Sicily, an island both apart from and a part of Italy, has been invaded by just about everyone -- Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs and Spaniards, just for starters. Add to all those influences the bounty of the surrounding sea and you've got a cuisine unlike most others.
Fresh sardines and swordfish are integral to the Sicilian table. Bread crumbs, wild herbs and raisins are used freely, and every self-respecting Sicilian cook has a version of caponata, a cold eggplant and tomato medley.
The robust caponata at the new Sicilia Risturanti is, surprisingly, the work of Dominican-born chef Daniel De Jesus, who cooks like a born Sicilian. Some of his recipes come from co-owner Domenic Giampino's Sicilian mother; others were simply well researched.
Convincingly and delectably authentic were panelle, fried chickpea fritters that paired well with sweet and sour eggplant and goat cheese. Arancini, or fried rice balls, featured a crunchy crumb crust around a lush confluence of ground beef, mozzarella, marinara and peas. As for the soulful pasta e fagioli, it managed to set the world right on a rainy night.
Moist baked swordfish was crowned with a typical Sicilian mix of raisins, onions, tomatoes, green olives, pine nuts and capers. Evoking a meal I had at a seaside restaurant outside Palermo was the classic pasta con sarde, al dente bucatini tangled in a sauce of sardines, fennel, pine nuts and black currants, bread crumbs sprinkled atop. Another convincing Sicilian iteration of sardines featured the little fish stuffed with a breadcrumb-pine nut-raisin-anchovy mixture, topped with lemon sauce.
Lemon was an ingredient in several successful sauces -- one drizzled over chicken breasts, another over potato-crusted salmon and yet one more on jumbo shrimp scampi-style.
Where the place fell short, though, was with dessert. Not that the cheesecake and tiramisu weren't respectable. Or that there was any problem with cannoli, filled to order. But nothing was house-made. With the bar already set so high, one expects no less.