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A Chef's Tale ...Once Upon a Time in Sicily .....

One of the things I love about Italy is the people and so, whilst Bookings For You affords me the opportunity to research and select villas all over Italy (which I absolutely love doing), one of the things I love even more is meeting the owners of these villa rentals. Most of our villas in Italy are owned by Italians. For me, Italians are always larger than life characters, with a zest and passion for living that is second to none. Their warmth, generosity, sheer enthusiasm and love of life is something that will always have endless appeal for me. I like to think (and hope!) that some elements of their infectious personalities might one day rub off on me! Today, we meet Antonio, the owner of a stunning eco villa in Sicily, to hear a snippet of his story. As with a lot of Italians, Antonio really can talk! He is also someone that always has his fingers in many pies (he tells me he gets bored easily so is always looking for a new challenge) so I think that to ever pin him down for long enough for him to tell us his whole tale would be impossible! The last few months have seen him focused on making improvements to his beautiful villa in Sicily. But, we did manage to get him to sit down long enough to at least share some of the early years with us. And since his childhood and early career have clearly had a real impact on what he is doing now, we think it makes a fascinating read. We hope you do too. Over to Antonio… Perhaps we can start this story by saying that as a child I was a troublemaker…. My parents, after trying to tame me in various private schools in Palermo where I was born, and tired of my rebellious behaviour, decided to ship me to California to my famous Uncle Tom! This was an uncle that I had only ever met a couple of times when he was visiting Italy on his way around the world. If I’m honest, all I knew was that he was very rich!! In Italy we all have an American uncle somewhere, it’s part of our heritage! I was just fortunate that mine had a bit of money behind him! At that stage, I didn’t speak a word of English. At least, nothing more substantial than a ‘Good morning Sir’ or a ‘How are you?’ But I found I was soon able to communicate with Uncle Tom with the help of a bit of sign language and some typical Italian gestures. And, before long, Uncle Tom became my Hero. He gave me a car, along with a splendid condominium that was part of a project that he had just built. But, don’t get me wrong. All this came with strict ground rules. ‘Anthony…’ Uncle Tom said (yes my name had changed and I liked it even better than the original!), ‘Let’s make a few things very clear. You will have to study and work in my construction company. With the only little time you have left, you can have all the fun you desire!’ I thought I was in heaven. I had freedom and independence and was living in in Sunny California where beautiful, smiling, blonde girls literally seemed to grow on trees. It was also the capital of global fast food. I could eat Mexican, American or Chinese whenever I wanted. I was quite literally having a blast! But it didn’t take long for me to realise that getting up at 6 am to drive an hour to the construction site, digging trenches all day long, grabbing a fast burger on my way back home, taking a quick shower and heading off to classes at a local community college each evening, was not, in fact, living the American Dream! So much sooner than I expected, I started missing home, and in particular all the wonderful Sicilian food: Caponata di melanzane, pasta alla Norma, sea salt roasted whole grouper, pan-baked sword-fish rolls filled with toasted bread crumbs, pine nuts, sultanas and raisins…. The list goes on! The number of times you hear actors in epic movies by Scorzese or Coppola revel in the memories of their mother’s cooking…. ‘Mmm… wonderful sauce … delicious meat balls … just like mia mamma used to make!’ It’s such a cliche that us Italian men are still attached to our mother’s skirts but this is the truth. I had such a clear picture in my mind of the taste of my mother’s cooking that I had used to enjoy back home and I desperately wanted to enjoy these flavours again. Back then, Steve Jobs was still locked in his garage and the idea of the modern day computer was still just a pipedream so my only option was to write a letter home to ask my mother to share some of my childhood recipes. Before long, letters started flying back and forth, full of instructions on how to make all those wonderful dishes. Gorgeous blonde Californian girls may have begun noticing me, but, with my hands full of grocery bags, I had no time other than to return their smiles before I headed straight back to my kitchen. My kitchen had been transformed into my laboratory and there was no place for distraction! Baked eggplant parmiggiana , sfincione alla palermitana, stuffed artichokes with anchovies, arancine filled with beef ragout… All popped out out of the oven like it was my last day on earth. My mum had created a monster and right away, I knew that cooking had become my new love and passion! This was not my first passion in life though. As a child , my father’s interest in art had greatly influenced me. Through him, I was exposed to so many of the architectural wonders of Italy. I was impressed not only by the buildings themselves, but also by the impressions left by these places. I may not have fully understood why, or even how such reactions came about, yet from a relatively young age, I