When I hear that Hotel Xenia, in London’s South Kensington, is arranging a series of culinary events, inviting Italian Chefs to cook the food of their region, I decide I have to get a taste. The first features Sicily and then, every month will move northwards, until finally ending up in Lombardy in November. For the Sicilian dinner, Chef Pietro D’Agostino, from the one star Michelin restaurant, La Capinera, in Taormina, brought along five of his staff, plus local ingredients and fine matching wines. Even better, like all the events, after the meal, he promised to demonstrate how the dishes were cooked.
I arrive at the hotel, grab a glass of Prosecco, and check the six course menu. Pietro will be cooking three, Xenia’s resident chef, Andrea Angeletti, will do two and dessert will come from pastry chef Manuele Francesco, of the Nuova Dolceria in Syracuse, Sicily. It seems that I’m in safe hands as Pietro, still only in his mid-thirties, has had an illustrious career with stints at the Dorchester, Le Meridien Lingotto in Turin, and then winning a Michelin star in 2008 for his restaurant La Capinera. He tells me that his dishes are based on traditional recipes, keeping alive the memory and the smells of his childhood, yet giving them an innovative and creative twist.
I see what he’s getting at when I sample the first of his courses. Peeled king prawns nestle on a bed of shredded red onion, surrounded by an almond and orange sauce. It’s the wild fennel, mixed in with the onion, which reminds me of the true taste of Sicily and the prawns are so fresh they’re barely cooked. Next it’s thin slices of black cod, with olives and Marsala marinated capers, resting on cubed potato, in a lake of lettuce puree. It could almost be nursery food, yet the green sauce raises it to Michelin-star status.
Pietro sticks with fish for his final course and I get a perfectly cooked piece of turbot with roasted baby artichoke, asparagus, aubergine and crispy squid. This is a marvellous combination of textures and flavours, simple yet refined, and makes me vow to visit him on his home ground in Taormina. Earlier he’d described his cuisine as genuine and modest, far from sophisticated, but I suspect he was just balancing expectations.
There are wine pairings with each course, all from vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna, nourished by the volcanic soil. Sicilian wines are only now beginning to get the recognition they deserve and of particular interest is an organic Aitho Rosso 2012, but I also like their organic white. There’s only enough space to mention resident chef Andrea Angeletti’s dishes, scallops with noodles and sea food ravioli, but both make me feel I could come back to sample more of his cooking.
At the end of this marathon, pastry chef Manuel Francesco takes over with an excellent pre-dessert of almond panna cotta with caramelised almond topping and mandarin heart. Finally he serves up what he calls his toffee sandwich with ricotta cheese and pistachio and I can only manage a few mouthfuls. By now it’s almost midnight and I’m slightly relieved that time has run out for the cookery demonstrations. If every one of these Italian events is as good as this first one, then it’s well worth an outing – and all for the bargain price of £65 including a glass of Prosecco on arrival.