Welcome back to my coverage of the Netflix series Chef’s Table. Today’s episode covers pastry chef Corrado Assenza of Caffè Sicilia in Noto, Sicily and his quest to showcase Sicily’s uniquely delicious, locally-grown ingredients. In yesterday’s episode, we learned about all-American pastry chef and Milk Bar creator Christina Tosi.
Volume 4 of Chef’s Table centers around the sweet stuff in life. Corrado Assenza’s tale is sweet enough to make the cut. Corrado was born raised in Noto. Caffè Sicilia, which opened its doors in 1892, had been in his family for four generations. When he was young, his aunt run the business, and manned by “Maestro” Roberto. Corrado often frquented the kitchen, helping Roberto with daily tasks.
After high school, Corrado set out to pursue a degree in agriculture. Following university, he settled in Bologna with his wife Nives. But then a call from his aunt changed the direction of his life. She had become too old to run Caffè Sicilia, and Corrado faced a choice. He could take over Caffè Sicilia’s operations, or he could let it fall out of his family’s hands. Eventually, he and Nives chose the caffè and returned to Noto.
Although he’d spent time in the kitchen as a child, Corrado knew next to nothing about a pastry chef’s trade. He learned by watching Maestro Roberto and eventually gained enough skill to take the operation of the kitchen into his own hands. Meanwhile, he pushed the limits of his imagination, conceiving of new dishes combining the tastes of his childhood. Dishes like tuna with pistachio and cherry or almond granita and raw oysters.
Unfortunately, Corrado’s ticket-pushing use of native Sicilian ingredients failed to win him fans. Caffè Sicilia’s regulars were looking for the classic desserts they knew and loved. As Corrado’s son Francesco puts it in the episode, it follows the Gospel saying — no man is a prophet in his own land.
I found this aspect of Corrado Assenza’s tale tragic. Whether or not the flavor profiles he created in his more avant-garde dishes were sound, I don’t know — but I’m sure they would’ve been better received elsewhere. Corrado, had he been born in France, could have become a world-renowned, limit-pushing pastry chef. In the end, we can’t know.
And it doesn’t matter, because he never sought fame. As he matured as a chef and as an individual, Corrado realized his true calling: to showcase and highlight Sicilian ingredients — like locally-sourced ricotta and locally-grown Romana almonds — to help preserve them another generation. At the time he began this quest, industrialization was steadily chipping away at traditional Sicilian agriculture. In many ways, his patronage of the Romana almond and Sicilian apricots have preserved these ingredients, allowing them to travel as far as flavor expos in Milan where their worth has been realized.
Corrado Assenza’s quest to preserve local Sicilian ingredients reminded me of Sean Brock’s quest to do the same for Appalachian ingredients. These are noble quests and difficult ones, as industrialized agriculture forces its way into the future.
Learn more about Caffè Sicilia on Yelp.