Team Mago have always been big fans of the television show Iron Chef, especially the original, campy, over-the-top Japanese version. Morgan uses this competition theme to highlight our restaurant reviews of two Sicilian restaurants – Ristorante Enoteca Andrea Sapori Montani in Palazzolo Acreide and Ristorante Crocifisso di Marco Baglieri in Noto. This post concludes with a head-to-head comparison and the announcement of a winner. The bottom line, though, is that these are both excellent restaurants and we recommend you visit each when you travel to southeast Sicily and judge for yourself.
It’s Not in the Stars
If memory serves me right, Lucullus often dined at Michelin star restaurants when he was an expense account carrying member of the togate publicani. These days he finds it hard to remember whether it has been more years since he last wore a tie or ate at an establishment granted one or more of those coveted macaroons by the self-styled “international benchmark for gourmet dining.” MagoGuide’s absence from gastronomic temples, however, is more than merely sartorial. The better half of Team Mago invariably refers to any Michelin starred establishment as either “frou-frou” or “that fancy restaurant.”
We enjoyed our walk through Noto on the way to Ristorante Crocifisso, but it was clear that in the height of the tourist season this town of southeast Sicily was going to become overrun with people.
And it’s not just consumers who, like Fulvia, do not see the point in shelling out princely sums for long and stultifying dining experiences that are dismissive of Michelin’s approach to gastronomy. Triangulated by an exposé published by a defecting inspector, a respected French food critic decrying the fact that the guides are now run by an American with a German deputy, and the inevitable erosion of expert opinion in face of innumerable crowd-sourced social media sites, the Guide Rouge is looking less like the go-to source for foodies and more like a marketing loss leader for a global tire company trying to build brand recognition via haute cuisine.
A lot of the Michelin’s problems are self-inflicted. While star-level restaurants actually constitute only a small fraction of the establishments that appear in its guides, the vast majority of external reviews are devoted to them due to the annual hype surrounding the release of who got, gained, or lost a star. Largely overlooked by celebrity chefs and food glitterati is the humble Bib Gourmand category, defined by Michelin as the “inspectors’ favorites for good value.”
We thought the town of Palazzolo Acreide, the home of Andrea Sapori Montani, utterly charming. There were very few tourists, the town’s inhabitants were very friendly, and it has a wonderful archeology site that includes a well preserved Greek theater. After the sites at Syracuse, the calm of Palazzolo Acreide was a pleasant change.
If a wealthy gourmet is looking for a tie breaking review between a couple three stars, there are inevitably numerous recent reviews to peruse. But who does a thrifty trencherman turn to in order to stretch disposable ducats without compromising on cuisine? MagoGuide of course, where our inspectors really are anonymous and our management impervious to media campaigns orchestrated by culinary superstars. This serendipitous state of affairs owes to the facts that 1) we have been making a virtue out of necessity for years and 2) Fulvia will actually consent to eat at Bib Gourmand restaurants.
Let the Battle Begin! (Sorry, Couldn’t Help It)
We recently had the opportunity to assess Michelin’s credibility with respect to two of the four new Sicilian Bib Gourmands in the 2014 Guida Italia: Ristorante Enoteca Andrea Sapori Montani and Ristorante Crocifisso di Marco Baglieri. Located a mere 30 kilometers apart in hill towns considered pearls of the Sicilian Baroque, these two restaurants of roughly equal tenure simply beg for a head-to-head comparison. Each is helmed by a chef who is fanatically devoted to farm-to-table sourcing (called zero kilometer in Italy) and slow food covenants. And the cuisine served at both establishments is based on modern interpretations of traditional regional dishes.
Ristorante Enoteca Andrea Sapori Montani
Telephone: 338 8519092
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Rostra rating: 4
Sapori Montani is located on the second floor of a renovated 18th century structure just off the main square of Palazzolo Acreide. The design of the space mirrors Chef Andrea Ali’s approach to Sicilian cuisine, which adds modern flourishes to dishes that stretch back to antiquity. White dammuso-style concave ceilings are suspended over light mushroom hued walls hung with modern art illuminated by white sconces and underpinned by the original geometric floor tiles. A modern glass-enclosed kitchen gives onto three dining rooms delineated above with white doorway arches and below by marble slabs separating a different floor design in each room. The restaurant holds fifty covers inside with an additional forty available in a pretty roof garden. The third indoor dining room also contains the well-stocked wine cellar that, like the kitchen, makes a dramatic impression through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall.
