I was on a Venetian terrace – the best spot in town, one of the most famous hotels in town, during the Movie Festival. There was a party of an US magazine, the self proclaimed ‘bible of cinema’, and was in honour of Sam Mendes, the 2016 president of the festival jury. That was the last place where all of you would imagine to find true stories and true dreams beside the celluloid ones – beyond the mainstream, the movie industry, the wannabes and the glittering. We found it and we’re going to tell it to you.
It’s the story of a young cook of Gritti Hotel who, together with other colleagues of the same hotel group designed a dinner after the scripts of the British director’s movies. He had been asked to invent something to tell Road to Perdition with the taste. He had chosen panella with milky cod and then the lemon slush just because ‘there was the possibility to prepare, by hand, also the brioches to accompany with’.
I never tasted something similar, and as me, hundreds of ecstatic guests who were keeping to queue at his food stall to ask for another portion.
The flavour – and the overall experience of the texture – was bringing you on a boat and you’re ready, and happy, to sail for whatever destination.
The lemon, the salt and the sugar were intertwined in one, unique note making the treat different from any other slush (thanks also to the mint and to other still secret ingredients). It was as if you were on a dune or in the sun’s blaze by a seaside during the afternoons. And, or, at the same time, under a Sicilian patio few steps away from the volcan Stromboli to enjoy the breeze of the evening.
The ice looked like a soft and very compact cream, nothing similar to what you can find in any slush sourced in the ice cream shops and even in the best patisserie.
Why the ice was so creamy? Because the slush was handmade as in the old times by Valentino and by his colleague: they’ve used ice and brine and then they were stirring the preparation in a steel tank just 2mm thick to form the crystals that were detached and then, after waiting the right time, they whipped the ice with the air and the cold friend the slush became soft as never happens.
It is ‘as you build a paper boat and then you leave it sailing’ he told us ‘ to see where it will go’.
‘Of course, if you have to prepare four kilograms of slush by hands, you have to have some tricks’.
None of those hundred guests knew that the slush was handmade, and Valentino told me that he would have liked to show it. He used two qualities of lemons to prepare it: the Sorrento and the Verdello ones. Maybe some of you going to read his story now were among the ones, beside me, who tasted it.
Let just start from the recipe of the slush of the desert, as I love to name your invention. When you cook is like you’re writing a poem….with the heart and with your poetics it’s like you tell a story to touch somebody else. You make it with ingredients and the taste and not with the words, but you get the same result!
It is not just the texture to let it seem a primordial slush …or a desert one…
You’re right: the slush has lots of years and nobody invented anything new. When I was even younger than today, I started to work in the kitchens by being employed in the patisserie sector so I had the opportunity to go deeper in such an infinite exploration that anytime you are applied on, you can change the product…
With the slush (made with sugar, lemon and water) you can for instance choose to use also the lemon skin. Of course there are many lemons: I prefer the ones coming from my land (Sicily) that have different notes. The Verdello is fresher and sparkling: I added to the water also some grains of salt that gives sapidity: taste buds are like a piano and have to be played.
When I was young I was used to play everyday with marine sand and often it was going in my mouth, from there the idea sparked because in this recipe I decant the recalls of the many afternoons spent on the beach with my mum.
Well, you’re asking me a recipe but when you cook it stands just as a direction – as to go in Licata, or Bologna or London for instance – but then you’ve to put in the soul. The soul kitchen, as I call it: the braveness to pour your character to design a product, a recipe. It looks like love or sentiment – oh, no, better it is love and sentiment!
Given that the recipe is only an indication, you should always taste and adjust it: a lemon more or less; more skin or less. In general, you have to let macerate the lemon and the sugar in order to extract its essential oils. And you have to grate the superficial skin by avoiding to take out also the bitter part, then you add it to the maceration and let rest the compost for a couple of hours. If you taste it and like its pH you stop the infusion and go to prepare the slush (we all have different palates and even a single person changes it according to the day).
Going back to the diversity of the people, sun plays a crucial role not only in the lemons that get a better maturation. Who is born where there’s lots of sun and sea, gets more positivity than others.
Going back to you, where are you born?
I was born in Licata, on February 14, 1988. My mum housewife and my dad a greengrocer.
When I was 12 I met a chef, he was a client of my dad.
If you were not born in Sicily, would have it made a difference?
I feel that my sensibility is coming from my family and from the way they let me grow.
I think that you can be any kind of person and being born everywhere by waking up every morning with positivity if you’re craving for the passion of discovery, the passion to taste, to drink the water of that spring, to walk and to observe. To crave to be always on the move.
So, it was that chef your first contact with the work sphere?
No. I was already helping my father every day at the shop after school. And I am longing so much those afternoons when we were leaving with the car to browse markets and we were using to sing together when listening to Sicilian songs or to Lucio Battisti’s ones. There was not a favourite song: there was love, the soul – and moments.
I have three brothers and one sister and with us, we are three generations dwelling by selling fruit. I have been the sole to change and to try a new experience. I started to place apples in the vitrine and to prepare nice fruit trays to end to work in the kitchens.
I started there as it was an after school practice, as a game. My father once told me: try to do something different. I was interested to details and he was understanding that I could also be able to do something else.
I start to work with the chef who was used to come in our shop to have green groceries, he is Pino Cuttaia. He is my master and he taught me all I know.
