A journey into traditional flavors: Andrea Farsaci and cooking as emotion and memory

22 dicembre 2023

The holiday season is around the corner and we want to celebrate traditional Italian home food and cuisine by meeting Andrea Farsaci, head chef at restaurant Lo Scalo in Pieve Ligure. Always true to his Sicilian origins and traditional culinary culture, he's currently working on a soon-to-be-published book for Edizioni Velier. 

Andrea Farsaci's childhood experiences are rooted in the small town of Spadafora, in the heart of the province of Messina. Despite having left the island as a boy, his work is still inspired by the skills he acquired during childhood and has been expanding and developing throughout his adult life. Today, having a conversation with him - a cooking professional now perfectly integrated in the Liguria region – means immediately getting a sense of how good food is always deeply connected to tradition and memory. 

“What I look for in a dish is authenticity, even when I go out to eat,” he says, immediately introducing his own idea of cooking. “It's important to understand that even today's innovative haute cuisine is deeply rooted in tradition. If we take traditional dishes away from any great chef – which are invariably the dishes they started from – there's really nothing left. But don't forget that authenticity and simplicity are also the hardest things to achieve.”

Spadafora, an example of small-town culinary heritage

Farsaci's emblematic adventure as a cooking professional only began at the age of forty, but his training actually began as a child growing up in the streets and on the beaches of Spadafora, all the while learning the pleasure of good food from his father.

With a population of less than five thousand, Spadafora is a village with a long seafaring tradition. This deeply influenced Andrea's memories and filled them not just with breathtaking landscapes but also with the distinctive scents and flavors of the local culinary culture - an invaluable cultural heritage deeply intertwined with folk cuisine, a forge of ancient creations passed down across generations and excellent ingredients produced and handled with love and care. 

Like many other places in small-town Italy, especially in the south, 1960s Spadafora was a village where work and the pleasure of food were closely connected. Andrea remembers how the town was divided between the seafront area where the fishermen lived, and the more inland area with shops, a medieval castle and the homes of the wealthiest families. The seafront strip close to the shore exuded the authenticity of the fishermen's lives, with the constant coming and going of colorful vessels and fishing boats. Walking along the promenade, you could literally breathe in the essence of the art of fishing, a fundamental pillar of the community.

Like many other similar places in the south, this small village combined fishing with the art of cooking fresh fish, just as animal husbandry and agriculture provided the rest of the ingredients local families put on the table. 

Cooking those ingredients is an art that has been refined for decades if not centuries, and as such it's an invaluable heritage. When he moved to Liguria, Andrea brought with him his memories of that heritage, which he then built on and developed partly by traveling and researching, partly by expanding his collection of old books and partly through the vivid memories of his mother, who helped him in the kitchen of his restaurant until her death. 

Farsaci's tips for the holiday period, from past to present

One of Andrea Farsaci's most cherished memories is a small piece of land purchased by his father. The garden was home to a variety of trees and plants, as well as a few small farm animals. Andrea's father involved local farmers to farm the land, thus providing them with a direct source of produce. 

Therefore, ever since childhood Farsaci has associated food with the knowledge of its natural source, something that has nourished not just his body but also the close bond between the man and his land. 

For these reasons, the chef he is today always has an eye on the past. That's where his culinary work has its foundations - the belief that food should first and foremost stir emotions and be an experience rooted in memories.

“When I'm cooking, what I'm looking for is smells. Smells can bring back the memory of forgotten things. I don’t find extremely technical dishes emotional in themselves, no matter how excellent. Emotion is also chemistry - when a scent brings back memories or takes you to new places, that's what creates emotion. Cooking is an alchemy that takes you somewhere. So it's also something personal, because a smell that reminds you of a dish your grandma used to cook is an emotional and beautiful thing to you.”