White tablecloths over grey base cloths are festooned with large lilies in crystal bowls. Grey linen napkins that have been ironed but not starched convey a feeling of tactile comfort, while the brown wood and cream fabric chairs reinforce the nuanced color scheme of the dining space. The unusual candle-powered bread warmers made out of a ceramic tile in metal holders are a nice touch, but it is hard to keep one’s eyes from the windows that provide views of carved Baroque sandstone balconies.
Lucullus was particularly impressed with the men’s room. It was a large, clean, and hyper-modern version of the archetypical Italian WC right down to the toilet sans seat or lid. Since Fulvia reported that the ladies loo was equipped with a seat, it would seem that the gents apparatus was actually a matter of décor rather than hygiene. A final note, both WCs are supplied with white terry cloth towels at the sparkling clean sinks that dispense both hot and cold water.
Mago Tip: Lest you think that this and other MagoGuide reviews are somewhat toilet obsessed, Fulvia has found over the years that VFM dining in Italy often carries a significant opportunity cost with respect to cleanliness and user friendliness of the powder room. She has adopted the sensible precaution of sending Lucullus on an early recognizance of the facilities. Not that we would recommend universal adoption of such precautions, but in Italy at least the gender symbols on the bathroom doors are, like all traffic signs and most laws, merely suggestions.
For a starter, we split an order of pane fritto, burrata e salami di suino nero. This dish turned out to be a deconstructed croque-monsieur composed of fried croutons, warm buratta, black pig prosciutto (vice salami), and local black truffles. The ingredients were brought to the table in a hinged jar where our helpful and knowledgeable waitress informed us that we were expected to mix and serve them ourselves. This rather unusual approach was, in fact, crucial to our mutual enjoyment of this spectacular ‘tizer because it allowed Fulvia the opportunity to first extract all the truffles and place them on Lucullus’ plate before she amalgamated the other constituent elements of the dish.
Lucullus’ anticipatory grin that began with his double truffle allocation morphed into a look of stunned pleasure with his first bite. The black pig raised on acorns in the Nebrodi Mountains of northeastern Sicily rivaled jamón ibérico de bellota. The warm, crunchy oil-infused croutons blended wonderfully with the voluptuous buratta, which enhanced rather than muted the local black truffles. Subtler than their northern cousins from Umbria, Chef Ali served the truffles in thick slices a little large than the size of quarter. Our waitress proudly recounted the culinary ancestry of the dish. It seems that peasants repurposed stale bread by frying it in olive oil and serving it with burrata (mozzarella scraps and cream left over from the cheese making process) and sugar. More than a mere evolution, Chef Ali’s version was truly an apotheosis.
Lucullus continued his pig fest into the pasta course with cavati con pancetta “affumicata al faggio” e cipoletta arrosto. Cavati are semolina and water gnocchi, which were finished in the pan completely absorbing all the tomato sauce, a process that turned the pasta a beautiful coral color. The cavati were then tossed with pork belly smoked with beech chips, breadcrumbs, and roasted onions—all of which were applied with proper restraint. The whole dish screamed pig candy with a subtle onion underpinning. The al dente pasta had a nice tooth that was complemented by the slightly chewy pig. Breadcrumbs added a noticeable toasty dimension to the flavor profile.
Fulvia had ravioli di ricotta al pistacchio. The fresh ricotta had arrived but a few hours earlier from a nearby farm. Served with a pistachio sauce and a drizzle of sweetened Nero d’Avola wine reduction, the perfectly cooked ravioli were the best dish of the meal. The pistachio sauce supplied nutty overtones to complement the rich mouth feel of the ricotta, while the wine syrup added a wonderful lingering sweetness.
