Eolo, a love letter to Sicily
In Sicily, every day revolves around food. On a typical day, I wake to the toasty scent of semolina bread baking in the wood-burning oven of the paneficio permeating the air. I jump out of bed and venture to the bakery to pick up a loaf, ripping off and devouring the crusty ends before leaving the shop. Before walking home, I stop for a small brioche roll stuffed with lemon granita. The first bite into the warm, sweet bread and cooling ice is a startling—and distinctively Sicilian— sensation. When I was growing up, my summers were full of these kinds of surprises. Such extraordinary flavors and experiences inspired me to become a chef. Today, they are the driving force behind my desire to share the rich culinary heritage of Sicily with others.
My grandmother Francesca was born in Sicily in 1923 and came to America when she was thirteen. Throughout her life she maintained a repository of vivid childhood memories of her home town, most of which revolved around food. She raised my mother, Josephine, as if they lived in Sicily—not Queens—by speaking in a Sicilian dialect and producing a steady stream of Sicilian dishes from her kitchen. My mother did her best to escape her roots, avoiding the island until 1980, when I was a few months shy of turning three. The village embraced us, granting me the nickname L’America, meaning America.
Spending summers in Sant’Anna became a tradition. We were guests in my cousins’ house, until my parents decided to buy a new cement-and-limestone house in the village. This remains our family’s home on the island. Having our own home in the village was a dream come true, making me officially a local, a Sant’Annese. (But by then, my nickname, L’America, had stuck.)
During my Sicilian summers, I felt liberated from the confinements of American city life. I breezed around the village, roaming where I pleased with friends. I taught kids in town how to do cartwheels and dance moves in the piazza. In turn, they helped me learn the Sicilian dialect of our town, which made me feel even more at home.
In Sant’Anna, most social activities started with a project involving food. I often helped my cousins bottle tomato sauce and prepare marmalade with summer stone fruits and berries. To refresh ourselves post-production and escape the heat, we bathed in the spring water gebbia, pool, on my cousins’ farm. Around the concrete structure, the calcium-rich soil baked in the summer sun while the hot African scirocco winds rustled the olive tree leaves, making a sound like hissing snakes.
We often stayed out until dark, ending the day by baking anchovy-laced pizzas in wood-burning ovens. Some evenings we drove to the beach and ate mussels and just-caught boiled octopus spritzed with lemon juice. On August 15 for Ferragosto, a national holiday celebrating the Assumption of Mary, we set up tents on the beach, ignited bonfires, and grilled lamb chops, chicken, and fennel-studded sausage.
After a summer of delicious detours, it is no wonder that I used to hide my passport from my mother in an attempt to stay all year. I would become devastated about the prospect of returning to New Jersey, shedding tears when the time came to leave my extended family and Italian friends. And every time we returned, I craned my neck towards the plane’s window to catch the first glimpse of the island’s coastline. Our village would embrace us like a welcome summer breeze.
When I grew older, my love of our village transferred to the entire island. The more I learned about Sicilian history and culture, the more I appreciated its land and food. This appreciation is the primary reason I decided to pursue a career in the kitchen. After studying at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, I worked with chefs on the western coast of Sicily, where I was exposed to contemporary Sicilian cooking styles. In 2001, when I was 22, I opened Osteria del Gallo Nero, a restaurant in Manhattan on Bleecker Street grounded in the Italian flavors reminiscent of casual summer eating.
Yet by my late twenties, I was feeling restless. I was still reading incessantly about Sicily but knew there was more to learn. When my lease was up at my restaurant, I decided to take a more formal approach to my education, first enrolling in Columbia University to study Sicily in its broader Mediterranean context and later attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism to learn how to share its history and food with a broader audience. While I relished the opportunity to study and write about Sicily, it wasn’t too long before I was eager to cook professionally again. At last, in 2010, I was ready to open Eolo, my love letter to Sicily.