Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Illusive Chef of Erice

And now that I’ve spent so much time discussing a Chef whose food you will never have the opportunity to sample, I thought it only fair to tell you about another one of my favorites, one particularly close to my heart, still steadfastly practicing his craft...

In my beloved Sicily, mythic land of my forefathers, there is a town set high on a cliff above the far-reaching expanse of the Mediterranean Sea. The town is called Erice and, in contrast to the dazzling whitewashed setting of the Moors you’ve visited in my blog on Mijas; Erice has the serene and resolute beauty of a medieval Norman installation. In Erice, the towers, fortress, homes, piazzas, and cobblestoned streets are carved from thick white rock which lends the city its characteristic shimmer as the sun reflects off its walls.

I am so enamored with Erice’s many charms, that I was married there. But that’s another story.

The very first time I saw Erice was on the approach to it from the road. Rising high above the sea in the distance, you could enjoy its splendor for miles, but as in all fabled lands of myth, the closer you got, the further away it seemed. I couldn’t help but think of ancient, weary travelers, making their way slowly up the arduous inclines. But once its summit is reached, Erice more than rewards the effort. The elegantly austere architecture, unchanged for centuries, envelopes the steep, narrow pedestrian pathways, now leading up, now down, following the natural curve of the mountain, then opening up to small, flower-filled piazzas, and stunning scenic overlooks.

I was traveling with my sister and nephew, and we immediately fell in love with the place. We took about a million pictures of the town from every small corner and every high tower, browsed the shops, and visited the Cathedral. Then we got really hungry. It was early for the local lunch time, but we couldn’t help ourselves. We peeked into the lobby of the tiny Hotel Elimo, the one place that looked like it might be open. It was filled with period furniture crammed around a grand piano against a backdrop of myriad pictures on an exposed stone wall – that ever-present, beautiful white stone.

The host responded with a characteristic Sicilian grimace when we asked if they were serving yet. And after checking on their readiness and giving us a look up and down, he invited us in to the magnificent dining room. Yet more exposed stone walls, unadorned and dramatic in their simplicity, framed the row of windows at the end of the room with an unobstructed view of the city; its rooftops, uniform in their ancient sun-baked colors, steadily giving way to the epic Sicilian countryside far below. Beyond that, the mystical Egadi Islands gracefully floated on the blue, blue sea. This is the kind of room and the kind of view one does not easily forget.

The waiter brought the menu, which was rich with Sicilian specialties: pasta alla norma, a hearty pasta with ricotta salata, fresh tomato, and eggplant; -- eggplant, the ever-present Sicilian staple so indelibly linked with the island’s history (and Sicily is the only place in the world where they know what to do with it); -- swordfish involtini, a delicately sliced fillet of swordfish, stuffed and rolled in breadcrumbs and cooked to a tender perfection in a sauce of white wine, butter, and lemon; and of course, as is necessary for any self-respecting Sicilian restaurant, a veritable bounty of the freshest fish just out of the sea.

We ordered an array of dishes (remember we were really hungry) and ate family style (not that the restaurant serves in this way; but when I’m with family, it’s just understood that everyone will share). The Chef made the simplest, most ubiquitous Sicilian staples extraordinary. We were stunned with our good fortune as we went from a mixed antipasto of perfectly grilled vegetables and my sweet caponata (another Sicilian variation of the esteemed eggplant, slowly simmered with olives and vegetables and caramelized by balsamic vinegar); to a mix of pastas, some highlighting the freshest fish while others accentuated local meats in a rich tomato base; and finally on to the exalted catch of the day, some grilled simply so that you could appreciate their delicate flavors, and others that were bathed in sauces that melted in your mouth. Nowhere in the world do they prepare fish like in Sicily; and nowhere in Sicily had I tasted the local cuisine prepared with such startling and succulent subtlety. This was not only a more decent meal than we had expected, but we had stumbled on a gold mine. Without knowing it, we were in the skilled hands of the much acclaimed local celebrity chef, Carmelo Tilotta, who is renowned for his mastery of Sicilian cuisine and his wondrous creativity with the island’s endless bounty.

As we sat and raved, we garnered the attention of the stern waiter, who swelled with pride, slowly but surely warming to us as most Sicilians will; wary at first of foreigners, undoubtedly a characteristic defense long ingrained in a people with a history of invasion. As the granddaughter of Sicilian immigrants, this is perfectly normal to me; but my nephew, a generation removed, was taken aback. I told him to hang in there; Sicilians don’t open up to just anybody, but once cracked, they have a warmth and affection that are genuine and overwhelming. In Sicily, you are either a foreigner, or family.

By the end of the meal, we were happily full, and a cast of characters surrounded our table wanting to know us better, our dour waiter smiling broadly as he learned of our Sicilian grandparents -- from this region no less, -- and he laughed heartily, slapping my nephew on the back when I translated his jokes. They bid us farewell with the bittersweet yearning of friends who want to see more of you, yet know that the pleasure will be reserved for the far distant future. We left without meeting the illusive Chef Tilotta, whose acclaim we wouldn’t learn of until later, and who is surprisingly shy despite his success.

That day and that meal would stay with me. So a few years later, when my husband first proposed and we were deciding where to have the wedding, we chose Erice. Of course, the choice for the reception was obvious. It had to be the spectacular room at the Hotel Elimo and the extraordinary talents of Chef Tilotta. But as I’ve already told you, that would be for another time and another story...