Dedicated to death by swinage, Lucullus plumped for variazione di salsiccia di Palazollo, a sausage degustation based on three contrasting flavor and texture profiles. The first was cooked sotto cenere, in which the sausage is wrapped in moistened kitchen parchment and then nestled in hot coals. The result was dense and chewy, verging on tough, but with a very concentrated salty, fennel, and pork flavor. The second sausage was poached in Nero d’Avola wine. This was definitely the dog o’ the dish, perfectly cooked with a beautiful purple color, it was unctuous and juicy with a long winey aftertaste. The third approach was described by our waitress as agrodolce (bitter sweet) and came baked in a crust of ground coffee and poppy seeds. It was a bit of a stretch, somewhat dry and gritty, and difficult to detect the sweet part of agrodolce. However, the sausage did have an unusual and pleasant after taste, like a sip of strong coffee while eating a thick-cut slice of American (streaky) bacon. One could see where the chef was going with this dish, but he did not really get all the way there. Nice idea, but a bit lacking in execution.
Mago’s Fix: The dish would have been far better if Chef Ali had substituted raw sausage with a squeeze of lemon for the agrodolce preparation. Lucullus was dubious the first time he ate raw pork sausage, but it turned out to be the essence of porkitude. He lost his virginity on the island of Pantelleria off the Tunisian coast when Diodorus Siculus took advantage of an Old Tobey moment in a lemon grove, produced a sausage made that morning by a trusted butcher, pulled a lemon off the tree, and the rest is history. Since then, Lucullus has noticed Sicilian men accepting a piece of raw sausage at a macelleria or even a supermercato just as one might taste a slice of salami or a piece of cheese in a U.S. deli. Having sampled Chef Ali’s cooked sausage, there is little doubt as to the quality of the basic material, and somehow one doubts that the food Nazis from Brussels are likely to show up and spoil things. Lucullus would like to be a fly on the wall, however, when the Michelin inspectors engage in an unprotected pig peccadillo.
The sausages came with a trio of sides. Pickled red cabbage supplied refreshing acidity to offset the pork. Unfortunately, the greens were over-cooked and bland, while the small baked potato was under-cooked and thoroughly unappetizing.
Poor Fulvia got on the pig bandwagon at precisely the wrong time with maiale nero dei Nebrodi al pistacchio di Bronte (pork cutlets in a pistachio crust). A real clunker, the crust was soggy and the cutlets dried out —a waste of good pork and pistachios. The pickled red cabbage helped with this dish, but it was beyond saving and should have been euthanized in the kitchen. Lucky for the chef it was MagoGuide and not Michelin reviewing him this time. After that incredible appie and excellent pasta, Lucullus was in the mood to forgive a multitude of sins.
Bread came a bit late (served with prompting only after the secondi arrived, the only slip in an otherwise excellent service). Miniature tomato rolls were mediocre. The little herb rolls were good, but the large sesame seed roll stole the show with a nice thick crust that surrounded a salty chewy crumb.
For dessert we split crema cotta a la carruba, a carob flavored crème brûlée. It was a bit soupy but also very light with a subtle flavor dimension supplied by the carob. Not an “absolute pleasure” as reported in the Italian Dissapore food blog, but a decent turn around after those sorry cutlets. The restaurant’s coffee was also quite good.
On the recommendation of our waitress, Lucullus drank a half bottle of Terreliade Nira Nero d’Avola 2011 from Sambuca di Sicilia commune (near Planeta’s vineyards) with his lunch (in addition to eschewing truffles, Fulvia is heroically abstemious when she has to drive following a meal). Hints of coffee and spice on the nose gave way to tons of forward, jammy strawberry fruit, while soft round tannins came out on the long finish. Best of all, it was great with the food. Lucullus vowed to return with Diodorus Siculus in order to plumb the depths of Sapori Montani’s extensive wine list, which was also called out in Michelin’s assessment of the restaurant.
