“If Nature creates simple and spontaneous jewels, it is up to us to bring them to the palate in the simplest and most direct way. Composing a harmonious and flavorful sequence is the purpose of our job.”
Corrado Assenza – Master Pastry Chef and Proprietor of Caffè Sicilia in Noto, Sicily
When you make friends with a Sicilian, your world will shift in many ways—and when you befriend a Catanese at college, that shift will most certainly involve sweets. For example, it is perfectly normal to receive a phone call near midnight at the end of a long holiday break and be instructed “Get ready. Within four minutes, the true Sicilian cannolo will be delivered to your door.”
The memory of that sheep’s milk ricotta dusted with vibrant shards of pistachio lives on.
Or when you learn that your friend’s mother has arrived for her first campus visit with a freshly made Cassata—the iconic dessert of marzipan, ricotta, fondant, and candied fruit— which she carefully balanced on her lap during the entirety of the flight from her island; no way would she entrust the regional specialty to an overhead luggage compartment or anyone’s hands but her own.
Adjacent to these cross-cultural shifts is another indisputable truth: when you finally arrive in Catania, Sicily’s second-largest city on its Eastern coast, your friend will drive you to the Baroque, biscuit-hued town of Noto to experience the creations of Corrado Assenza at Caffè Sicilia, a revered temple of true Sicilian flavors and otherworldly desserts.
Unknown soldier statue in Noto, Sicily.
Thanks to a gorgeously filmed profile in Netflix’s documentary series, Chef’s Table, people across the globe are now familiar with Maestro Assenza and his small, unassuming shop on Noto’s main street. As the fourth-generation owner of the establishment, which opened its doors in 1892, he upholds quite the legacy of dolci.
During his tenure at the Caffè, Assenza’s focus and creative spirit have dug deep into his Noto roots. His deep knowledge of the seasonal rhythms and products of the surrounding countryside has allowed him to recognize and champion the spectacular raw materials of his land. The inventive creations that emerge from his kitchen laboratory highlight the flavors of his Sicily in their purest form, often with a poetic twist.
He considers a dish a success when it presents “not our work, but the ingredients” on the palate.
While some make the pilgrimage to Caffè Sicilia to sample the cannoli or the many varieties of gelato that feature local herbs, products, and fruits (basil, ricotta, mulberry, and mandarin being only a few…) our road trip had another purpose: to experience Corrado Assenza’s granita e brioche, the Sicilian breakfast of champions.
Otherworldly breakfast selection at the Assenza’s Caffe in Noto.
Though most of Italy begins its day with a cappuccino and cornetto, Sicily does things a bit differently. Its sweltering summer mornings are often too hot to enjoy un caffè. So, instead, you recharge with granita. The ingredients of this semi-frozen confection are quite simple. A granita is mostly water and sugar with its featured flavor taken from fruit, coffee, or nuts. Eating a granita is a Sicilian ritual. It refreshes the palate as well as the spirit. For those still unfamiliar with the dish, think of it as a soft spoonable slush of intensely flavored ice crystals.
In Noto, granita is commonly served in a bowl or else spooned into a split brioche, a rich fluffy roll made of leavened, egg-based dough. The brioche is circular in shape and resembles a ballerina’s bun; interestingly enough, the top circular nubbin, called tuppu in dialect, traces its origin to the French word, toupee. Though Caffè Sicilia offers patrons a range of classic granita choices (lemon, coffee, pistachio) as well as Assenza’s own flavor fantasies (the inspired union of local strawberry and tomato), for my Sicilian friend, our granita options were but one.
“Almond,” he replied without hesitation. “In Noto, we choose almond.”
Granita e brioche al banco, Caffè Sicilia, 2004.
He was not wrong.
Sicily and almonds have shared a story since 800 BC when the Greeks first cultivated them on the three-cornered island. Later, during Arab rule, almond production was revitalized and trees planted across the landscape. The specific microclimate of Noto, with abundant winter rains, allows its almond trees to grow without irrigation, a rarity in most areas of industrial cultivation. The ancient local variety that Caffè Sicilia relies on for its marzipan, granita, and all other mandorla-centric sweets is the Romana. Despite its rich levels of aroma and sweetness, the variety was at risk of extinction in the early 2000s. Sicilian farmers in Noto and nearby Avola were abandoning their almond groves since industrial traders decided that investing money in such a small, sustainable production was not worth it.
Without the Romana, Corrado Assenza knew that he would not only lose his almond granita, but he would also lose a magnificent taste that was unique to his island. So, he set to work to save the almond and found a way to allow the farmers to bypass the traders and sell their small Romana harvest directly to him.
Mid-morning concoction at Caffè Sicilia, Noto, with almonds milk cappuccino and Romana almonds crunch.
“ I had to convince them to fight for the almond,” he recollects “because it was our cultural heritage.” He understood that once it went, it was not coming back.
My friend was spot-on. Almond was the correct choice. In the backroom of Caffè Sicilia, I giddily watched my friend relive a moment of childhood and mimicked his tear-and-dunk method as he savored his granita and brioche, especially the moment when the bread gets soggy with the milky white slush.
Sicilian friendship is, in itself, its own sweet reward. Almond granita is simply icing on the cake.