EVERYONE EATS Italian; few eat Sicilian. Even the one New York restaurant that calls itself Sicilian has a paucity of native dishes on the menu, says Franz Aliquo sadly.
It's not that the food isn't lively and tasty, or that it con't stand on its own. "It's very different from Italian," Aliquo said with conviction, "absolutely another cuisine. But it's a cuisine of the poor -- nothing fancy -- and is best represented in family recipes. Sicilians are not really restaurant-oriented. So what most Americans have come to know is the cooking of Naples."
Aliquo was born on the Mediterrenean Sea's largest island and now lives on Roosevelt Island in the middle of New York's East River. He came to live in New York five years ago as general manager of Richard-Ginori, the Milan ceramics firm that has a shop on Fifth Avenue. Aliquo's wife, Guja, manages the shop.
As with many working couples, they both cook. Guja Aliquo, a slim, dynamic woman, is a specialist at preparing pasta. But her husband, who has degrees in law and business administration, becomes the chef whenever there is company. "I like it [cooking]," he said. "For me, it is a way of relaxing."
One recent evening about a dozen guests gathered in the Aliquo's apartment, including a neice and nephew had arrived from Palermo only a few days previously. The Aliquo's 4-year-old son was bounding about and between the guests, chattering interchangably in Italian and English. It was Monday, a good evening to entertain because Franz Aliquo had been able to prepare most of the dishes for his buffet supper over the weekend.
As the guests settled in, he withdrew to the kitchen and began preparing risotto. This is not a dish for the nervous hostess or host. It demands the cook's almost total attention for half an hour. Franz Aliquo was up to the task and, due to a pass-through into the dining area, wasn't totally cut off from the guests. As he stirred the rice (an American brand; he does not insist on using imported rice), he explained that Sicilian cooking is based on products readily available on and around the island -- fish, vegetables, olive oil, wine -- and has been influenced over the centuries by Mediterranean neighbors such as the Greeks, the Spanish and Arabs from North Africa.
"There are many spices not often used in Italian cuisine," he said. "Our food is spicy and with a lot of garlic. We use saffron and pine nuts and raisins. Vegetables are very important. We put them in pasta dishes and even make vegetable salads. We do pasta with fish. There is one I like with fresh sardines and wild fennel. I can make it here. during the winter they have wild fennel on 9th Avenue."
Ironically, many basic ingredients of this peasant cuisine have become very expensive, at least if purchased in supermarkets here. One can save on olive oil and spices in ethnic groceries. But cost is a factor.
In New York, Aliquo is able to obtain almost any ingredient he needs. He does rely on canned Italian tomatoes instead of fresh, but his favourite olive oil -- Saica -- is available; so are Sicilian wines such as Alcamo and Corvo and superb pecorino cheese with pepper-corns in it. His menu of the evening in question included baby goat.
Once he was called on to cook in Atlanta. "It was impossible to make just what I wanted," he acknowledged. As a result, he has been collecting American books on Italian cooking to learn what ingredients are used here as substitutes. In preparing this dinner, He did use frozen vegetables -- artichoke hearts, lima beans and peas -- to create a vegetables frittedda, which isn't really fried despite the name.
American guests, he said, are very receptive to the Sicilian fare he prepares. But he shook his head sadly when askem about eating in Italian restaurants. "Some are good, but most are unsatisfactory," he said."There is always something wrong, something lacking. When I ask why they don't do the original recipes, they say people will not understand. That it is too expensive. That they can do something close, save money and the effect is the same.
"I do not agree. I think people here can appreciate authentic food."
As a result, when the Aliquos dine out, they bypass Italian restaurants for Chinese or American. At home, however, the menu is Italian. "I lack the patience for some of the things the French do," Franz Aliquo said. "They are much more sophisticated, but they are much more fussy too. Our cooking is very country in style. It is very spontaneous and it welcomes improvisation."
"But what speciality is Sicily known for?" asked a friend, a Nothern Italian, at the pass through. "Eggplant?"
Franz Aliquo laughed and quickly cited some of Sicily's culinary achievements. Dried pasta supposedly was introduced to Italy from Sicily. The concept had migrated to the island from North Africa long before Marco Polo's voyage. Also, Sicily has put in a claim as the birthplace of ice cream.
He went on to serve several others: Caponata, the risotto with a spicy tomato sauce and squid, the frettedda and baby goat, aggrassatu . The wine was Corvo. Cannoli (store-bought) and expresso concluded the meal. It proved a rich panorama of colors and a tantalizing mix of flavors. As promised, the various dishes were more complex than the virtual one-dimensional taste of Neapolitan restaurant fare.
The china was a beautifil Ginori pattern, which may explain why the plates were cleaned so thoroughly.
More likely, however, it was because the food tasted so good.
CAPONATA (4 servings) About 1 1/2 cups olive oil 1/2 cup diced onion 16 to 20 imported green olives, without pimiento 3 or 4 peeled Italian tomatoes, plus a little juice 2 tablespoons tomato paste, plus 1/2 cup warm water 1 to 2 teaspoons sugar 2 teaspoons vinegar 2 tablespoons capers 1/4 cup chopped parsely Salt and pepper to taste 2 ribs celery 1 medium eggplant, cubed, salted and left to drain for 30 minutes 1 green pepper, seeded and sliced
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a high-sided frying pan or deep saucepan. Saute onion until soft. Add olives and tomatoes, tomato paste and water. Cook, covered for 10 minutes. Crush tomatoes with a wodden spoon and stir in sugar, vinegar, capers, salt and pepper to taste and 2 tablespoons parsely.
