Cooking with Ortygia Chef Gaetano Cannata: Chef's cuisine inspired by father

April 2, 2014 

Chef Gaetano Cannata is the owner of Ortygia. PHOTO PROVIDED

People often ask me who influenced my style of cooking. Although I rarely cook with any "unusual ingredients" except for the occasional sweetbreads, squid ink, dried pressed tuna roe or bone marrow, most of what I cook with can be found at almost any local farm, fresh fish market, or even in your own refrigerator.

The difference is that I combine these ingredients in ways that some consider curious, to say the least. I learned to cook this way from my father, Giuseppe, a Sicilian immigrant.

What he taught me was not your typical eggplant Parmesan or veal piccata, although he prepared both quite well, but true Sicilian cuisine with a twist. It's more like a Sicilian/French fusion. Unfortunately, he couldn't take credit for it as it wasn't his idea.

At the turn of the 19th century when Napoleon's troops arrived in Italy, a great many of them settled in Sicily and brought with them their French chefs. So Sicilian aristocrats, who had their own chefs well versed in the particulars of Sicilian gastronomy, sent their chefs to France to learn the French style of cooking that was all the rage.

When they returned, they brought with them French techniques and ingredients, which they combined with a Sicilian approach and local

ingredients. At the time, these chefs were considered some of the best in the world. Unfortunately, the cuisine died out about 60 years later, after the unification of Italy in the 1860s.

But my father and other Sicilians like him still used many of the techniques that were vestiges of this long-forgotten fare. This would explain that even though I grew up in a close-knit Italian neighborhood near Hoboken, N.J., mine was the house where the entire neighborhood came to eat, as the food prepared there was not the same as most other Italian families.

In my restaurant, I employ the same techniques used more than 200 years ago, but I endeavor to utilize fresh local ingredients in the mix as often as possible. For example, it would not be unusual to find someone dining at Ortygia on locally caught grouper or swordfish, cooked with King Farm's fennel, locally grown oranges and salted capers imported from Sicily.

One of my father's most famous dishes was pollo agrodolce, roughly translated as sweet and sour chicken. It's a dish with incredible depth and complexity of flavors that kept the entire neighborhood coming back for more. More often than not, he loved to watch the faces of the people eating it as they tried to speculate how the dish was prepared.

My father passed away a few years ago. But if he were still here today, I believe he would be honored that I thought so much of his cooking that I would not only draw on his vast knowledge of Sicilian cuisine for my own benefit, but that I would also share it with others to help keep this tradition alive in the 21st century.

Pollo agrodolce

2 pieces of boneless chicken breast, pounded thin

Flour for dredging

2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon of butter

1/8 cup of dry vermouth

Teaspoon of fresh-squeezed lemon

1/2 of an onion sliced into thin rounds

1 sweet red pepper, sliced into thin strips

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/8 cup of red wine

2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar

Teaspoon of capers

6 olives (black or alfonso), pitted

Tablespoon each of golden raisins and black currants

Course sea salt and pepper

Put one tablespoon of olive oil and the butter in a frying pan on medium high-heat. Dredge the chicken in flour and put in pan when the butter sizzles. Cook for 3 minutes and flip over. Add the dry vermouth and lemon. Lower heat to med-low and cook for about 5 more minutes and add salt and pepper to taste. Remove chicken and juices from pan and keep warm. Raise heat to medium high again, add the remaining olive oil. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes, put in the peppers and the sugar. Cook for 5 minutes more. Add remaining ingredients and cook for 5 more minutes. Check for seasoning. Pour over chicken. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Chef Gaetano Cannata, owner of Ortygia Restaurant in Bradenton's Village of the Arts, can be reached at

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