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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The Alchemist of Ibla

December 23, 2009

Happy Holidays, dear Reader. If you’re in southeast Sicily at the moment, the Duomo Restaurant in Ragusa Ibla would be a memorable place for a holiday splurge. It’s formal, festive and fun. Calme, luxe et volupté.

Chef Ciccio Sultano—the only chef on the island with two Michelin stars—is a humble genius.

Il Duomo is just behind Ibla’s curlicued Baroque cathedral and so close to my house I could lob a fat olive from my balcony and hit it. I’ve eaten da Ciccio four times and have always emerged elated, sated.

My sister and I celebrated her birthday there in 2007 with one of the prix-fixe tasting menus. I’ll never forget a plate called Earth, Sky, and Sea—a lemon-sauced antipasto of rare pigeon and plump oysters on a bed of whipped potatoes. Astounding. I felt a little sad about the pigeon and wondered if he was related to the flock of pink-eyed birds that nest in my roof tiles. Chef Himself made an appearance bearing a vibrant tomato sorbet “to cleanse the palate.” Next up: ricotta cheese ravioli in a pasture-green puddle of puréed fava beans. A long parade of goodies ended with carob mousse swimming in ricotta cream and, finally, sorbetto di mandorla, almond sorbet.

In June 2009 I celebrated there with two friends, Rosamund and Roberta. We guzzled a bubbly prosecco so fast that the details of our feast are a bit fuzzy, but who could forget the starter: Sicilian truffle gelato—with black truffles from the Nebrodi Mountains south of Messina—on crostini. I laughed out loud as I picked it up and nibbled it like an ice cream sandwich—crusty-soft and savory-sweet (sounds odd but it was heaven). What kind of a man invents this? Here’s a photo—can you see the gelato peaking out from the crostini and truffle slices?

A few hours into the meal, these gorgeous goat chops stuffed with chickpeas, liver and parsley appeared in front of me:

This was Rosamund’s seafood dish:

My latest meal there, in October, was equally amazing. The grand-finale nearly killed us—a bianco mangiare alla mandorla served together with a sorbetto di pera con mosto.

Chef Sultano is known for his innovate approach to Sicilian cuisine, but the creations are not random. “Sperimentare ma nel solco della tradizione,” he says. Experiment, but within the groove of tradition. His dishes change according to the seasons.

You can find cooking videos (in Italian) on his website, ristoranteduomo.it, including one for pistachio couscous.

Look at this. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was, but don’t you think it’s an abstract/painterly/sculptural masterpiece?

Closed all day Sunday and Mondays at lunch.  Tel. ++39 0932 651265

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