I Banchi di Ciccio, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

October 24, 2015

There’s a new treasure in the ‘hood: I Banchi.

Its magnetic force pulls me in every single day, either for a frothy cappuccino, pasta lunch, hunk of parmigiana or half loaf of bread, take-out dinner pizza or scaccia (available by the slice), or for an evening glass of the local peppery black Nero d’Avola at a table outside. The genius behind this casual-affordable-lovable place is none other than 2-star Michelin chef Ciccio Sultano.

Ciccio Sultano of I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Ciccio Sultano, the beating heart behind I Banchi

It’s open all day long–8:30 am-11:30 pm–shockingly long hours for Sicily! (closed Tuesday). Mornings are my favorite time to sally forth, when the duomo is the color of fresh brioche, doves flutter about, and the only thing shattering the silence are my boots on cobbles. Although I Banchi’s official opening hour is  8:30 am, their door is ajar by about 7:30 or so for coffee. Monica’s smile will brighten your day.

Monica at I BANCHI, copyright Jann HuizengaWhere else can you go in the village on an October morning with rain bursting overhead? And linger for an hour over a warm whole-wheat croissant (un cornetto integrale, per favore) while scanning the news on a no-hassle wifi connection? You’ll stumble in half asleep and wake up to the smells of baking breads, chocolate, cream, and espresso.  You’ll marvel at the stone walls honeyed with age and at the fact that these rooms were the once-upon-a-time stables of the adjacent baronial palazzo. Such a high life the cows must have lived here! Feeding from troughs hand-carved from the local black pece stone under spacious vaulted ceilings.

I BANCHI wall, copyright Jann Huizenga

Ancient horse ring still on a wall

I Banchi Ragusa, copyright Jann HuizengaA destination for regular folk and gastronomes with shallow pockets, I Banchi (the name refers to the old wooden school benches still found in some Sicilian schools) is many things at once: a cafe/wine bar/bistro/trattoria/pizzeria/bakery/salumeria/bookstore/wifi zone/hang-out place par excellence. Down to earth, welcoming, and warm.

Breakfast outside at I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Londoners in Sicily

In nice weather sitting on the cobbled sidewalk under oleander trees is pleasant.

In charge of day-to-day operations is Chef Peppe Cannistrà, a local Ragusan. Yay, Chef! Keep up the good work.

Chef Peppe Cannistrà, copyright Jann Huizenga

Chef Peppe Cannistrà

Alfio Magnano, restaurant director, is a font of wine wisdom. And, as you know, Sicilian wines are spectacular.

Alfio, Director, I Banchi

Alfio Magnano knows Sicily’s wines.

Breakfast at I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Breakfast at I Banchi

Breakfast at I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Breakfast at I Banchi

When you step inside, you’re in the bakery, face-to face with mini cassata cakes, chocolate truffles, fruit-topped puff pastries, and other gems. But with my doctor’s voice in my ears, I often go for the stone-ground brown breads–breads almost impossible to find in Sicily because locals, after millenia of poverty, seem to be under the impression that soft white refined foods represent the apex of well-being. But I Banchi is nudging Sicilians back to their their healthier past, to fiber-rich ancient grains.

The breads are made from Castelvetrano flour, a stone-ground flour from Western Sicily that uses an ancient grain called tumminìa (supported by the Slow Food Presidium as it was becoming extinct).

Wheat Bread at I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Bread from I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga


This ancient Sicilian flour, once in danger of extinction, is stone-ground and protected by the Slow Food Foundation.

Giovanni, Bread Baker at I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Giovanni, bread baker at I Banchi

Pasta Made from Ancient Sicilian Grains, Copyright Jann Huizenga

A selection of foods are available for purchase at I Banchi, including busiate produced from antique organic stone-ground grain in western Sicily by Filippo Drago. I love that Ciccio is supporting ancient grains and other old-time Sicilian products.

For more information on Filippo Drago’s work, see Elizabeth Minchelli’s blog.

For lunch I can recommend the unusual fish lasagna with broccoli puree. Fish Lasagna at I BANCHI, copyright Jann HuizengaAnd for dessert nothing could top the cannolo, served here with a dollop of almond granita.

Cannolo at I BANCHI, copyright Jann HuizengaThe approach at I Banchi is in keeping with the spirit of this ancient little village founded by the Greeks and rebuilt by exuberant Sicilians in the 1700s. No flashy Milan-style decor, no garish signage (instead it uses small stencils on its traditional shutters), unlike some other establishments that have popped up here recently. Sometimes I moan that World Heritage designation leads to ruination and nothing but magnet shops, but having I Banchi in the neighborhood gives me hope.

Buon appetito!


PS: When you go, have a peek into the adjacent courtyard where a scene from Divorce Italian Style was filmed. The wine cellar’s amazing too.




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Festival Crowd, Sicily: Part 1

June 1, 2015

We just concluded our festa honoring the town’s patron, San Giorgio, who pranced around on his horse for 3 days amid much fanfare–rocket booms day and night, fireworks, tears, hollering, confetti, mobs, twinkle lights, tubas, drum beats. Tourists thought we were under attack and pigeons had heart attacks. As my Sicilian neighbor said, “It’s all a little exaggerated.”

I’ve written about the festival itself here, so now I’ll show you some shots from the crowd.

