Sicilian food is undoubtedly the best food in Italy. Allow me to introduce you to Roberto Carpitella, Sicilian chef extraordinaire! My husband Tom and I had the pleasure of dining at Roberto’s Il Frutto della Passione Restaurant in the bucolic village of Ballatta, outside Trapani during our stay on Sicily’s northwestern coast. In fact, we were so struck by Roberto’s presentation of Sicilian food that we enjoyed dinner at his ristorante three times in ten days!
In this interview, Roberto tells the story of the island's history and reveals the cultural influences of the diverse assortment of people who have called Sicily home over the ages. Roberto explains the traditional dishes crafted from the diverse abundance of foods that grow in the climate of western Sicily, and are caught in the surrounding waters of the Mediterranean.
Roberto also shares how his family is a major source of inspiration. This was not a surprise to me, as his mother is the restaurant's hostess and her gregarious charm was a highlight of our visit to the area. As I think you'll see, this conviviality is in the family genes! Enjoy this conversation with Roberto!
Inspired by Harmony and Magic of Sicilian Food
Meg: When did you realize that you wanted to become a chef and what inspired you to choose this profession?
Roberto: First of all, ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the harmony that is created when people sit around a dressed and full table, and by the magic that comes out of people when they are cooking. It was for this reason, and to recall these emotions, that I used to help my grandmother and my mother with the preparation of complex recipes such as couscous or fresh tomato sauce, both frequently used as based for various Sicilian recipes. This was for me like a game, but at the same time, I was learning something unique.
When I was 25, I worked at a friend’s pizzeria in the evening to improve my poor salary and learn the secrets of the Trapanese pizza--very different from the traditional one from Naples. I decided to abandon my career as a commercial consultant and to attend a professional course to become a commis (a junior chef) and start a job that I really liked.
I had to work my way up the ladder before fully enter in the sector, and that’s exactly what I did. While I was studying, I had the opportunity to start working as a cleaner in kitchens, as a kitchen hand, then as a commis de cuisine and as a chef de partie (senior chef) and so on. It was a difficult path to follow, but my passion and the dedication helped me to go on.
Breaking Cultural Barriers with Food and Music
Meg: I understand before becoming a chef you were a professional musician. Are there similarities between playing good music and cooking good food?
Roberto: It is true, music is another passion of mine. In my family there have been various professional musicians. My father was a very good drummer and he could also play the guitar; at home, music was present all the time and those musical stimuli incited me to start studying and playing music.
I went to the conservatory in Trapani where I started studying the sax when I was 10 and where, when I was 17, I began playing the electric guitar and singing, with the piano as an accompaniment. Successively, I learned to play the electric bass and the drums. For more or less 20 years, I used my free time to go around Sicily and Italy with various rock-punk bands to play some music. Still today I try to keep this passion alive.
Going back to cooking, in my opinion there is always a similarity between the arts, and it is also true that with food and music you are able to break all the cultural and ethnic barriers. To create a good meal or dish it’s not that different from creating a good piece of music; indeed, as a chef equilibrates ingredients to compose a “concert” of tastes and gustative contrasts that are new and exciting for the palate, so a composer puts together a harmony that arises emotions and vibrations of the listener. For both creators is indispensable to have a public with whom share their creations, the real essence of their artistic self.
The Metaphor of Passion Fruit
Meg: Where does the name “Frutto della Passione” (Passion Fruit) come from?
Roberto: The name of the restaurant is a metaphor that has various meanings. First of all, it’s an homage to my love for exotic fruits and especially the passion fruit. Thanks to the favorable climate, Sicily has developed plantations of these niche fruits. The passion fruit is not the only one harvested on Sicilian soil, but there also are avocados, mangos, black zapotes, sapodillas, litchis, papayas, feijoias and bananas. As a matter of fact, I do consider these fruits as part of my land.
Another meaning to the name lies in the expression itself, where “fruit” is intended as the “result” of my passion for the culinary art.
Moreover, my family has a strong Catholic faith, so the name also has a religious side: not many people associate it with the Passion of Christ because it recalls the crown of thorns, the cross and other sacred symbols.
