We showed up at Il Consiglio di Sicilia at 1 PM on a Friday afternoon sharp set from a morning of food shopping and bereft of reservations. This jewel box restaurant is situated in a small piazza a few blocks from the sea in the pleasant little port of Donnalucata. The establishment is owned by the husband and wife team of chef Antonio Cicero and Roberta Corradin, who runs the front of the house. Despite our lack of reservations, Roberta gave us a choice of tables outside under the awnings rigged in the center of the quiet square. She was attentive and informative throughout our meal. We were pleased to find that her English is very good and enjoyed her vivacious sense of humor throughout the meal.
Il Consiglio di Sicilia
Telephone: 340 944 8923
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Rostra rating: 4
I was immediately impressed by the attention to detail evident in the restaurant’s layout and furnishings. The outside tables sport a duo of either solid yellow or white tablecloths over base layers of marine-themed prints. Starched white cloth napkins add to this understated casual elegance. I saw at least two different flower arrangements, yellow daisies or orange cumquats attached to their leafy twigs. The dining gazebo is flanked by carob trees and nicely screened overhead from the hot Sicilian sun with gauzy white fabric that moves dreamily with the breeze. Potted herbs are scattered about, one perched sweetly on the back of an old bicycle.
The inside of the restaurant is smaller than the outside, but it’s a nice little space with a large bookcase of the owners’ cookbooks (what’s not to like about a volume entitled The Republic of the Pig?). The bathrooms, always important to Patti, are so clean that they could have been beamed in from Switzerland.
From the start of the meal Roberta was more than generous with her time, carefully explaining the menu and wine list as well as patiently satisfying our desire for further details. She even apologized for serving mineral water in plastic bottles, due to a mix up with her supplier.
The wine list was definitely as carefully sourced as it was fairly priced. Roberta pointed out the VFM wines on the list first and only expounded on the more expensive bottles at our urging. Yes we dress like VFM types, but we throw a lot of disposable ducats at food and drink in the service of our readers.
On her advice we chose a Bianco di Nera. This was my first experience of this distinctive wine from Campobello di Licata in southern central Sicily, and from the first sip I had to wonder why Inspector Montalbano always orders Corvo for his silent meals when this spritely white is available. Slightly frizante with a semi-ripe citrus nose, banana, and nectarine fruit on the mid-palate is followed by a medium mineral finish. Roberta brought an ice bucket with crushed ice (more attention to detail). The wine was between cellar and room temperature when opened so the fruit stood out in my first taste. Drinking it through a descending temperature profile, however, proved to be a great pairing with the dishes we ordered. As it got colder, the crisp spritz and mineral notes came to the fore.
The meal began with bread called Paola made with “ancient Sicilian wheat” and accompanied by olive oil infused with lemons. The bread was sliced very thin and the hard wheat crumb soaked up the emerald green oil like parched land in central California, yielding bright citrus notes that played over the top of oil’s rich mouth feel.
As soon as I saw it on the menu, I knew that I was going to try the spaghetti with garum, diced zucchini, and chopped parsley, but I was also prepared to be disappointed. I have tried dishes made with the famous fish-pickle sauce of Mediterranean antiquity from restaurants as diverse as Lucas Carton in Paris to four seat no names on Barcelona backstreets, and in every case what the menu called garum turned out to be repurposed nuoc cham or nam pla from southeast Asia. The problem is that contemporary Asian fish sauces are made with anchovies, whereas ancient sources insist that the finest fish sauce was made exclusively from mackerel.
Roberta, however, informed us that their garum derived from an artisan maker in Sciacca utilizing ancient techniques and ingredients. It was different and far better than any other modern attempt at garum that I have ever encountered. The pasta was actually sauced was a combination of garum and olive oil that had a big upfront hit of salt, which segued into a deep, savory umami flavor. There was also a slight hint of pepperoncino in the dish. I found just one small red pepper circlet hiding in the spaghetti, but it was by far the best bite of the dish. I really wish that chef Antonio had used more heat in this preparation as I have long thought that the ancient Romans cooked with a lot more pepper than modern day Italians. The slightly par cooked zucchini, cut into a quarter inch dice and then tossed in the pasta with the garum, added sweetness and crunch to the dish’s flavor and texture profiles.
Patti started with Pataco, a wild chickpea and broccoli soup. This example of cucina di povera from a nearby village was more of a thick puree with a drizzle of olive oil than a soup, but it was delicious and substantial yet still refreshing. It needed salt in the form of grated sheep’s cheese. Yes I know that such an interpolation would probably be viewed as a culinary sin by the chef, but while culinary tradition deserves respect, taste must be the final arbiter of gastronomy. It could also have used pepperoncino-infused oil vice straight olive oil.
