A good number of Italian chefs seek new pastures and travel the world to develop their skills – but the vast majority of them always return to Italy in the end. That’s certainly the case with Accursio Craparo, who after an initial plan to see the sights of Europe was convinced to return home and realise his potential as one of Sicily’s most celebrated chefs.
Born in Sciacca, an historic fishing port on the southwest coast of Sicily, Accursio’s earliest memories are of watching his grandmother in the kitchen while his father and grandfather worked on the family farm. ‘When I think about my earliest memories of food, it’s always the aromas of lemons and saffron that I can’t get out of my head,’ he says. Remaining on the island to attend the local catering college, his main aim – as with many young chefs – was to see the world, so he set out for Frankfurt, cooking at the Michelin-starred Osteria Enoteca for a year. He was set on staying out there, but during a short break back home he ran into his friend and mentor Corrado Assenza. ‘He took me for a walk in the countryside and taught me how to pick the right herbs and notice all the different wild flavours,’ says Accursio. It was during this walk that Corrado told him he must never lose sight of where he came from, and that he should return to Sicily one day and open his own restaurant.
While he didn’t remain in Sicily, Accursio decided to remain in Italy to work with the legendary Pietro Leemann at Joia in Milan – Europe’s first Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant. ‘I was there from 2000 to 2002, learning the art of appreciating natural products, natural methods and a lighter style of cooking,’ he says. ‘I also loved how the Mediterranean kitchen was influenced by Asian elements.’ It was here that Accursio truly began to understand how to balance bitter, acidic, spicy, salty and sweet flavours.
Eventually, Pietro and Accursio agreed it was time for him to take the next step in his career, which led the young chef to Massimiliano Alajmo, the chef in charge of the three-starred Le Calandre in Padova. ‘Here I learnt about the harmonic synthesis of dishes; how there was no dissonance between the five senses and that hearing is just as important as taste, sight as important as smell.’ For the next two years Accursio absorbed all the culinary knowledge he could, becoming a fantastic chef in his own right.
In 2004, Accursio knew he had to return to Sicily. Leaving such a renowned restaurant like Le Calandre was tough, but he wanted to start recreating the smells and flavours of his childhood, like the lemon and saffron he could remember from a very early age. Working at Fatoria delle Torri, a traditional Sicilian restaurant in the heart of Modica, he was approached by his old friend Corrado Assenza, who said he knew he would be back and that he should start making a name for himself. Accursio agreed, and moved on to Gazza Ladra a year later.
Because Gazza Ladra was the first time Accursio became head chef, it was here that his own, unique style really started to show. Taking the memories of his childhood and the traditional flavours of Sicily, he combined them with the appreciation of natural ingredients he developed at Joia and the three-starred mastery gained from Le Calandre to take the local cuisine to dizzying new heights. He won his first Michelin star in 2008, securing his place in the Sicilian chef hall of fame.
Gazza Ladra continued to be successful, but in 2012 Accursio decided he wanted his very own restaurant, which would allow him all the freedom and creativity to become the chef he wanted to be. After two years of planning, he opened Accursio Ristorante with his wife Oriana – a place they could truly call their own. The restaurant received a Michelin star in 2016.
Accursio is particularly well-suited to represent the food of Sicily as he grew up on the western coast of the island but also worked in Modica in the southeast – two regions with two very different cuisines. Sicily is known for its unique mix of Arabian and Italian cultures; Accursio uses this to his advantage, taking the seafood and sheep cheese of the west and the meat and wild ingredients of the mainland to create something entirely new, yet respectful to traditions. With a love for using wild, foraged ingredients from the island, his cuisine is the perfect example of how both classical and modern can come together to create something better than the sum of its parts.
Three things you should know
Accursio’s tasting menus represent the different styles of cuisine found on Sicily, and many of his dishes are an ode to the food his mother and grandmother cooked when he was younger.
Around the corner from Accursio Ristorante lies Accursio Radici, the chef’s street food shop that serves simple dishes to take away or eat in.
Despite the Michelin star, Accursio is sure not to stray away from classic Sicilian flavours, ensuring his dishes remain true to the ingredients and flavours of the island.