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Insider’s Sicily with a Seattle Star Chef

Chef Maria Hines in Sicily

Photos Courtesy of Maria Hines

Before opening her third Seattle restaurant, Agrodolce, on December 21, Food & Wine Best New Chef 2005 Maria Hines traveled to Sicily for research. Here, highlights from her eating tour.

The island of capers, olives, tomatoes, anchovies and lemons—what’s not to love? I have always been drawn to the sun-drenched flavors of the Mediterranean. You can see the influence on the menu at my first restaurant, Tilth. I got the idea for my second restaurant, Golden Beetle, after traveling through Morocco, Greece, Beirut, Istanbul and Cairo. Now I want to explore Sicily for my third restaurant, Agrodolce, which translates to “sour and sweet” in Italian, and is one of the key flavors in Sicilian cooking.

My journey started in the old city of Syracuse on Sicily’s southeastern tip. I had no plan, no map, no one else with me on this adventure. The only connection I had was to my organic olive oil producer, Marino Olive Oil, in Ferla. I started using Marino this year when my importer first got ahold of it. I love its round, buttery flavor and spicy finish. It’s a family-run operation and my contact there was a partner, Katia Marino. She’s only 26 years old! She showed me true hospitality in the Sicilian way. When Katia picked me up, the first question she had was, “Did you eat breakfast?” She asked if I would like to go eat, and I said “I’m good.” And 30 minutes later she said, “Would you like to stop for breakfast?” And then we got there and she said, “Would you like to eat now or after we see the property?”

After a tour of the family’s olive groves, Katia’s mother, a total firecracker and definitely the matriarch of the family, made a five-course lunch. Mamma does it all. She knows computers, social media, branding and she’s an amazing cook. We had bresaola, mortadella, salami, pecorino made in Ferle, spaghetti with sausage, fried wild fennel, radicchio salad with pomegranate seeds and homemade limoncello. The bresaola really stood out: thinly sliced cured beef tenderloin wrapped around fresh arugula like little packages, with lemon juice and salt. The meat is so rich that it’s really nice to have that brightness and pepperiness of the fresh greens.

On Agrodolce’s menu, I plan to serve some house-cured lomo (pork loin) with deep-purple Bulls Blood lettuce and lemon vinaigrette. I was going to just dress it but I think she inspired me to roll it cigar style.

My next stop was farther up the east coast in Giarre, to meet someone who contacted me over Twitter, Jon Moslet. He created a food-and-wine getaway at his gorgeous villa, Rocca delle Tre Contrade and rents it to groups by the week. You look in one direction and you see the Mediterranean and the other way is Mount Etna. When I arrived he asked “Did you eat? Would you like something to eat?” I’m sensing a theme with the culture here. Even when I got back to the hotel after that epic lunch at the Marino estate, the concierge called at 10:30 p.m., and said “We’re a little concerned, we didn’t see that you had dinner, should we order something for you?” Can you imagine that happening here?

For dinner with Jon in the same province of Catania, we went down by the water where there are all these amazing restaurants and the fisherman deliver the fish; many are still alive, and I even saw one with a hook in its mouth. We went to a place called La Bettola dei Marinai and had octopus that was so fresh and glistening, and still moving if you touched it. It was just quickly poached and served with a pile of lemons and limes. We also had a really lovely whole sea bream in papillote with radicchio that had been tossed in olive oil and steamed with it so it got nice and sweet. The presentation was fantastic. They show it to you in the bag and open it so the steam, and all its perfume, comes up in your face.

Jon told me about a great woman I had to meet, Bonetta dell’Oglio, an ambassador for Slow Food in Sicily, and she ended up hosting me in Palermo for the last five days of my trip. She was so excited to teach me about Sicilian cuisine. It was such an incredible introduction to a typical Italian household: lots of talking, lots of hand gesturing, everyone sits down to every meal together and there’s always more food than you could possibly eat.

Related: Sicilian Recipes
Maria Hines Recipes
Seattle Travel Guide

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