The Simple Home Cooking of Sicily
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).
Becchina is a walking refutation of the assumption that cooking fish is messy and difficult. In part that's because he moves so smoothly around his beautifully and functionally designed kitchen, which has blond-wood cabinetry and pale, earth-tone marble countertops, as well as two ovens, two sinks and two dishwashers. Brightly tiled walls and terra-cotta floors give the kitchen a traditional look, and the butcher-block table in the center, where most of the prep work gets done, is handsomely scarred and worn. Gabriella, chopping garlic on it, points proudly to shelves laden with bottles of Becchina's olive oil and vinegar, as well as jars of local honey and tomatoes and artichokes preserved from the garden, and a multitude of jams and marmalades made from its oranges, mandarins, lemons, plums, figs and apricots.
Like many of Becchina's preparations, zuppa di pesce starts with lots of coarsely chopped garlic and the little hot red chile peppers called peperoncini sautéed in olive oil; usually peperoncini are dried, but in the Becchina kitchen they're frozen from last summer. The garlic, too, comes from the garden, and the oil is, of course, the estate's Olio Verde. (The Becchina estate is unusual in having its own frantoio, or olive mill.) As soon as the aroma of sizzling garlic and chiles begins to rise from the pan, Becchina tosses in a big glass of white wine and lets it reduce. "Di una semplicità estrema, sai," he says, in case I haven't noticed: "It's extremely simple, y'know?" This is a constant refrain in his cooking. But also attention to detail: "It's important to let the wine reduce," he says, "because otherwise the stew will taste of wine, not fish." When only a little liquid is left, he adds sea salt and crushed home-preserved tomatoes, and now is ready to cook the rospo (monkfish) and San Pietro (John Dory)—along with a handful of small Mediterranean shrimp.
It was through Olio Verde that I first met Gianfranco and his wife, Rosie, who manages their art business based in Basel, Switzerland. The setting, improbably enough, was Germany, at an event organized by some oil importers. At first taste, I thought Olio Verde was a Tuscan oil. The Nocellara del Belice olive, native to this part of southwestern Sicily and as round as the walnut for which it is named, is harvested early in October, when the fruit is still quite immature. At this point it makes a deep green and aromatic oil, with some of the piquant qualities for which Tuscan oil is noted. Becchina pours the oil with a lavish hand, and it's key to the quality of his cuisine: At one point in the dinner preparations, he tosses a good two pounds of blanched local almonds into a pot of hot oil, then drains them and tosses them with crisp Sicilian sea salt from the salt pans north of Marsala. The almonds are a revelation, the olive oil and salt conspiring to bring out their full, sweet nuttiness.
It was olive oil, too, that brought Becchina home to Castelvetrano. He left Switzerland and a life of constant traveling, he says, because he got it into his head that he could make a fine oil. "In my father's day, in my grandfather's day," he tells me, "you made good oil for your own house early in the season, but for the market you harvested olives right up into January." The mills couldn't keep up with the harvest, so the olives piled up and began to ferment, making the later oil inferior. "In my nose, in my memory," he says, "I will always have the aroma of that fresh, early oil my father made. When it rose to the top of the olive paste, we skimmed it off, then poured it on bread to make pane cunzatu." Now for part of the production at his own frantoio, Becchina uses a Sinolea extractor, which eases the oil from the olive paste as gently as possible, duplicating that early oil of his childhood. And, as if olive oil weren't enough to keep him occupied, Becchina has added a business preparing high-quality frozen pizzas (made, naturally, with his own Olio Verde) to be shipped all over southern Italy—"and the world," he says, "if it's ready for them."
On warm evenings, the Becchinas like to eat outside on one of the broad twin verandas that extend along the Pompeian rose-red walls of the villa. Fronting the verandas, on either side, are Egyptian water gardens, broad pools planted with papyrus and water lilies exactly like the gardens in ancient Egyptian murals. This evening, a gentle and most welcome rain is falling over drought-scarred southern Sicily, and the sound of it mingles with the occasional splash of a goldfish and the trickle of water from the fountains feeding the pools.
As friends arrive for dinner, Gabriella sets out antique bowls filled with salted almonds and with olives cured here on the estate—green ones brined for nine or 10 months but still crisp in texture and pleasantly bitter, black ones that have been salted until they are softly wrinkled, but with an exceptional sweetness. "You could make a meal," Becchina says, "on just olives and good pane nero"—a bread made from an ancient variety of wheat—"from Castelvetrano." And while you could do that, he is happy, his guests are happy, and I am happy too, to be making a meal on the array of good things this extraordinary Sicilian kitchen provides.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a frequent contributor to FOOD & WINE, is the author of The Essential Mediterranean, which was published last month.