Sicily may appear to be the place that time forgot, but it actually lays claim to some of Italy's most creative chefs. It all began in the mid-1990s, when a handful of winemakers in the Mount Etna region, who had long sold their wine to be blended with French and Piedmontese reds, started focusing on their own bottles. Before long, international wine buyers and journalists began finding their way to the southeastern part of the island, where a quiet culinary revolution was under way.
The first chef to gain attention was Peppe Barone of Fattoria delle Torri in the medieval town of Modica. In the 1990s, Barone began experimenting with Modica's traditional dishes—such as rabbit cooked in chocolate sauce, a recipe that recalls the four centuries Sicily spent under Spanish rule. By lavishing attention on a home-style dish, he elevated Sicilian cooking in a way that had never been done in high-end restaurants. One of Barone's cooks, Carmelo Chiaramonte, adopted his mentor's local approach and, when he landed at Il Cuciniere in Catania, became an outspoken ambassador for superlative Sicilian ingredients like olive oil from Mont Iblei and blood oranges from Catania. And in Noto, Corrado Assenza, a fourth-generation pastry chef (pictured at right), introduced brilliant new sweets that were inspired by Sicily's history: things like basil-scented marzipan and jams that treat vegetables, such as peppers and zucchini, like fruit.
Eventually, Sicilian chefs who had left to cook in Europe and beyond started coming home. Ciccio Sultano led the way; after cooking at Felidia, Lidia Bastianich's restaurant in New York City, he returned to Sicily and in 2000 opened Duomo, where he won two Michelin stars for dishes like cannoli garnished with local pistachios and served with almond gelato in a pool of prickly pear sauce. There are many others—Pino Cuttaia at La Madia in Licata, Accursio Craparo at La Gazza Ladra in Modica. All of them are creating a bold, new Sicilian style that celebrates the island's rich tradition.