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Chef Ciccio Sultano

Baccalà in I Banchi style Recipe by Ciccio Sultano
Introduction courtesy of I Banchi
Interview by Alessandro Casagrande
Portrait by Giuseppe Bornò
Photography by Benedetto Tarantino, Giuseppe Bornò

To understand Italian chef, Ciccio Sultano, you must first understand his earliest influence, Sicily – the ancient, Italian island of his birth. If Italy is a country passionate about its history, produce and cuisine, then Sicily is hailed, as the locals will tell you, as a ‘continent’ with its own history.

Physically detached from the mainland and closer to Africa than Europe, its peoples from the earliest Sicanians of the Iron Age, to the present-day Italians – have adapted over millennia to invasion and foreign domination.

Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards have come and gone, leaving behind influences of their food, wine and customs that Sicilians have absorbed and melded to their own, creating a unique gastronomic treasure trove.

Against this backdrop of uncompromising commitment to region, food and wine, the young Ciccio Sultano’s benchmark was set and at just thirteen years old, he took a part-time job at a local pasticceria (pastry shop), in the town of Vittoria. Naturally curious with a boundless enthusiasm to learn, the teenager caught the attention of the owners and his position evolved into a full seven-year apprenticeship.

It was here, while he learned how to work with guests – local and tourist – wait tables, prepare dishes and make cocktails, he began reading gastronomy magazines and books in his free time. Following the careers of chefs Paul Bocuse, Alain Chapel and Alain Ducasse, he spent endless hours studying recipes and teaching himself new techniques.

Unsurprisingly, this tenacious spirit armed him with an ambition for something new, where he could put into play his newly acquired skills and he joined the team at a local spaghetteria. Almost immediately the restaurant became a huge success, with locals hailing the young Ciccio’s take on the menu’s dishes.

Buoyed by his first flush of success, he realised he had found not only something he loved – in cooking, but also something he shared a natural affinity with – the abundance of his island’s exceptional produce. This was the point when he realised, he wanted one day to open his own restaurant and also that restaurant had to be in Sicily.

We recently met Chef Ciccio Sultano for a quick interview and to prepare a Baccalà recipe for us.

Alessandro Casagrande (AC) — Self-taught with numerous experiences in the most diverse cuisines in the world. With a kitchen outlined by an unmistakable style. Where does your story begin?

Ciccio Sultano (CS) — I started from the fields, in the real sense of the word, from working in the countryside. Then, I moved to the pastry shop in Vittoria, Sweet, by Vincenzo Corallo, a local gentleman. Very soon, I ended up doing what today you would call bartender while also taking care of the pastry section and the diner. The real idea, practice and inspiration of working as a chef was born by reading a lot and cutting my teeth in the kitchen.

(AC) — Your kitchen is a combination of tradition and innovation. Not only from the fact of reinterpreting ancient traditions but, thanks to a dialogue between past and future, a reciprocal exchange grows. How do these two aspects affect each other in your creative process?

(CS) — That’s the exact definition of my cuisine. Tradition and innovation are like the earth, caressed by the sea. They meet on the beach. But, beware, tradition is not simply “what it repeats itself”, and that’s it. For me, the term comprises everything known and lived in a land, of a territory. That is, it’s anthropological culture, gastronomy and technique.

(AC) — Today the concept of sustainability has an important resonance in every workplace. In the kitchen — what are the daily attitudes that should be encouraged and how does this affect the choice to use one product over another?

(CS) — This year, for example, with the vegetable scraps – and I repeat it: the scraps – we are making a sauce, an extract so to say, that, despite being vegetable, looks like meat. Then, there are the good daily rules and habits to keep: turn off the light when not needed; recycling; reusing in the kitchen all types of plastic containers; the use of purified water both at the restaurant Duomo and at I Banchi, other than, obviously, at home, a simple action that is saving hundreds and hundreds of plastic bottles and litres of petrol for the transport.

(AC) — What does Km 0 mean for the ingredients of your kitchen?

(CS) — The only reasonable Km 0 is the one that always offers the best; otherwise, it means nothing. Sicily is nearly as big as Belgium. Conclusions ensue. The knowledge of the territory almost compels us to tie relationships and narrow the distances. 

(AC) — Your region, Sicily, is a land rich in all kinds of beauty, historical, cultural, landscape and in the culinary field … not least, it has fantastic ingredients. Is there a dish that can be considered your favourite and a perfect summary to describe your land?

(CS) — Ravioli with the festivities sauce and marjoram, and the cannoli.

(AC) — Speaking of Sicily, I said earlier that it is indisputably a very rich land. From your point of view, what abounds in Sicily and what is really missing?

(CS) — We’re fine like that. You have to act with what we have available, and do it better.

(AC) — What further challenges do you want to pose for your future and that of your kitchen?

(CS) — Challenges? I have a wish: to work with serenity.

Baccalà in I Banchi style

It all starts with the classic Baccalà alla ghiotta, but then the dish changes by inserting the fried Baccalà, the crispy bread, and a warm mussel soup in the terracotta bowl. Same fish, new sauces: it’s a combination of flavors that surprises.

120 gr Baccalà
30 gr durum wheat flour
100 gr fresh mussels
10 gr parsley
100 gr tomato sauce
1 clove of red garlic
10 gr extra virgin olive oil
1 pinch of oregano
50 gr stale bread (durum wheat, if possible)
20 gr parsley
5 gr oil
1 pinch of salt

Method – Mussel soup
In a saucepan, sauté the finely chopped red garlic with extra virgin olive oil. Put inside it the cleaned and brown them until they are all open.

Add the tomato sauce and the oregano, bring to the boil and cook for a few minutes over low heat, covering the saucepan with a lid.

Once the fragrant soup is ready, strain and keep warm.

Method – Parsley bread
Blanch the previously washed parsley leaves in hot water for a few seconds. Create a thermal shock with the help of ice to quickly cool the parsley, by doing so you will keep a bright green.

Blend in a mixer the blanched parsley with the extra virgin olive oil, and pour it over the stale bread cut into irregular pieces.

Put the bread on a tray and toast in the oven at 180 degrees for 6/8 minutes (it must be crunchy).

Method – Baccalà
Wrap the Baccalà in a cloth, in order to dry it from excess water.

Flour the fish with durum wheat and fry it in a pan with extra virgin olive oil on both sides.

Once fried, dab it with absorbent paper, add salt and pepper.

Arrange the fragrant and crunchy bread in a soup plate, place the Baccalà on top and sprinkle everything with the mussel soup. Buon appetito!

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