You can't turn a corner in Contra Costa County without passing an Italian restaurant. According to one local Web directory, Italian restaurants in the county outnumber French restaurants more than five to one. But how many specialize in Sicilian food?
"Well, there's also Salvatore's in Walnut Creek," offers Andrea Ditta, the Sicilian chef-owner of Lafayette's La Finestra Ristorante, when I call him on the phone. We think a little. None of us can come up with a third. La Finestra is, then, a rare regional Italian restaurant in a region of regionless trattorias. Sort of.
Ditta learned to cook from his mother growing up in Sicily, but never thought about a life in restaurants until he moved to Tuscany, where he cooked for five years. Wedded to the kitchen life, he then moved to Menlo Park, cooked in Italian restaurants there for ten years, and finally opened his own place in Lafayette three years ago. That's how La Finestra has come to specialize in Tuscan -- American-friendly Tuscan in particular -- and more excitingly unfamiliar Sicilian food.
The largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily has been invaded and reinvaded since the beginning of written history. After the Phoenicians and the Greeks (who introduced olives), and long domination by the Romans (wine, grapes, and wheat), the Arabs (citrus, raisin grapes, rice, sugarcane) controlled Sicily for three hundred years during the Middle Ages. Minor-league conquerors such as the Normans and Swabians took charge for short stints, but the real controlling powers of the modern era were the Spaniards, who imported all that the New World had to offer, and the great Italian sea powers of Pisa and Genoa.
These waves of invaders left a complex cultural hodgepodge. On the one hand, Giuliano Bugialli, author of Foods of Sicily and Sardinia, claims that Sicily's isolation from the mainland has helped it to preserve Roman culinary traditions. On the other hand, the Arab influence shows up in the profusion of citrus flavors, a predilection for sweet-sour, and the use of mint and saffron. At La Finestra, Ditta's Sicilian influences show up in the brightest, most distinctive dishes on the menu.
On my first visit I had to circle around downtown Lafayette several times to find the restaurant, which is not only tucked behind a shopping plaza but is hidden in a brown-shingled two-story office building. Inside, the window-clad room (finestra means "window") wraps around the kitchen and waiters' station. At night the half-full restaurant felt serene and comfortable.
We were greeted with a round of menus and descriptions of all the nightly specials. We then asked about wines by the glass, and our waiter launched into another rapid litany. Just as we started to worry about being pestered by overbearing service, the waiter ducked into the kitchen and appeared with a basket of warm housemade focaccia, crispy-edged and spongy in the center. A second basket silently appeared with our appetizers. Instant charm.
The focaccia came in handy for La Finestra's best appetizer -- actually, the best dish of the evening: the gambaroni all'uva pana, large sautéed shrimp on small toast squares with raisins and pine nuts heaped on top. We first used the croutons and then all the remaining focaccia and our fingers to scoop up the surrounding pool of sauce, which was redolent with browned garlic, saffron, and shrimp juices, and spiked with hot pepper. The other two appetizers played respectable second-string positions. Eggplant involtini consisted of thinly sliced, grilled eggplant rolled around fresh ricotta (imported from Tuscany, according to Ditta) and napped with a standard-issue tomato sauce that didn't obscure the delicate flavors of the eggplant and cheese. In the insalata Siciliana, four thick cross-slices of orange were crowned with four slices of fennel and arranged around a small clump of perfectly dressed mixed greens, whose vinaigrette counterbalanced the sweet and crunchy fruit-vegetable stacks.
Unfortunately, on my first visit salt was a serious problem -- in some cases, the only flaw marring well-executed and otherwise well-seasoned dishes. Salt dominated the penne carbonara, tossed with bacon, onions, and peas in a golden cream sauce enriched with egg yolks and Parmesan. Vitellina con porcini, tender milk-fed veal scaloppine, was slathered in salty melted butter and mushrooms. The cannelloni beans baked with tomatoes and the thin strips of sautéed zucchini alongside suffered the same fate.
The Sicilian influence was harder to spot amid the familiar Italian pastas and meat dishes. But it showed up in one of the nightly specials, roasted halibut with black olives, pine nuts, and cherry tomatoes. A dark balsamic glaze, fulsome and not too acidic, coated the fish and blended in perfectly with the bitter earthiness of the olives. Each bite of cherry tomato brought a fresh, clean tang that cut through the richer sauce.
Throughout the meal, our waiter returned to discreetly check in. As he cleared away the entrée plates, we asked him for a dessert menu. "Unfortunately, you can't," he replied. "This is a talky restaurant, so I have to describe them all."
From his list -- familiar to any Californian who knows how to twirl pasta round her fork -- we picked a tiramisu, not a high, fluffy confection but a robust, creamy square dark with cocoa. Real ladyfingers dipped in real brandy were layered with real coffee-flavored mascarpone. As authentic as authentic gets in Lafayette were the cannoli. Grainy, sweet ricotta studded with miniature chocolate chips spilled out of the freshly fried crepe tubes.
The sun was shining on my second lunchtime visit, so my friend and I sat on the front steps in the shade of a ripe walnut tree, with a small fountain burbling beside. The same waiter reappeared, but the salt problem didn't.
In fact, I added a touch of salt to the insalata Ericina (a town in Sicily), slices of potato stacked single-decker on thick slices of ripe but not ripe mid-May tomatoes. Spoonfuls of a balsamic vinaigrette filled with torn fresh mint leaves were drizzled on top of the fall-spring combination. More substantial was a trio of cylindrical ricotta-and-spinach dumplings bathed in a chunky tomato-basil sauce oddly described as a Sicilian pesto.
Once again, the more Sicilian the better. I could have tried the perfectly fine Cal-Italian pollo al vino rosso at any Italian restaurant in the county. Chunks of pancetta had been tucked into a slit in a skinless chicken breast, which was then pan-roasted until moist and bathed in a sweet red wine sauce. A tangle of fettuccine in a creamy tomato sauce didn't necessarily complement the chicken but didn't take away from it either. But few of La Finestra's competitors could have made the pedestrian-sounding vegetarian fusilli all'ortolana so distinctive. Corkscrew pasta, carrots, zucchini, and artichokes were coated in a robust, almost bombastically hearty sauce of tomatoes, garlic, olives, and fruity extra-virgin olive oil.
In a community saturated with Italian eateries, it's important to call out the few that dare to do something different. The Sicilian dishes on La Finestra's menu -- like the restaurant itself -- are worth the search.
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