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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Not Guilty

February 18, 2013

I believe this about breakfast: you absolutely must eat a healthy one.

The breakfast I eat in Sicily goes against everything I hold true.

I ingest a big fat brioche (brioscia) oozing with chocolate or pistachio paste, snowy with powdered sugar. Along with a sugary shot of caffeine.

But the guilt I feel is only a passing blip on the radar of my emotions before Euphoria sets in. Does my lack of shame stem from the fact that everyone else on the island is doing it, too?

Sicilian Breakfast, copyright Jann Huizenga
Or because, to get my hands on these treats, I have to haul myself down one hundred steps?

Steps in Ragusa Ibla, copyright Jann Huizenga

And then haul myself back up like some kind of alpinist?

Steps in Ragusa Ibla, copyright Jann Huizenga


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Stuff That Scared Me Silly, Sicily

February 9, 2013

As we tooled around Sicily this week, a theme emerged: scary sights.

Spotted in the Ballaro market in Palermo: goat heads. What is the home cook to do with these? Are they meant for lunch, or…?

Goat heads in Palermo market, copyright Jann Huizenga

Wikipedia says, “In Sicilian witchcraft it is customary to leave a fish head on the door step of one’s enemy to ward off malicious intention. The practice dates back to at least 1308, when Dante referenced it in his epic, the Divine ComedyIn a more serious feud, escalation of hostilities can be signaled by the appearance of a goat head or horse head.”  

Below was the Dantesque vision that greeted us as we entered Mazara del Vallo. I can’t say for sure what it is.

Side of Beef in Sicily, copyright Jann  Huizenga

And in the Mazara fish market, the catch of the day was a creature the size of a very large pizza, with eyes instead of olives, and a laughing mouth.

A fisherman at the fish market in Mazara del Vallo, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga


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