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The Spirit of Beautiful Ballata
Meg: The restaurant is located in Ballata, a beautiful but isolated location. Why did you choose this place for the restaurant?
Roberto: I chose this marvelous place in the middle of the Ericine hills because, in my opinion, it’s the ideal place to get inspiration and experiment new tastes and dishes while being surrounded by immaculate nature, it induces creativity. I am totally aware that for someone not local it might seem like an isolated spot, but the city is only 15 minutes away.
Moreover, before becoming a restaurant, this building was my family’s holiday house where I also lived alone for some years. During those years I was able to better understand the perfect bond between the territory and its products and to live the “spiritual” experience that the countryside can give, in antithesis to the stress of cities.
This location has taught me to love and respect nature; I learned a lot from the sacrifice involved in growing your own fruit and vegetables, as well as the joy they bring when you can finally pick them. Also, I started to take care of centuries-old trees such as olive trees but also a courtyard of animals. In other words, I learned to respect even more the value of the food that arrives in our kitchens by personally witnessing the amount of hard work and love that lies behind their growth, from the seed to the final product that we see on our tables.
Traditional Trapani Dishes
Meg: You are originally from Trapani, on the west coast of Sicily. Are there any culinary traditions or dishes that the city or the province are known for?
Roberto: Some features of the cuisine of my city are similar to those of Sicily in general, however it presents a higher level of “pollination” from other cooking, mainly the Arab.
The fundamental and characterizing difference with the other provinces is our use of the fish, which is way higher than our use of meat. Our fishing market is very active and fresh products arrive every day from fishing boats from Trapani.
Important is the fishing of the red tuna, which declares us true masters of this “art”; of course, this implies an uncontested leadership in the preparation of the salted and marinated fish and in the creation of dishes that have all the parts of this creature, aka “pig of the sea” (because like the pig, all part of the red tuna are edible).
What do Sicilian ceramics and tuna fishing have in common? Read our interview with Ignazio Altieri and find out!
The best-known and renowned dish is spaghetti alla bottarga, spaghetti with red tuna eggs kept in salt; bottarga is also called “caviar of the Mediterranean” for its high cost. Two other famous dishes are the entrée of tuna salami, called “ficazza”, and the fresh tuna alla pantaresca from Pantelleria, an island 100 km west of Sicily.
Not many people know that Mr. Ignazio Florio invented the innovative conservation of boiled tuna in a tin of oil in 1872. Still today, outside the city, there is a factory specialized in the conservation of tuna called “Nino Castiglione”.
Arab Influence on Sicilian Food
Another traditional dish of our territory, and known world-wide, is the cuscusu; this course has African origins and it was born among the mariners and those who lived and worked at sea and now it is perfectly intertwined with the social layers of the province.
From my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, “Nené Reale,” a very well-known rais (chef in Arab), my family has inherited deep information about the red tuna fishing in the Mediterranean and about the specific boats. Africans, mainly from Maghreb, moved to Sicily to work as tonnaroti on African ships owned by Italian families. They were brought by these families and were given their own accommodations, where they had to share the kitchen with Sicilian women. These ladies wanted to learn the technique to sprinkle durum wheat semolina, together with the steaming process in terracotta vases from the African continent. Sicilian potters still make these vases for cooking.
The combination of the couscous with fish broth, called ghiotta, was an invention of Trapanese housewives. Couscous is the most characteristic food of our family reunions, and for 10 years, it has received a whole new dignity thanks to the chefs that decided to insert it in their menus.
Pesto, Pizza and More
Trapani has its own well-known pesto, that is as appreciated as the Genovese one. The “Trapanese pesto” has to be enjoyed with the busiate, a type of fresh pasta made using a sort of knitting iron called buso that gives the pasta its peculiar helicoidal shape; another fresh pasta used for the pesto is the gnocculi cavati a mano, made with only bran and water and perfect also with meat or fish condiments.