Meanwhile heat enough oil (about 1 1/2 cups) to come at least 1/2 inch up the side of a frying or sauce pan. Cook celery over low heat without browning for 3 minutes. Add eggplant to the celery and raise flame. Cook and stir for 5 to 7 minutes. Add the green pepper strips. Cook until just past crisp, season with salt and pepper. Remove vegetables from oil with a slotted spoon and transfer to pan with tomato sauce. Cook an additional 10 minutes. Season well. Remove from heat and chill. Make this dish at least one day ahead if possible. Serve at room temperature.
FRITTEDDA (6 servings) 6 to 8 small artichokes or 2 boxes frozen artichoke hearts Juice of 1 lemon 3/4 cup olive oil 1 medium onoin, thinly sliced, blanched in boiling water for 5 minutes and drained. 1/2 pound shelled fresh peas, or 1 package (10 ounces) frozen 1/2 pound shelled fava or lima beans, or 1 package (10 ounces) frozen Salt and pepper to taste 3 tablespoons wine vinegar 1/2 tablespoon sugar
Remove exterior leaves and choke from fresh artichokes and cut each one into 4 or 6 sections. Place in a bowl, add lemon juice and cover with water. (Merely defrost frozen artichoke hearts.)
Heat oil in a high-sided frying pan and cook blanched onion until golden. Drain artichokes and add them to the pan. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add peas and beans. Stir for 2 to 3 minutes, then add 1/2 cup water and some salt. Cover and simmer gently for 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, adding more water as needed. Test artichoke pieces. If underdone, continue to cook until they are tender.
Mix vinegar and sugar in a cup, add to pan and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, sugar or vinegar. Cool and refrigerate. Serve at room temperature.
PASTA WITH "STRANGLED" CAULIFLOWER SAUCE (for 4 to 6 servings) 1 cauliflower, leaves, core and stems cut away 1 cup olive oil 1 medium onion, finely chopped 2 large anchovies, deboned, or 4 flat anchovy fillets 2 tablespoons pine nuts 2 tablespoons black raisins 1 or 2 envelopes ground saffron Salt and freshly ground pepper 1 pound pasta, preferably ziti
Cut cauliflower buds into walnut-size pieces and bring to a boil in 2 quarts salted water. Boil rapidly until cauliflower pieces become tender and begin to break apart. Strain, reserving cooking water.
Heat oil in a deep frying pan along with chopped onion and anchovies. When oil is deep gold and anchovies have dissolved, lower heat and add cauliflower. Stir and crush pieces with a wodden spoon. Cook for 5 minutes, then add pine nuts and raisins. Continue crushing and stirring until a completely smooth, thick sauce has formed. If needed, add more oil as sauce cooks.
Add saffron, salt and pepper. Mix well, taste and adjust seasoning.
Bring cauliflower water to a boil in another pan. Add pasta and cook until just al dente . Drain, add to the sauce, toss and cook over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Serve at once.
RISOTTO WITH SEAFOOD SAUCE (4 servings) 1 1/2 pounds squid, cleaned, or a mixture of squid and octopus 1/2 pound small shrimp, shelled 3/4 cup olive oil 3 cloves garlic, chopped 1 or 2 dried red pepper, or red pepper flakes to taste About 2 cups dry white wine 1 pound tomatoes, peeled and chopped, with their juice (use canned Italian tomatoes except in summer) 1 tablespoon tomato paste 4 tablespoons chopped parsley 2 envelopes saffron 1 small onion, finely chopped 1 1/2 cups long-grain rice Salt and pepper to taste
The sauce must be made first and can be prepared well ahead. Heat 1/2 cup olive oil in a 2-quart saucepan. Add garlic and red pepper and cook over moderate heat until garlic is golden. Add squid. Cook and turn for about 2 minutes, then add 1 cup of wine. Simmer until wine has evaporated, then add tomatoes and tomato paste. Simmer, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes, adding shrimp for final 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, lower heat and simmer uncovered for an additional 5 to 10 minutes. At the end of this time, add the contents of 1 envelope saffron and stir. Taste and adjust seasoning. 1it should be spicy.
To prepare the risotto, heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a deep saucepan or highsided frying pan with chopped onion.
When onion begins to brown, pour in the rice and stir to coat the grains with oil. When rice begins to take on color, add 1/2 cup white wine. Stir until wine begins to evaporate, then add 1 or 2 ladles of sauce. Liquid should come to the top of the rice without drowning it. Stir frequently and add sauce over the next 15 to 20 minutes to keep the liquid level constant. Then add another 1/2 cup of wine. Taste a few grains. They should be firm in the center, but not tough. (if underdone, continue to add sauce or wine.)
Add about a third of the seafood and continue stirring. At the end stir in contnnts of 1 envelope saffron, 2 tablespoons chopped parsley. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Spoon risotto into a serving bowl or into individual bowls and arrange remaining seafood on top. Serve at once. This dish is never served with grated cheese.
SWORDFISH WITH SALMORIGLIO SAUCE (4 servings) 2 swordfish steaks, about 1 pound each, cut at least 1 inch thick with skin intact Juice of 3 lemons 1 cup olive oil 1/2 cup water 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and crushed 2 tablespoons chopped parsley 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Pat fish steaks dry with paper towels. Mix lemon juice, oil, water, garlic, parsley, oregano, salt and pepper to create a sauce. Marinate steaks in sauce for 20 to 30 minutes while oven or charcoal grill is heating. Broil steaks, basting frequently and turning once, until nicely Browned and firm to the touch of a finger, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat, cut into cubes if desired, season with salt and pepper and serve with additional sauce on the side. CAPTION: Picture, "Sicilian food is spicy with a lot of garlic," says Franz Aliquo pictured here with his son Franz Jr; by Michael P. Cardacino for the Washington Post