Richard Foss

The Sicilian connection [restaurant review]

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San Pedro's newest restaurant offers the real Sicilian cuisine

Owner Rita Gintoli stands on La Sicialiana’s outside patio holding a sandwich on homemade flatbread. Photo by JP Cordero

I was thinking about how strange it must be for an Italian who visits California for the first time. They might start in San Diego and try a few meals in local restaurants, and then when they come to Los Angeles the food tastes exactly the same. Then they go to San Francisco, or Humboldt, and there’s still no difference. This is inconceivable, not a thing that can happen where they come from.

California and Italy are just about the same size (Italy’s smaller), yet Italy has over a hundred distinct regional cuisines, dialects, and subcultures. Let’s go for a more relatable example: Sicily, the island at the toe of the Italian boot, is almost exactly twice the size of Los Angeles County, but has six different dialects that are almost unintelligible to a mainland Italian living 100 miles away. The culinary diversity mirrors the linguistic diversity, creating a rich variety of regional specialties.

Until recently there were no authentic Sicilian restaurants in our area – there were places that had a Sicilian style item on the menu alongside Tuscan and Neapolitan items, but that’s not the same thing. If you want to experience Sicilan flavors, with hospitality to match, the place to go is La Siciliana in San Pedro. Rita Gintoli and her family opened the place early this year after emigrating from a town in the west part of the island, and she’s serving the authentic article.

The restaurant on Sixth Street was previously an undistinguished pizza and sandwich shop, and La Siciliana is a distinct upgrade. Their neat dining patio is accented with plants in window boxes and marked by a line of red umbrellas, and despite moderate street noise it’s a pleasant spot to dine. When you arrive you’ll probably be greeted by Ms. Gintoli, who has an effervescent personality and the energy of a hummingbird. She seems to be everywhere at once, welcoming guests, poking into the kitchen to see what is happening, and stopping at tables to explain the dishes to guests. She somehow manages this while protecting a cheerful charm, which is miraculous.

We had to start with one of the most typically Sicilian dishes, the arancini made of rice wrapped around savory ingredients and then briefly deep fried. Rice came to Sicily in the 1300s when the island was ruled by the Arabs, and it has probably been used there longer than anywhere else in Europe. They’ve had time to perfect their technique so that the exterior is crisp, the layer of rice very moist and slightly chewy, with the center hot. The ones served here are large, and an order of two gives nibble sized appetizers for four or a more substantial starter for two. We picked the spinach with prosciutto and parmesan and the four cheese that contains parmesan, mozzarella, romano, and blue. (If blue cheese doesn’t sound Italian to you, you might consider Gorgonzola, which is made near Milan.) Ms. Gintoli said that if she was making this at home in Sicily she’d use a local cheese, but she has recreated the same flavor balance.

The menu has many familiar items, but when you order them you might find that they’re subtly different from what you expected. The Mediterreanea salad of cooked vegetables over fresh greens, is not strictly traditional, but is a good example. There are pieces of sliced grilled zucchini around the edge, the mix of onions and peppers on top were sautéed just to doneness so the peppers are fruity rather than smoky and tender rather than leathery. It takes more effort to do this in three stages, but the payoff is there.

Italians generally have salads as either the last course before dessert or as a side dish – having them first is an American habit. We enjoyed ours as a starter along with Sicilian flatbread, which is actually their pizza dough without anything on top of it. At most places that would be boring, but the dough here is 24-hour fermented sourdough that rises well and has some flavor of its own. If you’re going to have a pizza then you’ll experience this, but if not I’d recommend getting it.

The Pizzas at La Siciliana are huge, square, and topped with varied ingredients. Photo by Richard Foss

I ordered a pizza as an entrée, despite the fact that Ms. Gintoli warned me that it was really enough for two. It was – a gigantic square of dough topped with thin layers of marinara sauce and mozzarella and a well-balanced layer of toppings. I selected the capricciosa, with ham, artichoke, olives, mushrooms, and peas, and I’d recommend it as a main course or as a starter for a party of four or six. You’ll probably still have some to take home, but the thick, light dough reheats better than thinner versions. (If you’re wondering why Sicilians make square pizzas, I don’t have an answer for that. The round ones probably came about because traditional bread ovens are round, but in a modern oven a square one makes as much sense.)

I’ve tried four other starters: spinach and ricotta ravioli, gnocchi, chicken parmesan, and vegetarian lasagna. The marinara sauce that was served with the ravioli and gnocchi was more mildly flavored than I expected, with a background of herbs and a breath of garlic but not as assertive as Neapolitan or New York versions. It’s warm and slightly fruity with no single flavor dominating. Some of the pastas here are made fresh, but not these – Ms. Gintoli gets them from an Italian specialty supplier. I now wish I had tried their homemade tagliatelle so I could compare the difference, but taken on their own merits they were both enjoyable.

Those who read my reviews may notice that we order chicken parmesan a lot, and there’s a reason for that – it’s one of my wife’s favorite dishes, and since she gets it a lot we can make comparisons between the styles at different places. It’s a simple dish, but people find all kinds of ways to make it, some more satisfying than others. Here the sauce and cheese are accents to the meat, and the dusting of parmesan is a more pronounced flavor than the mozzarella. It’s the best I can remember having in a long time, and that’s coming from someone who eats them a lot.

The vegetarian lasagna was also very successful and had a different flavor balance – there was no red sauce at all, with the sheets of noodles layered with grilled vegetables, mozzarella, bechamel sauce, and mozzarella. The noodles themselves were thin so the dish wasn’t heavy or bricklike, and the herbed bechamel was subtly fragrant. I think there might have been a bit of capers or olives adding a dimension, because there was a subtle pickled flavor in the background, but I can’t be sure. However they achieved that layered, dimensional flavor, it was well done.

We tried three desserts, the housemade tiramisu and cannoli and an ice cream and chocolate bomba that was brought in. The bomba was good but not exceptional, the other two excellent. I’ve had tiramisu lately that was overly sweet and one dimensional, but this had plenty of dark chocolate to balance the coffee and a fine background flavor of marsala wine. Some people leave the wine out or add it in microscopic quantities, but it was a full but not over-assertive partner here. Marsala is made in Sicily, so some pride in local ingredients may be involved. The cannoli were obviously freshly filled, the tubular biscuit crisp while the sweet cheese filling was fresh and creamy. There was a little candied citron and no detectable chocolate, but since cannoli were invented in Sicily this is probably the definitive version.

The wine list is short and, not surprisingly, slanted toward Italian wines. The prices are moderate and pours are generous, so try some by the glass even if you’re not familiar with them. I hope they expand the variety, because there are some excellent and little known wines from Sicily and I’d like to try more of them.

Dinner at La Siciliana is surprisingly inexpensive, with the food cost of a lavish dinner for four running about $30 per person before tip. This is remarkable for the quality here, and should make this a destination for those who appreciate Italian food the way they make it in the old country. Add in the charming and prompt service and there’s only one question – why would you not dine here, given a chance?

La Siciliana is at 347 W 6th Street in San Pedro. Opens at noon daily except Monday, closes 8:30 p.m. Tues. -Thur., 9 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Sun. Street parking only. Patio dining, wine and beer served, no corkage fee. Reservations highly recommended. Phone 424-570-0101, menu at eatlasiciliana.com. Pen

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