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A Cena’s Regional Dinners: Sicily

May 13, 2014

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A Cena’s series of special dinners based on the different regions of Italy are irresistible to Jonathan, Lyndsey and me and it was really lovely to have our good friends Annie and Jerry join us for the latest one last night: Sicily. The dinners are a brilliant concept for Italy is such a vast canvas of extraordinary and differing cuisines. Its people are much the same: you are unlikely to mistake someone from Milan for someone from Naples: the sleek sophistication of the north gives way to the hot passion and exuberance of the south, yet you will find every Italian – or every Italian I’ve met – hugely passionate about food. Not surprisingly, each region in some way reflects its geography and landscape: butter is used more commonly in the north while the south uses olive oil instead; the south uses chilli more, like in the fiery nduja sausage from Calabria. Go as far as Sicily and you are almost in another country; indeed it is an island, separated from the mainland by the Strait of Messina.

Sicily’s history of invasion over the centuries has contributed to its vibrant and exciting cuisine. The Greeks brought olives and vines while the Normans brought baccala (salted and dried cod) and taught the Sicilians how to bake. A primary influence was the Arabs who came from North Africa bringing lambs and goats and taught the Sicilians how to make cheese and preserve fruits, like raisins and sultanas; they brought  new vegetables and are said to have introduced the concept of pasta (ref. Italia by Antonio Carluccio). Out of these diverse influences Sicily’s own cuisine has evolved with dishes largely based on pasta and vegetables; fish is eaten more than meat and they delight in sweet delicacies like canoli and gorgeous ice creams and sorbets. So, with such a rich choice, what had Head Chef Nicola brought to A Cena for this latest regional dinner?

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I always love arriving at A Cena. Partly it’s familiarity and knowing everyone now, of course, but always a lift from that warm but sophisticated atmosphere, the lovely long bar reaching elegantly forward towards the heart of the restaurant. We sat at a round table in the middle. As always, there was a choice on the menu but instead of bread to start there was a delightful surprise: Panelle. Panelle are a speciality from Palermo: chickpea fritters.

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Still hot, they were absolutely gorgeous: so light and tasty, scattered with sesame seeds. For starters, most of us chose Caponata, one of Sicily’s most famous dishes, made primarily with aubergine but other vegetables that vary according to the cook and have a sweet and sour touch.

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This version had ‘braised aubergines in sweet and sour tomato with green olives, sultanas, capers, pine nuts and celery’. The balance of flavours and textures was perfect and it was delicious. Lyndsey chose ‘couscous with fried shrimps and spicy seafood broth’ but unfortunately I forgot to think to take a photo until she was halfway through it. She said it was very good though! Most of us chose fish for our main courses – very Sicilian! – and this was ‘Marinated fried swordfish pieces with cucumber, orange and mint salad’.

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This was lovely: so light, fresh and delicious. The fish wonderfully tender. Jonathan, meanwhile, was tucking in to ‘Pan fried pork chop, fennel, chilli and rocket served with smashed potatoes, nutmeg and Parmesan’.

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There was a choice of two wines with the meal, a glass with each course, both from Liberty Wines. As always, there were wonderful ‘tasting notes’ typed out for us. We all decided to have the white first and then red with our main courses. The white was Borgo Selene Bianco/Inzolia 2013 – a light, lemon-yellow colour wine grown in western Sicily. It had a delightful nose and taste: ‘fresh perfumes of apples and ripe pears with a hint of acacia flowers. Crisp and lively on the palate with a fresh, dry finish’. The red was Nerello Mascalese 2013 – a blend of Nero d’Avola and Nerella Mascalese: ‘ruby red coloured with fresh notes of red berries. Round and smooth on the palate with soft tannins and lovely spicy cherry perfumes on the finish’.

There were four dessert choices! Well, three desserts and one cheese: goats’ cheese with chilli honey, which Jerry chose. Jonathan and Lyndsey cleverly chose cheese and a sweet dessert between them to share.

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There were lovely sounding ices: ‘orange and campari sorbert’ or ‘cappuccino ice cream’ but we all chose that dessert that so much sums up the Sicilian cuisine: Canoli. These are crispy pastry shells stuffed with sweet ricotta.

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Sometimes I’ve found the Sicilian versions of canoli too sweet but these were perfect, really gorgeous, and a great ending to a brilliant meal. They came with glasses of limoncello. The meal, including wines and limoncello, cost £30 a head.

Where should they go next? Head Chef Nicola asked as I chatted to her for a while at the end. Well, there are still – thankfully! – a lot of regions still to go. And anyway, when they’ve done them all, they can always start again!

If you’d like to keep in touch with what’s going on at A Cena and go to one of their Regional Dinners, go to their website and sign on to their e-newsletter: www.acena.co.uk

 

7 Comments
  1. What a lovely meal. Everything looks outstanding. I thought there would be more seafood, but I’ve yet to go to Sicily. So I’m no expert! Another great write-up Kay!

    • Thank you Mimi! There was a seafood broth with one starter and one of two mains was fish … they know they have to offer a meat main for people like my son who doesn’t eat fish! But yes there is a lot of seafood in Sicily.

  2. What a treasure of a place for such a well-thought out and beautifully executed menu; for the careful wine matching and notes plus looks like a lovely environment.

    • Thank you, Sally. I love the regional dinners and always love going to A Cena. Was there again yesterday for their brilliant express lunch – 2 course plus coffee for £10!

      • Gosh – that’s great value.

      • 2 courses always pasta/gnocchi or perhaps risotto but so delicious! Lovely big salad and excellent coffee. And the bonus is it’s quiet and very civilised and you can hear conversation without having to shout as in so many big open places now.

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