As in certain sweet and savory dishes that contain everything, where the savory merges into the sweet and the sweet into the savory, dishes that seem to realize a hungry man’s dream, so the most abundant and overflowing markets, the richest and most festive and the most baroque, are those of the poor countries where the spectre of hunger is always hovering. . . in Baghdad, Valencia or Palermo, a market is more than a market . . . it’s a vision, a dream, a mirage.
-Leonardo Sciascia, Sicilian novelist
La Vucciria, Renato Guttuso’s remarkable portrait of the Palermo market that has stuffed Sicilian bellies for seven centuries offers just such an illusion. An astute eye enhanced by a fanciful imagination can peer straight into the Mezzogiorno’s undulating entrails. That term describes the craggy, volcanic island that teeters atop the point in the Mediterranean where “Europe is no longer entirely Europe but also Africa, Asia, and America.” Welcome to a world of deceptive simplicity and consistently circumvented expectation. Welcome to Next Restaurant: Sicily.
The market offers endless possibilities, but a menu must have an anchor. In the case of chef Dave Beran’s conjuring of an Italian Sunday supper, he first finds his footing while navigating the labyrinthine alleys that separate the vegetable hawker and the fishmonger from a phantom grandmother’s country table. As he did over many a sweaty Bangkok inspired night last summer, he brings the street’s tastiest treats to Chicago’s most elusive dining room.
At the heart of it all sits Carciofe Alle Brace, the coal-blackened artichoke that leaves no fingers unsullied. The act of scooping the luscious layers of smokey flesh from a smoldering husk is a suitably symbolic start to what is arguably the restaurant’s most consistently delicious offering to date.
The ashy artichoke is flanked by a pair of fried delights. A basket brims with salt and peppered panelle dusted with shreds of ivory white cheese. As was the case with last year’s shrimp chips, these triangular chickpea flour fritters are a mass-market sensation waiting to happen. On another plate sit globes that give off an orangish glow. The arancine’s ruddy heart hides great delights. Tucked within a saffron risotto shell sits a luscious lamb’s tongue ragu. Like a Mexican tamale, such a preparation allowed meat-poor families to ration their stock without sacrificing flavor or having to transform anyone into an unwilling vegetarian for the night. Though many an Italian deli offers an approximation of this snack, only careful home cooks can compete with Next’s pitch perfect rendition.
The antipasti portion of the meal is rounded out with a plate of eggplant capanata. A far cry from the soggy, oil drenched takes on aubergine offered at many an Italian-American eatery, the dish emphasizes the island’s famed sour/sweet flavors. Like Guttuso’s marketplace memory, the individual ingredients are discernible, but sum is greater than its collective parts. Summer tomatoes and sweet raisins collide against salty capers and olives, but a dash of bitter cocoa binds it all. It offers hints of what waits in the wings.
The antipasti platter is paired with the first of five teetotaler tempting concoctions. As has been the case with past menus, some drinks mirror their alcohol-laced counterparts. Others accent other aspects of the meal. The first pairing shares the arancine’s amber glow and saffron scent. Chamomile is slow-steeped with honey and is heavy with mood. Considering the menu’s dreamy, time-obscured presentation, beginning the night with a common sleep aide is amusingly appropriate.
Having navigated the alleys, we creep toward the seashore for a maritime progression. In the span of three courses, the kitchen moves effortlessly from rust-specked roe to one of the silver-skinned kings of the sea. As is obligatory with any Italian meal, pasta is present.
We begin with strands of handmade bucatini equally suited for priest strangling or strumpet satisfaction. The noodles are topped with bottarga, a Sardinian salt-cured fish roe sometimes termed poor man’s caviar. Laced with cream, this potentially offputtingly fishy delicacy was one of the night’s highlights. It is a dish best appreciated in small portions. As my dining companion noted, you may wish for another bite, but if that wish were granted, you’d realize that you’ve already had your fill.
The pair of pastas are paired with a refreshing zucchini-teased tea. As is the case with juiced Mexican chayote, there were hints of cucumber. Flavors of mint and sage are drawn from Greek Mount Olympus flowers. Sometimes recalling an earthier chamomile, this tea is an appropriate progression from the opener.
The next course is a personal favorite. Described by our server as Sicily’s national dish, I “discovered” it through last spring’s Sicilian feature in Saveur. It became a fast favorite. Although there is much to be said for sampling unknown dishes and fanciful professional preparations, I was excited to see how one of my favorite kitchens handled something I’d never tasted outside of my dining room.
As the image suggests, this is not a dish for the faint of heart. Heads are torn from tails. Spines are pried from flesh. Subzero would be proud. At my home, the translucent bones often needled gums and required prying from teeth.
Thankfully, Next’s staff remedies these horrors and offers up a dish that smooths out conflicts and contrasts as gracefully as their eggplant caponata. This is a dish built on towering waves and walls of flesh, but in their expert hands, you’d never be the wiser. Sweet fennel and sardine salt. Crimson currants and the pine cone’s precious bounty. Nutmeg and saffron. These are tastes from the world that straddles the Mezzogiorno.
