This weekend we had dinner in Italy
a gorgeous rustic Italian spread served on the southern island of Sicily….
Not literally, of course, but for the 13 courses of our home cooked feast you couldn’t have told me otherwise.
Friday night was the friends and family service for the next NEXT menu: Sicily
(think: dress rehearsal for a restaurant - a final run through before opening the dining room to ticket holders)
A generous…and flattering….invite from Chef Dave.
Oh my god, Oh Mio Dio,
It was something else!
Where previous NEXT menus were more interpretive or retrospective
The Sicily experience was transportative
(Is that even a word? If not, then) I mean to say this menu transported us….into the home of a little old Italian woman who cooks from rote memory with ingredients at hand: sardines caught fresh off the coastline, vegetables of the land, hand-pressed pasta and pastel pastries piped with intricate lace-like designs.
Apparently, the team had some back and forth abut how to best frame this menu, how to showcase the dishes for Sicily
Chef Achatz explained:
"You have to make a philosophical decision if you want to make it authentic or your version of it, but you have to make that decision….There’s no wrong answer, but if we frame it as authentic Sicilian rustic cuisine, that’s what we need to do. If we do Dave Beran’s interpretation, we do that. Either way we’re going to win because it’s going to be delicious.”
They opted for authentic
and they delivered on delicious.
The serving pieces were hand painted platters that looked like family dishes lifted right from my great nana’s hutch.
The music was the soundtrack from spirited village gatherings a la the God Father.
And the wine! Oh the wine flowed like your drunk Italian uncle was in charge of the casks (for those of us who were not pregnant, that is….
but I can’t complain, my NA pairings were the best that I have ever had…the best the NEXT has ever served)
We arrived to our table and were greeted by a hand-written note, sealed with red wax emblazoned with the NEXT logo.
The Best food of Sicily is found in the homes and hearts of its people. Welcome
signed Chef DB & GA
And then it began!
The opening course - 4 plates: Anitpasti (Eggplant Caponata, Panelle for dipping, Rice balls stuffed with goat and charred Artichoke…prepped on a Weber Grill out back.)
Followed by 2 bowls of pasta (Bucatini & Gemelli, if you know your noodles)
There was a chunk of swordfish that I am still dreaming about and fried garbanzo beans over a perfectly seasoned chickpea salad that gave it texture, depth and a flavor that I won’t soon forget
For the meat course (a luxury on Sicilian menus), a family style serving of braised pork shoulder accompanied by a bowl of zucchini, prepared just the way Chef Beran’s grandfather used to make.
Then, a blood orange ice to cleanse our palate
before the dessert that actually made us laugh out loud.
The sweets were…. delightful!
The staff paraded out a cassata - a traditional sicilian sponge cake filled with liqueur and ricotta, covered in the distinctive pastel (housemade) marzipan.
Before slicing our pieces, they showed off the masterpiece with a pageantry Italians typically reserve for great food and beautiful women.
This cake was something else - just gaudy enough to have come straight out of a Sicilian lady’s kitchen….
And like an encore, one more plate of Dolci before sending us on our way:
Mini Cannolis, Strawberry Ravioli, Candied fruits and a pair of Fresh Cherries.
It was so… familiar
In a funny way, the meal (and the desserts in particular) made me miss my great Italian grandmother who I only know from stories, made me long for a spot around the packed table for the Sunday supers she spent the week preparing for her family
and it is worth noting, everyone was family.
There was not a misstep on this menu.
Not a moment that felt forced or out-of-sync.
The food and service oozed a warmth that is hard to imagine in a restaurant, a fine dining one at that.
But NEXT isn’t a restaurant, really.
They are performers who use food (some of the best food in the world),
among many others things,
to take you on a journey
Paris 1906, Their Childhood in Michigan, 20 years at elBulli
and on Friday night, to Italy
to the heart of the home… a kitchen in Sicily.
[images via Next Restaunt FB page]