 San Giorgio Festa in Ragusa, Sicily, Copyright Jann Huizenga

“I used to carry San Giorgio on my shoulders, but now I’m too old,” he said

Balloon vendor, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

Balloon vendor: she made kids smile.

Sicilian couple, copyright Jann Huizenga

She has him and she wants to talk to someone else?

Band members, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

These poor guys deserved a break; they trudged up and down hills following San Giorgio for three days.

Padre & Figlio, copyright Jann Huizenga

Padre & figlio.

Padre & Figlio, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

Padre & figlio.

Sicilian Festival, copyright Jann Huizenga

All waited with bated breath for San Giorgio’s final exit and stroll.

Watching a Festival, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

They had the absolute best view in the house.


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Mother and Child, Sicily

July 5, 2014

They were strolling hand-in-hand down the street like extras in some Sicilian film. They stepped into the tabacchaio and when they emerged, I went in pursuit. How was it that I’d never seen them before, in this dinky place of 2500 people?

Sicilian Mom & Son, Copyright Jann Huizenga

Concetta handed me her card. Turns out she runs a restaurant called U Saracenu,  in the heart of Ragusa Ibla. I haven’t eaten there since those days when my house was a kitchen-less mess.  The place seemed then like a throwback to a much earlier era, and when I popped in today, nothing in the decor had changed. The previous owner, built like a fridge, used to tell me exactly what I wanted to eat.

“I’d love a big salad, please.”

“Oh no. This no weather for salad. You need hearty fare in this rain.”

And he’d lumber from the kitchen balancing a steamy bowl of minestrone, or ricotta ravioli doused in ragú.

But he has retired, and the chef (Concetta’s hubby) and Concetta are now the proud owners, serving the same old-style, no-nonsense, no-pretense Sicilian fare at prices you’ll like.


Inside U Saracenu, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

The front room is the lightest room and you sit next to an old feed trough; the restaurant is a former animal stall.








U Saracenu, Ragusa Ibla, copyright Jann Huizenga

Translated, the name means “At the Saracen’s Place”–referring to the Arabs or Moors who ruled Sicily for a couple hundred years.













Chef at U Saracenu, Ragusa Ibla, copyright Jann Huizenga

Chef Angelo Gelasio






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Cooking in A Convent, Sicily

June 21, 2014

Happy summer!

My buddy Roberta and I welcomed the season with a luscious summertime lunch whipped up by the chefs-in-training at the Nosco Cooking School at Antico Convento Ibla in Ragusa Ibla. Talk about “Farm to Table” fresh! The chefs were out in the school’s garden picking our lunch a mere 30 minutes before we scarfed it down. Their assignment was to find something in the garden that inspired their creative fancy.

Chefs at the Nosco Cooking School in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

The squash blossoms were out in full glory. (Can you guess what ended up in one of the dishes?)

Nosco Cooking School, copyright Jann Huizenga

This chef threatened to stab me if I didn’t stop taking his picture.

Nosco Cooking School, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

The wizard behind the magic is Peppe Barone, below, a chef who has inspired and trained many top chefs in Southeast Sicily. (He also owns the restaurant Fattoria delle Torri in Modica.) You can watch him on TV here.Peppe Barone of the Nosco School, copyright Jann Huizenga

An illicit aside:

Right under that rock wall is a deep black hole. Peppe explains: “It is the tunnel that the monks dug. It leads all the way to the nunnery.” He was not kidding. (The convent and nunnery were vacated sometime in the 1950s.)


Goodies in hand, the chefs traipse back to the kitchen and get to work.

Nosco School of Cooking, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

Steam steam steam. Chop chop chop.


Roberta and I went down to the dining room in high anticipation, studying the skulls, scrolls, and other frescoes, wondering why there were no more monks. Is gastronomy the new religion?


Frescoes at the Nasco Cooking School in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

And then the moment arrived. We were poured a local bubbly rose.  And then these marvels–and many others–were placed before us, like benedictions.


Eggplant and tomato torte


Tomato pasta with local cheese–and do you see it?–the squash blossom! Stuffed with mozzarella and deep fried.


Pasta with great big green leaves picked in the garden. That’s all I know. Divine.


Pasta with a leek, onion & potato broth. Shoestring potato garnish.


A “convent cannolo” with sweet ricotta cream. Cute and amazing taste.

A big GRAZIE!!!!! Chef Peppe, to you and all your fine sous chefs!


The Nosco Cooking School at Antico Convento Ibla can arrange custom cooking classes for you  You’d need to find nine friends, to make a minimum group of ten. Or visit Ristorante Cenobio to taste the student chefs’ creations. The convent is at the back of the Ibla Gardens.


My Sicilian Village: Now and Then

March 4, 2014

Here’s my beloved Piazza Duomo, with the church of San Giorgio perched atop a high staircase, her chest puffed out, proud and lovely. The piazza is our salon–it is here that we celebrate, gossip, soak in the sun, raise a glass of wine, listen to the clamor of the bells.

Piazza Duomo, Ragusa Ibla, copyright Jann Huizenga

And now a shot from days gone by. It’s from an old postcard–shot maybe 50-60 years ago? The clock appears to have been in working order back then, but other than that not too much has changed, thank goodness.

Old Postcard of Piazza Duomo, Ragusa Ibla


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