Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Illusive Chef of Erice, Part II

So where did I leave off? Oh yes, my then fiancĂ©, now happily-married-to-me husband, and I were going to be married and we had decided to be married in Sicily. Ah, my Sicily. Of course, we chose the idyllic Erice as our setting, with its lofty towers and imposing walls of white stone glistening in the sun. The reception had to be at the Elimo…

I contacted the magical restaurant and secured the date, but this wasn’t going to be a typical wedding plan. Being so far away, we could only reserve the space. There was no talk of a tasting menu as Chef Tilotta only works with the freshest ingredients, so I was told to come on by when I arrived in Sicily and all would be settled. The fact that this would be just days before the wedding did not seem to alarm them. Me? A little bit; but with so much else to coordinate on two different shores, I let this one slide.

Months passed and I was sitting with my husband discussing wedding particulars. “Are you worried about the reception?” he asked. “We haven’t even given them a deposit. Who’s to say they’re still holding the date?” Sufficiently alarmed, I wrote to Chef Tilotta to confirm, (politely adding that we’d LOVE to know some of his thoughts on the menu). But, if an e-mail can embody a physical gesture, this one was a deliberate roll of the eyes. “We have the date. Just come to the restaurant when you get here,” was all he wrote.

Only three days to go until the big day, and we still didn’t know our menu. As instructed, my husband and I dutifully made our way to Erice to meet with Chef Tilotta, who greeted me with the affection and patronage of a father welcoming his own daughter. As we sat in the crammed room by the piano, he went over his notes on the menu, and his plan was music to my ears...

The Wedding day -- My husband and I got to the Elimo before our guests, and Chef Tilotta greeted us with open arms, then quickly ushered us on a tour of the premises to proudly show off his work. Much to our surprise and delight, he hadn’t just reserved the room with the view over the rooftops that we’d requested, but the entire first floor space of the hotel, including two large banquet halls, and the breathtaking garden courtyard with terraces overlooking the sea.

He had thoughtfully considered the arrival of our guests after the long and tedious drive up the never-ending mountain, so he’d set up a welcoming refreshment table with mixed antipasti and chilled wine in the garden where guests could take advantage of the fresh air, enjoy the views of the city, and relax before the ceremony. The garden was bathed in the late afternoon sun, and the perfectly chilled wines sat like luscious fruits promising to end your thirst. We couldn’t stop to enjoy, though, because Chef Tilotta was quickly moving on to the other rooms, showing us the round tables set up in the dining room with luxuriously decorated table linens in a rich brocade, and of course, that stunning view of the rooftops descending to the sea below.

On to the dance hall, lined with tables overflowing with cookies of every conceivable type, where I lingered for just a moment to take it in. Noting my hesitation, Chef Tilotta stopped his excited rambling to tell me to try a cookie; and like any of my Sicilian relatives, he would absolutely not take no for an answer, holding the cookie to my mouth as if his very life depended on my having a bite. Satisfied only after seeing my eyes pop at the almond explosion on my tongue, he continued to the kitchen where he hand-fed us spoonful after spoonful of each of the dishes with the enthusiasm of a child who wants to show you his newest, most spectacular toys; all deliciously tantalizing samples of what was to come.

Our guests began to arrive, and as Chef Tilotta had guessed, they were tired after the long drive, and delighted by the bounty and the beautiful surroundings. My husband and I went to our room to get ready, and then on to the whirlwind of the wedding ceremony and off to the scenic overlooks of Erice to take pictures against the fairytale background of the white stone walls over the Mediterranean.

Finally we returned to the Elimo, when the true extent of Chef Tilotta’s genius was revealed. As we sat, lavishing in the enchantment of that room, he brought course after course, each one a pinnacle of Sicilian cuisine, and each one surpassing the one before. As do all great Chefs, he presented twists and turns on Sicilian standards, with surprisingly new and inventive pairings, perfectly balanced tastes and forms, and of course dazzlingly alluring platings. From beginning to end, he held us spellbound: Sicilian pancetta in a balsamic reduction, with pineapple – a very unusual yet perfect pairing; followed by a shrimp terrine with saffron, fennel, herbs and Tabasco, each bite with just a hint of fennel followed by a touch of heat, all married perfectly in the broth, just begging for you to dip in the toast points to get every drop.

