Savour the flavour of Sicily

Using the freshest fish and local vegetables, chef Fulvio Pierangelini introduces Caroline Phillips to the island's simple but sublime cuisine

"The granita in Bar Roma is the best in Sicily," declared Fulvio Pierangelini, the chef who oversees Sir Rocco Forte's hotel kitchens globally. Bar Roma is found in the port of Sciacca – pronounced shakka – on the little-visited southern coast of Sicily, just up from Agrigento. During the summer, Fulvio is based at the Verdura Golf & Spa Resort, 20 minutes away, and he was taking the opportunity to give me a cookery lesson that included a visit to Sciacca to choose fish.

We entered Bar Roma through a curtain of plastic beads, passing crates of discarded squeezed lemons, a line of scooters and the smell of fish. Inside Aurelio ("Il maestro della granite", according to yellowing Italian newspaper cuttings) has been making tubs of snowy, slushy granita di limone for 40 years.

His bar was simple, with plastic tables and a refrigerator that contained nothing but tubs of the stuff. The granita was served in a glass tumbler with brioche – eggy rolls which the men who had just returned from a night's fishing were stuffing with the citrusy crystals. "They take it instead of coffee in the morning," said Fulvio. He kissed Aurelio – a 70-plus man with rock-thick glasses – and gave him two pots of his homemade jam. "Authors, politicians, singers, journalists, they all come here," translated Fulvio, as the granita maestro spoke at breakneck speed. "He says he uses a 70-year-old ice-making machine."

There are few better to teach the foodie arts than Fulvio, an angel in the kitchen. Known in Italy as "The Food Whisperer" and Il grande solista della cucina Italiana (the great soloist of Italian cuisine), he's often described as the country's best chef. For 28 years, he had a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Il Gambero Rosso, in San Vincenzo, Tuscany. Now, he runs masterclasses with titles like "Ravioli and the Art of Mystery" and the one I'd joined: "Let's Play Cook".

Chef Fulvio Pierangelini at work Chef Fulvio Pierangelini at work Sciacca was founded by the Greeks in 5BC as a thermal spa and, later, was the scene of bloody medieval feuds between the Aragonese and Perollo families (animosity that started over a jilted bride). Now, the burnt ochre and bleached apricot houses cling to the hillside, fanned by furnace winds from Libya, across a narrow stretch of sea.

Beside the marine supply shops and buckets of anchovies, there were second-hand cars, many with Milanese and Torino number plates: cast-offs from the Italian mainland. "It's desperately poor in Sicily and any wealth is hidden," said Fulvio. "There's no Borghese [middle] class. But behind closed doors near Palermo, I've seen Breughels and Goyas."

Stout fishermen in orange plastic dungarees shook their nets and sorted through their catch – the fishing fleet of Sciacca is one of the biggest of the Mediterranean – and a barefoot man in a baseball cap washed down piles of flapping fish. "This is beautiful, like a dancer at the Mariinsky Theatre," Fulvio enthused, as he picked up a red mullet from a tray of piscine ballerinas. "From the sand, not rock. It tastes better." He pulled a stripy fish from the mouth of another. "Bad! This is a tropical fish. It shows the waters are warming."

He pointed out a John Dory and showed how to recognise line-caught fish. ("After fighting with the line they're not fat or soft.") Then we motored 30 seconds to another boat. "Sardines!" he cried. "I marinate these with olive oil and wild herbs."

As we returned to the resort, we passed splendid chalky cliffs and Fulvio pointed out the prickly pears and wild mulberries at the roadside. "I love to pick mulberries to make my jam but these are sunburnt," he mourned. "So, instead, I drive an hour to the mountains to collect them."

Later, we stopped at Fulvio's supermarket, an allotment close to the azure sea and orange groves of Verdura. We stood among almond trees, vegetables and basil intoxicating enough to be a classified drug. Lovingly, he picked the beefiest of big tomatoes ("So big, they're called Corleone, like The Godfather") for us to make pasta sauce. He said he has been known to lie on the ground to ensure that he picks every last fagiolini bean. He pointed happily to the tenerumi, the tendrils of the cucuzza plant, itself a long serpent-like courgette. "A very important vegetable. Sicilian zucchini is different from any other kind."

And so to our lesson in an open-walled kitchen in an upmarket beach shack beside the sea at Verdura. Sir Rocco Forte's slick resort is arguably the finest on the island, with low-slung buildings, sleekly spartan Olga Polizzi-designed suites and a long beach of imported white sand. There's also an 18-hole Kyle Phillips golf course, swimming pools, tennis courts and a serious spa.

I had already tried Fulvio's cooking: a sublime dish of prawn ceviche, Sicilian courgette and flower, topped with grilled John Dory. So I was keen to learn more.

He rarely uses scales, recipes or machinery. His approach is all about simplicity. "That's the point of arrival. I've worked for 35 years to get here." He explained that he likes to make food with soul. "If someone comes for dinner unexpectedly and you have only mozzarella and tomato in the fridge?" he asked. "Caprese?" I replied helpfully. "No: mozzarella soup and tomato sorbet." Ah, of course.

He then gave a two-hour Sicilian cookery lesson. "The food reflects the cross-fertilisation of the cultures of its Greek, Roman, Arab and French invaders," he said. We started by making a typical local dish – a salad of orange, red shrimp and fennel. Fulvio plunged his thumb through the centre of the orange, tearing it apart: "That way, when you eat it, it smells of essential oil from the skin." He counselled chopping the fennel with a ceramic knife, "so the vegetables don't oxidise". We reduced the orange juice, making a mayonnaise of it. And I learnt to take the intestines out of prawns, without breaking the body. He sipped prosecco as he talked.

We tore the tomatoes, "a smoother texture than if you cut them" and created our sauce for spaghetti a la Norma (tomato, aubergine and ricotta). "This," he proclaimed, "was the dish they served [Vincenzo] Bellini after the first performance of Norma." Meanwhile, his conversation ran seamlessly from the history of navel oranges to the story of salt and sugar cane in the 1700s, via architecture, Dostoevsky and Murakami.

It wasn't simply a cookery lesson, nor something just about culinary art and culture – it was a magical feast for the senses, seasoned with charm and humour.

Sicily? The sulphurous springs of Mount Cronio, the tufa caves, the nearby Greek temple complexes of Agrigento, preserved almost exactly as they were 2,500 years ago: yes, go for them. But travel also for Fulvio's signature dish: the much-copied passatina di ceci con gamberi (chickpea purée with shrimps.) With Fulvio, the witty angel in the kitchen, anything's possible. "I don't cook Italian," he concluded. "I cook dreams."

Getting there

The nearest airport is Trapani, served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; from Manchester. Sicily's three other airports, Catania, Palermo and Comiso, are served from across the UK by airlines including easyJet (0843 104 5000;, BA (0844 493 0787;, Norwegian (0843 3780 888;, Air One (00 39 091 255 1047; and Ryanair.

Staying there

Verdura Golf & Spa Resort, a Rocco Forte Hotel (00 800 7666 6667; offers doubles from €206, including breakfast. Cooking classes with Fulvio Pierangelini are €150pp. The resort also offers pasta and pastry making classes at €75pp.

Getting around

Caroline Phillips's car hire was courtesy of Auto Europa (00 39 0916390303;

More information

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

    Guru Careers: Carpenter / Maintenance Operator

    £25k plus Benefits: Guru Careers: A Carpenter and Maintenance Operator is need...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Coordinator

    £17600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum cares for one of the largest...

    Recruitment Genius: Experienced PSV Coach & Minibus Drivers

    £12500 - £24500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Drivers wanted for a family run...

    Day In a Page

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'