Sicilian Café fosters a feeling of well-being
We rumbled into Chico a few years ago, top down, the Zephyr blaring cool jazz, the night so hot and thick you could swim in it. It was our first visit. At the intersection of Highway 32 and Main Street we caught a faint whiff of—what’s that smell? Mediterranean?
Our noses, like uncaged Geiger counters, quickly turned us southward, where we zeroed in on the Sicilian Café. I remember thinking, “Doesn’t look like much.” But we’d logged over 400 miles that day, so any damn roadside attraction would do at that point.
What a surprise! The Sicilian Café didn’t just do, it outdid, and I’m happy to report (some five years later) that it still does.
I learned a lot about Italian food from my mother-in-law. She’s of Venetian descent, so her food isn’t so much about “comfort” as it is about “well-being.” Italy relishes the Epicurean belief that life is short, so one best grab a little pleasure while the getting is good. Wine, food, friends: It’s the trio that makes life worth living.
James Taylor, owner of Sicilian Café as well as its chef and wine buyer, explains, “I want to give the customer something more than just sustenance. Any Chico eatery can do that. Here we strive to stimulate the senses, allow the customer to experience some Sicilian magic. That’s my goal.”
Although Venice (Momma) and Syracuse (Sicilian Café) are worlds apart, food binds the two Italys together. Perhaps no other cuisine in the world can bestow upon the eater such a grand feeling of well-being.
Take, for instance, the complimentary antipasto plate. Both my momma and the Sicilian Café serve it up with salami, cheese, green onions, carrots, olives and peppers—in generous amounts.
If you order from the appetizer menu, get the mussels. Stewed in a white wine broth and then smothered with chunks of diced garlic, it’s a dish the size of Mount Etna.
The chicken picatta, a regular menu item, is beaten flat, lightly breaded, and simmered in a lemon-butter and garlic sauce, then topped with capers for piquancy and depth.
Pay attention to the specials. Taylor is in the habit of studying both the history of Sicily and its rich tradition of food. The night I arrived he served up a chicken picante, half a bird slow-cooked, dressed with basil sprigs and chives and stewed in a white wine sauce loaded with olives, red bell pepper, garlic and spicy peppers.
All of the above-mentioned went delightfully with the Nero d’Avalo, a Sicilian red wine from Cusumano vineyards. True to all warm-weather reds, this wine entered soft, exuding bright red fruits complemented by an oak-tinged finish. Amazing with food, the Nero d’Avalo mirrored the Sicilian Café's ambience—warm, friendly and inviting.
It’s what Taylor has been working toward for 21 years at Sicilian Café, many of them in partnership with his mother; he took over the restaurant just few years ago.
"[Early on] we had maybe nine or 10 labels,” he says, “but as my love for the history of food and wine grew, I made it a point to increase my wine list 10 percent each year.”
Now there are over 100 different labels from all corners of the globe, with Mediterranean representatives prominent. The New York publication The Wine Spectator has taken notice by awarding the Sicilian Café the coveted “Award of Excellence” for five years running.
Aside from the campy tunes (Dean Martin’s "That’s Amoré," the theme to "The Godfather," or those and other Opera Man-like inserts), the Sicilian Café succeeds in whisking you away to a truly Mediterranean experience. No need to trek to the shores of Palermo. Skip the jet lag and sit creekside on the patio at the Sicilian Café. Make sure you bring two hours and two stomachs, and the Sicilian Café will ensure that you leave with a sense of Italian well-being.