The risotto was one of the most unique I’ve ever had. Delicately molded into an elegant cylinder, and painstakingly encircled with the subtlest wrapping of infinitesimally thin slices of eggplant -- oh what Sicilians can do with eggplant -- and then covered with the lightest sprinkling of breadcrumbs seasoned with cinnamon. The eggplant was perfectly softened in texture and flavor, balancing the richness of the rice, while the breadcrumbs and cinnamon added an entirely new dimension, with little crunch surprises and a sweetness that made the dish seductively exotic.

Of course, the next course would be fish. We are in Sicily; there has to be fish. He served scorpion fish, one I had never heard of, but my husband recognized it and explained that scorpion fish is not generally eaten in the U.S. because it is small and its spines are poisonous. We Americans don’t know what we’re missing. Light and tender, the scorpion fish was presented in a blood orange sauce, its juice rich and pungently sweet yet at the same time, tart against the softness of the fish. To top it off, he added a garnish of fresh blood orange and watermelon. Not only was the addition of the fruit visually stunning, but when you took a bite of it, your mouth came alive with freshness. For the true fish lovers among our guests, this was the piece de la resistance. My brothers and his son, two who aptly fit this description, couldn’t speak for the entirety of the course. They were too busy eating to notice the rest of the world, as they hungrily scavenged that last bit of flesh from the bone.

After a meal like this, what kind of dessert could even come close to satisfying you? Leave it to Chef Tilotta, who served a simple lemon gelato in a hardened shell and watermelon sorbet; sweet, light, simple and refreshing after a full meal on a hot summer’s day.

But wait a minute, what about the wedding cake? Not an Italian custom, I had explained to Chef Tilotta on the day he planned the menu that we would need a cake, so I asked if he could do that instead. Instead? Absolutely not. In addition to. And so he added a Cassata Siciliana, a customary Sicilian cheesecake with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in.

My husband and I were, I think, the rudest of hosts as we went from plate to plate, raving about the meal, but we hadn’t tasted any of it before this day, and so each course was a gift from our extraordinary Chef. In fact, I was so delighted with the meal, that I requested that Chef Tilotta come and greet our enraptured guests; but the wait staff returned saying he would not come out of the kitchen. It took the bride herself to finally drag him out, for no Italian can refuse a request from the bride on her wedding day. He shyly followed me into the banquet hall as I presented him to our guests, and the room erupted with applause. I think he stayed for 15 seconds before scurrying back to the shelter of his kitchen.

It was at this point that my brother, a great culinary appassionato, recognized him. He told me he had seen Chef Tilotta before, on television, and that he was indeed a celebrity among the great chefs of Italy.

The dinner stands out as one of the best decisions my husband and I could have made for our day. The day ended in a blur as we danced like savages for the rest of the night, way past the designated time of the reservation, with my family pulling the wait staff onto the dance floor to join in the celebration. We were so full, very few of our guests had taken advantage of the bounty of cookies surrounding the dance floor.

At the end of the evening, Chef Tilotta brought my new husband and me into his office, letting us know that we could have the place until closing. He presented us with the bill, and there were no surprises, no additional fees for all the extras. He charged us what he had promised in the original e-mail; the e-mail that seemed so unlikely, so unsure, and so unbelievable. But in addition to the great gift of his genius, he presented us with another wedding gift, an aged and celebrated bottle of Sicilian wine to remember our Sicilian wedding. The bottle was a full magnum, and the year, one of Sicily’s best. I am tearing up as I write this, remembering the solemn and affectionate look in his eye as he made this sincere and generous gift. Remember, in Sicily, you’re either a stranger or family. We were family.