My secondo was oven-baked spatola (scabbard fish) stuffed with tomato, eggplant, and caciocavallo cheese. Roberta called this preparation their signature dish, and the employment of cheese in a fish dish is definitely a Sicilian approach dating back to the Greek colonization of the eastern part of the island. The fish itself was delectable with firm white flesh and remarkable flavor. Eggplant cooked in a generous amount of olive oil prior to baking the assembled dish added a layer of richness to the fish, while the cheese brought needed salt to the preparation. The tomato contributed a slight acidity to the flavor profile. The spatola was accompanied by a potato that was parboiled and then allowed to soak up a bunch of olive oil in the oven. It was great for what it was, but I would have preferred some type of vegetable as opposed to a starch and there are currently so many nice green things to be had in the markets right now (a cost of food issue?).
Patti had ricciola baked in a winey broth with capers and ripe tomato dice. Roberta said she thought ricciola was called butterfish in English, but I think that ricciola is amberjack, while butterfish is escolar. In any event, it was another excellent preparation. The flesh of the fish was delicate and mild, taking on the taste of the broth. The slight acidity of the tomatoes played nicely against this subtle preparation. But the skin of the fish was a different experience altogether with a layer of gelatinous fat between the skin and the flesh supplying a divine mouth feel with a much more pronounced fish flavor. A simple boiled potato worked much better with the ricciola than the baked version did with the spatula.
The strength of the kitchen did not flag when we turned to dessert offerings. Roberta suggested we eat Il Consiglio di Sicilia’s cannoli, reportedly made from a secret family recipe, with our fingers. Good advice. The micro thin crust and ethereal stuffing of fresh cow milk ricotta from nearby Modica seemed ultra decadent when consumed without the pretense of intermediate utensils. Nor did they junk up the ricotta filling with candied fruit, as is the practice elsewhere in Sicily. It might just have been the best cannolo I have ever eaten. I definitely wanted five or six more.
In a nod to culinary feng shui, we felt that we had to try the torta cioccolato in order to maintain some level of cosmic harmony between the forces of light and dark desserts (there may have been alcohol involved in such a judgment). Usually a term for a flourless preparation, this torta was actually a molten chocolate cake made with flour, cooked a minute, and served on warm bespoke bitter orange marmalade. Patti experienced an “oh my” foodgasm with her very first bite. The marmalade counterpoint took the dish to the next level.
We ended our meal with excellent espresso served in beautiful Illy Art Collection demitasses—a fitting finale to a very nice meal and more evidence, if any were needed at this point, of attention to detail and a commitment to the local cuisine.
In doing some preparatory research for this review I noticed that Roberta and Antonio have been the targets of an internet troll smear campaign on the TripAdvisor web site. The complaints involved traffic noise in the piazza, portion sizes, the cost of a meal, the length of a meal, lack of English on Roberta’s part as well as over-familiarity with diners when they were trying to eat. Our experience directly refuted each and every one of these lies.
This is not to say that there is no room for improvement at Il Consiglio di Sicilia. In addition to our critique concerning under-seasoning in some dishes and lack of green vegetables with the main courses, the wooden floor of the outside seating area is in need of serious refurbishment before the planks and exposed nails do significant damage to guests or staff.
MagoGuide Update: We had an update from Roberta who said that she liked our posting! She also told us that they are redoing all the deck starting May 6th. Roberta also said “In summer we also decorate the gazebo with striped curtains in blue and white, beige and white, red and white.” Beautiful. Thank you, Roberta, for letting us know your plans!
Also, when we dined Roberta was breaking in a new waiter and Antonio faced a staff shortage in the kitchen. Roberta, however, was up front about all of their challenges and explained that some dishes would take longer to prepare due to their situation. For those Americans posting negative reviews on TripAdvisor (if you really ever ate there, that is) concerning the length of the meal and portion size, all I can say is that if you come to Sicily expecting the same experience as you get at an Olive Garden chain outlet, well shame on you. Yes, our lunch lasted about two and half hours, but if excellent food served at a relaxed pace in appropriate portions by a charming hostess under a powder blue Sicilian sky in small sea-side village upsets you, do us all a favor and stay home—MagoGuide will be happy to take up whatever slack results in the local restaurant economy.
I am also sure that there are several sides to the rivalry behind the attack of the trolls—it is Sicily after all. What I do know is that Roberta and Antonio are small business entrepreneurs, precisely the type of people that Sicily needs to escape its legacy of criminal corruption and economic malaise. As a co-owner of a small business with my wife, I admire their commitment to farm-to-table cuisine and preservation of the region’s culinary traditions. In addition to their restaurant, they offer small group (eight people or less) cooking lessons, food tours, as well as grape and olive harvest expeditions.
I commend Roberta for posting responses to the slanderous “reviews” that have plagued her and Antonio on TripAdvisor, but I also have to say that I think such an approach is doomed to failure. The fundamental problem is that TripAdvisor has become a medium of disinformation like so many other social media outlets. At best TripAdvisor is about making money from information it gets for free from gullible small businesses and their customers. Increasingly, however, TripAdvisor profits handsomely from disseminating lies about honest businesses shamefully disguised as the wisdom of crowds. H.L.Menckin certainly anticipated the TripAdvisor business model when he declared that “No one in this world, so far as I know, has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.”
This will not change until both restaurateurs and customers replace the time they spend in TripAdvisor to seek out professional reviews and local knowledge.