[Not] Cooking Off the Cuff: New Ideas From Sicily and Naples

05/13/2015 09:57 am ET | Updated May 13, 2016

As this is posted, Jackie and I have just come to the end of a too-short trip to Sicily and Naples, where we hadn't been for probably twenty or twenty-five years. We ate so many delicious things - mostly traditional dishes, but a few more creative ones too - that it's hard to decide what to report on.

I'll pick just a few that will be joining - or at least influencing - the home cooking repertoire back in New York.

We arrived in Naples (from Sicily) too late for dinner: restaurants were open, but we were airplane-weary. So, along with the friend we were traveling with, we went up to the roof terrace of our hotel (the excellent Hotel Excelsior, where we'll certainly stay next time we're in town) to have a couple of Negronis and gaze down at the boats assembling for the annual Three Gulfs race. The drinks hit the spot, and they came with a bowl of crunchy ring-shaped taralli. If you'd had only taralli out of a cellophane bag or from an old-time neighborhood bakery, you might have ignored these in favor of the mixed nuts. But that would have been a mistake, because Neapolitan taralli are a very different thing. They're crisp and slightly crumbly; they are tongue-tinglingly peppery; they have toasted almonds in them; and - most important - they are made with good lard rubbed into the flour, as you'd make a pie dough. I'll need to collate some of the dozens of available recipes and conduct a few experiments, but taralli napoletani are certainly going to be offered with drinks at our house, and soon.

Also in Naples, at the restaurant Ecomesarà, one of the antipasti was a torta of eggplant: a flared mold lined with cooked eggplant and filled with more eggplant, tomatoes and cheese. It had all the flavor (and all the flavors) of eggplant parmigiana but in an easily served and easily eaten format. We won't be back in New York for another week, and I think it is too much to hope that there'll be eggplants in the farmers' market, but as soon as they appear I'll get cracking on this neat alternative to a parmigiana.

In Noto, Sicily, we had dinner at the stylish Ristorante Crocifisso, where a thick swordfish steak was crusted with herb-and-citrus-scented breadcrumbs. The coating itself was nothing new - I've used similar things with fish in the past. But, for lack of imagination, I'd never thought of swordfish as a candidate for breading, and I shall give it a whirl, probably starting it over a medium flame then transferring it to a hot oven. I just hope I can find a piece of swordfish as fatty as the one Marco Baglieri (the chef) served and keep it as moist as he did.

Our Italian trip had started in Palermo, where on our final evening we had a dinner marred by mostly tired food and consistently tired service - the only time we encountered this. But among the antipasti was a real jewel: floured and fried small sardines, but with a twist. They'd been briefly marinated in vinegar before dredging: long enough to add zest and slightly alter the texture, but not so long that they were sour or dry. We tend to get lousy sardines in New York, but I'll try doing this with little mackerels.

And that's only the start. Isn't travel great?

  • Not the boring taralli we're used to: This Neapolitan version is made with almonds, pepper and lard
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • These fried sardines (eaten in Palermo) were lightly vinegar-cured before dredging in flour
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • Swordfish (eaten in Noto, Sicily) coated in herbed breadcrumbs before cooking
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.
  • This little baked torta has the flavors of eggplant parmigiana
    Photograph by Edward Schneider.