Driving into licata, we felt excited, the day had come and we would finally get to try the cooking of pino cuttaia, one of italy’s top chefs and sicily’s best.
A mozzarella – made as a souffle of cheese, a tomato and a crouton, we were fooled, the element of surprise! The element of surprise in cuisine is meant to impress and in this case it does. But is this the chef’s invention, or is it a copycat, or does it matter? Yes it somehow matters if you are interested in the origin of a chef’s genius and I am.
There is no doubt that this mozzarella was a cleaver use of technique and it gives you an idea of how the chef thinks. The origin here is based on oeufs a la neige, referred to in french as “eggs in snow”, or in english the floating island. They are made by whisking egg whites until smooth, then gradually adding hot buffala milk. In a saucepan, cook mixture over a low heat, stirring constantly until it thickens. Then strain the custard through a sieve into a bowl, cover it and refrigerate until cold. The next day you make the shape by using a spoon and dropping them into simmering water, cool and serve.
Pino Cuttaia, is a two star michelin in licata, the end of the earth for some, and for others the center of their universe. The chef and his wife live there to follow their roots. Navigating into licata is easy, but I wasn’t sure the gps had done its job. I thought to myself, is this the right place as it looked so quiet and almost vacant.
Excited to try pino cuttaia’s cuisine and see his food genius so many have described. I never checked his food online, not once so it was a total surprise. I am told that Pino doesn’t move because he is true to his region, and we respect that.
I arrived to restaurant cuttaia to an abrupt greeting. After ringing the doorbell, I wait in anticipation, the door opens, and before I could speak, I was told “we are full for lunch” and I said “but-but I have a reservation” and so it turned around quickly, and we were welcomed.
From the outside it looks like every other local shop. The doors hardly closes, there is 2cm gap so I peer inside. The restaurant is pleasant and not pretentious, it fits his personality. The walls are adorned with photos of his signature dishes and the local seashores.
His wife loredana is the resident sommelier, she has control over the floor. The waiters could be relatives, friends or even family, this is a very quaint place. The bread is superb and no wonder why, pino uses some of the finest local flour from molino del ponte.
The grissini arrives hot from the oven at the beginning of the meal is tempting and if you cannot self-control yourself – you’re in trouble.
The pizza wasn’t a pizza and it once again surprised us. What looks like melted mozzarella is actually a foamy potato mousse. His pizzaiola cod, the crust was a very thin round piece of dough, and underneath there was cod smoked on pine wood and some tomato. Good flavors and cleaver presentation, however it was not as good as it looked, but that didn’t really matter. It is all about the magic of the chef, he has a swiftness, a food craft that only few possess in italy.
The octopus on the rock, a cleaver interpretation of octopus, it inspires us. The presentation was spot on, but his parsley base lacked depth of taste though it demonstrates his drive to be inventive.
The dish could have been more complex in taste but the octopus on the rock is impressive, it provokes your imagination.
It is likely done by using the vacuum machine to obtain the rise and bubbles – it is crispy and brittle. The air creates the bubbles and the vacuum is shut off before the air evacuates the chamber.
The rouget on a pasta was not my favorite, it seemed dull, it was dull and the fish was over cooked and the green dough below dry. I thought this dish was not thought thoroughly enough.
The beaten red shrimp carpaccio with green tangerine extra virgin oil and tuna fish bottarga mayonnaise – ouch. The raw shrimp pounded into a flattened paste was difficult to eat and still stays with me. The heaviness, it wasn’t grainy but it was thick and dense on the palate, almost like a shrimp glue. It had a mandarin accent, and was surrounded by the creamy mayonnaise – yuck.
The tonno e conserva was well below average and was my first dish. I felt let down, even astonished by the presentation and I thought to myself, ‘oh mama-mia’ we are in trouble. The tuna was just average and the toppings were even strange, unfitting and the opposite to what I expected. This was not a good start!
But when you look at pino’s cooking, it reminds me of his smile, he is generous, easy going and adored by his friends and by the people who know him.
He was very gentle and invited me into the kitchen to explore his ideas. He is open minded and thoughtful. There is no doubt that the challenges of operating a restaurant of this caliber in a place so remote, it’s a challenge unto itself.
I had planned to stay one morning with him in the kitchen but our schedule was just too tight and that’s something I regret.
The wine list echoes cuttaia’s interest in local products, with an emphasis on wines from south-east sicily. I tried several wines including tenuta barone la lumia, a white wine named halykàs made from mature insolia grapes. This wine was bizzare to say the least.
There is no doubt he’s a natural, sincere, a person that has style and grace, a certain kind of food innovator.
Some think pino is self/taught but he trained and worked with michelin-starred chefs in northern Italy. He obtained his first Michelin star in 2006 and the second in 2009.
He lived in Piemonte when he was 12 years old and discovered the north of italy. He worked in il Sorriso in Soriso, Novara, and at il patio in Pollone, Biella two well known restaurants.
Pino has his own distinctive style and clearly understands the basics of molecular techniques. He uses them in a natural way, a way to enhance the vocabulary of his ideas. Pino combines what he learnt in the north with the recipes of his childhood rediscovered in licata.
His food styling is thoughtful, but I think he needs to be more detailed and consistent in his menu choices, and use of raw materials.
I cannot tell you whether or not I would drive the distance again. Certainly pino deserves to be praised, and within sicily he is a hero, a persona that represents his island’s potential, his childhood and his experiences abroad.
Restaurant La Madia
Corso Filippo Re Capriata 22
T: +39 0922 771443
Closed sunday evening and Tuesday and in summer sunday lunch – open at 13h00.