The Michelin guide to Italy is not, I have to admit, a publication I find especially useful. The joys of Italian food, for me, lie in excellent local ingredients, simply prepared and unpretentiously plated, and friendly, laid-back service. If it has been given too many haute-cuisine tweaks, and the waiters are as starchy as the tablecloths, Italian food does not work.
The guide sometimes gets it right, though. In Caltagirone, a short walk from its remarkable 142-step ceramic staircase, Ristorante Coria (pictured) manages both to hold a Michelin star and treat the superb produce of southeast Sicily with skill and respect.
Seafood takes centre stage on Coria’s menu: crudo di pesce is a tangle of raw tuna, anchovy and a fabulously sweet, creamy red prawn with salad leaves, a local variety of lemon and little pearls of black truffle resembling caviar – slightly cheffy, but utterly delicious.
Then fillets of lightly cooked red mullet perched on a sweet onion purée, with wafers of pane di Castelvetrano, a Sicilian wholewheat bread, and chicory leaves; next a coil of octopus tentacle, cooked until just yielding, served with smoked potato purée and soft slices of onion from nearby Giarratana; finally, impeccably fresh, juicy tuna, seared but still rosy within, partnered with grilled vegetables and a mayonnaise made with datterini tomatoes. Dessert was a crisp cannolo filled with ricotta, served with fig sauce and nougat ice cream.
It was a memorably fine meal, proving that culinary flair and finesse don’t have to involve too much plate-primping. The chefs at Coria are rightly proud of their local produce and are content to let it speak for itself; they just crank up the volume a little.
Acqua e Vino, in Vittoria, further south, has fewer frills than Coria, but its dedication to the bounty of southeast Sicily is just as heartfelt. Locals climb the stairs for pizzas – and very good they looked too – but it is also a proper restaurant, with a prime selection of classic dishes and wines: try the rosé made with Frappato, from Paolo Calì, or any bottle from its range of Cerasuolo, a blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola, and the only DOCG on the island.
This is Montalbano country – much of the TV drama is filmed in nearby towns – and many of the famously food-loving detective’s favourite dishes are on the menu: arancini (golden, deep-fried rice balls, stuffed with veal ragù), sweet-sour caponata (aubergine cooked with celery and sprinkled with almonds), bruschetta with capuliato (a paste of dried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and herbs), local cheeses (provola and ragusano) and superb cured meats. But you will not find Acqua e Vino in the Michelin Guide: sometimes, police inspectors know even more than restaurant inspectors.