Sicily – The Home comers. A story about those who chose to come back.

This is not the story of the Sicilians that decided to stay and try to change things from within. It is not the story about those who decided to leave, trying to start over. Instead, this is the story of those who left, became successful, and chose to come back.

Pino Cuttaia and the restaurant La Madia with two stars in the Guide Michelin, in the town Licata

-Do you feel bad if I call you the workers’ chef? asks my colleague.

Pino Cuttaia laughs and says, definitely not at all. He also points out that he wants to be called cook not chef. We are at Pino Cuttaia’s restaurant La Madia, one of two Sicilian restaurants that has two stars in Guide Michelin. The other is Ciccio Sultano´s Duomo di Ragusa Ibla. Pino Cuttaia opened in 2000, received his first star in 2006 and the second in 2009.

La Madia is located in the village of Licata, a small, poor, fishing village that has all the problems you can think of. When me and my colleagues drive into the village, we look closely at the dilapidated houses, the-hole-in-the-wall bottegas that sell vegetables and where all the left overs, stems and leaves are just put on the sidewalk. Pimped motorcycles pass by with violent speed. Loud voices. A black-dressed old woman rests her tired legs while talking to a man without teeth. We do not see any tourists as far as the eye can reach. No signs written in English, or rather, there is not even a sign indicating where La Madia is located. We follow google maps and when it says we´ve arrived, we all look at each other with big eyes – could this be right?

A dish at Pino Cuttaia's

A dish at Pino Cuttaia’s, copyright A Johansson

There it is. On the other side of the street is a tiny sign with La Madia’s name. One of the guests we meet tells us that the mayor of the city has never been to the restaurant. In Licata, I seem to understand, there are many who want things not to change.

On the wall inside the dining room is one of Pino Cuttaia´s quotes, “My secret ingredient is my memory”.

-A person always wants to come home; it does not matter if you come from a shed or castle. You always want to go back to your roots, says Pino, while we chat before lunch service starts.

When Pino Cuttaia was little, the family decided to move to northern Italy. When he finished school, it was obvious that he also would start working in one of Piedmont’s many factories. It was only during the weekends he could feed his great passion – to cook. A passion that did increase, and eventually took over.

A dish at Pino Cuttaia's

A dish at Pino Cuttaia’s, copyright A Johansson

After years of hard work at restaurants like “Il Sorriso” (in Novara) and “Il Patio”  (in Biella), he moved back to Licata together with his wife Loredana. Together they opened La Madia. A courageous decision. Licata is far from everything. Far from the tv-studios, far from the fast pace of the big cities. To get to La Madia you really have to want to come here. Once you try Pino Cuttaia’s cuisine it is hard not wanting to go back. His cuisine is unpretentious despite his advanced technical skills. Pino´s dishes take you to Sicily’s core. With aromas and flavors talking about Pino´s life, Sicilian life. Precision from the north and ingredients from the south. A journey. A story, about coming home.

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Mandranova – extra virgin olive oil, elegant resort and a son who came back

Mandranova is a farm that has been in the di Vincenzo family since generations, but it was Giuseppe di Vincenzo who, together with his wife Silvia, decided to invest in olive oil production. In 1995, they planted local olives such as biancolilla, coratina, cerasuola, nocellara del belice and giarraffa. Today, they have ten thousand olive trees and is one of Sicily’s most appreciated olive oil producers, of extra virgin olive oil, of course!

They have also opened their home for guests. A dozen beautiful rooms have been furnished with the family’s inherited textiles and antique furniture. On the table and on the fireplace there are framed family portraits. One of the photographs is of Gabriele di Vincenzo, Silvia and Giuseppe’s son. Gabriele has just returned home after cooking studies at the important cookery school ALMA founded by chef Gualtieri Marchesi, and after working at the two-star Michelin restaurant VUN in Milan.

Gabriele di Vicenzo at Mandranova

Gabriele di Vincenzo at Mandranova, copyright A Johansson

When mom Silvia talks about her son, her eyes shine with pride. It is thanks to her Gabriele got interested in cooking.

-We still cook together for our guests, she says. I make traditional recipes that Gabriele changes making them more modern. Sometimes, I think he’s too technical, she tells with a big smile.

The dinner I enjoy at Mandranova is delicious. Only local produce, most from their own vegetable garden. Traditional recipes that, with Gabriel’s technical skills, make the dinner a wonderful experience. The farm’s olive oil clearly makes it possible to enhance the flavors of the ingredients. There are dishes that feel light but at the same time there is an explosion of flavors and aromas. Like the purée made of peas with fresh fava beans on top and grilled ricotta, so simple and so good!

A dish at Mandranova

A dish at Mandranova, copyright A Johansson

The restaurant is not open to the public but only for the guests of the farm.

-We cook the same food to all our guests, we do not do a la carte, says Silvia. But we do adapt to all allergies, intolerances or special diets. We want you to feel like home, here with us at Mandranova, she continues.

I ask Gabriele why he left Milan, the career, to come back here, to the isolated Sicilian countryside.

-I just want to cook, he replies with his humble and calm appearance. You get the impression he is in the right place.

-And right now he tries to educate or local kitchen staff, says Silvia, always with that happy-mother-smile on her face.

More info:

The lounge at Mandranova

The lounge at Mandranova, copyright A Johansson

Bonsignore, the financial consultant that left Milan, came back to Sicily and opened a winery

-The important thing is that you are convincing when talking to them. A no must be a no, you must definitely not be vague, then they try to take over, says Luigi Bonsignore.

We sit in his nice and probably expensive sports car on our way to the airport. He drives like a Formula One pilot because I risk losing the flight after a long and late lunch.

Luigi talks about the first meeting with the one he describes as the “self-appointed boss”, or more correctly, one of the workers at the vineyard he bought with his wife Debora Greco. The winery is just outside Naro, a small remote village of Agrigento. A “self-appointed boss” who got fired directly.

Luigi and Debora Bonsignore

Luigi and Debora Bonsignore, copyright A Johansson

-In the financial world, it is pretty much the same. You should never seem weak, just that here it is not virtual, it’s real.

Despite the many years as a successful consultant in the financial world, Luigi Bonsignore has not forgotten his Sicilian origin. Recently, he and Debora decided to change lives, sell the house in Milan and move back to Sicily with their three sons and start making wine.

-We want to produce wine in a higher price range, invest in quality, we will also open a resort and invest in wine tourism, says Luigi, as he shows us around the farm where everything is work in progress. Vineyards are replanted, the old villa is to be renovated and the grass is to be cut.

Landscape at Bonsignore's

Landscape at Bonsignore’s, copyright A Johansson

-We work organically from the start, says Luigi, one of the reasons is that we will probably live here with our sons, he continues.

For the moment, they produce two wines. One wine called Cubburio made with nero di Avola and syrah, and a really nice Grillo, DOC Sicilia, made with one hundred percent grillo. The increasingly successful enologist Tonino Guzzo is taking care of the wine production. He works with a number of successful wine producers in Sicily. One thing is certain, never underestimate home comers with a goal in their mind.

More info:

Åsa Johansson is BKWine’s person in Italy. She lives in Florence since the early ’00s. Asa writes regularly on wine and food in Swedish and Italian publications as well as online.

Olive tree in Sicily

Olive tree in Sicily, copyright A Johansson

This post is also available in: Swedish

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