When COVID-19 stripped our freedoms to travel, sit around a dinner table with our loved ones, socialize and do anything that was once considered part of our everyday life, the only thing left to do was to stay home and cook and eat, then cook and eat some more. Food has a funny way of transporting us to a magical place whether a plate of tagliatelle alla “bolognese” takes you to Bologna in northern Italy or a plate of pasta “alla norma” takes you all the way south to Sicily, each bite evokes a euphoric feeling.
I, myself, can say that my taste buds have been spoiled by the culinary talents of both my mother and father. Both of them were born and raised in Sicily, came over as teenagers, and believed that eating McDonald’s was a sin. Not really, but the concept of fast food did not and does not exist for them. Only the freshest ingredients sourced locally and from Sicily are used in the kitchen. Cooking is an art and a labor of love as my father likes to say. Whether you're cooking “la cucina povera” like eggplant parmigiana or a classic Sicilian staple like pasta alla norma, all you need are fresh ingredients and passion...I happen to be very passionate about eating pasta.
I’ve grown up spending a couple of weeks in Sicily every summer; trips to Sicily bring me “home”, home to my roots, my family, my passion for the culture, my traditions and in particular the food. This overwhelming passion for Sicily inspires everything I do, design, and create. Hence my passion project evolved: www.MySicilianLoveAffair.com. It is a reference place for where to go, what to do, how to dress, where to stay, where to eat and all the things that I love so much about Sicily translated in my own personal experiences and photos.
Since the pandemic has halted so many of life’s greatest joys, one of those being travel, I am in constant search of how I can evoke the essence of Sicily here in NY/NJ. The most gratifying has been through designing my jewelry collections inspired by the vibrant colors of Sicily, delicious food, architecture and all that encompasses our culture. I designed my signature My Sicilian Love Affair collection of bracelets using hand painted ceramics that are made in Sicily. The campaign was shot in my mom’s hometown of Castellammare Del Golfo in order to capture the spirit of everyday Sicilian life. But when it came time to launch my new My Sicilian Love Affair “Baroque” Collection of earrings, Sicily was off limits so I had to find a way to capture Sicily stateside. Piccola Cucina Estiatorio was the ideal location to fuse food and fashion.
Naturally big family dinners on Sundays always bring me back but there's something about going to Piccola Cucina in NYC that truly makes me feel like I'm in Sicily. This cozy string of restaurants transports me to a world across the Atlantic while only having to cross the Hudson River, and I’m sure it will do the same for you! “Piccola Cucina” means small kitchen in Italian but the warmth and culture packed into this tiny space is anything but small. At the hands of culinary extraordinaire and Sicilian native, Philip Guardione, Piccola Cucina has covered the essence of authentic dishes from each region of Sicily. Sicily may be considered a hidden gem in the meditteranean but with its strategic location and ports, everyone wanted to take hold of this land. Greek and Arab invasions left behind strong culinary influences such as citrus, pistachios, olives and eggplants which are widely used in Sicilian cuisine.
From the “Piaggio Ape” cart displaying fresh Sicilian fish to the pulpo and arancini, from the Eros Ramazzotti playing in the background to hearing the entire waitstaff converse in Italian, Phillip Guardione brings me back to some of my favorite memories in Sicily.
Guardione first opened Piccola Cucina Osteria on Prince St in 2008 with the vision to bring a piece of his hometown to the heart of NYC. Next he opened Piccola Cucina Enoteca on Spring St in 2013, Piccola Cucina Estiatorio in 2017 and most recently Piccola Cucina Uptown just at the heart of the pandemic in March of 2020. His goal in each location is to maintain the level of quality and freshness by importing only the finest ingredients from Sicily. So whether you’re in the mood for “Spaghetti ai Ricci di Mare” (sea urchin) or “Taglierini al nero di seppia”(squid ink), you can rest assured that you will taste Sicily and all of its flavors.
From the first time I stepped foot in Piccola Cucina several years ago, I felt “home”. There is no place else in NYC that delivers as much of Sicily in such a small space like Piccola Cucina does. It is rare to go to an Italian restaurant where the wait staff, kitchen staff and patrons are straight from Italy, let alone Sicily. And in true “southern hospitality”, from the first “Ciao, come stai? ” we were no longer patrons, Piccola Cucina and its entire staff became family.
Simply put, the way a plate of pasta from Piccola Cucina transports you to Sicily is pure magic. I long for those marathon dinners al fresco under the Sicilian moonlight, a dinner table packed with family and friends, conversations and laughter so intense you can barely hear yourself think, and an abundance of dishes until you can’t see the tablecloth underneath. I have been counting down the days until I can board an Alitalia plane and hear those magic words, “Get ready for takeoff….” but it doesn't seem like that is happening any time soon. So for the time being, although we may not be under the Sicilian moonlight, Piccola Cucina has brought me many dinners with friends and family, many plates of pasta, and many great memories in NYC. So next time you’re in Manhattan, stop by one of their 4 locations and let Piccola Cucina transport you to my favorite place on earth: Sicily <3