Celebrity Traveler: Donna Crivello's Palermo

After a fire destroyed one her restaurants, Donna Crivello traveled to Italy for culinary inspiration

November 18, 2011|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

For Donna Crivello, it was a joyous busman's holiday born of sadness.

The co-owner and inspiration behind Donna's restaurants in Mount Vernon, Cross Keys, Charles Village and Columbia watched her Mount Vernon restaurant burn in a spectacular five-alarm fire last December. But she and husband Peter Adams went ahead with a planned trip to Sicily in August.

Crivello's family is from Sicily, and she has returned there often. It is where she found the inspiration for, among other dishes, her signature Donna's Salad, a colorful array of roasted vegetables.

And it was where, she was sure, she would find the inspiration to begin again.

While her husband, who teaches at Baltimore City Community College, toured the ancient ruins of Palermo, Crivello trolled the shops and markets with a local chef, choosing the freshest ingredients from the fish sellers and others, and returned to his restaurant, where he and his mother taught her and three other "students" how to prepare the food they had purchased.

And then, of course, everyone sat down to eat the results.

How did your trip correspond to the fire that destroyed the Mount Vernon Donna's? Did the prospect of beginning anew at the restaurant change your goals for the trip?

My first trip to Sicily, over 20 years ago, did inspire my first Mount Vernon menu. So as I thought about rebuilding and re-creating the new Donna's, a trip back to Sicily — especially Palermo, near where my family is from — was my first vacation choice. I had to convince my husband to go back. He too loves Sicily, but he is more interested in the sights.

Most people travel to Italy for the ancient ruins — or the wine and food. It sounds like you went to Italy to go grocery shopping. Tell us what you were hoping to learn.

When I travel, I like to get out early in the morning — I usually don't have breakfast in a hotel — and a quick run or walk brings me to where the neighborhood people meet and have their coffee and do their early shopping, the bakeries and the small markets. And they gather around the trucks selling produce and freshly caught fish.

You chose Sicily because it is where your family is from. Did you see family while you were there? And what have you learned from them about food?

What I love about Sicilian food is that is a wonderful mix of so many other cuisines. Centuries ago, this island in the Mediterranean was home to ancient Greeks, Arabs, French and Spanish.

We once again visited Franco Crivello. His restaurant is Francu i piscaturi (in Sicilian dialect), or Franco's Pescaria, a charming local seafood restaurant right on the water about 15 miles east of Palermo in the little fishing village of Porticello. He might be a distant cousin, but if not, he welcomes us as if we were family.

The trattoria has an open patio, with lights strung over the slightly mismatched wooden tables, lovingly topped with handmade cloths and quickly covered with plates of wonderfully fresh octopus, swordfish, shrimp and handmade pasta.

On a previous visit, Franco brought me out to the fisherman who arrived late at night with fresh fish for him to inspect. The squirming octopus and fresh tuna would be on the next day's menu.

You decided not to let anyone know you were a professional cook and restaurant owner. Did that work, or could they all spot a pro in the kitchen? Did you master any new techniques?

Before the trip, I contacted a local chef in Palermo, Vincenzo Clemente of Cin Cin Ristorante. He leads an early-morning walking tour — with tasting — through one of the open markets. There are three markets in Palermo, and this one, the Capo, is his favorite and is mine now, too.

We met the vendors, had the "snacks" just like the morning shoppers do. Fried chickpea fritters and even beef spleen sandwiches, with a little glass of Marsala wine.

We shopped for food that we would use later in our cooking class in the kitchen of his restaurant a few blocks away. His mother assisted in the cooking and the teaching.

I decided that I would not reveal that I was a professional cook so that Vincenzo and his mother would be more open and feel free to share the basic information. Often the fundamentals — in this case, chopping, drying and frying eggplant for caponata — are some of the most important details in re-creating a recipe, and I didn't want them to assume I wasn't interested in basics.

How did you choose where to stay? And did you do anything fun and touristy? Or was this strictly a working vacation?

We had stayed downtown before, closer to museums and churches, where Peter, my husband, spends his days when I'm off at markets.

He thought that I needed a "treat," so we stayed at the Villa Igiea. The villa, formally a "health center" at the turn of the century, has a stunningly beautiful Italian "art nouveau" (or Liberty-style) decor and has equally spectacular views of Palermo Bay.

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