Cooking With Local Chefs

Cooking with Chef Gaetano Cannata | A delicious trip to Sicily

Chef Gaetano Cannata
Chef Gaetano Cannata

Once again this summer, we at Ortygia restaurant in Bradenton took a group on our annual culinary tour through Sicily. Usually we prefer to stay close to the city of my father's birth, Ortygia, and then branch out from there. However, this year for a change we thought that we'd circle the island instead.

We began our journey at Taormina, the city of the bull, arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world, perched high on a mountaintop with a spectacular view of Mount Etna on one side and the sea on the other. Here was where I enjoyed pasta with sea urchins, one of their unique culinary specialties.

Next on our expedition was Palermo, Sicily's capital and also the largest city on the island. Palermo is renowned throughout Sicily for its incredible array of unique and unusual street food. The most famous is vastedda -- cow spleen, which is sliced thin, fried in lard then placed in a roll with lemon, salt, pepper and grated pecorino cheese. It's unbelievably tasty as far as I was concerned, although only one other in our group agreed with me.

After that, we took off for Marsala and Trapani, known for their Marsala wine, sea salt and seafood couscous prepared with only the freshest fish and seafood possible.

Agrigento and the valley of the temples on the south coast was not only breathtaking, it also had some of the best arancini I have ever eaten.

We then traveled back up the east coast to Catania and the top of Mount Etna where the temperature at the summit was 35 degrees. The cities around Etna

are famous throughout Italy for their black wine, honey and pistachios, among other things. We ate some Calzone Siciliane, which are enormous deep fried crunchy puff pastry calzones filled with fresh tomatoes, Tuma cheese and anchovies. A gastronomic delight.

Our last six days in Messina were spent sampling many interesting dishes, such as spatola -- scabbard fish known as the king of the Straits of Messina. It looks like a type of large, flat eerie-looking eel. Breaded and fried in olive oil and served with lots of lemon wedges, flat and eerie turns to appealing and delicious. Afterwards, we took a 15-minute ferry boat ride from Messina to Reggio-Calabria on the Italian mainland. With its beautiful beaches and its most famous food, Nduja -- a type of picante spreadable sausage cooked with pasta and tomatoes -- we didn't think life could get much better.

Throughout the tour, we saw Greek ruins, cathedrals, mountains, rivers, museums, vineyards and monuments. It was incredible, awe-inspiring and uniquely delicious. It was one of the most exciting Sicilian tours we led yet.

With only two days left, we drove into the charming, ancient, magical city of Ortygia. We left the car on the side of the road in the Giudecca, the former Jewish ghetto where one of our favorite restaurants in the city is located.

We ordered glasses of Prosecco, and a bowl of pasta with Sicilian pesto, a dish we often serve at Ortygia on Pasta Tuesdays, made with simple ingredients, yet packed with flavor and culture. With everything we'd seen and done on this trip, it didn't compare with the beauty, magic and serenity of that moment. We realized at that instant had we only visited Ortygia with its ancient culture, simple food and enchanted surroundings, it would have been more than enough. We turned and faced the crystalline sea outside this tiniest of restaurants. We then took a deep breath, clinked glasses, took a bite of pasta, and said, "It's good to be back home!"

Sicilian Pesto

10 ripe plum tomatoes (ripe Roma tomatoes if possible)

1/2 cup blanched almonds

4 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

Bunch of basil leaves, torn

4 to 5 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup of Parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated

Salt and pepper, to taste

Score the underside of the tomatoes with a cross and blanch in a pot of boiling water for about 1 minute. Peel off the skins, then chop into quarters. Remove the seeds and then roughly chop. Toast almonds in a 350-degree oven until golden, about 5 to 10 minutes. In a mortar, grind the garlic, basil leaves, and a pinch of salt with a drizzle of olive oil until creamy. Add the almonds and continue grinding until fine and creamy. Add the tomatoes and leave them slightly chunky. Add the rest of the olive oil in a drizzle until well combined and creamy. Taste for seasoning, then add salt and pepper if necessary. Add cheese and stir. Toss with a half-pound of hot pasta, serve, and add more cheese if desired. Serves 4.

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