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Three courses, one cuisine

Chefs’ cooking classes transmit their take on Italian culture one bite at a time

By Joe Ray
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2011

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MODICA, Italy — They had me at “ricotta.’’ Or was it the intriguing tomato sauce with a dash of cinnamon spooned onto hand-rolled pasta? Maybe it was the “Sicily Squeeze.’’ Three cooking courses — one modern, one based on centuries-old cuisine, and one tugging the apron strings of the ever-present Sicilian grandmother — like the three-legged triskelion adorning the island’s flag, create a better, tastier whole.

I met Accursio Craparo, a fast-rising, Michelin-starred chef, at an informal dinner to which I had wheedled an invitation so I could try his food. Though the meal had nothing to do with the light, haute cuisine of Craparo’s restaurant here, La Gazza Ladra, I was an immediate fan. He served whole octopus with the taste and texture of top-notch Maine lobster, along with scabbard fish fillets wrapped around a mixture of almond flour and bread crumbs, served atop olives, capers, and slow-cooked onions.

Sicilian cuisine can be heavy, but Craparo built his reputation on lighter fare and he keeps a healthy bent to his classes.

“Society has changed. Lifestyles have changed. Today, work is more intellectual,’’ he says, standing in the kitchen of his restaurant. “You don’t want something that takes three days to digest.’’

“This,’’ he explains, “is my Sicily Squeeze.’’

The squeeze, one of his signature dishes, pulls flavor from a small number of classic Sicilian ingredients and the whole dish can be prepared in the time it takes to cook the pasta. To wit, he toasts bread crumbs and heats a light sauce made by blending anchovies, candied orange rind (remember, this is the land of mixing sweet and savory), olive oil, and a spoon-tip of chili paste.

He drains the pasta, gives it a few flips in the pan with the sauce, scoops a portion into a large ladle and, giving it a twist with a meat-carving fork to give it an upward swirl, transfers it to a bowl. The crumbs go on top along with minced fennel fronds and it’s done.

Substandard ingredients would cause the dish to fall apart. Instead, the air smells like fennel and inserting my fork into the pasta, I can feel the noodles’ al dente bite. The surprise hint of the orange rind’s sweetness, fresh and bright, gives way to the pungent depth of the anchovy and the crunch of the bread crumbs. It’s spring on a fork.

At one point during the presentation, a cook checks with Craparo about something in the kitchen and it dawns on me that, with all of his work as a chef, he essentially teaches classes in his free time.

“I don’t think about it as teaching,’’ he says. “It’s more of a declaration of who I am, what I do, and the place where I do it.’’

In the San Giovanni la Punta municipality beneath Mount Etna, Giuliana Condorelli conducts a course that is part hands-on and part Sicilian history lesson, beginning with the dining rules for 18th-century aristocracy.

“Garlic? They barely ate any — it comes out of your skin!’’ she cries in mock indignation, “Beans? Flatulence!’’

While it avoided anything that could affect your social life, the aristocratic cuisine could still be elegant and exotic, favoring the use of spices like cinnamon and cardamom.

“Today’s palate is so corrupted that when you find a real recipe, you find it strange,’’ she says.

I first experienced Condorelli’s food several years ago while interviewing her husband, the late Memi Spadaro, a food historian, in their villa beneath Mount Etna. What sticks with me from that day was her food: creamy pumpkin risotto with sunflower seeds, served in the squat pumpkin; a chocolate cake with chocolate leaves made from molds of real leaves; and ethereal mandarin gelato served in the hollowed-out peel.

Hers is not a class for what she calls the “spaghetti and pizza crowd.’’ Instead, some of her favorite students are those seeking unique historical recipes or clues on how to prepare some they have found.

This paints a picture of a rather straight-laced woman, yet once in her kitchen, Condorelli is more like Julia Child’s long-lost Sicilian cousin.

Here, she prepares “cassata’’ — a now-popular dessert with aristocratic roots, slicing “pan di Spagna,’’ the non-Spanish pound cake relative that becomes a cradle for the ricotta at the dessert’s heart.

