The Wall Street Journal
The chef on coming home to Sicily, how he cooks on the weekend and the recipe for a perfect summer picnic
ISLAND TIME | Ciccio Sultano in the kitchen of his home in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily
PART FARMER, part self-professed dandy, Ciccio Sultano, 43, grew up in Sicily and worked as a chef at Felidia in New York before returning home and settling in the Baroque mountain town of Ragusa Ibla. An enthusiastic ambassador for his island’s famously satisfying food, he is also a historian of its Spanish, Moorish and Norman influences. He opened his restaurant, Il Duomo, in 2000, earned his first Michelin star in 2004 and scored a second in 2006. Mr. Sultano is known for spinning classic Sicilian ingredients—anchovies, pistachios, bottarga, Nebrodi lamb, fennel—into whimsical dishes that express both his connection to the land and his mastery of contemporary techniques.
Recently, the chef began hosting bimonthly English-language cooking classes in his home kitchen, just steps from his restaurant. When he’s not working, he spends time with his wife, Gabriella Cicero, the restaurant’s director of events, and his 15-year-old daughter, Carla, as well as any friends who happen to stop by, cooking simply and relaxing. A few weeks ago, over coffee in his home, Mr. Sultano showed off his kitchen’s gorgeous view of the Iblei mountains and discussed his many passions, from locally produced cheese and wine to a much-loved, bank-busting Armani aviator jacket.
To avoid temptation, and to maintain my figure and my palate, I keep an empty fridge at home. Working in the restaurant, I eat before my clients arrive. If I went home and ate again, I’d become enormous.
If I’m really starving after work, I’ll make myself a simple plate of pasta—we always keep spaghetti and paccheri from Gerardo di Nola in our pantry—with Frantoio Sallemi olive oil and a bit of Ragusano DOP from the local cheese producer Dipasquale Formaggi.
We’d never use a processed oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is the only thing for us. We also use Épices Roellinger spices, like coriander seeds, cardamom and kawa powder [a blend of cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cardamom and other spices].
In summer, my favorite thing to eat is raw fish, or fish very lightly sautéed. I love our local tuna, but I’ll eat any fish our fishmonger brings us. I keep it as simple as possible, marinated with olive oil, lemon and salt, and some greens. Or we slice it very thinly and make a carpaccio.
If I only had five ingredients to make a meal, I’d choose garlic, red pepper flakes, oil, spaghetti and a small baby goat, cooked whole on the grill. Nothing relaxes me like barbecuing in my garden, over olive, carob and mulberry woods from my trees.
Cooking in the restaurant requires a kind of military rigor. I have the technology to make branzino that melts like butter. At home I’m much more relaxed—though my kitchen is very organized there, too. I have a mini Kitchen-Aid empire, from a microwave to a steam oven. Our house is half modern and half country, a blend of the present and the past.
My ideal weekend, apart from being with Carla and Gabriella, always involves inviting friends over. I cook everything, because if I don’t, it’s the only time Gabriella and I fight. Sometimes we go to our tiny house on the beach, where we eat chicken breast sandwiches on a roll, the way children do.
For a great dinner party, I’d say call me, because I cater! But if you can’t, my tips are: Plan ahead. Prepare some things the day before, so you can enjoy the party. Make an orange salad with spring onion, fresh parsley, red chili peppers, olive oil, salt and a bit of water, and let it rest. When people arrive, offer cocktails, like one made by our sommelier, Valerio Capriotti—a combination of tonic water, carbonated Lurisa mineral water and Solerno, a blood orange liqueur.
For a picnic, I really love fresh things: wild strawberries, watermelon, salads. And a nice bottle of chilled sparkling Sicilian wine. I fill old plastic water bottles with water and freeze them, and they keep my wine bottles cool.
F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal (liqueur), Les Maisons De Bricourt (coriander), Dipasquale Formaggi
From left: Dipasquale Formaggi Ragusano DOP, Épices Roellinger coriander, Solerno liqueur, Tasca d’Almerita Rosso del Conte
A wine that fascinates me is the Rosso del Conte from Tasca d’Almerita. It reminds me of the late Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza [who founded a famous cooking school in Palermo]. I had the privilege of knowing her and her sisters. Theirs was a world of antiquity, and the wine evokes that spirit for me. It ages beautifully. I drink it often, and when I do, I feel the history.
An overrated ingredient is anything that isn’t accessible to everyone. For example, lobster. Now it’s so expensive, like caviar. If we’re not careful, all fish will be like that. Foods that are too expensive don’t make sense.
I love Sicilian food and want to make it more modern. It’s sensual, voluptuous, but it is no longer the food of yesterday: It’s lighter and less fried. We’re all more attentive about fats. Even a caponata can be light. Typical Sicilian food, made well, is very digestible and not very fattening.
The way I dress depends on my mood: Sometimes I want to be elegant, sometimes more like a country gardener. I have a passion for shoes. I love Arfango [oxfords] by Alberto Moretti, but at work I wear Blundstone sneakers. When I was 19, I earned 700,000 lire a month, and a pair of shoes was 800,000 lire. But I’d go to Florence and go shopping. I bought these English handmade Barker shoes in robin’s egg blue. I guess I’m a bit of a dandy.
When I go to someone’s house, I like to bring a bottle of wine like Cerasuolo di Vittoria [a Sicilian Nero d’Avola/Frappato blend] from the producer Paolo Calì, or Saia Sicilia [a Nero d’Avola] from Feudo Maccari. If I know my hosts well, I’ll give them ceramics from my collection.
I’ve never really had mentors, but I love the book “Modern French Culinary Art” by Henri-Paul Pellaprat. If I could choose a chef to cook for me, it would be Michel Bras. I don’t know him, but I’d want him to make me vegetables.
The smartest thing I ever did was deciding to come back to Sicily. It’s exhausting, and sometimes it feels limiting, because the economic opportunity here is very small compared to Milan or Florence, or other countries. But it’s a choice tied to my emotions.
——Edited from an interview by Jackie Cooperman
Ciccio Sultano’s Sicilian Orange Salad
Francesco Millefiori for The Wall Street Journal
Ciccio Sultano’s Sicilian orange salad