A helpful way to understand any society in history is to study its cuisine. Sicily is especially fascinating due to influence from other civilizations throughout its history. The Greeks, Phoenicians, Iberians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and Angevins have all shaped Sicilian traditions, including cuisine. It wasn’t until 1860 that Sicily became a part of the Kingdom of Italy.
Over the centuries, Sicily has developed layers of interesting culinary traditions and unique flavor combinations. If you begin to study Sicilian cuisine, you will undoubtedly encounter Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza di Mazzarino, one of the important historians of Sicilian food and wine.
She has written several important cookbooks, including The Flavors of Sicily, Herbs and Wild Greens from the Sicilian Countryside, The Heart of Sicily, and The Garden of Endangered Fruit. In 1989 she began The World of Regaleali cooking school at the family’s estate, which is also home to famous vineyards, groves, and gardens.
The Amazon.com review of her book, The Heart of Sicily, captures the spirit of Anna Tasca Lanza:
Many cookbooks tempt, inform, and inspire. A few capture the essence of a place, but rarely does a cookbook communicate the very soul of a place. Anna Tasca Lanza’s telling of life at Regaleali, the vast estate that has belonged to her family since 1830, is so vivid that you feel her sitting next to you, talking and turning the pages of The Heart of Sicily as if it were a photo album.
Tasca Lanza provides enough information about Sicily’s complex history and rich culture to help you understand the special nature of Regaleali and what her noble family – rich with barones, principessas, and contessas – has created. Under their stewardship, this working estate has become an international cooking school. It is also the place where Tasca Lanza pursues her passion for preserving the abundant culinary and cultural traditions of Sicily.
The short video below, narrated by her daughter Fabrizia, gives a glimpse of the beautiful estate:
In February 2005, after Bellavitae had been open less than two months, we asked Anna if we could feature her at a private dinner that would include recipes from her cookbooks paired with wines from the Regaleali estate. We would call it A Night in Sicily. Much to our delight, she enthusiastically accepted. She publicized the event on the Regaleali website where it remains today:
Anna Tasca Lanza, from The World of Regaleali, will be hosting a dinner at a new restaurant in New York. She will be at Bellavitae on Tuesday, February 15, 2005. There is a reception from 6:30-7:30 pm where you can meet this fabulous chef, and a dinner following at 7:30 pm. The dinner will be a special five-course menu featuring Sicilian dishes prepared from Anna’s cookbooks and will include a tasting of Regaleali Tasca d’Almerita wines and olive oil. A Night in Sicily will be a rare opportunity to meet and talk to a noted culinary authority and taste the flavors of Sicily here in the United States.
The evening was delightful. Guests enjoyed the food and wine pairings, as well as the interaction with one of Sicily’s food and wine authorities.
One dish stood out that evening, and it was the cauliflower. It was so impressive that we asked her if we could put it on our menu. She said, “Certo!” [Of course!]. In order to acknowledge the recipe’s source properly, we call it Cavolfiore ‘Anna’ [Cauliflower ‘Anna’].
By far, the most popular dish on Bellavitae’s menu is Cavolfiore ‘Anna.’ Imagine, the item most ordered at an Italian trattoria is a vegetable!
There are several Sicilian dishes that are similar to this recipe, including Pasta con i Broccoli Arriminati [Pasta – usually bucatini – with cauliflower, saffron, pine nuts, onion, currants, anchovies and toasted breadcrumbs]. But I suspect her recipe is based on a more well-known dish called Cavolfiore con l’Uvetta e i Pignoli [Cauliflower with Raisins and Pine Nuts]. Raisins and pine nuts in a dish divulge its Sicilian origin.
Anna substitutes currants for the raisins and adds caramelized onions. Genius. The flavors work exceptionally well together, and the sensation in the palate is most pleasing. The juxtaposition of contrasting flavors and textures create perfect balance. No wonder it’s so popular!
We thank Anna Tasca Lanza for her great work in researching, documenting, and promoting Sicilian culture, especially the region’s food and wine. And we think of her every time someone orders Cavolfiore ‘Anna.’
Here’s an excerpt from her biography that appears on the cooking school’s website:
I was the first of four children. Welcomed with great joy but with one regret: I was not a boy.
My family lived a very comfortable life. My grandparents were very much present along with my parents, a brother and two sisters. At the age of 15, I was sent to Lausanne to study at the école menagère Briamond, to learn how to be a good wife. It was a revelation to me: I learned many things, from embroidery to French cooking. When I came home after two years my father put me to the test immediately, asking me to prepare choux au fromage, which turned out perfectly (to my good fortune). But then nothing happened; for years I never again touched a saucepan. In the meantime I married Venceslao Lanza di Mazzarino, son of a great Sicilian noble family who was accustomed to eating international cuisine prepared by the cooks of the family, once called Monsù.
Mine was not exactly what one would call the life of an average housewife. I lived with Lanza in a huge palazzo in the center of Palermo, where nobody had any idea what went on in the kitchen and where the chef, every evening, questioned Count Fabrizio, my father-in-law, about what was wanted for the following day’s menu. None of us, and above all my mother-in-law, the lady of the house, ever set foot in the kitchen. These, as you can see, were other times!
When Fabrizia was born, we moved into our own household, and this changed our relationship with food because I suddenly found myself facing the stove. Encouraged by my parents, I set up a little cooking school at Regaleali, the family vineyards, assisted, at first, by my sisters Costanza and Rosemarie. I began to visit America, year after year, and got to know that extraordinary country where, with great freedom, everyone– young and old, women, men and children—is offered an opportunity in life. I got to know the world of people who work with food, all so generous and encouraging about my Sicilian adventure. In 1989 I had my first group of American students.
Promoting my school and our wines, I did a little bit of everything, writing several Sicilian cookbooks in English (these had great success), giving talks and demonstrations at the Smithsonian, with James Beard, at Cipriani, at the Culinary Institute of America. Perhaps the most moving thing I’ve done in my career was to give the Commencement speech at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, saluting and encouraging young Americans as they began their life as chefs.