Moving past pasta, we transition to the principal courses. The first is lifted straight from Guttuso’s image of the Viccurian dream. Sous vide swordfish is wreathed with a veritable bushel of grilled mint and accented by a dish of mint pesto. You can imagine it being torn from the waves by the salty characters of Luchino Visconti’s neo-realist precursor La Terra Trema only to be devoured by the ennui ridden aristocrats who sailed L’Avventura‘s frigid seas. It is paired with a bowl of chickpeas, a dish that hints at the island’s multi-cultural past. The vegetable dishes offer contrasting tastes and textures that somehow meld into a seamless whole.
Overarching concepts aside, Pesce Spada con di Ceci is in the running for the most delectable dish yet to emerge from Next’s kitchen. With its apparent simplicity, it is the furthest thing from experiments offered at the last two menus, but it is an utter success. It prompted a fascinating discussion of seasonality and the kitchen’s shift from curatorial museum to farm-to-table restaurant. While a stellar seafood dish will stick around until the season’s September closing, this swordfish may make way for new species and seasonings. Gone is the lockstep obligation to recreate another kitchen’s creations. As elegantly stated in Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily, “Flavor is form and color. Freshness translates into the gleam in a fish’s eye, the sheen on an eggplant, and the resilience of a leaf.” While I cannot speak for the staff, the idea of an evolving menu that takes full advantage of summer’s bounty must be a refreshing turn of the tides.
The fish is paired with the evening’s most surprising sip. Billed as green tomato, garlic, and white pepper, it was compared to a virgin Bloody Mary. Such a description sells it short. It could be a gazpacho, and as such, is closer to standing on its own legs as a separate course than any beverage that came before or after.
With ingredients gathered and the sea to our backs, we are offered Spalia di Maiale Brasato; the evening’s final savory course. This rustic pork dish is prepared with the loving attention that is typically limited to the home kitchen. Cooked for longer than your average workday, it is fork tender and perfectly seasoned. Some patrons exclaimed that it was the best roast they’d ever eaten. I won’t go that far, but it certainly bests what is offered in most restaurants.
It is only for the finale that we see a slight shift away from utter simplicity of the country kitchen. Given Sicily’s contrasting extremes, there was a risk that the turn from overtly savory to sweet would result in monotonous opulence or the sort of grotesque, baroque nightmares witnessed at the end of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa or Luchino Visconti’s take on The Leopard. The beverage progression eased my mind. The pork was paired with a blood orange and fennel drink that recalled my favorite summer salad. This was followed by a palate cleansing granita that traded fennel for a second bite of tart citrus. Hot on its heels came an icy watermelon juice enhanced by white balsamic vinegar. It recalled the gorgeous jasmine and pistachio accented Gelo di Melone pictured in the summer section of Anna Tasca Lanza’s The Heart of Sicily.
With four gorgeous, bite-sized morsels tableside, we end as we began. Front and center is a slice of cassata. This traditional Easter dish builds from a pistachio marzipan base, adds sweet ricotta, and ends with a sprinkling of candied fruits. Around it are found raviolis stuffed with height-of-season strawberries, potent sesame seed candies, and the mandatory cannoli. The doughs were properly flaky and the ricotta was feathery-light. Yet, I finally let the menu’s hazy nostalgia have its way. I missed Andersonville’s Pasticceria Natalina and its endless array of Sicilian sweets. To date, its green awning is the closest I’ve come to Erice or Etna. It set an impossibly high standard.
In recent years I’ve noticed an expanding divide between enthusiastic eaters who cook for themselves and those whose palates have been developed by restaurants alone. The distinction has grown increasingly glaring now that rustic European food has gained a foothold in trendy Chicago kitchens. There are numerous new restaurants that offer perfectly tasty takes on cassoulet, roasted meats, and other staples of grandmother’s kitchens across the pond. For those who do not cook, such dishes can be revelatory because their long- infused flavors far outshine what can be quickly prepared. For those who have friends who are willing to devote entire Sundays to supper, these dishes prompt memories of perfect meals that came from simple sources, but frequently fail to stand up to those establish standards. That Next comes close, speaks volumes about the success this menu.
I believe that celebrating seemingly simple cooking instilled with lovingly selected ingredients is every bit as crucial as advancing bold contemporary kitchen technique. That Next’s team found it in their hearts to put peasant food on the same pedestal as August Escoffier and Ferran Adrià speaks to their commitment to documenting and preserving fundamental delicious dishes no matter how lowly their origins.
Next Restaurant: Sicily runs through September 9, 2012. The restaurant is located at 953 West Fulton Market, Chicago, Illinois.
Most of the images come from Next Restaurant’s Sicily trailer. I shot the gutted sardines. La Vuccieria was painted by Renato Guttuso. I found the swordfish through a Google Images search. It is credited to Dan Brock. I will gladly remove any image at the copyright owner’s request.