If someone asked you to quit your job and go start a restaurant, are you more likely to say, That’s insane, or Hell yes? Would your answer be the same if you didn’t speak the local language? And what would you say if the restaurant was perched on the slope of a smoldering volcano?
Jenni Guizio and George Hock answered yes to that call a few years ago when Salvo Foti, a charismatic winemaker on Sicily’s Mount Etna, invited them to help him open an osteria in the town of Randazzo to showcase the wines of I Vigneri, an association of local winegrowers. Guizio and Hock worked on the wine team at NYC’s Scarpetta, but neither had formal culinary training. “Fortunately,” says Guizio, “George has a natural talent for cooking and picks up techniques quickly. On the other hand, he’s six-foot-four and we’re both blond, so we didn’t exactly blend in with the locals.”
To learn to cook Sicilian style, Guizio and Hock started with the local markets. “Produce is very seasonal there,” says Guizio. “There were times when we’d only find the same two or three vegetables for weeks at a stretch, and we’d finally say, OK, I’m tired of cauliflower, what’s next?” They found beautiful porcini mushrooms, freshly-made ricotta and pecorino cheese, and plenty of pistachios, and would propose dishes they thought were interesting and innovative. “At that point, Salvo taught us the threeingredient rule,” says Guizio. “He’s a real purist when it comes to food—and everything, really. He taught us that a dish has to be simple or it’s not traditional.” Hock’s greatest triumph was with a grilled pork chop from suino nero, a breed of black pig that yields succulently fatty meat. “George sliced the meat much thicker than Sicilians ever would, and Foti and his friends were enthralled with these giant pork chops,” says Guizio. The dish earned Hock a nickname in the local dialect that translates roughly as “grill man.”
On their nights off, they would visit restaurants like San Giorgio e il Drago in Randazzo, “the best restaurant on Etna,” according to Guizio. “We ordered scaloppine every time.” A thin filet of veal sautéed with a splash of lemon, they found it especially delicious with Etna’s white wines. They also enjoyed plenty of Etna reds, usually with the mixed grill, a selection of sausages, lamb, pork and beef.
Guizio and Hock also worked harvest, getting up before dawn to join Foti’s I Vigneri workers—all men, ranging in age from 20 to 70, and carrying baskets of grapes up and down the steep slopes in temperatures nearing 100˚F on some days. The men brought lunches packed by their wives—typically a hunk of bread, some local cheese and salumi, and a canteen or plastic bottle filled with their own homemade (contadino) peasant wine that they’d start dipping into around seven o’clock in the morning. “That’s just normal,” Guizio says. Maurizio Pagano, Foti’s vineyard manager and right-hand man, once told her that his grandfather never drank a drop of water in his whole life, just his own wines, and lived to be very old.
“There’s an energy that comes from living on the side of a volcano, from being in a place of pure natural beauty that also has such a sense of history.” —Jenni Guizio
The appeal of some of those contadino wines, as well as those produced by native Sicilian winemakers like Salvo Foti, began to draw the attention of outsiders (and in Sicily, anyone not born on the island qualifies as an outsider). Frank Cornelissen of Belgium, Tuscany’s Andrea Franchetti, and the American wine importer Marco de Grazia established wineries on the volcano’s slopes just after the turn of the millennium, and their wines began spreading Etna’s fame to American and European markets. Etna Rosso, made primarily from nerello mascalese, was the first to catch fire, garnering comparisons to Barolo and Burgundy for its delicate color and lithe acidity, coupled with a gritty texture and smoky minerality that evoke Etna’s blackened lava fields. Guizio finds that this dual personality makes them very versatile at the dining table. “They can go with pork, lamb or even grilled fish with a little char,” she says. “I always think of them when a table wants a bottle to go with several dishes.”
Etna Bianco has also begun to attract fans as the wines have become more widely available. Guizio notes that the white varieties (primarily carricante, with some catarratto and minella bianca) grow mainly on Etna’s eastern slope, facing the sea, in vineyards covered with ripiddu, glassy black fragments of volcanic rock that regularly blow down from the crater. “It’s no wonder the wines have so much minerality and briny character,” she says. “In some ways they’re similar to Chablis, but with age they develop petrol notes, like a riesling.” They aren’t light whites, she points out. “I like to pair them with mushrooms, shellfish or even pork.”
Guizio and Hock made several long visits to Etna over the span of two years, but ran into Italy’s infamous bureaucracy when they tried to get work visas that would allow a longer stay. The osteria never officially opened, and in 2012 they reluctantly left Etna for the last time. Guizio recalls their final, rather somber lunch at San Giorgio e il Drago. “It had been a bad year for porcini, and we were disappointed not to have had any. In the middle of our meal, the owner came rushing into the courtyard like he had just struck gold. He had a plastic bag filled with porcini that he had just received, and offered some to us. It made us so incredibly happy.”
Guizio and Hock have moved on since then, but Etna still exerts a powerful draw. “Maybe it sounds cheesy, but there’s an energy that comes from living on the side of a volcano, from being in a place of pure natural beauty that also has such a sense of history,” reminisces Guizio. She’s now the wine director at Maialino in NYC, where she is determined to build up the Etna selections on the wine list. “Etna is one of the most exciting wine regions in the world. You can find examples that are like Beaujolais, or wines from the southern Rhône. I want to show the full spectrum of the mountain.”
Hock is the general manager and wine director at I Trulli, a few blocks north of Maialino, and continues to try to recreate dishes like the scaloppine they ate on Etna. Inspired by his time with Salvo Foti, Hock translated one of Foti’s books, The Wines of the Volcano, into English, including this passage: “On Etna, the best time in which to travel the “Strada del Vino” is certainly in October, during the harvest. This is when the smell is acrid and pungent, released from the cantinas (and palmentos) during the fermentation, filling the streets and intoxicating the traveler, stimulating the imagination and the desire for a fine glass of wine. If the weather is dull and dreary, you smell the fire in the air on which the sausages are happily dancing, eaten with slices of bread and olives: the right way to end a long day of harvesting and the only effective way to alleviate the fatigue of the harvesters.”
This article first appeared in W&S June 2017.