As Iddu arrives in Kensington, Sudi Pigott explores the pleasures of Sicilian food and why we need to see more of it in the capital
Sicilian food deserves to be better recognised in London and I anticipate it happening soon – we’re happily in the vanguard,’ laughs Luca del Bono, looking suave and dispensing granita behind the counter of his sunny restaurant/café, Iddu, next to The South Kensington Club, which he also happens to run. ‘I have customers who are in everyday for their fix,’ he confides. I’m not surprised. The granita is made daily from lemons of brilliantly zingy flavour and pistachio from Bronte in Sicily, a village world-renowned for the vibrant quality of its pistachio nuts.
The Arab settlers are said to have invented granita in Sicily back in the 7th Century, when fruit was mixed with the snow found year-round on the summit of Mount Etna. Luca remembers the moment he first tasted granita with his father at the marina on Lipari, the Aeolian island off the coast of Italy where he was born and brought up. ‘I’ve been determined ever since to bring its exceptional taste to a wider audience.’
Fast forward to the present and granita epitomises the rather different and healthier perspective on Sicilian food Luca del Bono is introducing to the capital. Granita naturally has no dairy and very little sugar. However Luca demonstrates how many Sicilians would eat the dessert for breakfast somewhat suggestively, breaking open the ‘nipple’ of a brioche and cramming it with a granita filling. The name Iddu is a respectful reference to the Aeolian island of Stromboli, which has a constantly smoking volcano. When passing the island, it is customary to utter ‘Iddu’. Luca is extremely proud of his Aeolian background and has filled the stylish restaurant with evocative photos and books from the island, as well as a miniature lemon tree. He’s also closely involved with the Aeolian Island Preservation organisation.
Geography and history mean that Sicily’s culinary tradition draws on dishes from the ancient Greeks, Arabs and Normans, and from as far afield as Spain, Greece, North Africa and the Middle East. These influences blend seductively with superb fish and seafood, especially swordfish, prawns and anchovies. Such diversity accounts for the preponderance of sweet-and-sour or ‘agro-dolce’ dishes in Sicilian cuisine. Vegetables such as aubergine often take the place of meat (once too expensive for many Sicilians) often with the culinary punch of raisins, capers and herbs. A classic dish is pasta alla norma made from aubergine, salted ricotta and sun-dried tomatoes.
Chef Martina Zanini of Iddu actually hails from Bologna, but is passionate about Sicilian food. ‘It is ‘cucina povera’ – all about using the best ingredients yet keeping it very simple.’ Apparently customers rave about the simplest kamut spaghetti dishes served naked with voluptuously ripe Sicilian bull’s heart tomatoes. I couldn’t resist spaghetti with pistachio, prawn and lemon, one of the most divine combinations I’ve ever tasted. Involtini is one of Luca’s childhood favourites. Most of Iddu’s wine list is Sicilian. Many bottles hail from Tasca d’Almerita, a vineyard belonging to a noble Sicilian family producing wines for over 200 years. The estate is said to be where Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa set part of his famous novel, The Leopard.
Caponata, a quintessential Sicilian dish usually starring fried aubergine, is reinterpreted at Iddu with baked aubergine balancing lightly with the celery, onion and tomato. It’s a revelation. The style is very different from the classic tomato-rich caponata served up by the Sicilian aficionado Jacob Kenedy at Bocca di Lupo in Soho, which offers small plates from regions all around Italy. Jacob’s new street food restaurant in Seven Dials, Vico, stars arancini, another Sicilian classic which Carluccio calls the ‘sandwich equivalent of Sicily’ made with risotto rice infused with saffron and all manner of fillings, like oozy strings of mozzarella.
Luca himself rates Locanda Locatelli restaurant for simple Sicilian dishes such as pappardelle with broad beans and pecorino. Owner Giorgio Locatelli (author of Made in Sicily) often holidays there and has a real soft spot for the island. To Giorgio, the dish that best epitomises Sicily is pasta con le sarde made with a light tomato sauce. It uses ingredients that have been indigenous to the island since classical times. Even Locatelli’s olive oil, used in the restaurant, comes from his own olive groves near Agrigento.
Luce e Limone owned by Sicilian Fabrizio Zafarana is currently the only other noteworthy specialist restaurant serving traditional dishes. These include bucatini with sardines besides more contemporary takes on Sicilian ingredients, such as wind-dried tuna ‘prosciutto’ with artichokes and grilled tuna with peperonata agrodolce.
The future of Sicilian food in London may well be healthier and lighter, yet what sums up Sicily for me is cannoli and fried crisp pastries stuffed with ricotta. They are given unashamedly indulgent treatment at Iddu, offered with tiny bowls of Bronte pistachio, almond and chocolate drops on an orange tile; which it turns out is made from volcanic lava. I’m hoping Luca del Bono’s Iddu will pave the way for more eruptions of such great Sicilian taste.
Iddu, 44 Harrington Road, SW7 3ND; iddulondon.com