When chef Joe Vargetto was a child, his mother would struggle to find the ingredients that she grew up eating in Sicily. But she wouldn’t let that stop her and would travel across town to buy ricotta from a small farm, while his dad would grow for her produce like tomatoes, chillies and zucchinis in their garden located in Sandringham, in Melbourne's southeast.
In the 1970s, what was happening in their backyard raised a few eyebrows. “Our home was in a very Anglo, white Australian suburb. There were not many other Italians in the area; we were real foreigners. If you were in Pascoe Vale or Carlton or North Melbourne [where there were Italian communities], you could have gotten away with a lot more, but mum would dry oregano and the neighbours thought it was marijuana,” says Vargetto.
His parents were both born in Italy and met after coming to Australia in the 1950s. Food was central to the family, a way to stay connected to their home country.
“We ate very well. It was always fresh produce and, during summer, we’d make everything ourselves from sun-dried tomatoes to tomato paste, fermented vegetables and salami. I grew up in a family that had a strong food understanding. But I never thought that this would be a career,” he says.
He first studied commerce at university, before doing an apprenticeship at Florentino where he found his true calling as a chef.
"Mum would dry oregano and the neighbours thought it was marijuana."
After spending time working in Italy and returning to Melbourne to cook French and Italian, he’s now at the helm of two restaurants celebrating his Sicilian heritage, Mister Bianco in Kew, soon-to-close Massi Osteria and his new haunt with Maurice Terzini, Cucina Povera Vino Vero, set to open in the CBD later this year.
Last year, he published Siciliano, a cookbook dedicated to his mother. “She gave me tenacity, resilience and determination. You need it to work in this industry every day,” he says.
The recipes highlight the various influences that make Sicilian cuisine, as well as Vargetto’s journey as a Sicilian-Australian.
Several recipes are inspired by his mum and upbringing, but one especially evokes vivid memories of her: the cavatelli in lemon verbena and yabby sauce.
“Cavatelli were a treat. Mum would make them on Sundays. She’d put them on a tray in the spare bedroom to let them dry. I’d open the door and look at the cavatelli and be wowed. She’d do them on special occasions like birthdays, Easter, Christmas,” recalls Vargetto. He uses both semolina (coarse flour made from durum wheat) and tipo 00 (very fine flour ideal for pasta and pizza dough) for his cavatelli, which he promises is a foolproof recipe.
The sauce is made with poached yabbies, lemon juice, butter and olive oil. “Lemon verbena, the bush, smells like lemon. It reminds me of her because we had this big plant at the front door. I used to come back from school and smell this beautiful perfume,” he recalls.
The idea of serving the pasta with yabbies also comes from his childhood. His godfather had a farm in South Gippsland where a young Vargetto would fish yabbies from the dam with a string and a piece of meat.
“There are not many elements, but it’s absolutely to die for. It’s incorporating the Sicilian mentality of keeping things simple and using what you have in front of you. It’s a dish that says who I am,” declares Vargetto.
Handmade cavatelli with lemon verbena and poached yabbies
- 350 g semolina
- 100 g tipo 00 flour
- 3 eggs
- 50 ml water
- 20 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- Extra flour for rolling
- 1 kg fresh yabbies, poached and cleaned
- A handful of lemon verbena leaves
- 150 g chopped butter
- 100 ml lemon juice
- 200 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- To make the cavatelli dough, combine the flours in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the eggs, water and oil. Using a fork, mix dough slowly until the ingredients are combined. Knead dough by hand on a lightly floured surface. Add more water as required. Cover with cling film and set aside to rest for at least 1 hour.
- Cut the dough into 5 equal pieces. Roll out 1 piece at a time on a floured work surface until approximately 1 cm thick. Cut the dough into small rectangles (4 cm wide and 2 cm long). Place the small rectangle of dough at the middle-top of the cavatelli board and use your thumb to press the dough into the board. (If you don't have a cavatelli board, you can use the back of a fork or a tile to create the cavatelli's ripple pattern.)
- While still pressing your thumb into the board, smear the dough away from the handle. The dough should start to curl up behind your thumb. To finish, help the cavatelli roll over on itself and knock it off the end of the board with the ends of your fingers.
- To make the yabby sauce, add the butter, lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil to a heavy-based pan and cook over low heat. Add the lemon verbena to the pan, to infuse the sauce. Add the yabbies to the sauce mix and gently heat for 1 minute. Season to taste and set aside.
- Cook pasta in a large saucepan of salted boiling water until al dente (about 8 minutes). Drain pasta in a colander – reserve a small amount of pasta water if required for the sauce. Add the pasta to the yabbies and toss to coat. Add extra pasta water if required, to taste. Divide the pasta among four plates to serve. Finish with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
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