CATANIA, ITALY: I had a fantastic dinner last night in a restaurant that felt like it was at the end of the earth. It was literally out in the middle of nowhere in Sicily, about two hours south of Catania in a town called Ragusa Ibla, a beautiful ancient city with an almost Spanish colonial feel to it.
Ciccio Sultano, 36, has been in his restaurant, Duomo, for about seven years, and he already has an international following. I saw two framed newspaper clippings from the New York Times in the entrance with his mug. He is leaving in a couple of days for New York for a charity dinner.
Despite such publicity, Sultano is certainly not full of himself like some chefs in Italy. It’s all about ingredients for Ciccio, and simple preparations. He gets some of the best fish in Sicily, even though most goes to Japan on the first flight out of Palermo every morning. He scores the best through years of contact with local fisherman. “It’s not easy but I can get it,” he said before the dinner. (I actually met him earlier this year on a trip to Havana where he helped with a large dinner at the Melia Cohiba Hotel during a cigar festival.)
Ciccio loves preparing fish “crudo,” or raw. His starters are the best. For example, one of the many small appetizers he sent out from the kitchen during my visit included a finely diced tuna tartare with small cubes of tuna belly on top and a spicy zabaglione sauce. A small bowl of shelled small white prawns in tepid almond milk was equally tasty and sophisticated in a straightforward way. Thinly sliced smoked grouper with pieces of cantaloupe was a nice fishy take on the classic prosciutto and melon combination.
We had a number of wines with various dishes. The wine list is excellent, extensive, and well priced. I liked the first wine Ciccio’s partner, Angelo di Stefano, recommended. A dry 2004 Moscato d’Alessandria (called Zibibbo locally) produced on the volcanic island of Pantelleria by Salvatore Murana was very good indeed. It was wonderfully perfumed with lots of dried apricot and spices, as well as rich and flavorful fruit. (I put it at 88 points during dinner.) I also liked a 2003 Insolia called Avide Riflessi di Sole, which had bright fruit and light vanilla, apple and celery character. (I considered it worth 87 points.)
I still think Sicily has a long ways to go for quality wine, but that’s a column for the future. Other than Planeta, Cusumano, Saia and Tasca d'Almerita, there’s not a whole lot out there. And I tasted more than 400 wines from Sicily in the last few months.
Unfortunately, I don’t go to Sicily enough. The food can be superb, thanks to the natural generosity of the island and her sea. The people are friendly, and the countryside is bold and picturesque. And some very good to excellent wines at good value are available. The dinner at Duomo more than reminded me of this.
Palazzo La Rocca
Via Cap. Bocchieri, 31
Telephone: (01139) 0932651265
Mark Bata — Canada — May 26, 2006 7:44pm ET
Michael Culley — May 27, 2006 6:05am ET
Daniel Petroski — 95403 — May 29, 2006 1:28pm ET
James Suckling — — May 30, 2006 5:06am ET
Winston Chapman — June 1, 2006 7:42pm ET
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