What separates Gaetano Cannata from most other chefs is his exquisite knowledge of history and its impact on food. A 15-minute conversation quickly slides into a primer on the cuisine of the “monsù,” the title given to French-trained Sicilian chefs who for centuries blended Gallic techniques with the delectable ingredients of their native island. “Monsù” is in fact a corruption of the French title “monsieur.”
But France wasn’t the only outside nation to deeply affect the cooking of Sicily. The Greeks ruled the island, as did North Africans, and you can taste notes of their reign even today. Sicilian dishes are just as likely to contain raisins or cocoa powder as garlic, and there’s a peppery zip to the island’s food that you don’t find at higher latitudes.
Cannata says that nine years after opening he’s still fighting stereotypes about Italian cuisine. You won’t find veal parm or clam sauce on his menu. You will find an artichoke torta, roasted fennel, and even the incredible timballo, a huge dome of pasta cut into wedges. Cannata takes pleasure in defying diners’ expectations.
“I always try to get people to eat stuff they’ve never had before,” he says.
As long as it tastes good, which is pretty much always, nobody will complain. Cannata says business just gets better year after year, in part a reflection of Americans’ more adventurous habits. When he moved to Bradenton 25 years ago, Olive Garden was considered the best Italian food around.
“If I tried to do this 15 years ago,” Cannata says, “I probably would have failed."