Sicily is an island of great cooks, men and women alike, who seem to have an innate understanding of the ingredients this place abounds in: seafood, olives, citrus (especially lemons and oranges), tomatoes, sweet peppers and hot chiles, artichokes, apricots, almonds and pistachios, durum wheat for bread and pasta...don't get me started! And not only ingredients but also time-honored techniques: deep-frying, roasting and grilling, as well as just barely steaming (for the pearly fresh local seafood)—these, too, seem to come instinctively to them.
In my personal catalog of great Sicilian cooks, one of the most accomplished is one of the least likely: Gianfranco Becchina, art collector and amateur archeologist, international antiquities dealer, olive oil producer (Becchina's Olio Verde is a favorite of many American chefs), pizza impresario, father of three lovely daughters and ebullient host. His delightful estate surrounded by olive groves, Tenuta Pignatelli, is on the outskirts of his native Castelvetrano, a small agricultural city in southwestern Sicily near the extensive ruins of the ancient Greek colony of Selinunte.
Becchina's method in the kitchen is so casual that I am almost unaware he's cooking. Everything happens quickly and simply, without fuss or bother. At 8 p.m., with dinner guests arriving in an hour or so (meals are late in Sicily), he has water heating to steam an octopus. A bowl of tiny vongole veraci, the baby clams that will be tossed in olive oil with garlic and chiles, are still sitting in the sink. The steamed octopus, sliced, will be served as an antipasto with olive oil, salt, oregano and lemon juice; then the sautéed clams, as a primo, or first course; and finally—as the secondo, or main course—zuppa di pesce, a fish stew aromatic with garlic. Several kinds of seafood will go into the zuppa, all of it hand selected that morning at the fish market in Mazara del Vallo, one of the most important fishing ports in Italy and just 20 minutes by car from the Becchina estate ("Very fast car," adds his daughter Gabriella, visiting from New York).