Tag Archive for: Sicily

High summer in Sicily and the carefree boys will be leaping off the quayside at Cefalu,  location for Cinema Paradiso; in New Mills fewer, if any, will fancy a dive into the murky Peak Forest Canal or the River Goyt. 

Taking a plunge on Cannoli, now that’s another matter. At A Tavola Gastronomia Sicilia I’ve lined up a trio of these sweet fried pastry tubes filled with fresh Agrigento ricotta, Etna pistachio and the like. To close a glorious lunch ‘from the old country’ in a Technicolor Mediterranean setting my brother and I are sharing them alongside scoops of ice cream, one intensely lemony, the other showcasing the legendary dark chocolate of Modica, spectacular Baroque home town of A Tavola’s owner/chef Alessio Muccio. His restaurant journey to the former Beehive pub has taken him via stints in the old Stock restaurant in central Manchester, Mamma Mia in Denton and Reddish. 

This proud Sicilian and his open kitchen team make the cannoli, the gelato, much of the pasta we never ordered and the arancini that thankfully we did. Alessio’s front of house partner Nicky Owen beams with enthusiasm when we tell her these awesome cones of deep-fried, breadcrumbed rice are the best we’ve ever tasted, vanquishing those tiny balls of leftover risotto rice that are the norm in the chain Italians. At the heart of mine is a torrent of ragu and molten mozzarella.

Mixed feelings about the caponata on sourdough bruschetta but, as Nicky points out every family across the island of Sicily offers their own version of this sweet and sour aubergine dish. A Tavola’s is light on the capers and vinegar, unlike my own take, which is sometimes too Cosa Nostra ferocious. There looks to be a lightness of touch across the whole menu here. Testimony to which exemplary fritto misto, a bargain to share at £14.50 with its cornucopia of red mullet, whitebait, calamari, sardine fillets, anchovies and king prawns… only the latter, from Argentina, perhaps over-crisped in the frier.

Of course, there are pasta and pizzas on the menu (with a mission statement abut the quality and sustainability of the flour they use). Readers of my website will be aware of my obsession with Pasta all Norma. Yes, that pinnacle of Sicilian primi is there, the sauce with ricotta salata and mint applied to Casarecce (short durum wheat twists), Bravo.

The menu is apparently based on a book of family recipes passed down by his father. Among the riot of Sicilian artefacts and keepsakes across two floors there are pictures of family and, on the stairs, Al Pacino and other Godfather luminaries, who I presume are not related.

All in all, the whole place feels like a labour of love with some 30 covers inside and the same number outside, served by staff predominantly from Sicily. The raw materials, too, sing of that rich culinary melting pot – sasizza (fennel sausage), grassy olive oil, wines,  even Sicilian craft lagers (they also have plans to commission a house beer from the estimable Torrside Brewing in the town). Check out the Sicilian deli, selling pasta, condiments and chutneys.

A Tavola Gastronomia Siciliana, 67 Albion Rd, New Mills, High Peak SK22 3EY. Open 4pm-11pm Tuesday-Thursday, 1pm-11pm Friday and Saturday.

Main image, courtesy of PMW Photography, is from the glorious A Tavola website gallery.

Opera has alway been entwined with food, especially Italian. We’re not talking tour riders of the stars with Pavarotti apparently demanding a 24 hour kitchen be set up next to his room with fridges packed with pasta, tomatoes and roast chickens, enough to feed 20. It was a phobia from an impoverished childhood – the big man ate comparatively moderately.

No it’s the way great names have become attached to certain dishes – Tournedos Rossini, Spaghetti Caruso, Peach Melba, Salsa Verdi. OK, I employed artistic licence on that last one. And then there is a truly terrific dish called after an actual opera. It is also one of the simplest to prepare, provided you’ve sourced the exact ingredients.

