Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Look into the Hearts and Homes of Sicily

Last night we were whisked away to Sicily. After getting into el Bulli within the first two days of the menu opening, we had to wait for what felt like a lifetime, to go to Next’s current menu, Sicily. As of tonight there are only 10 services left.

We decided to start the evening Italian style, with some Apparativos at The Office.  We walked to the front of Aviary and normally when you’re whole party isn’t there, they have you wait, however I guess with The Office this isn’t the case. So we were ushered down into the dimly lit, super comfy Office and were shown the drink menu. Micah, the second in command (who had taken over during the break between when Craig Schloettler left in early June and when Charles Joly started in early August, was manning the bar downstairs.

Our wonderfully warm waitress asked what I wanted to drink, and then suggested that I let them make me something. Ummm, how the heck could I say no to that?! So she asked how I felt about champagne, obviously I said I was all for it. So as The Husband mulled over the menu, she came back with a delicious champagne cocktail. I honestly wish I could remember what was in it, I just remember it was wonderful and I was super grateful for the “Let us make your choice” option.

We ended up staying for two rounds, I went with the same option for my second drink and got a deliciously light and fragrant gin drink.

After the bill was settled, we were ushered upstairs by Chris, the GM and into our seats. As with all Next menus, dinners receive a bit of information about their meal before they begin. We received a beautiful thick brown envelop that had a card inside that read “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for in Sicily lies the key to everything –Goethe  The best food of Sicily is found in the homes and the hearts of its people'  and was signed by Grant and Dave. They were preparing us for a wonderfully heartfelt, family style, Italian meal.

I should start this with, I grew up in New York, I come from an Italian family. My grandmother came from Northern Italy, her father had red hair and green eyes, she has skin as white as snow with hazel eyes. My grandfather’s family came from Bari, it’s at the tip of the heel of the boot. I grew up eating loads of southern Italian foods, red sauces, lots of fish and more pasta than I probably should have (but come on, it’s so damn good).  We have a family friend who made the best caponata that I have ever had in my 31 years of life…until this dinner.

We started with four appetizers brought to the table in family style form; Arancini, Caponata,  Panelle and Carciofi alla Brace, all of which were superb.  These were all paired with a delightful Prosecco made in Sicily.

I had only had arancini once before this evening; it’s not a typical dish my family ate. For those of you who are unaware (as I was until only a few years ago) arancini is a ball of rice that has delicious ground meat (in our case, lamb) in the center, that is then deep fried and covered in tomato sauce.  It’s one of those dishes that is hard to mess up, but when you get it spot on, the roof is blown. This was a roof blown moment. The ball was crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. The rice was flavorful and the sauce was perfect. 

The caponata was served in a small dish, filled with roasted eggplant, celery, and other delicious vegetables. Roasting eggplant can be challenging, it’s a super sponge, so if you put too much of anything in it (oil, salt) the flavors gets sucked in and overpower the dish. This was spot on, you could taste all the vegetables. I didn’t want to be rude, so I didn’t use the spoon to scoop up all of the tiny dregs. I should have though.

The Panelles were light and crispy and salty and cheesey. A Panelle is a chickpea fritter that is common street food in Sicily. In Palermo it is common for people to eat Panelle’s between twice slices of thick bread or on a roll. Talk about delectable carb-loading.

The final appetizer was what I had been waiting for. I love artichoke. The husband can tell you that I will drag him all over all over God’s green earth for artichoke. My only hope for this whole meal was that there would be an artichoke dish. It came out within moments of us sitting and I was content. Carciofi alla Brace, is essentially grilled artichokes. After a long day of baking, Sicilian woman would toss the artichoke into the large brick oven and bake vegetable until it was tender in the center. This left some of the hard, outer leaves burned, but the center was soft and supple. At our dinner, it was covered with a light lemon and olive oil coat. The beauty about artichokes is that it’s a finger food. You pick at a leaf, drag is across your bottom teeth to get the “meat” out and drop the leftover on your plate, the closer you get to the center otherwise known as The Heart, the softer the leaves are. Once you’re close enough to The Heart, you don’t have to scrap the leaves; you can just pop them into your mouth.

We followed our appetizers with two pasta courses, Bucatini con Bottarga and Gemelli con le Sarde. As this is Next, all of the pastas were handmade. The Bucatini came out first, this is a fishy pasta, that has no visible fish on or in the pasta. It is salty, briny and yes, fishy -- but not in a bad way. Traditionally bottarga is dried tuna with tuna roe, and there were thin shaved slices of it on the pasta. If you didn’t know what it was, you would have thought it was a blood orange. I’m not a huge fan of fishy dishes, but this was really good.

