The date: Sometime in the 1960s. The place: New York's Little Italy. The eatery: Any of a dozen Italian seafood restaurants.
At a corner table sit four or five elderly Sicilian gentlemen, sucking on their crooks, and pretending not to understand English. What they're doing is waiting for uptown WASPs to visit.
Linguini with clam sauce is all the rage, and the sauce is offered in mild, medium, and hot versions. "I'll take the hot," the uptowner invariable says. Sniggers from the corner, hidden behind sips of grappa.
Comes the hot sauce and our heroes are in trouble. Italo/American hot sauce can make Thai and Mexican food mild by comparison. I mean it's really hot! Blow the roof off your mouth hot! Dive into the water carafe hot! The old timers just about wet their drawers laughing when the uptowners did that very thing.
Remembering this, I had to read the recipe several times as I prepared Nino Graziano's Tuna "Sausages" with Mint in Hot Sauce several times. "Where's the hot?" I wondered, as I set out to try the recipe. The answer is, it's not, hardly. In a sauce whose ingredient list includes herbed tomato sauce, white wine vinegar, and even sugar, all that's called for is a mere pinch of hot red pepper. Good it is. Hot it's not at least not by any standards I know.
Classic Sicilian cooking, it's true, isn't noted for heat. It's hallmark, rather, is in special ways of combining sweets & sours. Even so, non-nuclear "hot" sauce is one of the ways Graziano has been in the forefront of reinventing Sicilian cooking while remaining true to its roots.
Operating out of Il Mulinazzo, his Michelin two-star restaurant 30 klicks south of Palermo, the native-born Graziano developed his unique style just as the Sicilian wine boom was in its infancy. Thus, the timing was right for him to influence the about-to-explode gastronomic scene, which he did with a vengeance. Concentrating on heavy use of traditional ingredients, and a lighter approach to cooking, Graziano literally reinvented Sicilian cuisine at a time the world was changing its view of the island. "After the dark years, in which the island was associated only with the Mafia," he says, "people have begun to associate it with something positive. Rather than ask who was killed where, tourists are now more likely to inquire about a particular grape variety, the late ripening peaches, or a rare cheese.
"We have extraordinary ingredients at our disposal, transformed by artisans," he continues. "This guarantees real flavor."
The flavors of the new Sicily are amply captured in his book as well. For instance, his signature dish, Puree of Fava Beans with Scampi and Ricotta represents the very essence of the island. Yet, at the same time, it demonstrates his use of traditional ingredients to make a dish truly his own.
The aforementioned Tuna "Sausages" with Mint in Hot Sauce is another example. Migratory tuna have been fished for off Sicily at least since the time of the Phoenicians. And various waves of conquerors have left their mark in terms of foodstuffs. All of which shine in this incredible dish which has become a standard in our house since I first made it.
We again see this fusion of the new and old, the native and the imported, in his Charlotte of Potatoes and Scampi in an Herbed Tomato Sauce---though I thought the potatoes could use some spicing up. Salt and pepper at a minimum would have helped. Or even repeating some of the herbs used in the tomato sauce.
Still and all, this is a very creative use of ingredients. And an easy dish to prepare for either guests or as a regular supper.
Part of the Bibliotheca Culinaria series highlighting the work of great Italian Chefs, My Sicilian Cooking is a beautifully prepared book, following the same basic format. Photos of Graziano and his staff are scattered throughout the tome, and most of the recipes are lusciously illustrated with Janez Puksic's amazing photos.
There are two appealing aspects of this volume, however, that set it apart from others in the series. In the first place, little of Graziano's work requires specialized tools and equipment. Every recipe in the book can be easily replicated---or serve as inspiration--- in any professional and most home kitchens.
Point two: In addition to the chef's easy-to-follow directions, he provides instructions for presentation of each dish. No, you don't have to plate the way he suggests. But it's nice to know how he does it in the restaurant, because the photo stylings do not always follow his presentation.
To be sure, as with most of the series, errors of translation and editing have crept in, such as the instructions for his basic tomato sauce, which tell us to saute the garlic and onion in the olive oil. But, alas, there is no garlic listed in the ingredients.
Happily, I ran across fewer of these errors than in other books in this series. Heinz Beck, for instance, is rift with them. And the few I did find in My Sicilian Cooking are easily corrected for.
Sicily is rapidly becoming a culinary destination as more and more chefs reinvent the island's tradition of sweet and sours in combination with lighter use of local ingredients. But there's no need for a transatlantic voyage. With My Sicilian Cooking as a starting point you can explore the new Sicilian cuisine without traveling further than your kitchen.