Maria Grammatico in her pastry shop, in Erice, Sicily.
In all of Italy, Sicily, for me, has the best food. It just makes sense to me all around—the ingredients, the palate, the preparation. I suppose being part Sicilian myself, I’m predisposed to favor Sicilian flavor, and maybe also to be infatuated with Louis Prima. But who really knows why we like what we like? Familiarity no doubt has something to do with fondness, but not everything. Sometimes you just fall in love. For instance, I love the flavor of aqvavit, the strong, caraway-flavored Norwegian booze, although I haven’t got a drop of Norwegian blood in me—and though, by the way, it tastes absolutely terrible with tomato sauce.
Sicilian food is for me a mix of the exotic and the familiar. I love its lows and its highs, from its plain grilled swordfish with lemon, or its raw sea urchins eaten straight from the boat, to its opulent timballi of meats and cheeses encased in sweet pastry, a legacy of an abusive aristocracy with French-trained chefs. I love its Arab touches—cinnamon, saffron, pomegranates, couscous. I love its citrus and anchovies, and capers. I’m crazy about all its ultrasweet desserts made with honey and pistachios, and especially its works of art made with almond paste, molded into sacrificial lambs or eels or bunches of grapes, as fashioned by Maria Grammatico at her pastry shop in Erice (see the photo above, and if you’d like to know her story, a journey that takes her from convent kid to Sicilian pastry queen, pick up Bitter Almonds, a great little book by Mary Taylor Simeti and her, published in 2003).
New York hasn’t had many Sicilian restaurants that I can remember. I used to love Briscola, at Fourth Avenue and 9th Street, named after a Sicilian card game. They made great pasta con le sarde and a delicious escarole torta. I had several rambunctious, nero d’avola and cassata-soaked birthday parties at that place. They made the most superior ricotta gelato I have ever tasted, something I often craved at strange hours, occasionally making my way over to the restaurant just for it. Briscola repeatedly opened, closed, and reopened in slightly different forms for about ten years, finally packing up for good around 2000. I really miss its ricotta gelato
Braised octopus at Cacio e Vino, in the East Village.
Over the last few months I’ve been stopping into Cacio e Vino, one of the zillion little Italian places in the East Village with more or less indistinguishable décor that rely on rows of wine bottles to try to set a mood. This one is different. It’s Sicilian, with a real Sicilian menu and Sicilian owners. And they have a wood-burning oven. I first wandered into the place months ago because its doorway was filled with the aroma of good, smoky pizza. I soon discovered that everything that comes out of its wood-burning oven is really good.
I wanted pizza, but I noticed on the menu that they offered other dough-based things too. There’s schiacciate, a flat bread sandwich that can be filled with all sorts of stuff. I decided on a cunzato, filled with anchovies, primo sale (a young pecorino), and oregano. It was beautiful, with thin, crisp, wood-scented bread and oozing cheese. My friend had a Norma, with eggplant, tomato, and aged pecorino. As good as the schiacciate sandwiches are, nothing is quite as impressive as the farciti, a Sicilian version of calzone. Cacio e Vino makes one that looks like a big crab or a gigantic croissant.
On another visit to the little restaurant I ordered a farcito with potatoes, onions, and sausage, and my sister had the mozzarella, anchovy, and onion version. These are not at all like the usual overstuffed Neapolitan-type calzones that can be so densely packed with ricotta and mozzarella that one or two bites and you’re defeated. The farciti are not solid. They have air inside. They look huge but in fact are quite delicate.
The pastas at Cacio e Vino cover just about all the Sicilian favorites. I’ve tried spaghetti cacio e piselli, with pecorino, black pepper, and green peas. It was simple but flavor-packed, despite its few ingredients. Anelletti, the Sicilian ring pasta, tossed with a beef and eggplant ragù, came closed up in pastry and baked in the pizza oven, very Il Gattopardo. Gnocchi al baccala, with salt cod, was salty but enticing, with its mix of strong fish and very light, fluffy gnocchi. Busiate, a kind of thick spaghetti, tossed with a traditional Trapanese pesto made from almonds, basil and tomatoes, was really lovely and is hard to find in New York. The only pasta I wasn’t completely crazy about was their version of bucatini con le sarde. All the flavors were in place—the sardines, the saffron, the fennel, the raisins and pine nuts—but the sauce was heavy with wet, mushy breadcrumbs. I’ve had it made that way in Sicily, so I suppose it’s a traditional rendition, but I prefer a chunkier texture.
First-course standouts include a rather sweet but very appealing caponata, the agro dolce eggplant appetizer, with a side of panelle, Sicily’s version of socca, the Niçoise chickpea-flour pancake. Braised octopus with a marinara sauce comes with garlic bruschetta. This simple dish has good, direct flavor. The sarde a beccafico, stuffed sardines, a real Sicilian classic, could have been fresher the night I ordered it. I think restaurants in general need to keep a more trained nose on their sardines, which go off quickly. Arancini, those Sicilian saffron-flavored, ragù-stuffed, fried rice balls, are on the menu. I love those things when they’re good. I have yet to try Cacio e Vino’s version, but I’ll be back for it soon I’m sure.
It just occurred to me, I’ve been to Cacio e Vino about half a dozen times so far, and I have yet to order a main course. I can’t seem to get my head out of their pizza oven. Maybe next time I’ll order their baccala with lemon risotto cake. Sounds promising.
I did try the homemade cassata, a cassatina really, since it was thin and not elaborately decorated the way full-blown cakes tend to be. All the flavors were there, the green-tinted almond pasta, the ricotta cream, the fresh little sponge cake. I was very happy to find it house-made and made well.
The wine list is mostly Sicilian, small but good. I love the house rosato, a rosé wine made from Sicily’s famous red wine grape Nero d’Avola. It’s wonderful with the grilled octopus, fennel and orange salad. Check it out.
Cacio e Vino
80 Second Avenue (between 4th and 5th Streets)
New York, N.Y.