it is available online. We found this tea (served cold) completely delicious and enchanting, with hints of lemon and sage. Despite its billing, we couldn’t really detect any of the zucchini flavor notes. This drink was L’s pick.

3. Green tomato, garlic, white pepper
We deemed this drink the “garden drink” and it is not exaggeration to say it was like a drinkable caprese salad. The server also mentioned celery, garlic and thyme. This drink, not surprisingly, was completely savory and this cognitive dissonance was not quite to L’s liking, but M gladly guzzled the remainder of her drink. Our server noticed this and even brought L some more Mt. Olympus tea (nice work servers). M thought the drink complemented the swordfish quite nicely, and flavor echoed the herbal notes of the mint pesto. Fans of V8 or the like will be pleased by this elegant rendition of a veggie drink.

4. Fennel verjus rouge, orange
The fennel drink, served with our last entree dish, reminded us of after-dinner digestifs (you know the candy coated fennel seeds, Mukhwas, you sometimes get at Indian restaurants?). This drink, as you can see above, was shockingly magenta. The blood orange probably only amplified the color. Though we might have never thought to combine blood orange and fennel, the result was delicious.

5. Watermelon, white balsamic, pinor noir juice
 The final drink was watermelon-pink, served over crushed ice in an old-fashioned glass, the only drink to not come in a wine glass. The primary flavor here – no surprise – was watermelon, though you could definitely taste the acidic kick of the white balsamic vinegar. The pinot noir grape juice was very subtle, and was definitely overwhelmed by the watermelon. We were curious that they chose Pinot Noir grapes since they are typically grown in the Northern part of Italy, not Sicily. The drink, which came with our desserts, was a perfect cool palate-cleanser for the end of the night. As you can see below, we ended up closing the place down!

scene at next restaurant

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Next Restaurant: Sicily

Next: Sicily
953 West Fulton Market
Chicago, IL

An ETW exclusive! We are pleased to present the first full review of the NEXT Sicily menu, complete with photos! (Grub Street Chicago posted the menu earlier today, but we got all the pictures). Chef Achatz’s approach to traditional Sicilian fare, nodding to history and time-honored techniques, was surprising given the experimentation for which he is known; but in that relative conservatism was an impressive array of flavors that hit some very, very impressive high notes over the course of the evening. While some of you may remember our tour of the Thailand menu last year, we found Sicily to be overall more interesting and the decidedly better meal of the two. Update: for a description of the non-alcoholic drink pairings check out our complete review post here

The meal begins with four antipasti, served family style, all at once:

Antipasta 1: Arancine

L, who is Sicilian, declared these arancine to be better than those we had in Sicily, and M would have to agree. Perfectly fried, the rice inside was wonderfully cooked, and the lamb tongue filling braised to perfection. The highlight of this dish was the accompanying caper-tomato sauce, which hit on perfect notes of saltiness and and a mixture of other flavors that made this antipasta one of our favorite dishes of the evening.

Antipasta 2: Carciofi Alle Brace (Grilled Artichokes)

Our understanding has always been that grilled artichokes are more of a Roman dish, but we will give the chefs a pass on this. Lightly seasoned artichokes were grilled over an open flame, leaving the exterior charred and the interior flesh moist and delicious. We were encouraged to peel off the charred bits and suck off the flesh underneath, and M in particular was happy to find the taste of the char was an excellent accompaniment to the artichoke flesh, almost like a dry-rubbed and barbecued artichoke.

Antipasta 3: Caponata

“The whole garden in a dish” is how our waiter described our third antipasta, a wonderful take on caponata. A variety of vegetables accompanied with the perfect dose of a wonderful sweet-and-sour tomato sauce. The pink Egyptian star flowers, said the server, were delivered only minutes before service began that evening, and so were a last-minute addition to the dish.

Antipasta 4: Panelle

Panelle are a type of Sicilian fritter, but these disappointed us. Well-seasoned with a little shaved cheese, they were far too thin to maintain their structure on their own, not to mention when paired with a caponata. Despite being directed by our server to put a spoonful of the caponata on our panelle, L laughed when hers disintegrated in her hands and onto her plate. Hopefully over the course of the menu service they will solidify the panelle and give them more backbone, because otherwise they are a difficult dish to even stand on their own, much less with the caponata weighing them down.

We soon realized this meal would follow a very traditional Sicilian structure: the antipasti finished, the plates were cleared to make weigh for consecutive pasta courses.

Pasta 1: Bucatini con Bottarga

This small dish was the highlight of the evening: home-made bucatini in a rich, flavorful, complex sauce of fish roe and cheese, topped with thinly-sliced fish and wild mountain basil. We are not usually fans of fish roe, but the way Achatz integrated the cheese and roe into that sauce was nothing short of masterful – we will remember those flavors for ever. Add to that the basil, which had a much stronger and more inviting flavor that the standard variety, this was a dish that pulled a lot of flavor punches, but did so in perfect balance. Incredibly disappointing that this dish was so small, because we could have eaten a few more courses. The dish was not without its problems, however: the buccatini was perhaps 30 seconds from being perfectly cooked; as a result, the pasta stuck to our teeth a little too much. A very small kitchen mistake, but one that prevented this from being the dish of the year.

