There is a butcher’s shop in the small Sicilian town of Linguaglossa, on the northeast side of Etna, called Carmelo Cannavò. Apart from meat, the shop stocks local wines and spirits (including Volcano, a terrific gin made with aromatic herbs from Etna’s slopes), as well as cheeses, house-made salamis, vinegars and all manner of dried pastas.
I stocked up on smoked ricotta salata, to be grated over pasta alla Norma, and some splendid capocollo (cured pork neck) but rather regretted that the house speciality of polpette – freshly minced pork, seasoned and pressed onto lemon leaves for grilling – were probably not going to travel happily in my hand luggage.
My bag of Sicilian goodies and I went for lunch at Boccaperta, a hugely hospitable little wine bar and restaurant on the same street, where an exuberant mural of Etna dominates the terrace, and the “zero km” menu champions local, seasonal produce: fresh porcini, wonderfully flavoursome grilled vegetables from Etna’s fertile soils, classic aubergine parmigiana, simple but very fine platters of local sausages, hams and cheeses…
And I was delighted to discover the polpette from Carmelo Cannavò, which were every bit as good as they had looked in the shop, the lightly charred leaves adding a sublime fragrance to the coarsely ground, fennel-spiked pork. Washed down with a couple of glasses of Passopisciaro’s thoroughly delicious, almost Burgundian Contrada R 2017, it was a perfect lunch.
About 2,000km away from Linguaglossa, back in London, my craving for the beguiling flavours of the Sicilian kitchen led me to Norma, chef and restaurateur Ben Tish’s handsome new restaurant on Charlotte Street. Named after pasta alla Norma – sauced with tomatoes, aubergine, basil and ricotta salata, the dish in turn named after Catania native Vincenzo Bellini’s operatic heroine – Norma offers its diners a culinary tour of Sicily in decidedly elegant surroundings.
The eponymous pasta dish, made with fat, stubby rigatoni, was perfectly judged: soft, silky aubergine, the sweet acidity of tomatoes, a whiff of basil and the milky, salty kick of grated ricotta salata. There are excellent arancini, too, saffron-yellow and stuffed with wild mushrooms, covered in a blizzard of Parmesan. And caponata, the classic, sweet-sour, Moorish-influenced vegetable stew on whose recipe no two Sicilians agree: Tish’s version is more dolce than agro, dotted with olives and strewn with toasted pine nuts.
Plates of sweet, perky red prawns are dressed with orange and rosemary; inspired by the famous northern Italian dish of vitello tonnato, rosy slices of veal are bathed in a smoked eel mayonnaise and topped with pickled carrots; little violet artichokes are sauced with a pine nut purée.
Tish is a chef with a penchant for strong flavours, and his menu allies a profound grasp of Sicilian cucina with great technique and a painterly eye for a pretty plate. Now if only his new restaurant served polpette grilled on lemon leaves…