Pasta alla Norma has become the unofficial signature dish of Sicily. Invented in Catania on the east coast about the time Vincenzo Bellini’s romantic opera Norma premiered, it is said that the pasta was created as a homage. Legend has it that Nino Martoglio, an Italian writer and poet, was so delighted when presented with this dish that he compared its splendour with that of the opera.

Alternatively, according to Ben Tish in his evocative cookbook, Sicilia (Bloomsbury, £26) – one of my Cookbooks of 2021 – “another story tells of a talented home cook who served her creation to a group of gourmands and was duly christened at the table via the classic Sicilian compliment of Chista e na vera Norma (‘this is a real Norma’). Whatever the truth, the dish became an instant classic and its fame spread around the world.”

At my last London review meal before the lockdowns I ate this iconic dish of rigatoni, aubergine, tomato, basil and ricotta salata, appropriately enough, at Norma, the restaurant Ben created in Fitzrovia for the Stafford Group, showcasing the dishes in his book, many with Moorish influences. He has recently moved on. I finally published my account of that memorable meal in June 2021.

Since when I’ve looked out for Pasta alla Norma on menus in my native north. Among the indies specifically offering the island’s cuisine you won’t find it at Sicilian NQ in Manchester or A Tavola Gastronomia Siciliana in New Mills, though Trinacria in York do serve it. Less surprisingly the more generic Rosso in Manchester or the PIccolino chain do not list it. Rivals San Carlo do, but substitute pecorino for the ricotta salata. A cardinal sin in Catania, even though these crumbly, grateable sharp cheeses have much in common.

Indeed, my home quest to replicate the perfect Norma has been hampered by the absence of ricotta salata in my life. Until recently.

So what makes the salata version separate from that mild soft whey cheese found in tubs across the land. For a start, it packs a pungent, salty punch. Hence the name. It is  is only made over winter and spring when pastures are lush and herb-filled and the cooler air is perfect for ageing. 

I located an authentic version from Bermondsey-based Italian Artisan food importers Ham and Cheese after being alerted by the folk behind new Hebden Bridge bar, Coin, who serve a range of their charcuterie.

The ricotta salata I bought online is made by the Agostino family, who sell it normally from their butchers shop in Mirto, on Sicily’s north coast, west of Messina. We must have driven past on a road trip from Etna to Cefalu (main picture) the other year.

Their version is made from full-fat, raw cow’s milk, sometimes with the addition of goat’s or sheep’s milk, and is curdled with lamb or kid rennet before being put in to moulds. After a couple of days it spends 48 hours in a brine bath and is then aged for three months. It was a wonderful component of the Tish recipe for Pasta alla Norma. My one deviation from the norm (sic)? I added salted capers. Because they go so well in that other Sicilian aubergine, classic, caponata. Below, it tasted as good as it looked…

Ingredients: 2 firm aubergines, trimmed and cut into 2cm dice; 150ml extra virgin olive oil; ½ onion, finely chopped; 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped; a good handful of basil leaves

800g quality canned chopped tomatoes or passata; 400g dried rigatoni; 200g ricotta salata cheese, grated; sea salt

Method: Put the diced aubergines in a colander in the sink and sprinkle with salt. Leave to drain for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to its highest temperature, around 250°C/230°C fan/Gas Mark 10.

Rinse the aubergine in cold water and pat dry with a kitchen towel, then toss in a bowl with half the oil. Spread out on a baking tray, place in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes or until caramelised, turning occasionally to make sure the pieces don’t dry out.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a medium saucepan over a medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Sauté for a couple of minutes, then add half the basil and the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat and cook gently for 23–30 minutes or until thickened (the exact time will depend on your canned tomato brand).

When the sauce is almost ready, cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water according to the packet instructions to al dente. Add the aubergine to the sauce. Drain the pasta (reserving a little of the cooking water) and toss in the sauce. If the sauce seems too thick, add some cooking water to loosen.

Divide among the plates and sprinkle with the ricotta and remaining basil leaves, roughly torn over the top. It’s best to allow this to cool slightly before eating.

Serves four