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Pino: Super Sicilian Chef

Pino: Super Sicilian Chef

Pino Cuttaia is the greatest chef in Sicily, and one of the greatest in Italy. The food at his restaurant La Madia is original and creative, but has deep roots in the island’s traditions. Pino’s dishes evoke flavors remembered from his childhood and often use ingredients found only in farmhouse kitchens. He always smiles and makes his diners smile as well.  He’s also courageous, cooking in Licata, his hometown in the middle of nowhere on the southern coast, without a visitable archeological site, interesting museum, or decent nearby accommodations (until recently).  It is, however, on a main route between the island’s south-eastern Baroque jewels Noto, Modica, Scicli and Ragusa and Agrigento’s justly famed Valley of Temples (it’s really a ridge, not a valley).  His restaurant was the only reason to stop.  “Why did you open in Licata?,” I asked Pino. “Because my roots are here.  The most important ingredient in my kitchen is memory, and Licata is the source of my strongest culinary memories.  I want to share these perfumes and flavors with everyone who dines at my restaurant,” he replied.

The Cuttaia family, like many southern Italians, moved north to Piedmont looking for work when Pino was in his teens; he grew up eating his mother’s cuisine, typical Licata-Sicilian dishes that were frozen in time when she left the village. His father had no respect for restaurants, especially northern ones, and all meals were at home. Pino watched in the kitchen, absorbing the gestures and flavors of his distant homeland.  A friend asked him to help as a dishwasher on New Year’s Eve, promised they’d drink champagne which he’d never tasted, and he was curious.  This was Pino’s first restaurant experience. He followed up with a job as a pot-washer, applied himself diligently, and since he did such a terrific job was asked to fill in when anyone was missing in the kitchen.  He loved it far more than scrubbing pots. After working in a number of kitchens he began to understand that cooking wasn’t simply creating dishes, but a way to express his thoughts. He spent time with artisans, studying their crafts—a bakery for bread, another for pastry, butchers, farmers, anyone willing to show him how and why.  He got a job at an important restaurant, and then at Al Soriso, in Soriso, Piedmont, a Michelin 3 star. He learned about precision.

He didn’t have enough money for a real vacation and went to stay with relatives in Licata. He met Loredana Cipriano, she was interested in food and wine; they talked, dreamed of opening a restaurant together in their home town, where he’d have access to day-boat local fish and seafood and produce from Loredana’s family farm.  He’d be in the kitchen; she’d take over the front of the house and the wine list.  He could dream, she was practical. They married.

Pino and Loredana opened La Madia (named in honor of the wooden dough trough where bread is kneaded) in 2000.  One dining room, attractive large full-color photographs relating to Sicily on the golden walls, tables appointed with crystal and china. It was a moment when the Sicilian restaurant and wine scene was evolving. Chefs aspired for excellence, interpreting trattoria food, employing first rate local ingredients and modern techniques while winemakers experimented with international varietals as well as a multitude of native grapes like Catarratto, Grillo, Frappato, and Nero d’Avola. Chocolate artisan Franco Ruta (the greatest, most historic of Modica’s special chocolate makers) of Antica Dolceria Bonajuto had his palate on the pulse of the culinary scene, introduced Pino to other emerging Sicilian chefs and told me I had to go to the newly opened restaurant. I did, and my lunch began with the most beautiful and delicious raw red shrimp preparation I’d ever encountered, with a mysterious mayonnaise-like garnish and green tangerine flavored extra virgin.  I was hooked.  So were the chefs, who told journalists, friends and clients about Pino.  La Madia joined the prestigious Sicilian hotel, restaurant and winery group Le Soste di Ulisse and Licata became a destination. Michelin stars (he now has 2) and press attention followed.