I’m a self taught cook, I trained myself uniquely in the restaurants where I worked.
I worked in Licata for almost 10 years chez La Madia then when I was 21 I moved to learn new tastes and to know new horizons. I did not know which was the right path but I wanted to leave.
I left to go to work in a big restaurant in Milan but then I worked at Peck (a deluxe grocery) that enriched me a lot. And then I worked at Trussardi alla Scala: I wanted to return to work in a restaurant to get again the contact with the ‘plate’ to transmit that interior spark.
After that I worked at Villa Feltrinelli (on the lake of Garda) as patissier, it was a wonderful seasonal job.
After I worked in Geneva to open a new Italian restaurant. It has been a nice experience: Switzerland is a place of rigour and etiquette. There are always pros and cons in everything, but I found there more pros.
The Swiss eat in different hours and have different traditions but if you open an Italian restaurant is easy to communicate also with them even if you have to put in place some ‘translations’.
The beauty of food is that you can enter someone’s body, it is great! It is already beautiful to take care of someone by cooking, but as a chef you just delve yourself into creating the pleasure for your eater. You wake up, while you shave you maybe sing, and think to what you are about to start to do for others. It is a fantastic story. Even if you are just cooking pasta with tomatoes – two ingredients: pasta and tomatoes, maybe then a basil leave – you can get the world in love. At the end, simplicity is what represents better the Italian identity.
What Licata gave to you and what do you think to have given to your city, even if is not anymore your city since many years?
Licata gave me everything. My blood, the sea, the fire. My family, all their history: my grandparents were building the first streets while they sent their children to farm (I’m back to speak of 1940). I’m happy because I had the opportunity to enjoy my grandparents, who were able to explain humbleness and the love for the family in just few words. There we’ve been always in crisis, but always dreamt to have a different life and to get to school.
Licata is beauty because it is only there. As well as Naples. It is impossible to replicate some places and is also hard to tell them only with words. Some things have to be lived.
Then, Licata for me means friendship. For instance, Giuseppe Antona, a bar tender, also him loving a lot the slushes. And another colleague also – Giuseppe Basile, we’re used to pick clay in the mountains to make pottery, I remember its texture that seemed to me as skin. The perfection is sometimes deprived of life, while the imperfect and very natural making is extraordinary.
Where do you see yourself in ten years, if you would love to imagine it? You should be 40…
Where there are smiling humans, where there is sun and the sea, where there are people who know how to love. Where there is somebody able to appreciate life as it is. For sure, I will still like very much to cook, because for me cooking is to communicate the memory of my family, my path and what I love. I’m so attached to the art of cooking because without it I wouldn’t know what to do, I become nervous, mostly I do not have a right topic to deal with (not because I do not have other topics or interests, but because I live for cooking). I understood that what I have in my hands – even being a super normal cook – is everything. I start cooking but then tomatoes capture me. Also for a dancer is the same: he starts to dance and then the music takes all his head and at the end is his soul to dance.
Do you write, do you have any relation with literature?
I was used to write and to make pictures, especially, and I was also having a blog but I eventually quitted it because I was short in time and for some mistakes and delusions.
A talent you have, the one you miss
Talents? I do not know. As flaws, the adaptation phase any time I change job, I need time. I often change my job. Myself also changes year by year – and this adds up to everything else. And is also the beautiful of life.
Which are your favourite food and drinks as an eater?
For sure the ‘pasta al forno’ of my mum! We are used to eat it on Sundays and, together with the tradition, I think that it calls for love. It is a very rich timbale made of cauliflowers, meat sauce without tomatoes, tomatoes, spaghetti. It is tastier the day after and she was used to prepare always a second baking pan that me and my brothers were used to eat always happy, we were a lot at home!
I love lemonade. Also there I have a recall: the sandwich with mortadella or salami when I was going to work as a child with my father, we were always used to let it go with lemonade (or with chinotto) that were giving us a shake with their sparkling souls. We hated this at 10 am, after having already worked five or six hours and after the ‘panino’ and the lemonade all was starting again! As we pretend to be real builders!
What are you reading?
It may vary according to the mood, for instance today I read your story, tomorrow Topolino and then a cooking book. Five years ago I was very compulsive, I was buying lots of cooking books and I was not often finding the time to read them all. When you grow up, you become more mature and calmer, you also know that you’re a particle in the world and you need to know a little of everything, not only about what you do.
And the music?
In these Venetian moments, Battisti and Battiato but also Lucio Dalla. The first two are singer-songwriters who come with me with lots of emotions, I listed to them quite often when I’m on the seaside.
Sometimes you have to watch also outside the porthole. The water of Venice gave me the opportunity to watch a lot more inside myself, while I look a gondola or a child feeding pigeons with bread and even more the crowd slowly sliding away. If I ask you the same question (where will you be in ten years), are you able to answer?
I do not know, it’s very hard but for sure I will not be here in Venice. And for sure I will not return in my native city (Naples), maybe I could recreate an idea of the South. For sure I will be much older of you and so even more reconciled and maybe more ready to find a place that can be called home. I’m also a small wanderer. Less than you, for sure, but still moving.
The question was made to play! Frankly, I lately met many people asking me what I would be once adult. I think that in this life nobody will have the certainty of something precise. Who has it, has got just a temporary one. I define it a precarious solidity. I do not know exactly where I want to go, but I want to go where there is love.