At Hotel Villa Athena, in his hometown of Agrigento in Sicily, Italy, Chef Salvatore Gambuzza has earned the adulation of the food world (and may be close to receiving its first-ever Michelin star) with dishes that were as witty as they were delicious. Now he’s reinventing Sicilian cuisine with a touch of Swiss, German, French, and Northern Italian cuisine that turn ordinary cuisine into high-end five-course meals.
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People like me, who spend their evening searching for the perfect restaurant, local yet reinvented dining establishments, puzzling over multipage menus and gorging (or trying not to) on various local cuisines, often dream of escaping to a certain kind of restaurant. This imaginary restaurant is heavenly placed, exclusive enough that you feel like you have the whole restaurant to yourself, with a view that is exceptional, food that is all locally made and sourced, a staff that isn’t excessively docile and prices that aren’t excessively high.
La Terrazza Degli Dei, which resides in the 5-star Hotel Villa Athena, a villa once owned by a noble princess in the 18th century, is this kind of place. The terrazza occupies the entire upper deck and faces the world renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site Valle dei Templi or Valley of the Temples. Terrazza Degli Dei literally translates to the ‘Terrace of the Gods,’ and when you dine here, you definitely feel like one. If the view isn’t enough to make you feel like a God, the food will clinch it. Whatever you order at La Terrazza Degli Dei, it’s bound to be the best Sicilian you’ve ever tasted. Everything is made locally and in-house at Villa Athena with 90% of their products coming from their very own garden. This goes beyond five-star luxury, and speaks to the attention to detail the staff and Chef take when curating the quality of their product and food for their clients.
As we sat down, we ordered a glass of rosé and waited for our delectable five-course Territorial Tasting Menu on the Terrazza Degli Dei‘s vast terrace for al fresco dining. The glass of Sicilian wine complemented the timeless view in the distance of the Valley of the Temples.
ANTIPASTO: BABY OCTOPUS SALAD
The Territory Tasting Menu began with a summer salad antipasto with fresh candied grape tomatoes or pomodori canditi, diced melon, carrots, and baby octopus. One of my favorite dishes that I don’t get to indulge in as often as I would like is Octopus. I remember eating it as a kid when I lived in Japan and have been obsessed with it ever since. Fresh octopus is a mainstay in Sicilian cuisine. Sicilians eat this tentacle denizen of the Mediterranean enthusiastically, but only when fresh, which is what makes it such a prized possession to be cooked simply.
The harmony between the color, perfume and taste of the salad awakened an emotion within me that brought me back to my childhood. Here again was a pleasing mix of plain and fancy. The octopus was perfectly cooked extra-tender, yet pleasantly chewy. Just enough octopus in the salad to provide snap and flavor, enough melon to add a pinch of sweetness, and the tomatoes own juices preserved perfectly inside. The palate-pleasing combination of flavors left me longing for more.
FIRST COURSE: PERLINA EGGPLANT CANNOLI WITH PARMESAN
Revisiting the pearl of the South, a traditional Sicilian gastronomic dish such as the perlina eggplant cannoli, is a very difficult task. Our second course was exactly that, one of Chef Salvatore Gambuzza’s most highly acclaimed dishes, the cannolo di melanzana perlina with parmigiano. Chef Salvatore Gambuzza returns to simple traditions while trying to manipulate and reinterpret ancient methods for a new clientele’s taste.
This dish was revisited while giving attention to the strong tastes each ingredient has and respecting the balance between them. As soon as I bit down into the crunchy cannolo, I could immediately taste every single ingredient: the Parmesan, the perlina eggplant that was harvested from Etna, and the exquisite taste of the grape tomato sauce in which it lies. For those of you who do not know, the perlina aubergine is an elite product and is hard to find due to its rare size and difficult to harvest. This was an amazing reinterpretation exuding with Sicilian territorial flavor that respected its rustic origins all while maintaining extreme elegance. It was a pleasant surprise for the taste buds.