Many Italian chefs were influenced by new-wave Spanish cuisine but Pino felt he had to respect the traditions and ingredients of his village because it was what he knew, intimately. Instead of employing hydrocolloids he used the gelatinous nature of super-fresh shrimp, squid and cuttlefish.  A flattened plate-sized disk of raw red shrimp looks like pink marble, and is garnished with egg-less mayonnaise made with roe, drizzled with green tangerine-infused extra virgin.  Cuttlefish are pureed, then formed into what looks like a hard-boiled egg (yolk center a take on his mother’s traditional cuttlefish stuffing) sitting on a puddle of cuttlefish ink sauce. Squid is transformed into thin sheets like pasta, then used to make ravioli, filled with tenerumi, Sicilian cucuzza squash leaves and shoots, an ingredient that had never been seen in a fine dining situation.  Steamed spiny Licata artichokes look like water lilies, and are stuffed with Licata white “hunchback” shrimp, flanked by a pale anchovy sauce, garnished with house-made bottarga. Date-shaped datterini cherry tomatoes, super-sweet, make a welcome appearance in many dishes.  Pino is a master of “mother” yeast and the bread selection is most tempting, made with Sicilian flours. Skinny grissini (a nod to his life in Piedmont) and the mini ”mpignulati”, coiled rolls studded with onion are irresistible.  Many flavors are drawn from Pino’s memories, like the scent of burning almond shells—he makes them into charcoal to grill fish, simply garnished with local extra virgin olive oil.  “Next Day” Eggplant Parmigiana is a confession that sometimes a leftover is better than the actual dish. His take on cannoli, required eating in Sicily, is a cornucopia wafer freshly filled with lightly sweetened ricotta, home-made candied orange peel, graced with a sprinkle of minced Raffadali pistachios.  Loredana’s wine list features the best of Sicily, with older vintages as well as a small but well-chosen selection of Champagnes and Italian wines.

I’ve known Pino and Loredana since they opened, and usually return to La Madia at least twice a year.  Pino has taken me to his father-in-law’s vegetable garden, to the guy who grows his special eggplants and cherry tomatoes, to the beach for a simple trattoria dinner with Loredana, their three kids, and Vincenzo Corrente, their maître d’, who joined the team when Loredana became a mother—three boys keep her pretty busy when she’s not at the restaurant.  After dinner, Pino joins me and my friends (it’s not hard to convince them to meet me), usually winemakers, artisans, chefs, food-obsessives to discuss cuisine and wine in Sicily and beyond, and gossip about the state of gastronomy. 

Pino’s latest creation is a shop, more like his pantry, called UovadiSeppia (cuttlefishegg). “I wanted to do something accessible for everyone in Licata, not just those who could afford to eat in my restaurant,” he told me.  Superior products, Sicilian and Italian, line the shelves; a glass case displays pastry, fresh pasta, sauce, bread and grissini.  He’s promised to start selling his almond-shell charcoal.  Gelato is treated with maximum respect, stored in a cabinet with 8 carapine, under-counter containers topped with knobbed stainless steel covers for optimum temperature control.  Look for gelato flavors like Sicilian pistachio, Piedmont hazelnut, 70% chocolate, seasonal fruit like mulberry or mandarin orange and whatever else inspires Pino, and two flavors of granite - one is always refreshing local lemon.  Gelato is served in a cup or slathered into a brioche roll, the Sicilian idea of an ice cream sandwich.  There’s a cooking school-laboratory upstairs. Classes are custom tailored to the needs of participants, home cooks or professionals.  Pastry and gelato are prepared in the laboratory since space is tight in the restaurant’s kitchen.  Saturdays at 6:30pm Pino serves his classic arancine rice balls, the finest I’ve ever tasted, with first-rate Carnaroli rice perfectly cooked, deep-fried golden brown. I can no longer eat them elsewhere.  In the summer months, when everyone gravitates to Licata’s beaches, UovadiSeppia opens a gelato stand at Lido Mira Mare, a seaside resort outside town.

Licata beckons. Pino is always up to something new, and one meal at La Madia really isn’t enough. I stay at an adorable B&B, Piccola Caracas, within walking distance of UovadiSeppia  and La Madia.  And also have to eat at Osteria del Mare, the seaside trattoria of my dreams, on the beach, with super-fresh local fish and seafood, simply prepared, and a small but perfect wine list. Owner Giovanni Morello is, of course, a friend of Pino’s.

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