Ristorante Crocifisso di Marco Baglieri
Telephone: 0931 571151
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Rostra rating: 4
Stepping inside the Crucifix restaurant feels like being instantiated into an artsy black and white movie made in the 1960s. More of a gut and replace operation than a renovation, chef Marco Baglieri has taken an 18th century shell and filled it with a minimalist culinary venue. There is lot of concrete, starting with the floors that utilize mini-ramps instead of steps between rooms of varying floor level, and continuing half way up the walls in the form of post-modern chair rails.
The color scheme is relentlessly black, white, and shades of grey. The walls are decorated with sconces, each a unique piece. Apart from the sconces, there is no wall art or any other art for that matter. The theme continues on the tables with starched white linen, dark wood chairs with light wicker seats, and a concrete topped light wood bar in one of the three dining rooms. Even the plates have a very subtle grey pattern. The bathrooms are hyper-modern, super clean, and the gents has a seat as well as a lid.
We began with arancino di melanzane su fonduta di Ragusano DOP, Chef Baglieri’s take on the ubiquitous Sicilian fried rice ball coated with breadcrumbs and encompassing various types of fillings. Both Fulvia and Lucullus were transfixed by this crucified arancino. Eschewing the saffron rice altogether, Chef Baglieri somehow crafted an extremely thin and crisp breadcrumb crust around a luscious dollop of eggplant magma that in turn surrounded a molten core of Ragusano cheese (the local version of caciocavallo, which has a DOP certification associated with a specific breed of cattle and the type of feed used to produce it). In addition to the lack of its primary ingredient, this spectacular starter was baked as opposed to fried in the traditional manner. Served on a subtle white sauce, this was not your nona’s arancino (note the eastern Sicilian spelling, in the west of the island it would be arancina, see Easter in Western Sicily).
For his pasta, Lucullus chose ravioli di ricotta al sugo nero di sepia, house-made ravioli stuffed with fresh ricotta in a sauce of cuttlefish ink and tentacles. Not the prettiest dish to grace our plates during this meal, but it was one of the best mare e monte preparations that Lucullus ever tasted. The pasta was cooked slightly firm so that it hesitated just for an instant before yielding to the airy ricotta stuffing. Then the salty and slightly sweet notes of the cuttlefish ink melded with the ricotta to create a sublime mouth feel. The long-stewed cuttlefish tentacles supplied a wonderful textural contrast to the pasta and added to the depth of the sauce with their umami flavor. Lucullus pressed the restaurant’s excellent crusty bread with medium latticed cakey crumb into service as a scarpetto to sop up the remaining sauce after he inhaled the ravioli.
Fulvia’s pasta was lasagna con broccoletti e salsiccia. Brocoletti (a hybrid cross of broccoli and gai lan that has caught on big in the truck farms of southeastern Sicily) was sautéed with onions and sausage into a delicious union and then spread between pasta layers with béchamel and Parmesano Reggiano. Served on a small dollop of additional béchamel, the result was clearly greater than the sum of its parts.
Fulvia was still recovering from a feast the night before whipped up by Diodorus Siculus with Lucullus serving as prep bitch, so she forewent a secundo. Lucullus, however, believes that excess in the service of gastronomy is no sin and promptly ordered ventresca a “cipudadda” con salsa di cipolle e menta (sautéed tuna belly in a sweet and sour onion sauce with fried mint leaves). The late Marcella Hazan once paid tuna the ultimate compliment, declaring it a form of sea going pork. If that is true then the tuna belly is the aquatic equivalent of pork belly and Chef Baglieri’s preparation can be cited as a proof of Hazan’s assertion. It was a decadently rich dish with luscious tuna fat melting into unctuous onions enlivened by crispy mint counterpoints. The tuna had just the right amount of tooth to produce a texture profile to compliment the layered flavors brought out by the kitchen.
Once again, sweet Fulvia had chauffer duty and Lucullus placed himself in the hands of our brisk and efficient waiter, telling him to pour wines by the glass that he felt matched the food. The first was a white, a blend of grecano, insolia, and chardonnay. It proved to be a very nice quaffing wine served at almost room temperature with a ginestra nose, apricot fruit, and a long mineral finish. After the arancino, the waiter switched Lucullus to a cabernet sauvignon that paired superbly with the ravioli and tuna (they drink red wine with pesce azzurro in Sicily–is this a great island or what?). It had a nose of leather and earth and black fruit on the mid-palate with loads of terroir on the finish. Ristorante Crocifisso has a very decent wine list including local, Sicilian, Italian, and foreign vintages, as well as a baker’s dozen of artisan Italian micro brews.