ENTREE: HOMEMADE TAGLIATELLE WITH LEMON BABY SHRIMP
I liked the linguini with lemon shrimp mint the best, and would have ordered another platter or two if I hadn’t opted for the Territory Tasting Menu. The smell of the shrimp and lemon where both strong and unmistakable and the taste of mint was interspersed into every single bite. This plate was an example of the mastery with which Chef Salvatore Gambuzza manages to master a main ingredient for Sicilian seafood and succeeds in reconciling the two flavors resulting from the different treatment of the ingredients, such as the pasta. The pasta was traffilato al bronzo, which means it was cut a certain way in order to maintain its firmness and better absorb the sauce. How do I know this you may ask? Well, I asked my waiter to explain to me what pasta traffilato was and he was able to give me a clear definition and step-by-step explanation on how the pasta was made. The waiters not only provided us with a detailed description of every meal, but they were wonderfully knowledgeable as well and answered all of our culinary questions without hesitation.
MAIN COURSE: CUBED NEBRODI PIG WITH A SIDE OF VEGETABLES
The third-course was the TRUE return and taste to Sicilian territory and land. A tender Nebrodi pig presented in the form of a cube! It had been cooking for the last 26 hours..it surpassed all preconceptions of a tough flesh and became of a melt-in-the mouth-softness. It was an explosion of flavors and smells of black pepper, fennel seeds, garlic and other territorial scents from their garden. What I found so appealing about Chef Salvatore Gambuzza’s cuisine was how it so nimbly negotiates the terrain between respectfulness for old-world tradition and mindfulness of contemporary diners’ expectations.
Chef Salvatore Gambuzza’s true love of cuisine started with his passion for food presentation, which as you can tell from the Nebrodi pig is carefully studied and very impressive. For the Chef, the first impression is everything. If the presentation is lacking, the cuisine loses its flavor. He even goes as far as using food and vegetables to create ceramic everlasting pieces of art! I kid you not. To fathom what I am talking about you can check out his Facebook page. He is so specialized in this rare form of art that he has taken home 8 gold medals from worldwide competitions. For Chef Salvatore Gambuzza, cooking is science and art. Another fun fact about this ever so talented chef, is that he was mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2011 for having broken the World record of the longest traditional torrone, or nougat, along with several other chefs from the Agrigento area. It was 660 meters long!
DESSERT: WHITE CHOCOLATE WITH MIXED BERRIES
Although the presentation may seem deceiving, the taste brings you back to the authentic pasticcerie of Sicily. This creamy white chocolate mousse covered on a bed of a cereal-like biscuit is testimony to a restaurant that has finally been able to translate the true flavors of a pasticceria to a high-end restaurant, which is a truly difficult task.
Although I did not get the opportunity to stay at Hotel Villa Athena, it was brought to my attention that the local territorial experience extends beyond the dining area. The property offers it’s guests one-of-a kind gastronomic classes. These local experiences are in high demand among their clients who are seeking something beyond the usual 5-star hotel experience. Their unique offering includes bringing these guests to the Hotel’s very own olive and pistachio gardens where they can pick their own olives, create olive oil back at the property, bottle it up, enjoy it with their dinner that night, and take it home. This allows them to truly understand the attention to detail and intention behind La Terrazza degli Dei’s cuisine. A true taste of Sicily.
La Terrazza degli Dei covers all the details crucial to a top-class Italian restaurant. The olive oil on your table is made from their neighboring fields and bright yellow; the bread is fresh and substantial. The décor is elegantly spare, as the view does most of the talking. The wine list is suitably grand, and your server is well equipped to point out the highlights. What Chef Salvatore Gambuzza aims to do at La Terrazza degli Dei is re-educate people on the true flavors that come from the earth and eradicate that industrialized and standardized flavor that has invaded the homes of many. It is a refined taste of old Italy in the very heart of an old historical monument at Valle dei Templi or Valley of the Temples that endeavors to ignite emotions in you that were buried deep down. Chef Salvatore Gambuzza offers us more than just a unique meal, he offers us an emotion. Now all we are waiting for is Chef Salvatore Gambuzza’s well-deserved first Michelin star.
To learn more about Chef Salvatore Gambuzza and his culinary artistry, visit his Facebook page and stay tuned for his up and coming book!
For more information regarding Hotel Villa Athena and La Terrazza degli Dei or to reserve a one-of-a-kind stay or dinner at the property, reach out to me at email@example.com.
- Hotel Villa Athena Via Passeggiata Archeologica, 33, Agrigento AG, Italy; +39 0922 596288; hotelvillaathena.it
Disclosure: This is a sponsored post for Hotel Villa Athena. All opinions remain my own and I was in no way influenced by the company.
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