Anissa Helou

Trapani might be part of Italy, but for chef Anissa Helou, the port town in Sicily’s northwest evoked vivid memories of growing up in Lebanon and Syria: so much so that the James Beard-winning author of Feast: Food of the Islamic World relocated there from London. For almost a decade, Helou has immersed herself in the Sicilian way of life and added a rich new layer to her understanding of Mediterranean and Islamic food cultures. In Helou’s Trapani, food is about family, regional traditions and an intimate relationship with both land and sea.
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Why I Moved From London To Trapani 

The first thing that drew me to Sicily was its resemblance to Lebanon and Syria. It’s extraordinary how similar they are. I made my decision to move here a decade ago after going to Sicily for the olive harvest. I thought ‘My God!’ How similar it was to Mashta al-Helou in Syria or Rechmaya where we used to spend our summer holidays in Lebanon. The harvest, the olive oil tasting, the way they eat: I decided there and then that I would buy a piece of land and build a house. The friend whose olive harvest I was at introduced me to someone who would show me four options in one day, one of which turned out to be my dream property. 

What Life Was Like Before Globalisation

Eating out in Sicily feels very much like life before globalisation. Everything from the trattorie and the rather big restaurants to the cafés, bars and street food spots, is still how it was. Nothing seems to have changed that much. It’s often very good, modest and honest food, and in the good places it can be excellent. You may have mediocre places, but you don’t have particularly bad places. The presentation is always simple. The colours of the plates are often not that pretty, but the food is very tasty, at least in the places I choose to go to. Most of the time, the businesses are run by families, like in Osteria La Dolce Vita, my favourite restaurant in Trapani. The husband is in the front-of-house and runs the business, while the wife cooks in the kitchen. She’s quite glamorous in a sort of Trapanese way. It’s funny, because she’s not very happy to be in the kitchen, but she cooks very good food presented in a limited menu. It’s homestyle cooking cooked perfectly. The husband has his own fishermen sources whom he buys directly from. The wife has two sisters who are also cooks, and one sister has another restaurant called Trattoria Del Corso near the place I rented while I was renovating my flat.

Trapani’s Best Known Chef

Trapani is a provincial town with a very limited market. The people there don’t like spending too much money. Serisso 47 is the only restaurant in town that’s on the fancy and expensive side and where the chef is actually known: if not on an international level then at least on a national level. His name is Gaetano Basiricò and he makes elegant Sicilian food that is absolutely delicious. You can have a cold pea and mollusc purée with datterini tomatoes and stracciatella; or a squid and vegetable dish inspired by the Sicilian dish, cacio all’argentiera (“silversmith cheese”).

Where I Buy Bread and Coffee 

I buy my bread from Panificio A Maidda. Pietro Cardillo is a really good baker and has worked for Niko Romito, one of the top chefs in Italy. He makes excellent sourdough bread from ancient grains with great attention to detail and he’s at the shop all the time. His focaccias filled with cheese and meats are also excellent. There’s a nice, new bakery and café called 242, which was refurbished by architect Gaspare Bellafiore who also did my flat. I’m not a coffee freak but I like to go to Caffe Piccadilly in the historic centre. It also makes sandwiches. 

Pizza, Sicily-Style

Sicilian-style pizza is called ‘sfincione’ because it’s kind of spongier. Even my favourite baker doesn’t make a great sfincione, but there is a place in Trapani called Pasticceria Bellezza where I used to order very good sfincione from when I had big drink parties on the terrace. 

Knowing Your Produce and Producer

The supply chain is very, very personal in Sicily and is one of the things that is attractive about living here. I have several friends around Sicily who grow stuff and make things. One of them lives nearby and usually brings things like fennel, aubergines and citrus when he comes over for lunch or dinner, but he also sells to vendors at the farmers’ market. I buy my olive oil and wine from Mary Taylor Simeti who wrote the best book on Sicilian food (Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty Five Centuries of Sicilian Food). She makes very good wine and produces great olive oil in her farm Boscofalconeria and it’s available to buy internationally. The wine scene here is amazing. Foraci has great wines. Mazara del Vallo is not as well-known a region as Etna is, but there are very good wines and olive oil there. 

Market Forces

There are two farmers’ markets I go to. Mercato del Contadino is permanent and takes place around three or four times a week in Via Virgilio. The other one is a Saturday market called Mercato Di Campagna Amica Di Trapani, which takes place on the seaside in front of a fairly new hotel called Albergo Punta Tipa. The restaurant at the hotel is worth checking out, even if it’s just for the location.

The Importance of a Good Butcher and Salumeria

I have a very good butcher, Rosario Barbera, whom I have a great relationship with. He gets me really good meat such as whole grown-up lambs that weigh eight to 10 kilos. I can bone the leg and make kibbe or Iranian stews with it. Lamb this size is very difficult to get in Sicily: normally butchers carry baby lambs which I also buy to roast whole. He also makes his own sausages and cured meats. There are two delis that have a great selection of salumi and cheese. I like Renda Salumeria and it’s near my house. Quartana Paolo is also very beautiful and serves lunch on high tables or communal tables. It’s rather expensive, but it’s really good.  

Say Cheese

Sicilians love their pecora (ricotta) and caciocavallo cheese and they have great cheese makers who sell them. Caseificio Cucchiaio in Salemi is really fun. They do these big Sunday lunches where they roll out dish after dish after dish and serve fresh ricotta. The ricotta in Sicily is very good and made from sheep’s milk. 

The Best Arancini in Town

Bar Incontro is a wonderful place. It has ready-made lunches that are not particularly sophisticated but quite tasty, like pasta al forno (oven-baked pasta with tomato sauce and ground meat). I go there for the arancini – filled rice balls coated with bread crumbs and deep fried – which are the best in town. 

A Fishmonger By The Sea

There’s a fantastic fishmonger by the sea called La Rotonda. It’s the best fish that I can buy anywhere except for San Francisco. I even buy fish to make sashimi from there and I’m not worried at all about eating it. It’s super fresh and delicious. 

Eating and Drink By The Sea

There are three places that I love by the sea, one of which is Azzurra in Macari outside of Trapani. Macari has the most beautiful seaside location on the western side, and the restaurant has a fabulous view, a great terrace and pretty good food. Another one is called La Pineta in Selinunte, which is a beautiful archaeological site. This restaurant is on the beachside in town: it’s such a fabulous location. I went there for lunch a couple of years ago when Monocle did a feature on me and it was very good. The third one is a beach club in Marausa. There’s also a surf spot called Lo Stagnone between Trapani and Marsala, with a few restaurants where the food is middling, but it doesn’t matter because the setting is fabulous and it’s great having a light meal and a drink there while watching the sunset.

Join The (Beach) Club

There are these beach clubs along the coast of Trapani that are kind of private. You pay a membership fee to have an umbrella and a chaise-longue and some of them have fairly good restaurants. It’s quite nice to go when it’s not too hot and have lunch or an aperitivo, even if you don’t intend to spend the day at the beach. A little further from the fishmonger is a beach club called SunClub. The owner has a brother who opened up another beach club next door called Nais Beach Club

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