Pasta 2: Gemelli con le Sarde

The national dish of Sicily – and the servers introduced it as such – Achatz did a great job paying homage to this classic, and L would have critiqued him heavily if he had messed it up. Perfectly-cooked gemelli was mixed with currants, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, mushrooms, a hint of lemon (we think) and fennel sprigs, and topped with a grilled sardine. The sardine – of which we are normally not fans – was grilled perfectly, and had its saltiness reduced just enough to make it blend very well with the rest of the pasta. Overall, this dish was the epitome of refined rustic cooking. The added accompaniments were great complements to the dish, and executed wonderfully.

The sardine was a well-positioned transition to the meal’s third portion: the fish course.

Fish: Pesce Spada con di Ceci (Swordfish . . .)

. . . with accompanying chickpea salad.

Our fish course was grilled swordfish with mint pesto, served topped with a bunch of grilled mint and a charred head of garlic. On its own, the swordfish was a bit of a disappointment given the wonderfully complex flavors that had emerged thus far in the course of the evening. Lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and nicely grilled, even with the mint pesto we found the flavor a little underwhelming in the context of the rest of the meal. This changed once the fish was eaten with a bit of the accompanying salad: chickpeas, basil, and Romanesco (“fractal”) broccoli in lemon juice. This small salad added exactly what the fish had been missing: a little vibrancy of citrus, contrasted and paired well with the mint pesto.

Meat: Spalla di Maiale Brasato (Braised Pork Shoulder)

. . . with accompanying salad of grilled zucchini and tomatoes.

This dish may have tied the bucatini as the highlight of the meal. With so little meat in Sicily, it is saved and savored for weekends, when pasta sauce is made with chunks of meat, the meat removed and the sauce served over pasta, and then the meat consumed on its own after. This is a rich culinary tradition – it still goes on in our large Italian family homes – and it could not have been better represented on this plate. The pork shoulder we were served – and this is not an exaggeration – dissolved on our tongues: “Yeah, we braised it for a little while before you got here,” our server said with a wry smile. We have never had any pork so amazingly cooked in our lives, and it would take such a large, sophisticated, and pre-set menu to allow a chef the chance to do this outside of a small restaurant that would specialize in such a thing. The accompanying red meat sauce tasted like something one of our grandmothers would have made, and hit well on all the notes of the pork (thus confirming they were in fact made together). Grilled (and very juicy) meyer lemons took the dish to new heights. With all that flavor, the grilled zucchini and tomatoes served with it were something of an afterthought, and probably our lest favorite dish of the evening. They were fine, just unremarkable and completely unnecessary given the wonder of the pork shoulder’s main event.

At this point, we were completely stuffed. Antipasti, pasta, fish, and meat had been served: only dessert remained.

Cleanser: Granita di Arance Rosse (Blood Orange Shaved Ice)

This was a very smart part to include in the meal: something light and cool to cleanse your palette and allow you to digest before taking on dessert. Apparently (said the server) the Arabs developed shaved ice while in Sicily, and they were also the first to cultivate the islands wide array of citrus fruits for which Sicily is justifiably well-known. The granita at Next was unpretentious, nothing more than ice flavored with blood orange juice (and thus quite sour), but a welcome interlude before Sicily’s most famous product: dessert.

Dessert 1: Cassata (whole cake, for display)

Cassata slice, for consumption

L’s family is from the region around Palermo, where Cassata originates. She knows this dish well, and was thrilled to see it on the menu. A spongecake usually covered in almond-flavored marzipan, the chefs did not use the almond flavor on this go-around, instead just letting the marzipan speak for itself. Topped with a marinated strawberry, the cake was garnished with vanilla (with a hint of lemon?) whipped cream, candied orange peel, a candied pecan, and mint sprigs. Light, sweet, and well-garnished, we enjoyed this cassata immensely.

Dessert 2: Dolci (sweets): Cannoli, Ravioli Fritti, and Cubbaita di Giugiulena

Our final dish of the evening was a celebration of traditional Sicilian pastries. The fried ravioli were filled with a a locally-sourced strawberry jam. Giugiulena, one of our favorites, is a heavy sesame-seed pastry that tastes like peanut to the unfamiliar palette (a bit like a thicker, seedier version of halva). These first two pastries were solid albeit unremarkable, which frankly was welcome after the onslaught of flavors we had previously. We saved the cannoli – our favorites – last, but were sorry to say these woefully disappointed us. We found them much too small; the shells far too thin (we had a similar problem to the panelle where they broke into pieces as soon as we bit them) and, sin of sins, the cream inside did not have a hint of sugar. Cannoli are not easy to create, but we are saddened to say these are some of the most disappointing cannoli we have had recently, and absolutely pale in comparison to those we have eaten in Sicily or elsewhere in the U.S.

Not that this really disappointed us. Our meal complete, we walked away awed at this menu’s fusion of technique, flavor, and commitment to tradition. This is difficult to pull off, and we can only think Chef has been refining his thinking in this way after the El Bulli menu – billed as a “celebration” (as opposed to an “imitation”) of El Bulli’s creations. If that were true of the previous menu, Next Sicily follows suit: this evening was an impressive celebration of Sicily’s culinary innovations and explorations. As a foodie you will be glad to come here. But rest assured, your Sicilian grandmother will enjoy the meal as well – and that is saying a lot.

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