Another Trapanese specialty is the cassatella di ricotta (cassata like the Sicilian dessert with ricotta cheese) in fish or hen broth, traditionally eaten for wedding celebrations. Busiata with scorpionfish and busiata with eel sauce, fished in the salt mines where pink flamingos live, can also be present in the menu of an important event.
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I must also mention other distinguishing dishes: the frittella di neonata (new-born doughnut), the mackerel with lardiata sauce (no translation available for this name) and the Trapanese pizza, thick and fluffy with garlic, tomato, oregano and pecorino cheese; the topping was invented by a Trapanese man known as “Calvino” and the name of this type of pizza is Rianata.
Talking about meat dishes, we have the delicious Trapanese rolls with calf meat; there is also the falsomagro, a big calf chop stuffed with minced meat, pecorino, garlic, parsley and cooked in the oven; other notable mentions are sheep broth, castrated prepared in the oven, stuffed lamb (mbuttunatu) with potatoes and rabbit with lardiato sauce.
Let’s talk about Trapanese patisserie. The cannolo from Dattilo, a small village near Trapani, with its big and crunchy wafer filled with ricotta cheese made with sheep milk, holds the record for being the most famous and appreciated type of Sicilian cannolo.
Trapani inhabitants love to have breakfast with mulberry or jasmine slushes, which have to be eaten with the typical sweet bun or with anise biscuits, all used to cool down on a hot summer’s day. The caldo freddo (hot and cold) invented by ice-cream makers in Trapani is an hazelnut ice-cream with rum sponge cake drowned in hot chocolate, all served in big cups; there are also the genovesi pastries, which recipe was kept in secret by nuns in Erice and that Maria Grammatico inherited together with the secrets to wrap the famous Mustaccoli du munti (biscuits with almonds and carnation cloves) and the sweets with almond dough; to end this list I must mention the graffe (very similar to doughnuts) with ricotta cheese, the fried cassateddre with ricotta cheese, fig biscuits and fruits made of almond dough.
Intrigued by Italian cuisine? Check out Prosciutto di Parma of Emilia Romagna and learn about it's history, traditions and customs!
Sicilian Food Means Local Ingredients
Meg: All the ingredients of your dishes are local and km0. How do you follow this principle?
Roberto: To use local and km0 products means to choose for one’s cuisine only healthy, high quality and bio products that can also help to promote the territory.
We produce our own olive oil, squeezed at cold and not filtered. For fruit and vegetables, our supplier is the farm “Casalmonaco” from Ummari; they are local producers very ethically aware and innovative, as they introduced new crops and new plantation techniques thanks to Pier, a guy that holds a diploma in agriculture.
For the bread, we get it from the “Spada” bakery in Fulgatore, a family business that produces the typical countryside bread kneaded with sourdough and flours from local wheat. This bread has a low bearing on food intolerances, and it is baked in a stone oven that only works with wood from olive trees; the peculiar cooking method gives the bread a pleasant scent together with flax seeds, very popular in today’s cooking for their therapeutic properties.
The fish we use comes exclusively from the Mediterranean Sea and our vendor is the “Tonnare Trapanesi” company; it provides us with the most cherished products such as oysters or Mazara imperial shrimps. Local fishermen from fishing boats in Trapani supply us with the day’s fresh fish.
For meat, we only get it from local breeders, so we are sure that all the meat served at the restaurant is fresh and Italian.
Prickly Pears and Privilege
Meg: What, in your opinion, makes the Sicilian food so special and different compared to the world? What are the differences between Sicilian food and Italian food?
Roberto: To answer your question, I need to ramble a bit, as I want to tell about an episode that always brings joy to me. 10 years ago, more or less, while I was doing one of my first experiences as a chef in a holiday farm in Erice, I collaborated with a chef from Veneto for a rustic Sicilian dinner with a hundred of guests. While I was explaining her how to prepare and serve prickly pears, in between laughers and hands full of thorns, she stopped and looked at me with her Nordic and clear eyes and said: “do you understand how lucky you are to have so many fresh, unique and good ingredients?? Can you really understand this?? Sicily is an exceptional and amazing and being a chef in here is for privileged people.”
