If you plan to start a conversation about Sicilian food with , the owner and executive chef at in Bradenton’s Village of the Arts, be prepared for a lesson that extends far beyond the merits of garlic and marinara sauce. When Cannata discusses his signature Sicilian style of cooking, he does more than talk about sauces and spices: He gives a full-on history lesson.
When most people think of traditional Sicilian cuisine, they think of red sauced pastas like eggplant parmesan, lasagna and spaghetti smothered in cheese. These people, Cannata said, are sometimes dismayed to find no such dishes on Ortygia’s menu.
“Sometimes people come in and ask something like, ‘How do you make your lasagna?’ It’s not that I don’t like lasagna, but I tell them if that’s what they’re looking for, they should probably head somewhere else,” Cannata said.
Rather than dishes like lasagna and eggplant parmesan, Ortygia’s menu features items like Finocchio Arrosito (fresh fennel roasted in a chardonnay cream with black olives, pancetta and aged pecorino cheese) and Pate delle due Sicile (mushroom pate with salted capers, olives and dry marsala wine).
This is because Sicily, according to Cannata, is as rich in history as its truly traditional dishes are in flavor and complexity, and Ortygia’s menu pays homage to that history.
“Because Sicily is in such a coveted spot in the Mediterranean, geographically, just about everyone conquered it at some point in time. The culinary influences — French, Arabic, North African, Greek and Spanish, to name a few — are so varied because of all the civilizations that passed through Sicily,” Cannata said.
Cannata is one of a few chefs in the United States who subscribes to the tradition of Monzù cooking, a style established after France conquered Sicily in the 18th century under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte.
“Chefs in Sicily were very envious of French cuisine, so they traveled to France to learn the French cooking technique. When they came back, they combined French cooking with Sicilian ingredients to create the cuisine of the Monzù,” Cannata said. “They came back to Sicily demanding to be referred to as ‘Monsieur,’ but the Sicilians tend to be a bit irreverent to that attitude, so they poked fun at them by calling them ‘Monzù,’ instead. To be a Monzù chef eventually came to be known as a high honor.”
Dishes at Ortygia contain ingredients not often found on the menu at traditional Italian restaurants in the United States. Cannata said that most Sicilians who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century adopted a style influenced by southern Italian cooking because they had little or no access to the diverse ingredients back home.
“Don’t get me wrong. I like the red sauce pasta dishes that most people think of as Sicilian cooking — it’s how my dad cooks and I love it — but since I have access to so many ingredients that early Sicilian immigrants did not, I take advantage of it.”
Cocoa nibs, pine nuts, golden raisins, currants, anchovies, pistachios, artichokes, fennel and cous-cous are but a handful of the somewhat unusual ingredients, common to Monzù Sicilian cooking, that crop up in Cannata’s dishes.
Surprisingly, meat is not a particularly vital aspect of the Ortygia menu, 50% of which is vegetarian. The menu even boasts four vegan options, a dietary option Cannata hopes to expand in the future.
Cannata, a former vegetarian, said he likes to provide a wide variety of meat-free dishes to his patrons because it can be difficult to find vegetarian and vegan dining options on most menus. Additionally, he prefers to carry locally-grown food in his restaurant and says that good lamb and beef is difficult to come by locally.
Cannata scours the downtown Farmers Market and King Farms for many of his ingredients, and even purchases his olive oil from the Sarasota-based Mazzone Family, whose business provides cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil made from olives grown in the countryside of Puglia, Italy.
“I pay twice the amount for olive oil, but the quality is the best I’ve ever had and I like the idea of supporting the business of a local family,” Cannata said.
Like all small business owners, Cannata is familiar with the struggles of operating an independently-owned restaurant in a floundering economy. However, since Ortygia opened its doors in 2007, Cannata said he has been pleased with the restaurant’s success and its consistently high ratings on restaurant review sites like Trip Advisor.
“In this kind of economy, it’s the small, independent, unique people like us who tend to get hurt, but I think part of the reason I do well is because I’m always looking for ways to get people out of the house and into my restaurant,” Cannata said.
In addition to the intimate dining rooms throughout the house-turned-restaurant (typical of the Village of the Arts style), Ortygia features an outdoor patio where Cannata frequently invites local blues and opera singers to perform for guests.
Cannata, originally from New Jersey, said he fell in love with the energy at Village of the Arts when he moved to Bradenton and began taking his daughters to the monthly art walks nearly 15 years ago.
“This place was booming with new artists and galleries every month and I liked the idea of having a free standing restaurant rather than a place in a strip mall, he said. "I just wanted to buy a house, plant a garden and open up a funky little restaurant where I could do whatever I want. So far, that’s worked out very well.”