A taste of Italy

Gilroy residents hoping to experience authentic Italian cuisine need look no further than Sweet Sicily. The new Italian style coffee bar and bistro opened in late February and business has been booming since.

“This is the closest you can get to homemade, the way I was brought up,” says Sweet Sicily regular Matteo Ferrigno.

Sweet Sicily, located at 1280 First St. in Hecker Pass Plaza, is brimming with activity. Italian is spoken freely. Chefs are in and out of the kitchen. There’s a lot of commotion. The place is modeled after an Italian-style bar, where patrons make a quick stop to grab a breakfast or step up to the counter to knock back their espresso.

Although not considered a regular restaurant in Italy, nowadays some bars have begun to offer more food items, even hot food. While Sweet Sicily serves food, manager Giuseppe Campagna says with conviction, “this is a not a restaurant, it’s more of a bistro.”

It’s true, there are no traditional wait staff, no tables with white linens and wine glasses. However, the quality makes you forget all that.

Speaking with chef and owner Saverio D’Anna, our conversation is a blend of broken English, pantomime and what little Italian I can garner from my knowledge of Spanish. D’Anna’s accent is thick, but his expressive face and obvious passion make for a pleasant, warm-hearted exchange.

Coming to the U.S. in November 2015, D’Anna, along with his partner, Leonardo La Placa, knew they had found their location when they arrived at the quaint unassuming storefront in the Hecker Pass Plaza. They had to hustle to ready their store for its February opening.

But preparing for a store opening was nothing new for either of these gentlemen. Both of whom have either owned or participated in the openings of several establishments throughout Europe. D’Anna is modest company, but neither he nor La Placa are without bragging rights. After searching the Internet on exclusively Italian language sites, I realized that these guys have brought a big game to this little town.

Together D’Anna and La Placa founded and ran the Association for Sicilian Pastry Chefs and Cooks, serving as president and vice president of the organization. But, each has a unique history in the culinary world.

D’Anna, who received no formal training, owned and operated a family business, the Bar Albatros, in his hometown of Palermo, where he began apprenticing in his father’s kitchen at 22.

He has been fortunate to learn among such influential figures as Italian culinary master Francesco Paolo Cascino; the father of modern pastry, Chef Paco Torreblanca; French gourmet chef and recently appointed head of the new Chocolate Academy in Dubai, Philippe Marand; and one of the most recognized Italian chefs in the world, Nino Graziano, holder of two Michelin stars.

As a four-time finalist in the Grand Prix of International Pastry and three-time finalist in World Chocolate Masters, D’Anna has also received high accolades.

La Placa, although not present for the interview, is also a native of Palermo as well as a graduate of CAST Alimenti Cooking School of Brescia in the Lombardy region of Italy. He has worked in chocolate pastry shops in Russia and Armenia. La Placa’s culinary and pastry expertise led him to develop products for multinational corporations such as Belcolade, a belgian chocolate manufacturer; Distillerie Camel-Pasticceria; and Stramondo, all international providers for bakeries, confectioners and chocolatiers. La Placa also owned several businesses in Palermo, including two gelato and pastry bars.

Together, D’Anna and La Placa have won the Guinness World Record for the largest cassatta, an italian sponge cake, weighing more than 1¼ tons. They also nearly won a Guinness World Record for the largest profiterole mountain, a hollowed pastry filled with creme and typically covered with chocolate. The duo and their team fell short of making the new world record by a mere 20 centimeters.

According to a recent article by Reuters, Italy is just barely beginning to emerge from its worst recession since WWII, and the resurgence of their economy has come at a price. Business owners like D’Anna and La Placa have suffered crippling taxes by the state in an effort to reverse the country’s deficit and high unemployment.

Italian business owners are looking elsewhere for alternatives and that’s why D’Anna came to the United States seeking a better opportunity for his family. His son attends high school in Redwood City, where D’Anna and his wife Daniella chose to settle.

Asked why he chose Gilroy for his business, D’Anna responds, “The big cities cause stress—relax, relax.”

About his motivation, D’Anna says, “passion, fantasy and the love for my job.” D’Anna says in order to do this type of work, you have to have two problems “1. You are crazy or 2. You are very, very, very crazy. If you don’t have the patience, it’s impossible, this job. For me it’s a passion and love.” His wife, Daniella, confirms: “he is very crazy.”

Back in Sweet Sicily, standing at the bar enjoying a quick caffé, Matteo Ferrigno says he likes the atmosphere. “I feel like we’re in Europe.” he says. “And, they make 100 percent authentic Italian Sicilian food.”

Some of the ingredients D’Anna and La Placa use are imported, such as their ricotta, which arrives at SFO in refrigerated cargo straight from Italy. This ricotta finds its way into their beautiful pastries, chiefly into their cannoli. One of the managers, Gianluca Campagna says, “people come here from San Francisco just to get a cannoli.”

They have brought a small piece of Italy to the South Valley, and as the business name suggests, the menu is classic Sicilian cuisine. “New Italian cuisine is good for the eyes, but classic Italian cuisine is good for the belly,” D’Anna says as he motions to his stomach.

Patrons who can’t get to Sweet Sicily right away can catch a glimpse of them on their Facebook page. Their Italian posts showcase the best of their daily offerings. If you don’t speak the language, you can select the option to translate the text in the post, but the sentiment is not quite the same. Time to brush up on your Italian. And if you’re looking for native speakers, Sweet Sicily is a good place to practice.

Asked what his favorite item is, D’Anna bursts out into song singing: “Carbonara e una coca cola” popularized in the 1980s song, “Carbonara” by the German band Spliff. Campagna, the young man helping to translate, gives a blank stare, as the song is before his time. Whether the song is familiar or not, D’Anna is fun and lights up a room with his attitude.

D’Anna says they source all of their food locally and buy organic fresh produce. All of their pasta is handmade and prepared to order.

Despite both of these chefs being pastry aficionados, when asked what he likes to make, D’Anna says, “pasta all day, no problem—en tutti modi” (in every way possible). At Sweet Sicily, D’Anna brings the food, while La Placa delivers the sweets.

Customers are happy and they keep coming back. Says Christine Lee of Gilroy: “I really like everything. Whatever I order here, it always turns out to be good.”

Matteo Ferrigno comments on how unusual it is to find this food here “unless you’re going to San Francisco, this is the closest you’re gonna get to being in Europe.”

Everything served here is made fresh every day. They do sell some penne pasta and Italian staples like lasagna, but also have hot, made-to-order pasta dishes like Carbonara, or their signature Sweet Sicily, which includes mushrooms, pork, onions and garlic in a white wine tomato cream sauce served over a bed of fettuccini. D’Anna says they change up their menu every few weeks to keep things exciting.

With two experienced chefs serving up regional Sicilian cuisine, pastries, and real Italian espresso, Sweet Sicily is busy with patrons from open to close.

If you’ve never been to Italy, you can only hope to experience authentic Italian cuisine.

As for D’Anna and La Placa sharing their culinary and pastry delights with our small town, D’Anna says, “We are here to chase our American dream.”

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