had been determined to pursue and excel in a career in which these emotions could be focused upon. My prime educational goal was to became an artist or perhaps an architect and I was incredibly excited when I was offered a place at USC in Los Angeles at the School of Architecture. But my passion for food continued to grow alongside my architectural studies. To me cooking has always been just another art form. Practise gave me the knowledge to be able to orchestrate on the one hand different ingredients, scents and flavours, and on the other, the physical elements, textures and shadows to create harmonious culinary combinations. I moved to Los Angeles, attending the school of Architecture during the academic year, then flying back home to Sicily during the Summer break. Once back, I jumped into a restaurant run by an old friend of my father starting as a ‘Tutto-Fare’. There was no job description for this role, but basically I went from cleaning unlimited kilograms of calamari, (I felt like a mad fisherman practically pulling the fishing nets from the sea right into the kitchen sink) to prep-cook helper. But, despite the menial tasks, I was determined to absorb everything I saw, smelt and tasted just like a sponge! Years went by so fast, and I was so determined to excel in both of my passions, ending up with a degree in Architecture in the one hand and a full set of knives in the other. But now came the great dilemma: Which of these career passions I was going to pursue. I must confess that this felt like an incredibly frustrating time in my life. Both cooking and architecture were my true passions in life and both gave me a tremendous amount of pleasure. How could I bring myself to choose one over the other? And yet, I would have to. Or, so I thought, until one day, the dilemma seemed to solve itself in a light bulb moment. I would design a building and open a restaurant within it. I immediately felt lighter. I could sense a warm wave passing through my entire body. The architect in me would mould various materials and use light, shade, colours and other phenomenon to create space, whilst the chef I became would convey messages of joy with my culinary compositions. Both would create physical embodiments of emotions that I could share with my audience . San Francisco beckoned. One of my favourite cities in the whole world, this was the chosen setting for my dream restaurant. I must have looked at so many possible different venues, all with so much potential. But then I came across an old factory right in the heart of the financial district where Gallo used to make all their sausages and salami. It was the perfect location. Strategically placed, in the morning we could get all the yuppie lunch crowd that flocked from the finance companies in the area whilst at night we were next to North Beach, the Italian quarter and a big tourist attraction. In the space of just a few weeks, I had a full set of plans ready for the building department review board and we passed with flying colours! (I quickly became grateful at this time for the years spent at the School of Architecture which had taught me how to survive for weeks on end with very little sleep!!!) Construction soon began and I was adamant that everything had to be perfect. Painted lava ceramic slabs were flown in from Sicily, walls were plastered with light pastel colours by a crew of Mexicans and subsequently polished with carnauba melted wax, and, of course, the kitchen was my ultimate kingdom and simply had to be equipped with all the divine gadgets to prepare all those wonderful recipes that I had mastered! The building work felt endless. But finally, Ristorante In Bocca was born, serving Mediterranean elegance with modern Sicilian cuisine. The restaurant was an immediate success. Although the competition was stiff, the majority of other restaurants out there were Italian-American restaurants with very similar menus, mostly satisfying the untrained palates of the common San Franciscans. Glowing reviews soon flocked in. Chronicle reviewers wrote in their columns that our cuisine was refreshing and innovative. We had chosen to have a real focus on sea food. Given the fact that I knew most of the fisherman at the wharf personally (most were of Sicilian descent from Porticello and Sant Elia in the province of Palermo), every morning I would go to the dock to get what ever I could put my hands on: Delicious Dungeness crab perfect for Cioppino zuppa di pesce and giant sea urchins from which we used the fresh eggs to toss with piping hot spaghetti and a great deal of olive oil, a clove of garlic and lots of torn parsley leaves. Halibut with such tender flesh was simply pan baked and served with a wild fennel sauce whilst we would roast a whole big Eye Snapper in a sea salt crust. The list could go on. I was determined that my role was not only to be a chef but also an educator, introducing our guests to the numerous delicacies that our Sicilian heritage has kept close to its chest for centuries like a secret treasure. Before long, phones were ringing right off the hook. Concierges from the Mark Hopkins, the Fairmont and the Marriott all wanted to get their V.I.P. reservation list in. And the very best reward for me? It was coming out of the kitchen in my blinding white uniform, like a knight in shining armour, stunningly orchestrating the temple I had created! I spent night after happy night entertaining my guests, moving like a flawless dancer between the tables at the end of each busy evening, as I was accustomed to do. One such