Pino Cuttaia and the Character of Sole
I have a somewhat surprising confession. I harbour a certain disinclination for Michelin starred cuisine. Generally speaking, I find it boring, its chefs usually, ahem, much too, shall we say, pretentious? Oh my God. Did I just blow away my next seat at a Michelin star restaurant?
Not short on my prejudice, I nevertheless decided on a gourmet adventure at La Madia restaurant in Licata, Sicily. This is not just right around the corner for me. Exactly 133 km from Catania and 176 km from Palermo, an approximately 2 hour and 30 minute drive along the highway and fast-flowing roads or – should I say slow- flowing from Caltanisetta onward, you always feel as if you are the last in line behind any kind of heavy vehicles, from garbage trucks to moving vans.
I must be clear that I went to La Madia from Catania not by design. But curiosity is my middle name and once in the area on business travel, I could not resist.
Even if the restaurant is pretty soulless from the outside – you might not notice the entrance if you do not look for it carefully – and its interiors controversial, you can only find positive things to say about its chef.
Pino Cuttaia has big bright eyes and the expression of a handsome rogue. He owns the two-starred Michelin restaurant with his wife Loredana but, with a mix of gentleness, shyness and reluctance, he tries to ignore it. He seems prideful but not haughty. Determined, but humble. Curious, but not nosy. Peculiar, but not eccentric. Nice, but not extreme.
I confess, he captured me by instinct. And, his cuisine took only two courses to seduce me. Fully.
I played the part of the mysterious customer unintentionally, sitting alone with my yellow notepad and pen at the elegantly laid-out table in the middle of the week, the restaurant barren save for a couple of lovers behind the pillar next to me.
“Who is she?” they were questioning. Waiters kept their eyes on me all night long while tasting and writing. They appeared to waver halfway between curiosity and concern but moved with grace and professionalism.
Vincenzo is especially worthy of mention, a natural and nice man, flawless as a waiter and precious as a local guide. If you have a sweet tooth you can’t miss his information about the best cake shops in the area including, surprisingly, convents. Here nuns still makes almond sweets and pastries from ancient culinary recipes. This supplemental information from Vincenzo is complimentary. “You can see I’m fond of sweets” he admits, laughing about his gentle round shape.
I played the part of a complicated customer out of necessity. Too many food allergies, alas! So, chef, now it’s up to you. Here I am waiting to be surprised.
For a moment, Pino Cuttaia’s eyes were pierced by a cloud of sorrow and pain when he realized I was not going to taste his homemade collection of bread. I was sad and sorry both for him and myself. Poor me, I just love bread!
Each of the nine tasty courses I was able to eat had strong yet dainty flavours, all-encompassing, fresh and clear, never banal or trivial. Using top-notch simple local ingredients flavoured with the Sicilian sea, each dish was attractively and consistently designed. This chef has a way of cooking traditionally, naturally and genuinely along with bright and creative ways of honouring local products. He creates cuisine elegant in its style and quality, tempting for the eyes and the palate.
I confess, this meal was fascinating.
The courses came slowly, giving me the time to relish every morsel, to look at the pictures of food on the mustard-coloured walls, at the off-pitch chandeliers, listening to the poetic presentation of each dish, chatting with Vincenzo and the rest of the personnel, drinking a glass of Gloria, the Sicilian Insolia white wine belonging to the Barone La Lumia winery located in the area.
The beaten red shrimp carpaccio with green tangerine extra virgin oil and tuna fish bottarga mayonnaise, a bit disturbing at first sight, won first place of my top nine list of the night for the freshness of the shrimp and the contrasting taste of tangerine oil along with the strong flavor of bottarga mayonnaise.
Almost one month later I can still fee l it on my palate.
The vegetable caponata, a sort of eggplant based ratatouille, was noble and voluptuous.
The red tuna fillet with wild thyme extra virgin olive oil, perfectly undercooked inside and designed with a roasted potato washer and almond shell slack was Mediterranean and fusion at the same time.
I confess, I went off the deep end with Pino Cuttaia’s cuisine. I had a little bit of reserve left, though, which he finally broke through with the character of the sole.
“Licata fishermen say there’s plenty of sole here in the Mediterranean Sea. But they are smaller than the ocean ones, difficult to work with” said Pino.
Its delicate and not very noticeable flavour is Pino Cuttaia’s next challenge. He must reveal to the gourmet world that the sole has its own character.