She hands me a spoonful of ricotta she has just run through the mixer. Its light texture, punctuated with tiny bits of chocolate and the ricotta tang, defies the dessert’s sickly-sweet gut-buster stereotype.

As she continues preparation, spooning a layer of homemade, home-grown mandarin marmalade and great dollops of the ricotta over the pan di Spagna, it dawns on me that she hasn’t once used a measuring utensil.

“The first thing I try to teach is to get away from precise measurement. How much salt? Taste it! I’m not a chemist!’’ she says. “You’ve got to be more than savvy. You need to gather your life experiences — use your cultural baggage. Food is alive and this is your culture you’re transmitting.’’

For my last class, I return to Modica, climb a narrow alleyway, wave at an elderly couple staring down from their balcony, and meet Katia Amore and her daughter Sofia at their door.

“I can always tell when people are coming by the way the neighbors come to their balcony,’’ Amore says. The home, now converted into her course kitchen and a bed-and-breakfast space, was once owned by her maternal grandparents and is at the root of Amore’s culinary history.

“My family on my mother’s side was obsessed with food. My grandmother lived here with her socialist husband, their children, and her two sisters,’’ she explains. “Poor guy, but he had a great palate.’’

Amore still uses recipes from her grandmother Elvira Modica’s handwritten cookbook.

“I grew up in that kitchen with my mom and grandmother. It was a way for me to play,’’ she says.

On this night, with Sofia helping out, class is for a mix of locals and friends, making “cavatelli al sugo della nonna’’ — cavatelli with grandma’s sauce.

“It’s the perfect ‘piatto unico,’ ’’ she says, commenting on the one-dish dinner. “There’s sausage and tomato and my grandmother’s touch was adding cinnamon to the sauce.’’

She makes pasta dough by sifting semolina flour into a wooden tray called a “maidda,’’ adding water, and kneading until it has the warm, pliable consistency of bread dough. With our thumbs, we push bite-sized cubes into a zigzagged board, creating curls of fresh pasta, a surprisingly fulfilling exercise.

“Each family makes it differently. My mother and grandmother make it using two fingers — not the thumb — on a flat surface. They never used cinnamon, but I’m open,’’ says Amore’s student Daniella Frasca, simultaneously demonstrating a younger generation’s inherited reluctance to change and curiosity to know what could happen.

In the meantime, Amore sautés chunks of local pork squeezed from sausage casing into a large earthenware pot. Every new ingredient she adds fills the room with a new aroma: the fennel seeds in the sausage, the olive oil used for sauteing, the cinnamon and red wine.

“Il profumo è ottimo,’’ says Frasca. The scent is great.

As the meal approaches and the sauce simmers, we nibble on cheese, dried sausage, and olives in the dining room, but eventually migrate back to the kitchen, congregating around the cook and her stove.

Once we sit to eat, it feels more like a family dinner than sampling our work. Like the orange rind in Craparo’s squeeze, the cinnamon in the pasta is surprising for a bite or two, then becomes part of a delicious whole.

“Food for me is about family cooking,’’ says Amore, while her daughter and a troupe of her friends “play restaurant’’ nearby. “People start talking and their lives come into your kitchen.’’

Joe Ray can be reached at www.joe-ray.com.

If You Go

Accursio Craparo’s classes give step-by-step instructions for a three-course meal. Multiple-course packages are available at $86-$144 per class.
www.ristorantelagazzaladra.it 011-39-0932-941059
Katia Amore’s loveSicily courses range from half-day classes starting at about $115 to weeklong packages that include lodging, tours, classes, and most meals for $2,543 per person, double occupancy.
www.lovesicily.com 011-39-0932-50222
Giuliana Condorelli’s history-rich classes are held in her villa. Courses usually run three to four days, at $108-$144 per day, though shorter and longer options are available.
giuliana.condorelli@gmail.com