As this is the concept that inspires all of his work, it’s easy to guess what Farsaci's advice for the Christmas holidays might be: 

“My personal advice for the holidays is to draw inspiration from your food memories. To me, food has always been deeply connected to emotions and memories, and the Christmas holidays should be an opportunity to go back to your childhood and family traditions. So it's not so much about recommended recipes as finding what takes us back to that warmth, to that emotion. In my case, for example, holiday dinners bring to mind pictures of family gatherings, with my relatives getting together and staying until late at night. We played cards, bingo, and sometimes even quarreled, maybe sorting out situations we hadn't talked about all year. The dinner table was always the center of the scene - sometimes the tablecloth wouldn't be taken away until the next morning. So my advice is always to look for something that makes you feel good, not necessarily something elaborate. If it's artificial, cold or too thought out, food loses its poetry. Something very simple is often enough to call to mind the right memory and awaken your soul.”

The importance of seasonality

Farsaci goes on to point out that the different times of the year have always marked the pace of culinary life - not just because of the seasons. The choice of ingredients also depended on cultural factors. In the past, different dishes were associated to specific holidays and weekly routines. In our culture, they also contribute to creating a deep bond with the community.

Seasonality is not just about fruit and vegetables. Traditionally, meat also follows a precise seasonal calendar, partly dictated by nature and partly by the needs of the moment. The killing of the pig, typically done in winter according to ancient practices still alive in many regions, is a tangible example of this philosophy. Another example is the cooking of lamb or kid in spring, especially for the Easter holidays. 

In Farsaci's childhood memories, Spadafora's culinary tradition embraced the festivities with symbolic dishes such as rooster on Ferragosto or “canni ‘nfunnata” during the village festival in summer. 

This special kind of “oven-roasted meat” is also an example of the deep roots of Sicilian culture, as it's an adaptation of a practice from the Middle East - a region Sicily famously draws much of its culinary wisdom from.  

“Today cooking is often about transformation, but transforming is not enough to create emotions. You need to go back to your origins, your traditions and your culture. There's a reason if traditional dishes have been surviving for centuries and will survive for centuries to come. It's just the way it is. People used to eat them centuries ago, and if we take care to carry them on, they'll still be eating them two hundred years from now.”

However, Andrea also explains how with the new millennium, social changes have led to a loss of some family habits and a gradual shift away from time devoted to cooking. This is creating a generational vacuum that would now call for a revival of culinary traditions:

“The loss of tradition is connected to social changes. When family habits changed at the turn of the new millennium, families lost the habit of devoting time to cooking. So the whole culture connected to folk traditions and love for food has skipped a generation. This has created a gap that we are now struggling to close.”

A book to pass on ideas and memories

From this background came the idea of the book where Andrea Farsaci is currently collecting memories and teachings from his culinary journey, starting from his childhood in 20th-century Sicily - a tribute to a rich culinary culture deeply rooted in history and authenticity. 

The book is currently being written and will be available for Edizioni Velier next year. In the meantime, here is a small preview, a short excerpt where Andrea talks about one of the main traditional Sicilian recipes, the ghiotta: 

The ghiotta could be made with stockfish, tuna, swordfish or other strong-flavored fish, or even “vintruzzi” or dried cod stomach soaked until softened to a jelly-like consistency. The ghiotta is a very important recipe with deep roots in tradition. To prepare it, the first thing you need is olives in brine - a staple in all Sicilian homes - which always go with capers. For the sauce, we traditionally use tomatoes “ca’ scoccia”, meaning “with the skin on”. During the canning of tomato puree, part of the tomatoes was cut into slices and left with the skin on. These were then placed inside empty wine bottles and sealed with cork stoppers. 

For the stockfish, you start by stir-frying salted anchovies, onions and plenty of celery with the leaves in oil. Let the onion brown slowly, then add olives, capers (sometimes pine nuts, but this is a more recent variant not part of the traditional recipe) and some optional chili pepper. The potatoes are “studdute”, that is, cut into large pieces and browned until crispy (unlike the Genoese traditional recipe where the potatoes are cooked to a mash). Next, add the tomatoes ca’ scoccia and let the potatoes cook for a couple of minutes. Cut the stockfish into large chunks and add it into the pot, with no further work as the chunks need to stay whole. Again, this is a clear difference compared to the Genoese recipe, where the fish is crumbled together with the potatoes. In the Sicilian recipe, the potato and stockfish chunks remain whole and don't fall apart.