Honestly, I’d never thought about it, but after this statement, I realized that our island indeed gives us excellent and luxurious products, both from the inside land and from the sea.
Sicilian Food is Family Glue
Ever since our Greek period (Magna Grecia was the ancient name of Sicily), we have adopted a very peculiar cooking style that mixes all those of all the peoples that passed through Sicily. After the two World Wars, our dishes were exported around the world as a result of the massive emigration. Who doesn’t know about our specialties such as cassata, cannoli, granite, arancine (to name a few)?
The favorable climate makes it possible for aromatic herbs or plants like oregano, mint, caper bushes or rosemary to grow in huge quantities. All these products are an important part of Sicilian seasonings; also, the fecund soil produces high quality oranges and lemons.
Almonds, prickly pears, pistachios and olives are other products that Sicily produces in high quantity and quality. Our fruits have a strong and unmistakable taste, and they make our dishes robust, symbolizing the passionate character of Sicilians.
The relationship between Sicilians and food is probably much more bonding compared to that in the other Italian regions; food has always been the ‘glue’ sticking together families and friends.
Roberto's Favorite Sicilian Food
Meg: Could you please share a few favorite dishes, what’s their history and why do you like them?
Roberto: My favorite dishes are:
Timbale of anelletti (a type of tiny pasta) made the Sicilian way; originally from the Arab countries, it reminds me of Christmas lunches from my childhood.
Beccafico (a cooking method) sardines because I love fresh sardines together with the sourness of the lemon and the scent of laurel.
Eggplant caponata, it reminds me of French virtuosity with its bittersweet taste.
The arancina, queen of Sicilian street food, crunchy and delicious filled with Bolognese sauce.
Almond parfait, a semi-frozen dessert that perfectly glorifies the excellence of our almonds.
Sicilian Culture is Family and Food
Meg: Your mother acts as the host in your restaurant and she is the perfect ‘ambassador’. Your brother is your sous-chef. How it is to work together with your family?
Roberto: I reckon working with my family is amazing, we all aim to the same catering project meant to promote our tradition and our culture among the people travelling to our island, either on a relaxing holiday or on a cultural trip; food is culture. Each of us deals with this job according to our different characters; we siblings, are close and our skills are complementary; yet, our main bond is our passion and a common sense of sacrifice. The whole is amplified by the love we have for each other.
The role of family in Sicilian culture is fundamental; the members of households are usually in a close relation, see each other regularly, gather together every Sunday to share lunch. In addition to this, mothers and grandmothers still act as the pillar of our society, thanks to their belief in the family as a unit.
Religious Festivities Inspire Sicilian Food
Meg: Is there any dish inspired by Sicilian traditions?
Roberto: There are dishes related to various religious festivities, such as Christmas, Easter, Ferragosto (August 15th), Saint Joseph Day.
For Christmas, in Trapani it is tradition to prepare the timbale of anelletti: pasta with ragù, hard-boiled eggs, fried eggplant, peas, fresh tomato sauce, grated caciocavallo (cheese), the whole baked with a coating of breadcrumbs. A typical second course is the agnello aggrassato, processed lamb meat with potatoes and sometimes mint; for demanding gourmet, eel ragù.
At Easter, a must is represented by the cassatelle with ricotta cheese seasoned with a light tomato and basil sauce; as a second course, either grilled lamb or lamb ribs coated with breadcrumbs, muture pecorino cheese and parsley, all fried in olive oil. As a dessert, for both festivities, the typical cassata siciliana or the cannoli are served; in addition, on Christmas Eve, the sfingi, potato donuts, are much appreciated.
On Saint Joseph’s Day, we bake the special sfincione di San Giuseppe with sheep ricotta cheese, the cubbaita a particular torrone sweet made with sesame and almonds and fried ricotta cheese cassatelle with powdered sugar and cinnamon.
On Ferragosto, the main dishes we serve are fish couscous and spaghetti with lobster broth; as a second course we have stone bass alla matalotta and as a dessert the almond parfait.
Hear from a real Maine lobsterman, Julie Eaton of Deer Isle!