We skipped dessert in favor a gelato at the (as it turned out) over-hyped Café Sicilia in the thronged and touristy pedestrian section of Noto. Big mistake. Given that Chef Baglieri cites Corrado Assenza of Cafè Sicilia as one of his mentors on the restaurant’s website, perhaps the torch has been passed? In any event Michelin recommends Baglieri’s cannolo di ricotta con gelato al torroncino and MagoGuide will certainly try it the next time we dine at Crocifisso. The meal did, however, end with two superb swallows of espresso.
Tasting and Judgment (Dang, did it Again)
In terms of restaurant décor, MagoGuide gives the edge to Sapori Montani. Chef Ali has managed to combine ancient and modern elements in a more harmonious fashion than Chef Baglieri. Sapori Montani seems to fit seamlessly amongst the changing architectural epochs that have shaped Palazollo Acreide since the 11th century BC. In stark contrast, Crocifisso’s striking post-modern décor appears to be in open rebellion with Noto’s resolutely Baroque past.
Sapori Montani won the antipasto round hands down. Both restaurants elevated a traditional dish far above its rustic origins, but Chef Ali went the extra mile with research and the use of local ingredients. Chef Baglieri’s refined arancino revealed both finesse and technique yet paled in comparison to the playful yet exquisite layered flavor experience of Sapori Montani’s toast decostruito.
The fight for primi primacy was very hard fought. The chefs went head-to-head with their respective ricotta ravioli dishes. Both pastas were local, authentic, and perfectly prepared, so in the end it came down to flavor. Chef Ali’s pistachio sauce proved superior, providing a nutty, crunchy contrast to the soft pasta that Chef Baglieri’s cuttlefish tentacles lacked. Also, the slight but noticeably superior quality of the ricotta employed by Sapori Montani made that kitchen’s preparation lighter.
Again, MagoGuide sided with the Sapori Montani’s cavati over Crocifisso’s lasagna. The tiebreaker in this case was regional fidelity. Good as it was, lasagna is simply not a Sicilian pasta, whereas those petite coral flavor bombs simply screamed Trinacria!
At this point in the struggle, Chef Ali succumbed to hubris, the age old nemesis of Greek Sicily—more specifically, culinary over-reach with his sausage trio followed by a collapse in quality control that allowed a poorly executed dish to leave the kitchen. The former is understandable, even fixable as suggested above, but the latter is not.
After a gastronomic own goal by the competition, all Chef Baglieri had to do was play it safe to win the secundo round, but Crocifisso came storming back with the tuna belly. Not only was the dish a clear winner over both Sapori Montani’s main courses, but when viewed in progression from antipasto through primo to secondo, it cemented the kitchen’s consistency across the savory dining spectrum. Sorry Charlie, only aquatic pigs taste good enough for MagoGuide.
Since Team Mago did not sample a crucified dessert, it is unfair to take this course into account in Battle Bib. This ruling could well have worked in Chef Ali’s favor since his crema cotta a la carruba also suffered from lax execution in the kitchen at the end of the lunch service. In terms of coffee, however, Crocifisso’s was the clear winner.
MagoGuide concurs that both restaurants deserve the Bib Gourmand rating. We would gladly return to either Sapori Montani or Crocifisso to sample other dishes from their menus and to plumb further into the depths of their cellars. But there has to be a winner and a loser, so cue the pompous music, crank up the smoke machines, and light up the faux stadium set.
Today two champions met in Battle Bib here in Southeastern Sicily: Chef Ali and Chef Baglieri. Fulvia and Lucullus have spoken and the winner is (long pause as the camera pans to both contestants) Chef Baglieri, who stayed close in the early rounds and then, taking advantage of serious flaws in dish design and execution late in the service, came from behind with a very strong finish.