In Sicily, Market to Class to Table
Video | A Cooking Class in Sicily The chef Lele Torrisi guides a visiting Canadian couple through a market in Syracuse before teaching them the basics of homemade Sicilian cooking.
By GAIA PIANIGIANI
November 19, 2014
There is plenty for tourists to take in at the Ortigia market in Syracuse, Sicily: the distinctly southern Italian hum of the crowd; spices and vegetables so diverse they could color a rainbow and the calm blue sea in the distance.
But just wandering around this site, where Archimedes is said to have once helped the Greeks fight the Romans, and buying a few peaches is not the sort of authentic culinary experience that many visitors seek. That is where the chef Lele Torrisi steps in. He leads gastronomy-focused travelers around to teach them how to shop and then prepare delicious Sicilian food.
Cooking tours in Sicily, as in many other Italian regions, are a mushrooming trend in the tourism industry. The tours skip the farm and go from market to table, with a class in Italian cooking in between. In a region where tourism is an industry worth an estimated 2.6 billion euros (about $3.3 billion), these courses offer Sicilians the chance to share their culture, and then profit from visitors who hunger for a dose of local life that an international tour operator can’t offer.
Mr. Torrisi is typical of this new guard of gastronomy tour guides. He is a chef who markets himself through a cultural concierge as someone with generations of Sicilian cooking tradition behind him. His tour costs $125 per person.
His father, Alfio, is the sort of aficionado who in the family’s restaurant, Dioniso, will recite the menu in his accented English, complete with the type of wine used to prepare the sea bass. Mr. Torrisi’s grandmother, Carmela, the second-born and only daughter in a family of seven, started cooking when she was still a little girl. Chef Lele, as he is known here, now 37, still remembers waking up in her house awash in the aroma of vanilla and orange.
Mr. Torrisi imparts what is now a family culinary tradition on his tours. What follows are moments of a tour he led last fall, a timeless tradition that has gained new currency in an age when many tourists prefer cultural immersion over sightseeing.
Step 1: To Market
“Ohhh! Peaches from the Etna volcano,” Mr. Torrisi exclaimed, rolling a large, dark red peach in his fingers. His grandmother, soon after World War II, used to immerse peaches in red wine for a dessert.
The Ortigia market in Syracuse.
Bryan Denton for The New York Times
“These, we have to take home,” he told Sandra Walt, a Canadian who had signed up for his class with her husband, Stan, before splitting a peach for her, feeding white grapes to the group and saying goodbye to the vendor.
Strutting through the market with confidence, he stopped short at the sight of long, dark green spinach. Grabbing a bunch, he cut the top of the leaves with his nails and handed it to Ms. Walt. “Put it through your hands,” he told her. “Feel how soft it is. This is fresh produce.”
Step 2: The Fishmonger
Halfway through the market, there is an intense smell of blood and sea. It is the aroma of Angelo Cappuccio’s fish market, the Cappuccio Brothers’ Fish Shop, one of the oldest and the largest in Ortigia.
Mr. Cappuccio has been a fisherman for 54 years, and all four of his employees are related to him. His shop, opened by his father in 1960, is housed in a garage that once sheltered horses for the city’s postal and morgue services. Four generations have already worked behind its fridge embellished with a plethora of fish, from red tuna to swordfish, from sardines to anchovies, from shrimps to calamari, from St. Peter’s fish to red snapper, from sea bass to octopus and mullets.
After working with Chef Lele for some years, he has learned a little English. “One finger? Two fingers?” he said, demonstrating how he lets foreign visitors determine the thickness of their tuna fillet. Tourists have visited Ortigia — and had his fish — for as long as he can remember.
“I was born at the No. 17 of this street and now my shop is from 13 to 9 of the same street,” he said on a sunny morning, his tanned face partly covered by his gray, curly mustache. “I was born here and here I want to die.”
Step 3: The Cheese Shop
The owner and founder of the Bordieri cheese shop, Andrea Bordieri, knows how to appeal to foreign tourists as well. He alters Shakespearean lines when proffering his goods. “To be or not to be? Ricotta, or not ricotta?”
His business, too, is very much a family affair. His son-in-law, Gaetano, an engineering graduate, makes the mozzarella every day, from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. “This is the best breakfast in Siracusa,” Gaetano said as he gently piled prosciutto from Messina, his fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, lemon skin, small bites of basil and olive oil onto a local sesame bread. “I hope the best in Sicily,” he said, smiling.
Step 4: The Meal
The ingredients bought, Mr. Torrisi took a small group back to the kitchen to try their hand at a meal. The menu: Sicilian eggplant meatballs, spaghetti with zucchini and mint, tuna with caramelized onions (an old Sicilian recipe), and spinach.
Once the aprons were on, the chef took out the zucchini and a big, sharp knife. “Keep the fingers like this,” he said, indicating that a zucchini should be held with three fingers, the thumb and the index finger kept vertical on the zucchini, so that the nails protect the flesh from the knife. “Piano, piano,” Mr. Torrisi muttered.
Ms. Walt cut the zucchini while her husband peeled the mild onions from Tropea and the chef cleaned the spinach. The real cooking took place in his narrow open kitchen, where she started pan-frying the zucchini with garlic, parsley and mint. The chef caramelized the onions in Marsala wine. Behind the pan, eggplants boiled in water, ahead of frying.
Before long, the tuna was pan-fried, the plates were beautifully decorated and a “tear of olive oil” embellished the dish.