The Sicilian passion of Valentina Rizzi

Carla Vidal


Young sommelier Valentina Rizzi has distilled the Sicilian larder into the liquid creations that accompany Viviana Varese's gastronomic adventure on the island. 

Valentina Rizzi is the woman behind the amazing cocktails and food pairings offered at chef Viviana Varese's restaurants on the island of Sicily. At Varese's restaurant in W Villadorata Country, as well as at VIVA IL BISTROT - both in baroque Noto - Rizzi has managed to capture the essence of Sicily in her drinks and pairings, as an extension of the chef's love for this volcanic and passionate Mediterranean island.

Valentina has been close to the world of wine since she was young, as her grandfather enjoys making a few bottles thanks to a small vineyard he owns in the hills of Parma, but it was during her stay in the French Languedoc that she really discovered all that the world of drinks has to offer. "It was a unique experience. Getting involved in wine making was something inexplicable," the sommelier recalls, while admitting that "the real surprise was discovering the non-alcoholic drink made from the juice of the same grapes using a similar process, but without alcohol. A product with fresh, fruity and floral aromas that I could have drunk indefinitely".

This discovery spurred the young sommelier on to explore a new avenue beyond her knowledge of classical oenology and viticulture. A new interest that she explored hand in hand with her fairy godmother, Viviana Varese, who entrusted her with the cocktail bar of her starred restaurant. "Viviana was the one who gave me the real push to start studying alternative methods based on the same raw material," admits Valentina Rizzi.

And with the Italian chef's leap to Sicily, Rizzi is embarking on a new apprenticeship through the liquid exploration of a territory that offers her multiple possibilities. "Sicily is a very special island, rich in raw materials with intense, direct and decisive aromas and flavours. You can create unique combinations with them. For example, the lemons that grow in the citrus grove behind the restaurant can be used in many different ways. Its fresh juice can be used as the basis for a reinterpretation of a gin fizz, and the peel, which releases a completely natural essential oil when vacuum-packed with sugar, can be used both in the kitchen and as a finishing touch to a cocktail," says the passionate liquid enthusiast. For Rizzi, Sicily has been a new starting point because "all the drinks created at Villadorata aim to explore Sicily", with all that this implies in terms of knowledge of the environment. A task that Valentina is happy to take on. "Sicily, with its beauty, is a constant inspiration," she admits.

In particular, the Beverage Director from Varese is happy to have acquired an in-depth knowledge of wild thyme, "commonly known on the island as 'satarieddu', which gives off such an intense scent that it is difficult to forget". With a pleasant, slightly spicy flavour, "variable and versatile" according to Rizzi, it can be used both in cooking and in cocktails. An ingredient that inevitably evokes the Mediterranean essence of the island, which is not just one region, but several. Hence its richness, because, as Valentina says, "the beauty of this land is that it is a region with many other small regions within it, each of which offers 'new' raw materials. The product grown in Marsala is not the same as the one grown in Noto. That's why, for me, reflecting Sicily in my creations means reflecting it in 360 degrees.

Reflecting an essence and a larder that are unique not only for their diversity, but also for an environment that imparts special characteristics to its products. Let's not forget that Sicily beats under the watchful eye of a volcano, Mount Etna. Volcanic soil - as we have known at Worldcanic since the first edition - gives special characteristics to the plants that grow there. Valentina Rizzi confirms this: "Fruit grown on Etna's volcanic soil has very different aromas and flavours to fruit grown near the sea, for example. One example is the Mela dell'Etna, which produces small green or red fruits that are very sweet and fragrant. An apple with refreshing, thirst-quenching and diuretic properties. Apple growing is favoured by the favourable climate on the slopes of the volcano, due to the high altitude of the crops, 1100 to 1300 metres. The higher the volcano, the better the characteristics of the fruit: colour, taste, aroma and consistency of the flesh. The juices obtained have unique aromas that transform the drink, giving it unique flavours and scents that only the raw material of the area can give".

With all this, the Mediterranean essence, the volcanic uniqueness and the Sicilian character, Valentina Rizzi manages to create unique drinks, such as her favourite: the "Wild Thyme". "A drink based on our own gin. Citrusy, fresh, balsamic and with a salty finish, mixed with a homemade syrup of wild thyme and fresh lemon juice and finished with a touch of soda, fresh lemon peel and fresh thyme". A cocktail that perfectly sums up Rizzi's relationship with Sicily, just as 'La bocca del Vulcano' illustrates the explosive history of the island, "based on natural bitter, Etna cherry liqueur, Gin Viva and Donfendere '100 e lode' chocolate chips. A strong drink, but delicate at the end, with fruity and bitter chocolate notes to represent the strength of the volcano and the delicacy of its landscape, surrounded by orchards, vineyards and flowers," Valentina tells us.

The magic of Sicilian wine

But all her work on cocktails does not overlook the incredible possibilities offered by the island's wine world to combine with the gastronomic creations of Viviana Varese and her team in Sicily, chefs Matteo Carnaghi and Ida Brenna. Once again, the sublime Etna, giant of lava and fire, under which Hephaestus himself is said to have forged the rays of Zeus, giving them their uniqueness. Just like Sicily's volcanic wines. 

The Etna DOC zone, which covers 23,000 hectares, is located at the foot of the volcano. In this area, the basaltic lavas, some of which are very thick, are interspersed with fall deposits from the explosive phase of the eruptions, in which the structure of the soil has a different inorganic skeleton from that of the soil resulting from the alteration of the lavas. This means that Etna's soil is extremely variable, both in age and in composition. And it is thanks to this diversity that the wines produced in the different arsenals have significant characteristics of each area. The main attraction, according to the sommelier, is the Sicilian wines. 

"The wines produced in the region of Sicily are wines that contain the characteristics of each area. The beauty of this land, from an oenological point of view, lies precisely in its diversity. In Marsala we have a Grillo with a colourful bouquet that, together with the expressive tension between acidity and typical sweetness, are the elements that make Grillo one of the most interesting whites on the current Sicilian wine scene. Vinified with purity, it produces wines of great depth, aromatic, fragrant, fresh and potentially long-lasting. If we move to Etna, we find a Grillo that, thanks to the hilly climate, with greater thermal excursions than in the coastal area, brings a richer and more intense aromatic accompaniment to these grapes; one that plays with floral and citrus notes that are almost reminiscent of the fruits that grow on Etna," explains Valentina.

All this variety is what Rizzi wants to capture in the wine list, but always going one step further. This year the sommelier has chosen "wines with a story to tell, wines from small producers, wines with character".  From natural wines to orange wines to wines fermented in amphorae. My motto is to make room for all the beauty that this region has to offer, without ever overlooking the raw materials used in the kitchen, but always wanting to enhance their preparation and care", sums up Viviana Varese's liquid companion, with whom the gastronomic experience of the island proposed by the chef doubles in meaning.





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