Taste of Calabria

Enjoying la dolce vita at special theme night at Sicilian Cafe

Chef James Taylor takes a moment to chat with one half of my dinner table.

Chef James Taylor takes a moment to chat with one half of my dinner table.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Italian feasts:
The next Sons and Daughters of Italy-organized dinner will be Oct. 14-17 at Christian Michaels Ristorante and feature a menu highlighting the foods of the Basilicata region of Italy.

Seated at a table of six and not knowing a soul, I mentally prepared myself for a long evening. It couldn’t possibly be bad, as we were to be served a five-course meal specially crafted by James Taylor, chef/owner of Sicilian Cafe. But Joe Azzarito, who’d invited me to this A Night in Calabria dinner, was sadly unable to attend. Hence the table of strangers. We didn’t stay that way for long, however—in fact, we were among the last to leave that night, about 3 1/2 hours later.

This invite-only evening was a gathering of the local chapter of the Sons and Daughters of Italy; the same menu would be available the following two nights at the cafe, and be open to the public. Azzarito had invited me to give me a taste of the program he created in partnership with local restaurants. The foodie in me couldn’t resist.

One option for the primo course: <i>lagani è ceci </i>(pasta ribbons with chickpeas).

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Azzarito had come up with the idea of Italian theme nights after experiencing them at well-known fine Italian chain Il Fornaio. While living in San Francisco, Azzarito and his wife, Ellie, had become regulars at Il Fornaio’s monthly special dinners, each highlighting a region of Italy. The program was meant to attract repeat customers—it featured a passport for stamps and a gift to accompany each meal. After moving to Chico, the couple traveled a few times to Il Fornaio’s Sacramento location. Ultimately, however, they hoped to re-create that experience closer to home.

In February of this year, after much coordinating, that dream became a reality. The first dinner, also at Sicilian Cafe, fittingly featured cuisine from Sicily. For each region, the menu is accompanied by information about the area highlighted. Since then, in addition to the Calabria weekend, there have been four other dinners, held at Christian Michaels Ristorante, Grana and Panighetti’s. The prix fixe meals have not surpassed $35 per person (not including tax and tip).

As my table began to small-talk, we were served bread and dipping oil along with a glass of wine (additional wine cost extra but was not discouraged). In fact, after that first glass, not surprisingly, the conversation flowed more easily. My dining mates were Ellie, a retired Enloe nurse, three attorneys—one of them retired—and a retired court reporter. I was definitely out of my element, but I’m used to that. We made our menu selections (one of two or three options for each course) and bonded over talk of food, travel and our shared love of learning.

Dish by dish, the courses were served. Having lived around people who work in the restaurant industry for over a decade, I can attest to the feat that Taylor and his crew accomplished that night, with a full dining room all sitting down to a special menu at the same time. Some whined over how long service took; our table wined instead, preferring to enjoy the meal the way Italians do—with less concern for time than good food and company.

About that food: All of it was prepared as it would be in Calabria (basically the boot toe of Italy), where chili peppers and sweet-and-sour flavors reign supreme. Those notes were most prominent in the chicken soup with potato dumplings, which was surprisingly spicy and sour, yet none of us could stop eating it. The crispy eggplant meatball appetizers were dense and satisfyingly crunchy; the ravioloni Calabresi, with ricotta and sopressa, soft and savory. My lamb entree was perfectly cooked and seasoned—my only complaint of the night being undercooked potatoes accompanying it. The chinulille—sweet mezzalunas (basically Italian potstickers) with ricotta and candied orange—made for a sweet ending to the meal and the evening.