Searching for Pasta in the Heart of Sicily
A writer tags along as the team behind Foragers market sources some of Sicily's finest olive oils, pistachio creams, and espressos.
When it first opened in 2005, Foragers Market was a standalone grocery store in Dumbo, Brooklyn, a place that prided itself on sourcing and selling the highest-quality ingredients possible. The customers noticed: More than a decade later, the grocery store has added a farm upstate—where it grows its own organic produce and raises hens that produce pastured eggs—a second market in Chelsea, a wine shop, and a Manhattan restaurant. Every year, co-founders Anna Castellani and Richard Lamb travel all over the world to scout new products to import. Writer Marisa Meltzer joined them on a trip to Sicily to try every olive oil, every pistachio cream, and every espresso as they crisscrossed the island in search of great products to put on the store's shelves.
Here's an account of her journey.
You can indulge in jet lag or you can just charge ahead full speed. This trip is very much the latter. Richard and our Italy-based translator and guide, Sally, picked me up at the airport in Catania and within five minutes I was drinking a cappuccino and hearing about how blood oranges originated on nearby Mt. Etna.
The first stop is the tiny town of Fiumifreddo, where the Barbagallo pasta factory has been churning out slow dried, organic pasta for the past four generations. The factory smelled intoxicatingly doughy, but the real treat is when we are invited to the family’s private apartment upstairs for lunch. Under trompe l'oeil fresco ceilings painted with peacocks and cacti, we ate perfectly al dente rigatoni tossed with pancetta and pistachio pesto, caponata, macaroni with chickpeas, eggplant fritters, cannoli, Sicilian almonds, briny black olives, giant red grapes, quince gelatin, and a white wine made locally. It was the first time in my life someone told me I wasn’t eating enough.
In a happy haze, we drove to the Di Bartolo nut factory. Richard was scouting almond butter, which is a big seller at Foragers, but I had something else in mind. On a prior trip to Sicily I had fallen in love with pistachio cream, which is sort of like a green, all-pistachio version of Nutella. I ate the Di Bartolo version with a spoon, and then we tried salted hazelnut butter, pine nut butter, almond butter, cashew butter, and chocolate-hazelnut butter. Then came jams: tangerine, prickly pear, mulberry, and a lemon marmalade that Richard pronounced “wild.”
As the sun was setting we spotted Mt. Etna exploding. Richard and I both flirted with death as we leaned out of the Fiat to get a decent picture of it.
At Frantoi Cutrera, I started to understand that in Italy, particularly in old-world Sicily, things take awhile. There are kisses and handshakes and coffee before you even begin to discuss, in this case, olive oil. But the oil from Frantoi Cutrera was worth the wait, so fragrant and green. We’re there in the middle of harvest and the factory is working 24-7 on the 2015 vintage. I get a quick lesson on how to taste olive oil, cupping your hand over it with a glass, then swirling and sniffing—not unlike with wine.
I woke up at Sally’s villa in the beach town of Marina di Ragusa. For my breakfast of champions, I had anise cookies and almond-chocolate panettone that Foragers had ordered from Costa, a bakery run by Autralian-born Sicilian brothers.
After a three-hour train ride from Catania to Palermo, on the other side of the island, we met up with Anna, who had just arrived at the city’s port. We sampled organic limoncello (yes, made with lemon, but also tangerine, prickly pear, and cinnamon) from Limonio. Each had an herbaceous quality, which comes from the green lemons they use, which have a high essential oil content. From Tudia, we sampled apple caponata with carrot and green olives. It had a vinegary kick like a sweeter giardiniera.
A good way to fight jet leg is an 8:30 am meeting at Morettino, a family-owned factory that’s been roasting coffee in Palermo since 1920. Anna predicts that after the recent vogue for West Coast-style lighter blends, robust roasts will be coming back, but she points out that it’s hard to find a place in America that does that style well. I think we’re in the right place. The taste of espresso in Italy changes from north to south, and Sicily has the strongest and boldest coffee in the country. Anna liked the cremaromatica, which was strong but not bitter, with notes of chocolate, almonds, and dried fruit.
After a tour of the Arab-fusion architecture of central Palermo and a lunch that involved several variations on carbs (polenta, bread, pasta, risotto), Anna and I realized we hadn’t eaten a vegetable beyond a tomato sauce since we’d left New York. This is what we came to call Sicily Problems.
Just after dark, we made it to Argento on the south of the island to visit Baglio di Cristo di Campobello, a relatively new vineyard whose first vintage was in 2007. Carmelo, the owner, talks about la terra, their soil, which has a lot of chalk in it, similar to the Champagne region in France. We sipped their white wine and Anna said she loved how “flinty” it was.
I duck out in the morning to check out Farm Cultural Park at Favara, a kind of art commune built in an old quarter of a suburb of Agrigento. I meet a woman setting up for a cooking class. She’s making homemade cavatelli with cauliflower, fried sardines, and ossa di morte—dead bones—and an amaretto cookie.
In the afternoon, Anna and I scramble around a conference room at an Agrigento business hotel trying to meet as many local purveyors as possible. There’s a man named Antonio Rizzo from Troiana who makes cookies with tumminia flour, an ancient grain with a lower gluten level than traditional wheat. Ancient grains are something she’s particularly excited about bringing in. Molini Riggi is a third- generation miller specializing in locally grown, organic wheat: Rusello, Tumminia. Perciasacchi, Biancolilla, Maiorca, and Gentilrosso grains.
That last night, we visit Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, which is home to the best preserved Greek temples in the world. In the dark, the columns on the 2,500-year-old buidlings are lit up with spotlights. We go to the park’s café for caponata and a spicy, prickly pear risotto. It’s there that Anna and I start plotting another trip together. This next time we’ll go in the opposite direction, and forgo sugar and carbs and wine for a detox at the famous Mayr Clinic in Austria together. Because after four days of some of the best food on Earth we’re craving salads. Sicily problems.