evening, out of the corner of my eye, I caught glimpse of a curvaceous figure making her way through the crowded restaurant. For a split second, my eyes crossed hers and they were blue, like the deep blue Tyrrhenian sea. I felt light headed, blinded even. But, my dearest guests (who had had more than a couple of glasses of Chardonnay!) pulled me back to regain my attention and when I looked back… she was gone! I must apologise to my readers for becoming distracted and not focusing on my story but the word is out amongst friends that I am writing and narrating my life story and everyone meaningful in my life wants to be a part of it! I just hope nobody else shows up and I can get back on track! But anyway, this mysterious woman turned out to be Angelica. Soon after that fateful first meeting across the crowded restaurant, she became my long-lasting companion. But we were both young. To this day, I regret that I never asked her to marry me but I was doggedly pursuing my career and was distracted. Anyway, back to business. I have not mentioned that I had two partners at Ristorante In Bocca, two brothers from Sicily. We got along well but, after a few years, my great ideas and future plans for the venture differed from theirs and we ended up deciding to sell the restaurant and parting ways. I had absolutely no regrets. I was convinced that I needed a more challenging working environment, one where I could uncage my wild imagination and explosive creative power without boundaries of any kind! In Bocca was sold in a heart beat and suddenly I had lots of time on my hands to do a lot of thinking! But what next?!! At the time, I was living in North Beach, the Italian quarter of the town and I often hung out at my friends restaurants and cafes, helping them out in the kitchen and experimenting by creating new dishes and using their customers as guinea pigs. Until one day Massimo, one of the waiters and a dear friend came to me yelling, ‘Antonio, Antonio… Coppola! The movie director is looking for you!’ I couldn’t believe it. Francis Ford Coppola? The Godfather director looking for me? Massimo continued, ‘Yes, yes I swear. He is looking for just someone like you! Someone young, rambunctious, lively, a crazy Italian chef that know how to cooks southern Italian Cuisine. I swear it’s YOU!’ It transpired that Coppola was opening a cafe in North Beach. Whilst Francis Coppola didn’t actually know I existed at this point, the idea that he was looking for me entertained me and I was keen to find out more about the role of becoming his chef. The following week, I had my first interview with the already hired General Manager Giorgio, an Italian fellow from Modena so full of energy and very enthusiastic about this new project. We hit it off quite well and I felt very comfortable. It felt like less of an interview and more like a meeting between two guys that haven’t seen each other for a long time! I remember that we were both laughing at the sound of the fax machine that literally didn’t stop printing off resumes from all the best knowns chefs around the city. It was clear that the word was out that Francis Coppola was opening and everyone wanted to have a piece of the action. But chefs were assuming that Coppola would be opening a very luxurious restaurant in North beach and instead, he wanted to open a small French-style cafe serving wine from his winery and offering simple Southern Italian food including some of his personal recipes. Giorgio’s next comment sent a warm tickling sensation down my spine. ‘I won’t even read them. I’ll let the machine keep going until it runs out of paper! I think I’ve got the perfect candidate.’ A week went by and I didn’t hear anything back from Giorgio. I wasn’t upset or even anxious. I think deep in my mind I was more inclined to just take some time off and really think about what I was going to do with my life, not to mention that I hadn’t been back home to Sicily for a while, so the idea of paying a visit to friends and family was very tempting! But, sure enough, a couple of days later the phone rang and on the other end of the line an exquisite female voice informed me that Mr Clark, the director of operations, wanted to meet with me at Coppola’s winery in Rutherford right next to the Napa valley. I had never been to the Napa Valley before and was excited to visit. As I entered the main gate and I saw the famous chateau, I must admit that I was impressed by its size and splendour. Surrounded by endless rows of colourful grapevines, it was absolutely picturesque. As I walked through the large wooden entrance door, I felt as if I was entering a cave carved right out of the mountainside. Inside was an array of gorgeous, well displayed merchandise all related to food and wine – colourful Deruta Italian ceramics, countless bottles of wine and wooden oak barrels – whilst a nostalgic melody by Roberto Murolo, the grand master of Neapolitan song, filled the air. My heart beat so firmly that I could hardly speak but I knew at once that I had found the happiness I sought. Mr. Clark turned out to be a gentle man in his sixties. He started laughing at my reaction to the beauty within the cellars. ‘Antonio,’ he said, ‘That is precisely the feeling that we want each individual that enters those rooms to experience. We have an entire department dedicated to this amazing production and everything you see has been designed and directed by the Great Maestro Francis Coppola.’ Mr Clark went on to explain that the goal behind the new cafe was to bring the Napa valley flair into the heart of the city. He explained that the chef they would hire would be working very closely with Mr Coppola to make the menu. He explained I would need to visit the winery often to work on the dishes but that they would pay me for my time. In reality, I would have been happy to do it for free. A few more days passed but I wasn’t nervous. This process felt like a pleasant journey getting to know this company, and I was so comfortable at the thought of a big meeting with the Great Maestro. A few days later a woman by the name Sharon called me. She explained that Mr. Coppola was away but expected back some time during the week and that he would like a meeting with me at the Sentinel Building. As it turns out, the Sentinel Building is nestled in between Little Italy and Chinatown, literally a few blocks up from where I was living. I could not believe that it was located so near where I lived, almost if destiny had played a trick on me, crossing my humble life with the one of such grandeur !!!! I had to be ready to prepare a Caesar salad. Twice, the planned meeting was cancelled and both times, I was ready with my grocery bag full of Romaine lettuce, eggs, anchovies, a nice piece of parmiggiano and of course a mean bottle of extra virgin olive oil. So each time I ended up going back home tossing my ingredients together to make my masterpiece. But the third time we were lucky. Again the phone rang and it was Sharon. ‘Antonio, can you be here in 30 minutes?!!’ Off I went. Destination: The Sentinel Building top floor penthouse! A young man was waiting for me outside. He let me in to the elevator, swiped a magnetic card and off I went to the top floor, when suddenly the elevator doors opened up and there he was – the Great Maestro, just like in the movies but in the flesh and blood. He greeted me: ‘Antonioooo! Come on in. What do you think about my building? Do you like it?’ I said, ‘Sir, this building is absolutely stunning, assolutamente meravigliosa!’ I had passed by here so many times, always wondering what was going on inside. He gave me a brief history of the building. Initially the top floor housed a questionable political figure, Abraham ‘Boss’ Ruef, and later a restaurant called Caesar’s, that was credited for inventing the Caesar Salad. However, despite its success, the restaurant closed down during Prohibition. And that’s why we were there that day… To give birth once again to the most authentic Caesar salad. ‘Are you ready?’ he said. I had never been more ready! And I suppose the rest is history! Antonio got the job of course. But, from this moment of his story, I was unable to keep Antonio still for any longer! Too many projects beckoned and we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the next instalment and subsequent chapters of his tale! However, what is abundantly clear from speaking to Antonio is that he loved his time working for Francis Ford Coppola and it marked the start of many years working among the best luxury resorts in central America and the Caribbean. More recently, Antonio’s love of Sicily, his experience in luxury resorts and his passion for food and hospitality, has led him to create his newest labour of love, Casa Terre di Bea. Antonio’s feet and background are firmly in the luxury market and he has made a conscious effort to build on this. However, he has combined the services guests expect to receive in the luxury resorts he is used to working in, whilst very much supporting the new trend of eco-conscious tourism. At his villa rental in Sicily, he is proving that it is possible to combine all the comforts of luxury travel with a property whose roots have a firm respect for the environment and nature. It is this approach that forms the guiding tool for the experience he has created for holidaymakers. It’s also an approach that there has never been a greater need for. This year, forest fires have ravaged parts of Sicily and, as temperatures have soured across Europe, the damage that humans have done to the planet is all too clear to see. Visitors can relax knowing that Casa Terre di Bea has been built using only local materials and following traditional Sicilian construction techniques. Wherever possible, items have been re-used or re-cycled by Antonio. It never surprises me when I call him and he is walking along the beach to find washed up driftwood that he can use to make something with! The villa has also been built whilst respecting the endangered species of flora and fauna that surround the property within the Parco Delle Madonie nature reserve. This isn’t at the expense of luxury though. Guests will arrive to find a well stocked fridge and pantry along with a selection of Sicilian wines, mineral water, fruit juices, jams and a fruit platter. It’s one of the perks of renting a villa in Sicily owned by a renowned chef! You’re also provided with the services of a 24 hour concierge service to organise any activities you may be interested in including (not surprisingly) a private chef along with fishing trips, private tours and excursions, massage services, dinner reservations and additional housekeeping services. Whilst I can’t promise that you’ll manage to get a word in edgeways if you are lucky enough to meet Antonio, I can promise you that, if you choose to stay at Casa Terre di Bea, you’ll enjoy an unforgettable experience for all the right reasons! To find out more about Antonio’s villa in Sicily and to enjoy the hospitality of this larger-than-life Italian, check out Casa Terre di Bea on our website.

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