It was hard to narrow down this selection to just a handful of the “Best Things I Ate Last Year.” This was a good food and travel year for me. But here are a few things that delighted my palate at home and abroad. Some are old favorites and others are new.
More from my site
The village of Venetico in northeast Sicily has narrow, winding streets and two seemingly unnecessary stop lights. They are located at each end of the meandering roadway that run through town. The lights change alternately, making the street one way since the space is otherwise too narrow for cars to pass.
On the town plaza overlooking the Aegean Sea, sits an old church, a fountain and and a remarkable restaurant with an unusual name: Pizzeria Trattoria da Clara, by American Pie. The place has a long history and an equally interesting explanation for its lengthy name, which Pietro, the owner, will happily explain.
We meet Pietro one evening at twilight just outside the kitchen door that opens onto the street. With such an arrangement, there’s no need to ask what’s on the menu. Customers can see and smell what’s cooking or ask one of Pietro’s four grown daughters working in the kitchen. When the place first opened as a pizza joint years ago, he called it American Pie, because that was one of his favorite songs. Later when his daughter, Clara, took over the kitchen, it was renamed for her.
There’s something about the atmosphere at Clara’s that reminds me of the set for the musical Mama Mia: the quaint architecture, the ancient fountain, the free flow of food and drink from kitchen to plaza, the splendid view of the sea below. Each time we went to Clara’s, I expected the customers to break into a chorus of Dancing Queen. Here is a celebration of the simple, but good life, centuries old and still enjoyed.
The chatty owner is Sicilian by birth, but raised in Jersey. Returning to Sicily, he married a young woman who owned a bar in Venetico. Together the family turned the place into a restaurant with a staff of 14, that serves nearly 150 people in an evening.
Pietro is happy to see Americans, because he enjoy the chance to speak English, which he does while spending the entire evening standing at our table talking about everything from food to politics. His parents were Reagan Republican, he says, but he now believes there would be no room for he and his family in today’s GOP. “You know that Sicily once wanted to be the 49th state?” We laugh. “No, this is true. We asked President Truman to make us part of the United States.” When we laugh again at such an absurdity, he promises to show us a clipping from the New York Times when we come back.
Pietro pauses in his commentary and beckons for a server to bring a dish to the table for us to view. It’s a Filetto al Pepe Verde—a beef filet with green peppercorns, cream, mustard, butter and a shot of brandy (for the recipe not the cook). That’s all there is to it. Yet he assures me it’s one of those dishes so good you would lick the plate.
Pietro sprinkles cooking tips into the conversation regardless of the topic. “You must change traditional recipes a bit,” he advises. “If you repeat the original recipe time after time than everything will always taste the same. You must try new ways.” He explains why it’s hard to duplicate dishes from Sicily. The fresh tomatoes, the cheeses, the eggplants are not always the same, because the volcanic soil on the island produces an unique taste.
When it comes to tomato sauce, Pietro has more pointers. Surprisingly, I was already doing most of what he suggested.
- Always throw in a knob of butter at the end for a smooth, silky sauce.
- Before serving the sauce, stir in a bit of water from the cooked pasta.
- Always use fresh garlic, basil and extra virgin olive oil
- Use fresh Roma tomatoes or a good canned variety.
- Keep the pasta al dente, which is a bit firmer than I normally cook it.
We inquire about the absence of chicken on most menus. It’s a cultural thing, Pietro explains. In Sicily you eat chicken when you’re sick. “So you make a chicken soup like we do at home?” I ask. “No, no,” he explains, “We dip the chicken in a flour-egg mixture. Then it’s fried and served with melted cheese on top.” That doesn’t sound like a dish with many health benefits, but I suppose it’s worth trying, if you find chicken soup too bland.
We ask about a cooking class in the area. He offers to give us a session in his kitchen, free. But first he must see to the marriage of his last daughter the next day. “My part is to give her away and serve food to 100 guests and 20 bambinos. But the following day everybody will be back to work. You can watch my daughters prepare lunch. It would be better than a cooking school,” he promises, and we agree.
When we show up for the cooking demonstration, Pietro has the clipping he mentioned earlier. It’s about an attempt by Sicilian separatists to break away from Italy after World War II and become an American state. The revolt was led by bandit/folk hero Salvatore Guiliano and his ragtag band of guerrillas wanting to run out the Communists and protest shabby treatment by Italy. Squabbles among leaders and enhanced political autonomy eventually doomed the movement.
Still, it might be interesting to see if there’s a response letter from Harry Truman at the presidential library. It’s amusing to imagine what might have been had the proposal been taken seriously. Perhaps we’d be enjoying more pizza, pasta and gelato and that wouldn’t be all bad.
Next: The Aegean Islands and Syracuse in “Sicily for Foodies: Part 3.”