The second pasta dish, the Gemelli con le Sarde, was handmade gemelli pasta with fresh sardines over it. I’m really not a sardine fan, so I had a harder time eating the fish on the top of the pasta, but the pasta dish was solid. Again, I’m biased as it’s not my favorite of fish, so if I can say that I ate it all, it’s got to be good.  The pasta had black currants, pine nuts, crispy slices of fried sardine on top of it.

Our next dish was one of my favorites of the night (although I feel like I keep saying this…) Pesce Spada con di Ceci, swordfish with roasted garlic and caramelized mint. I grew up eating swordfish, so I love it. We visited The Brother-in-law in Hawaii a few years ago and had the freshest swordfish I’ve ever had (and the cheapest…$4 a pound!), however THIS was the best preparation I’ve ever had. The swordfish was tender and cooked to absolute perfection. It was covered in a mint pesto, with mint pesto on the side. I could eat this all day, every day for a long, long time. The side to this was called Ceci, it’s a dish of boiled and fried chickpeas in a romanesco. It paired so well with the swordfish.

We moved on from fish onto Spalla di Maiale Brasato, or basically a pork shoulder that’s been braised for six hours and then covered in a tomato sauce that was cooked with the renderings of that pork shoulder; So pretty much meat bliss. The pork was fall off the bone, melt in your mouth, let the heavens cry out good. And of course, any sauce that has been made with the renderings of that shoulder is going to be extra robust. This was served along a salad of sliced zucchini and stuffed squash blossoms, another prefect pairing. The vinaigrette cut some of the richness of the pork. My only complaint was that there weren’t enough stuffed blossoms for everyone at our table. As we were with a pescetarian, I let her have mine, since I felt like she was missing out on the awesomeness that was pork.

We were next served a wonderful palate cleanser, Granita di Arance Rosse (blood orange sorbet). When we were in Italy in December, we had blood orange juice for breakfast every morning. When I came back to the States, I kept trying to find it. Not the sparking kind, not the concentrate kind, but pure blood orange juice, and I have been out of luck. This was a wonderfully sweet and tart reminder of our vacation.

After we cleansed our palates, we moved onto dessert. It started by them bringing us out a whole Cassata. The cassata siciliana consists of round sponge cake moistened with fruit juices or liqueur and layered with ricotta cheese, candied peel, and a chocolate or vanilla filling similar to cannoli cream (yum). It is then covered with a shell of marzipan, pink and green pastel colored icing, and decorative designs and finally topped with candied fruit like cherries and slices of citrus fruit. As soon as they brought out the cake, we all groaned. We were getting full, but this looked awesome. We were told this was only for decoration, and that we would be getting a slice each. Thank goodness, I knew that we were in for at least a few more desserts and ending on a whole cake was going to be rough. The cake was really spectacular. Moist, sweet, but not cloyingly so; this is totally something I’d like to make at home one day.

For our final dessert course, we were brought out a tray with Cannoli, Ravioli Fritti, Cubbaita di Giugiulena, one for each of us. Again, growing up in New York, I love Cannoli. And I have to say, I’m always disappointed when I come to Chicago and I see Cannoli with pistachios sprinkled on the outside. A GOOD Cannoli, a REAL Cannoli, had chocolate chips. The Husband and I both vehemently agree to this point and therefore refuse to eat any Cannoli we see in Chicago. So when we received this Cannoli, and it had chocolate chips, I knew we were good. The filling was wonderful, I wish there was a little more in the center, but that is the problem with many Cannoli.  

Clockwise, Cubbaita di Giugiulena, Cannoli, Ravioli Fritti and mixed berries

The Ravioli Fritti were fried to perfection, although I do wish they had more filling as well. Fried dough with a chocolate filling is always welcomed. And the final dessert, Cubbaita di Giugiulena, a sesame seed brittle was wonderfully delicious as well.

We finished the dinner extremely full- by far the MOST full I’ve ever been after walking out of Next and that includes the 30 course elBulli menu. But it was worth it. The Husband and I wanted to go to Sicily on our two week trip to Italy, but we read you needed to spend at least a week there and we wanted to go to Florence and Rome, so we decided to go at a later date. This dinner made us feel like we were back in Italy and really made me want to hop on a plane to Sicily. But that is the amazing thing about Next and its menus, you’re transported to a whole other place.  Kyoto starts soon, I’m sure Japan will be Next on the “Where to Travel” list….


  1. Thanks for the brilliant recap, and helping me relive that fantastic dinner...as I'm sitting here at the office, supposedly working late. :) There were so many highlights that night. But I think the two that I wish I could eat again are the artichoke and the cassata. One very simple in theory, the other complicated, both incredibly delicious. And thanks for giving me your squash blossom to make up for the lack of pork. That roast sure did smell tasty... I had a great time. Thanks again for inviting us along!

  2. You are so welcome (for the invite, the squash was a given ;)). Thank you guys for being such wonderful company. I wish I could remember ANY of the drinks we had down at The Office. I just remember everyone being happy.
    I'm still dreaming about the artichokes.