White foam arose from the immortal flesh and with it a girl grew. And the girl, Aphrodite, floated ashore on a scallop shell.
A new chef had sailed into town. And people were saying she was putting magic on plates. I knew I had to have her conjure up some of those delights for the gentlemen who lunch.
The new chef is from Sicily. Her name is Laura Buccheri. Her catering business is La Cucina di Afrodita.
I emailed Laura and asked if she’d come to the house and prepare a very typical Sicilian meal. She said yes. I emailed 16 guys to ask if they’d like to join me (and share the cost). 14 said yes (the other two gentlemen were out of the country).
I went to La Europea, La Divina and Carnevino to pick up some Sicilian wines to accompany the lunch. Their cupboards were bare. Then I thought about The Wine Stop in Queretaro. I knew they had Sicilian wines. And some good ones. I emailed Rosario Arvizu, one of the partners and asked if she’d have some delivered to me. Or, even better, would she personally deliver them on the day of the lunch and play sommelier. She said yes and yes.
We were on our way to an afternoon in Palermo.
I’ve wanted to go Sicily ever since I was about 12 and hung out with the sons of Sicilian immigrants. The afternoon that Joey Giacinti’s mother gave me my first sweet pork sausage dotted with fennel seeds clinched it. Joey’s mother was like most Sicilian mothers. She was roly poly round. Despite double digit years in Canada, she spoke nary a word of English. And she wore black. Black dress. Black cardigan. Black coat. Black bandana. Black stockings. Black shoes.
Laura Buccheri wore black to our lunch. And red. She spoke English fluently with an accent reminiscent of what got Jamie Leigh Curtis all a tingling in A Fish Called Wanda. Laura is long and lean. And even manages to look attractive in a hairnet.
Our first dish was Melenzane alla Parmigiana. It’s what I (and probably you) would call Eggplant Parmesan. But this was Sicilian Eggplant Parmesan. Eggplant alla Laura. And it was different. In addition to the expected ingredients of aubergines, tomato sauce and parmesan, there was mozzarella and chopped egg. It wouldn’t win any beauty contest but it certainly tasted good.
One of the guys said, “You know I would never order eggplant. But I would order this.”
Rosario from The Wine Stop had brought her business partner Alina Morales and, by now, we were feeling very spoiled as the ladies did double duty at the two tables opening bottles and trying to keep our glasses full.
The first wine was a Grillo/Pinot Grigio. Grillo? Yes, Grillo, a grape that had never ever touched Don Day’s lips. Well almost never. It is used in the making of Marsala which certainly touched my lips via a lot of veal sauces in the Seventies. But I’d never had it as what Jack Jacobs called a very “crisp and clean white”. With its grapefruit and apple nose, I thought it was perfect for the eggplant and the upcoming rice dish.
Risotto all’Arancia was what Laura called it. I called it heaven. Real arborio rice cooked to a creamy dream with just the right amount of give.
Once again, Laura had added a special touch. The all’Arancia that I know of is flavored with orange. Laura Buccheri’s is flavored with orange, lemon and, what really made it special, mandarin.
Laura Buccheri was born in Milan and at the tender age of two returned to her parents hometown in Messina.
“There were eight of us…my mother, grandmother, grandfather, three brothers and a sister. Food was a very important part of our lives”, Laura told me.
At age 19, Laura returned to the Italian mainland and found her first restaurant job, at Lake Como, the playground for the wealthy in Lombardy.
“Everything was so luxurious…the china, the linens, the silver”, said Laura, with an intense passion that seems to come out every time she talks about food. A passion that makes it almost impossible to photograph her with her eyes open.
“The chef had trained in France. I learned everything from her. She was my guru. Still is in many ways.”
“The specialty of the house was Agnolotti al Tartufo (a dish that the very mention of makes Don Day take a deep breath).
“I will never forget the smell of the truffles as they arrived each day. Even in those days they were very, very expensive. We would weigh the truffle and then place it on the table with a grater. When the diner was finished the dish we would weigh the truffle again to determine the charge.”
The budgets of the gentlemen who lunch do not include truffles but we were still getting something very special for the main course. What makes it so special is the amount of labor that’s involved in the preparation.
“It’s a specialty of the province of Messina, which you will find on every table for a family Sunday lunch in Sicily”, Laura told us. “It’s a long preparation, but well worth it and very tasty. Only the elderly ladies in Sicily continue preparing them at home. They’re much better than the ones bought in the butcher’s shops.”
Laura called the main course Braciolettine alla Messinese con contorno di peperonata al profumo di basilico. I went phew!!! and called it involtini with mixed peppers, sliced potatoes, tomato sauce and a lot of basil, intricately created, one by one, and skewered.
Laura had sourced angus beef, hammered it to the thinnest scallopine thickness and rolled it around the stuffing. I couldn’t imagine how long it took to make 80 of them.
Even the peperonata was special. Laura uses vinegar and sugar in the sauce to give it the sweet and sour taste you’d normally only find on an Asian plate.
Though Italian cuisine is, obviously, her greatest love, there have been a lot of influences on Laura Buccheri’s cooking. She has cooked in London, in Sardinia, in Miami, in South Africa, in Los Angeles and, most recently, Playa del Carmen (where she met her charming Sicilian husband, Justin), Tulum (where she married him on the beach) and, since last October, San Miguel de Allende (where Justin now works with her to build La Cucina di Afrodita‘s business).
“I was already committed to Mexico. Now I’m committed to San Miguel”, she told me. “I’m still suffering without the sea. I wish I could smell it. But there was not much in Tulum. San Miguel has so much. Everything here is so vibrant.”
By now, Rosario and Alina had opened the red, a Sicilian Nero d’Avola/Sangiovese.
Nero d’Avola is Sicily’s most important grape. With its plummy, peppery notes, in a blind tasting I might have thought it was Shiraz. It was a great match for the beef and a good match for the dessert.
Or should I say for the three desserts. First on the plate there was Pannacotta al Profumo di Limone e caramello, a dish that Laura still gives her “guru” in Lake Como credit for. Second was the most Sicilian of sweets, cannoli. But not traditional Sicilian cannoli. Laura’s inability to locate sheep ricotta in San Miguel was our gain. She replaced it with a chocolate hazelnut cream that produced what Jack called “the best cannoli I’ve ever tasted”. And the third dessert I saved until last, a rich, white chocolate truffle.
We were finished and when we finish a gentlemen’s lunch and it’s one I consider to be one of the very best I ask the guys to join me in an ovation for the chef. I didn’t have a chance. I was in the kitchen helping The Wine Stop sort out the guys’ orders for cases of the Sicilian wines when Laura walked into the dining room. All of the guys were standing and clapping.
I’ll leave you with a last comment not from me but from Cliff Avant, the quietest of the gentlemen who lunch and a guy who chooses his words carefully. Cliff and I have eaten together many, many times over the last few years. Cliff’s parting words were, “I think that’s the best lunch we’ve ever had.”
La Cucina di Afrodita does complete catering as well as delivery of individual items to San Miguel homes. To discuss a specific function or to simply receive a copy of Laura Buccheri’s suggested menus, email Laura at email@example.com.
The Wine Stop is located in Queretaro and primarily services the restaurant trade. They do not have a retail store but will sell directly to consumers and arrange delivery to San Miguel de Allende. The two Sicilian wines, Mannara Nero d’Avola/Sangiovese and Mannara Grillo/Pinot Grigio are well priced at $1896 a case or $1608 a case if you order at least two. To place an order or to receive a price list email Rosario Arvizu at firstname.lastname@example.org.