Feeling La Dolce Vita at Caffe Sicilia in Noto

Peddling the last bit of post-exam celebration out of my system on the elliptical back in April, I decided to watch the (then)-new season of Chef’s Table Pastry on Netflix. I chose the Corrado Assenza episode, which took my soul far from the Rue Fondaudege Basic Fit to the sun-drenched city of Noto in the southeastern tip of Sicily. By the end of the episode, I had decided to go there, to eat almond granita with brioche on the terrace of Caffe Sicilia, and on the walk home I bought our plane tickets too. So, on the first weekend of May, Ben and I set off with a Volotea flight to Palermo. We traveled for a few days before arriving to Noto by means of Syracuse and took a seat outside around noon, just in time for a sort of sweet lunch before continuing our trip to the Occhipinti winery in Vittoria.

Caffe Sicilia is a family institution run by 4th generation pastry king Corrado Assenza over 120 years after the place was first established. After studying architecture and settling with his wife in Bologna, Assenza decided to return to Noto and take over the business from his aunt. He added his own touch to Caffe Sicilia by setting up direct sales relationships with local producers of the Romana almond, a quintessential Sicilian ingredient that was in danger of extinction. By increasing demand of the nut at his own cafe and promoting it through a food conference in Milan, Assenza took big steps toward saving this very important piece of Sicilian culture. And one of the very best expressions of this ingredient at Caffe Sicilia is the almond granita.

We ordered a bowl of this and a bowl of the tangerine granita, both superbly refreshing on an overwhelmingly hot day in May. The almond tasted of nothing other than almond, much less sweet than I expected. Instead this granita had the clean, milky flavors of un-salted, un-toasted almond flesh, including that simple, green vegetal essence. The texture of the thing also made it a pleasure to eat – the wet, slushy and cool lumps of finely-grained, flavored snow, almost as smooth as sorbet on the palate but without that sticky, syrupy quality unavoidable in mass-produced sorbet. It stayed snow on the tongue but for a moment before melting into a light cream, not too dense in flavor or texture. The tangerine granita was likewise delicious, just tart enough to be refreshing but not too acidic to prick the tongue too violently. Granita is for me quite an unlikely pairing with brioche, so emblematic of French breakfast. But it makes sense as a breakfast in southern Sicily, where sizzling hot summer mornings call for a light breakfast. Frozen, melty granita with a puffed up, airy brioche on the side, easy to tear into its egg-y mouthsful, the grainy lattice of crystalline sugar offering a pleasant crunch. And just like that, my first Sicilian summer breakfast experience with granita di mandorle & brioscia.

While the brioche-granita thing was the absolute must-do while in Sicily, we wouldn’t be leaving Caffe Sicilia without trying some of Assenza’s other creations as well. The cassata is another quintessential Sicilian thing. This heavenly sweet consists of two layers of spongecake with a filling of ricotta in between, wrapped in a shell of green marzipan, with white icing and candied fruit covering the top. The feeling of my fork breaking through the candied crust, through the luscious and creamy interior will remain with me for a long time. What was particularly memorable about this cassata was the lightness, airy-ness and elegance of its different parts. The ricotta was heavenly smooth, flanked by the buttery layers of moist cake. The marzipan and frosting were both quite juicy and malleable, far from the hardened, brittle crust normally coating frosted cookies and cakes.

And finally, since this was our last stop in Sicily and we couldn’t leave the island without trying its most famous specialty, we ordered a cannolo as well. I’ve had a lot of good cannoli in my life, most of them of the chocolate chip variety from the legendary Mike’s Pastry in Boston’s North End. But this cannolo was really something quite special. The shell was freshly fried to perfection, the perfect crunch shattering the tube into golden-brown shards, each one coated in a sandy layer of powdered sugar, which clings to the fingertips. And the ricotta inside was out of this world – creamy, clean, fresh, lusciously dense with the perfect little touch of citrus to balance out the otherwise very indulgent cheese. The combination of the two textures is divine. As is true with most Italian culinary specialties, an original version like this ruins all other replicas of the same outside of Italy (also why you will never find me eating pasta anywhere else). Nevertheless, it was well worth it.

A leisurely afternoon indulging in Sicilian goodness before exploring the beautiful city of Noto…

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