Cortile Arabo, Sicily to the south of Tunis

In fascinating Marzamemi, chef Massimo Giaquinta presents the Mediterranean Sea with wisdom and a few exotic tricks

18-08-2017

Bread at Cortile Arabo in Marzamemi: made with flour from ancient Sicilian wheat varieties

Marzamemi is a lovely and lively sea village in the area of Siracusa – it’s a hamlet of Pachino – whose origins coincide with the opening of the famous tuna-fishing site, in 1752. That same year they built the palace of the prince of Villadorata and Chiesa della Tonnara, in a square that looks like the setting for a film by Giuseppe Tornatore. There’s the typical slow and calm rhythm of fishermen and their families, but sometimes they leave the scene to travellers, seaside tourists, passionate explorers of intense and wild territories.

Massimo Giaquinta, to the right, with Giuseppe his brother

Massimo Giaquinta, to the right, with Giuseppe his brother

A crystal clear sea and natural oases are the protagonists of one of the most charming places in Sicily. Among the many businesses – seafood osterie, beach resorts, canned fish factories… - restaurant Cortile Arabo stands out, perched between an Arab-style courtyard and the huge sea. Originally, it was a fishermen hut, almost a pile dwelling. It was redesigned as a luxury location thanks to the idea and skills of patrons Mariangela Fronterrè and Santo Paternostro.

For five years now chef Massimo Giaquinta has been running the kitchen with the help of his right arm and sous chef, and brother, Giuseppe Giaquinta. The growth has been constant: every year Giaquinta shows greater maturity and awareness, he’s more assertive. He’s the director of an elegant seafood cuisine.

Massimo Giaquinta

Massimo Giaquinta

He was born in Nairobi to a Kenyan mother and a Sicilian father and you can tell these origins in his dishes, imbued with  multiculturalism, a touch of exotic, as well as local tradition. Sea and nature are the main “suppliers” of delicacies. He explores and surrounds himself with the essential, handling raw materials with brave and successful techniques and pairings.

Toasted bread with buffalo milk mozzarella from Battipaglia and bottarga from Portopalo

Toasted bread with buffalo milk mozzarella from Battipaglia and bottarga from Portopalo

Red tuna tartare, terriccio with extra virgin olive oil, cow’s milk ricotta and gelatine of cherry tomatoes

Red tuna tartare, terriccio with extra virgin olive oil, cow’s milk ricotta and gelatine of cherry tomatoes

The menu is a transposition of the tides, giving life to a tasting menu that the chef promptly adapts to the guest’s needs. The bread, wisely made with ancient Sicilian wheat varieties - timilia, russello and margherito – paired with extra virgin olive oil from Monti Iblei, introduces, as a perfect stimulus for gastric juices, the series of raw fish that opens the endless routes of Mare Nostrum. A few examples? The Red tuna tartare, terriccio with extra virgin olive oil, cow’s milk ricotta and gelatine of cherry tomatoes reveals an elegant marine essence in a play of textures and perfect balance of opposite elements - a twirl of intense flavours. In Prawn and lemon there’s balance between the crustacean and the citrus fruit ice cream, and then passion fruit, oyster leaf and nasturtium. The lemon is cooked at low temperature for 48 hours and becomes a creamy, thick ice cream preserving the special characteristics of the fruit.

Prawn and lemon

Prawn and lemon

Tomato salad gelato with garlic and oyster

Tomato salad gelato with garlic and oyster

Research, even in terms of technique, is the tool used to concentrate flavours substantially. You can notice this in every dish, especially in one in which the both elegant and gushing strength of the sea is in perfect symbiosis with the Sicilian soil: Tomato salad gelato with garlic and oyster, a real gourmet delicacy in which acidity, saltiness and pure flavours stand out.

Smoked terriccio, melted foie gras and gelatina of Villa Zarri brandy

Smoked terriccio, melted foie gras and gelatina of Villa Zarri brandy

The next stop keeps the waves afar: Smoked terriccio, melted foie gras, gelatine of Villa Zarri brandy, paired with a small cruet of Vecchio Samperi. The impression is charming and even a little unsettling: blindfolded guests could well imagine themselves sitting at a haute cuisine restaurant in France, in a starred restaurant, not in the courtyard of the enchanting Cortile Arabo.

Observation, delight, study of raw materials, attention to the reactions given by unusual pairings make it possible for chef Giaquinta to create remarkable dishes with excellent techniques, almost unexpected in a Sicily that looks like it’s south of Tunis. And when you ask him the source of his inspiration, he simply says: «Nothing, I just look around and feel the impulse emanating from nature».

Spaghetti garlic and seafood oil

Spaghetti garlic and seafood oil

Red tuna, soy and ginger

Red tuna, soy and ginger

Moving on. The Fresh spaghettoni with garlic and seafood oil enhance the seabeds. Oloturia, better known as sea cucumber, part of the sea star and sea urchin family, oozes a sensual and vigorous brackish taste. Even a few days after eating it, the Red tuna caramelised with soy and ginger gives you butterflies in the stomach: it’s almost like pork, meaty and suave; oriental flavours in empathy with the Mediterranean Sea.

Plankton brittle and snail caviar is another brilliant stop in the journey of the senses: the marine organisms dispersed in the waters, at the mercy of waves and currents, are recreated in the creative pairings of the earthy underwood pearls, in a synergy that presents the most intimate and wise identity of Sicilian gastronomic culture.

The cannolo at the end

The cannolo at the end

We finish with desserts that are the perfect epilogue to this journey: Red fruits, almond crumble, pistachio, clay, passion fruit and apricot is a mosaic of ethnicities, what with fruity flavours and playful, sour and crispy textures. The Cannolo in Sicilia is not to be missed: the artisanal wafer, aromatised with sweet wine becomes a treasure chest for a delicately sweetened cream of cow’s milk ricotta. The experience at Cortile Arabo makes your emotions jump. It’s a thorough journey for the senses of the good and the beautiful.
Translated into English by Slawka G. Scarso


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