Living abroad I have noticed that to many Italian pastry products are not particularly exiting. People might love those antipasti and pastas, devour risotto and pizza, yet when it comes to sweets many would rather turn to classics from the northern side of the Alps. For once I have to agree. Not that Italian sweets are bad, quite the contrary, but they are too simple and straightforward, lacking that fancy and fussy side desserts thrive upon.
That would be a completely honest description of Italian sweets if it wasn't for Sicily: once you land on the island you join a world of candied fruits, baroque cakes, incredible ices and even Mexican style chocolates (more about that in a few days.) It's almost dishonest to call Sicilian patisserie "Italian", it is actually more the product of centuries of Mediterranean fusion at its best. And while there are many places serving great traditional sweets, Sicily is also one of the most exiting places pastry-wise in Italy, where it only Corrado Assenza and his Caffé Sicilia in the Baroque city of Noto.
Caffé Sicilia doesn't particularly look that special at first sight. Located on Noto's main course, its rather cold chromed steel furniture and white walls seem totally out of place when looking at the sandstone monuments outside its doors. One does tend to notice the sweets and ices straightaway though: they're splashes of color and warmth that with the eye on the frigid background. The traditional sweets are really inviting, and the cassata did tempt me quite a bit, but I had already set my sight on something else, the original creations of Corrado Assenza, owner and pastry chef of Caffé Sicilia.
Assenza might be little known outside Italian foodie circles, though he was one of the main figures in the last article NYTimes' Marion Burros dedicated to Sicily, while at home he has been slowly attaining cult status. Gastronomic writers are crazy about him and Michelin three starred chef Massimo Alajmo is said to like his ice creams and granita so much that he wanted them for his wedding banquet. Yet too high expectations can often lead to disappointment. Not in this case. Not by far.
Daniela's Mulberry granita was by far the best I tasted on this trip (well I HAD to have a taste, didn't I?), though the coffee and toasted almond ones of Bar Rosy in Modica were very nice too. Intense and pure fruit flavor, perfect texture and with just the right amount of sugar in there, over-sugaring being the most typical problem of granita.
My choice, a small piece of cake with white pepper and bergamot flavored creams (I think ricotta based) was fanatstic (pictured in the opening shot and yes, Daniela got a taste of this too). Rich yet not tiresome, and the aromas perfectly balanced: the pepper adding spiciness and only a light bite and the bergamot just a puff of floral seduction, instead of the soapy bomb other bergamot confections seem to inevitably become. We could have stopped there, but after a sightseeing tour of the city we just had to go back and taste another few cakes: after all, who knows when we will get another chance. The quality of the three cakes we tried in our "second round" was as satisfying as the first taste, but the one with Navelli (a place in Italy) saffron cream and bitter orange marmalade just blew my socks off.
I've had good food, even very good food quite a few times in my life, but the mind-blowing experiences can be counted on the fingers of a hand. After Caffé Sicilia, the count went up by one. Assenza's work is that of a master craftsman on one hand and of a creative genious on the other. And certainly it is one that would deserve much greater recognition, the lack thereof at least in part caused by the location Assenza has picked. I almost wish I would live in Noto: I won't be trying any of those fantastic sweets too soon and I'm just dying to know how the cassata tastes. Dreaming of Assenza's cakes will have to do.