Gallery: A Tour of Sicily at Next in Chicago

Welcome Letter
Welcome Letter

When we first arrived at Next, each of us found a wax-sealed envelope at our seat, containing this letter. The text, signed by (I assume) the chefs, reads:

'To have seen Italy without seeing Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for in Sicily lies the key to everything.' - Goethe.

The best food of Sicily is found in the homes and hearts of its people. Welcome.'

Panelle
Panelle

The first course consisted of four dishes, the first being panelle di ceci, fried parmesan-dusted chickpea cracker/fritters. They were crisp, light, airy, and greasy, but in an entirely satisfying way. Of all the dishes we ate, this was the one I most wanted to make when I got home.

Caponata
Caponata

The panelle, though delicious on their own, were meant as a vehicle for the caponata, the classic agrodolce ('sweet-sour') condiment of Sicily. This version contained eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and an assortment of herb flowers. As it should be, the individual components were distinct and crisp, yet unified into the overall dish.

Carciofi Alle Brace
Carciofi Alle Brace

Carciofi alle brace (artichokes cooked in ash) was another of dishes that made it into my 'must-make' list. Utterly simple, and insanely delicious, these are nothing more than artichokes buried in the embers of a charcoal fire until the outsides are blackened and their interiors cooked.

Carciofi Alle Brace (2)
Carciofi Alle Brace (2)

The heat of the fire turns the heart of the artichoke liquid and converts it into a complex, meaty substance like artichoke butter. These were so damn good that I ate the entire thing, burnt outer leaves and all.

Arancine
Arancine

These meat-filled arancine (breaded, stuffed fried rice croquettes) were perfectly cooked, with creamy interiors surrounded by a thin, crisp outer shell. They were served over a tart and oily tomato sugo, a perfect foil to their richness.

Cozze con Peperone Rosso
Cozze con Peperone Rosso

The second course consisted of five small bowls of cold seafood salads, the first of which were these mussels ('cozze') tossed with roasted red peppers, olive oil, and fresh oregano.

Mosciame di Tonno
Mosciame di Tonno

The second of the seafood salads was mosciame di tonno, salt-cured tuna loin. It was shaved thinly, like prosciutto, and tossed with a little lemon juice and young basil leaves.

Polpo in Agrodolce
Polpo in Agrodolce

Third up were these baby octopi, dressed in a sticky, sweet-tart agrodolce sauce.

Gambieri con Anguria
Gambieri con Anguria

The fourth of the seafood salads was chopped shrimp tossed with diced watermelon, onions, and basil. This was a brilliant combination of flavors, akin to a Sicilian shrimp ceviche.

Vongole con Arance e Finocci
Vongole con Arance e Finocci

Lastly came another ceviche-like dish, composed of lightly cooked clams tossed with fennel slices and fronds, and orange juice.

Bucatini con Bottarga
Bucatini con Bottarga

The first pasta course was house-made bucatini and slivers of bottarga—salt-cured mullet roe—over a lemony butter sauce. It was gone in a single, perfect bite.

Gemelle con le Sarde
Gemelle con le Sarde

The second pasta course was homemade gemelle with raisins, fennel, tomato, toasted breadcrumbs, saffron, and sardines—a combination that reflects the Arabic influence on Sicilian food, along with that of the sea that surrounds it.

Pesce Spada con de Ceci
Pesce Spada con de Ceci

With the fish came a salad of chickpeas—creamy boiled ones along with crunchy fried ones—and roasted romanesco broccoli, garnished with mâche and edible flowers.

Pesce Spada con de Ceci (2)
Pesce Spada con de Ceci (2)

With the fish came a salad of chickpeas—creamy boiled ones along with crunchy fried ones—and roasted romanesco broccoli, garnished with mâche and edible flowers.

Spalla di Maiale Brasato
Spalla di Maiale Brasato

The meat course a was a braised-then-roasted pork shoulder, served with a tomato sugo made from the braising liquid, and grilled lemon halves. The meat was tender and succulent, the sauce rich, and both were nicely brightened by a splash of grilled lemon.

Zucchini
Zucchini

Served alongside the pork (and not listed on the menu) was a medley of shaved raw zucchini, roasted eggplant, fried zucchini flower, and nasturtium leaves and flowers, dressed in a light tomato glaze.

Granita di Arance Rosse
Granita di Arance Rosse

After a battery of rich dishes, a blood orange granita made the perfect palate cleanser for the transition to dessert.

Cassata
Cassata

Dessert began with cassata, a ricotta cake that is the most famous sweet from Sicily. It's made by lining a shallow, wide bowl with pistachio and green almond marzipan and pressing into it layers of sponge cake and ricotta cheese. While chilling, the moisture in the ricotta gets absorbed by the cake and the layers merge to form a pudding-like consistency.

Cassata (2)
Cassata (2)

Once the cake is unmolded, it is then glazed in a thin layer of sugar syrup to give it a shine, decorated with piping of sugar and whipped cream, and topped with fresh and candied fruits. It looked a bit gaudy, but it sure was delicious. (Someday, when I'm feeling especially ambitious, I'm going to make one of these.)

Cannoli
Cannoli

Finally (nearly five hours after the meal began), the last course arrived, an assortment of traditional Sicilian pastries, including these ricotta-cream filled cannoli...

Ravioli fritti
Ravioli fritti

Also on the plate were these delicious sour-cherry filled fried ravioli...

Cubbaita di Giugiulena
Cubbaita di Giugiulena

...and these sesame seed honey brittle cookies. Somehow, despite the fullness of our bellies, we managed to finish these treats off, before stumbling out into the night.