Chow Town

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A Sicilian-American chef visits his homeland

03/27/2014 5:01 PM

03/27/2014 5:03 PM

NOTE: This is the first of three posts about a Sicilian-American chef’s adventures in Sicily.

“Noi fummo i Gattopardi, i Leoni; quelli che ci sostituiranno saranno gli sciacalletti, le iene; e tutti quanti Gattopardi, sciacalli e pecore, continueremo a crederci il sale della terra.”

“We were the Leopards, the Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals, and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.” — Il Gatopardo

I still think of this quote from Il Gatopardo every time I travel to Sicily.

I do think Sicilians are the salt of the earth, devoted and genuine, earnest and honest. I want to be the best of my time. I’m hard-working and I want to be a role model not only for my family and friends, but for anyone else who appreciates our Sicilian heritage.

Each year I travel back to Italy and my family’s hometown of Gibellna, Sicily. I not only go to see family and friends, I go to research. I want to carry on the authenticity of Sicilian cuisine, to learn and savor as much as I can about its rich history.

This past week I traveled to Sicily to experience the feast of St. Joseph. My nephew, Jasper III travels with me each time, taking notes and following tradition, the same tradition I had with my father and papa. We are here for research. We want to become a part of Sicily.

Every time I travel back to Italy and Sicily I get the same feeling. I have more respect for my Papa and Nana, the lives they lead, the hardships and the traditions they passed on.

This is my job, to carry on the customs, our heritage. I take many pictures, write hundreds of notes and ideas on my iPad. Each night, I review my day, research my next day’s activities and seek new places and food finds I think are unique or iconic.

Our cousin Gaspare Mirabile met my nephew and I along with our group of enthusiasts from Kansas City and Maine, excited to showcase out family’s hometown and the tradition of a St. Joseph alter.

He explained the meaning of the breadcrumbs, introduced us to our extended family and translated for us. He will take over from here. He feels it is his job. I don’t dare try to stop him.

We experienced the pasta, the bread, the fava and the sfinge. We realized in detail the tradition. We experienced San Giuseppe Alters at their finest, visiting three in Gibellina and two more in nearby towns of Piggioreale and Menfi.

We break bread with the Sicilians. We become a part of their day. Open arms, hugs and kisses are exchanged. I feel the love. It is good.

Just like the soldiers returning from Italy after World War II, I bring back the desire to America for the foods I experienced, such as the olives from the Belice Valley, the olive oil from Becchina, the dark low food Presidia flour from Castelvetrano, the Busiate cut of pasta from Trapani, the sheeps milk ricotta and Cannoli from Gibellina along with the pistachios from Bronte and the candied cucuzza for Cassata.

And there are the recipes for cous cous, Casadetti and Maccaroni con Sarde and the famous soup broth from Casa De Brodo in Palermo.

I discovered the salt flats near Marsala and purchased as much salt as I can. Is this a sign? There definitely is more meaning of my discovery. I need to seek out why I find salt so meaningful. What is this desire? The adventure begins.

My cousin from Gibellina brought an artisan cheese producer to make us old fashioned ricotta in a copper cauldron.

We experienced ricotta that is not available to anyone, the flavor of sheep’s milk and sea salt is unbelievable. This is ricotta of a bygone era, real ricotta!

As you can see, my list is endless, but that is a good thing. Other than a little weight gain, my mind is full of ideas. I have the notes and recipes, now it’s time to go to work in my kitchen.

I will experiment and taste, rewrite recipes and change a few things when ingredients aren’t available, but I will be true to my Sicilian heritage.

I will be honest. I want to offer the genuine dishes I experienced. I want to be the noble Sicilian-American.

I want to be the “salt of the earth.” I want to be Il Gatopardo.

Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.

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