Ingredients for Success As A Chef
Meg: What are the qualities that make you feel like a successful chef?
Roberto: My main qualities are, in my opinion humility, as it is part of my character; calm, providential in high stressful moments; patience in the execution of complex courses; the ability to share our millennial culinary culture; selflessness and the respect and concern for my guests’ health.
Meg: How do you find, in your menu, a balance between creativity and imagination?
Roberto: When I think about and prepare a new menu, I believe that is necessary to focus on the current season and successively, I try to create magic mixing old tastes and my new knowledge coming from other continents. It’s risky and sometimes I rushed too soon into trying new combinations, but in the end, I think I didn’t go too far, as shown by the approval I got from my clients, both verbal at the end of the meal or with written feedbacks.
Strong Taste and Slow Cooking
Meg: Do you think that Sicilian food reflects the lifestyle and values of Sicily?
Roberto: All the products from our territory have strong and unmistakable taste, strong like the sun of Sicily.
The cuisine that comes out of it is the same of our ancestors that were used to bring the products they hassled to harvest and that is why still today, it is detached from industrial production.
As for lifestyle, our cuisine reflects the devotion that mothers, grandmothers and chefs put in preparing dishes that require slow cooking times, in contrast with the frantic rhythms of the city life.
We are proud of being born in a land blessed by God for the climate, the geographic position, the fertile soil and the rich in fish sea that surrounds the island. Two more values we identify with are our family ties that goes together with the value of our routes dating back to the Magna Graecia and the other peoples that controlled us.
Multi-Cultural Heritage of Sicilian Food
Meg: To me, one of the best things about Sicily is the fact that various cultures influenced its history and its lifestyle. Could you please explain which ones made the biggest impact into developing your own style?
Roberto: Plato, the Greek philosopher, wrote in his work Republic about Sicilian food and bakery and described as the best culinary art of his time. He also described the first ‘private’ catering school of the island, probably in Syracuse as he was a guest there.
Under the Arab rule, we discovered sugar and citrus fruit and learned to use honey, almonds and pistachios to produce salty dishes and pastry. The name of cassata siciliana come from the “quas’at”, the name of the baking tray used by the Arabs. Even our Sicilian language is full or Arab terms; open-air markets are filled with sellers that, to saying it the Arab way, “abbaniano” and exalt their merchandise and invite women to buy. Cities and villages have names inspired by Arab names; for example, Marsala comes from Mars-Allah or port of the Arabs, Bonagia means “safe shelter”. The tuna-fishing nets and our salt mines are also Arab heritage, as well as the architecture of our cities and historical centers, filled with narrow streets and houses that hide gardens with jasmine flowers and orange blossoms.
The Spanish domination had an impact on the spoken language, the ability of cooking fish with garlic and tomato, but mainly the religious processions to honor the various patron saints. In my city, on Holy Friday, a very particular procession, called “of the mysteries”, takes place as it represents the Via Crucis; paper mâché figures are brought around the city by the pious that sing and pray together with the people.
Going on, the French came and expanded our vocabulary filling it with new words that, later in time, made it possible for the UNESCO to recognize the Sicilian Language as intangible cultural heritage, together with the Tuscan Dialect from where Italian comes from. Moreover, from the French inherited the love for crochets to give as dowry to the brides, the Gothic style, the appreciation for fine porcelain and crystals used as a decoration on tables. As it concerns our cuisine, they taught us about short crust pastry, icing and the use of onion and various types of sauces.
In conclusion, my personal style could be defined as a balanced “crossroad” of all these peoples’ heritage, legacy of our ancestors. The one that had more impact was the French cuisine, from which I learned the importance of wine, various techniques of treating products and the cooking of meat and fish.
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Translation by Francesca Lamantea, a Foreign Languages graduate currently enrolled in an MA course called Planning and Management of Tourism Systems at the University of Bergamo (Italy). She is Italian on her passport but a citizen of the world in real life! A travel enthusiast who loves taking pictures and buying souvenirs, Francesca is also super curious about everything different countries and cultures has to offer. Her mantra is “Never stop!”.