How life on a tiny Aeolian island inspired Italy’s top female chef

Award-winning young Italian chef Martina Caruso's love of food is in her blood - and she has the tattoos to prove it.

How life on a tiny Aeolian island inspired Italy's top female chef
Award-winning Italian chef Martina Carus at home on the island of Salina. Photo: Catherine Marciano/AFP

At just 29, Caruso has become a hit in the world of haute cuisine by using the sunshine flavours of her tiny volcanic island of Salina and giving a modern twist to traditional recipes.  

Earlier this year, she was named Italy's female chef of 2019 – just three years after she became the youngest Italian to win a Michelin star at the family-run Signum restaurant and hotel on Salina.

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The flavours from the idyllic island infuse Caruso's dishes and her favourite ingredients are even tattooed on her arm: garlic, oil, hot pepper, octopus, and the sea.

From a young age she watched her father Michele, who as Signum's chef was devoted to traditional recipes.

“At first, my father did not give me any room, he did not want me to become a chef, a tiring job,” Caruso says. 

But she flew the nest for three years to train at a cookery school near Sicily's capital Palermo.
Caruso later took her place as a chef in the family restaurant, where she showed off her technical and creative ways of cooking. 

“I convinced my father by showing him what I knew how to do.”

Her mantra is “simplicity”, says Caruso, who was awarded the female chef of the year title by the Italian Michelin guide and Veuve Clicquot in March. 

“But simple doesn't mean it's easy,” she laughs.

In one of her appetisers, Caruso takes “bagna cauda”– a typical dish from Piedmont in northern Italy, which consists of garlic and anchovies, but gives it a Sicilian kick by using sea urchins. 

Salina is known for its capers, which she makes into ice cream, something to be savoured in small quantities due to the potent flavour of the tiny green berries.

Salina is one of the Aeolian Islands, off Sicily. Photo: Depositphotos

Her menu also includes chargrilled moray eel, which she cooks on embers in her garden. The delicate white fish is scarcely eaten on the island today but she is keen to continue using the traditional ingredient.

Another local speciality is her “mezzi paccheri”, short tube-shaped pasta with an intense squid sauce, based on a recipe made by fishermen's families.

“French cuisine is very much based on technique, the marriage of flavours. To think up a dish, Italian chefs may be more traditional, and that's what I do by listening to the country's elders,” Caruso says.
However, Caruso's mother, Clara, the mayor of the small town of Malfa, has never even cooked an egg.

Instead of the kitchen, Clara turned her attention over the course of 30 years to transforming a number of old pastel-coloured properties into what has become a boutique hotel in Salina, an island of just 26 square kilometres (10 square miles).

She has also tried to increase tourism on the island by inviting artists into a former palace that has been turned into a cultural centre. 

Salina was featured on the silver screen in the film “Il Postino”, which was shot there 25 years ago. The classic is screened every day during the summer at an outdoor cafe on the island.

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At the restaurant, Caruso's father Michele still takes care of ingredients in the early morning and her brother Luca works as a manager. “We try to make the young people of the island work,” she says.

“My father was taught by his mother. In Italy, the cuisine of 'the mamma', home cooking, is fundamental,” the chef says.

The feminine cult in the kitchen can be seen in the large number of Italian women who have been distinguished by Michelin awards.

For Caruso, the Michelin title is “an important moment” in terms of her image, but it also gives her a pretext to talk about being a woman working in haute cuisine.

She makes sure she works with a diverse team.

Her rise to fame has not prompted her to leave the island, whose population goes down to just 2,000 in the winter. 

“I can explore the world in the winter, but I won't leave Salina, it's home,” she says.


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Why Friday the 13th isn’t an unlucky date in Italy

Unlucky for some, but not for Italians. Here's why today's date isn't a cause for concern in Italy - but Friday the 17th is.

Why Friday the 13th isn't an unlucky date in Italy

When Friday the 13th rolls around, many of us from English-speaking countries might reconsider any risky plans. And it’s not exactly a popular date for weddings in much of the western world.

But if you’re in Italy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s no shortage of strongly-held superstitions in Italian culture, particularly in the south. But the idea of Friday the 13th being an inauspicious date is not among them.

Though the ‘unlucky 13’ concept is not unknown in Italy – likely thanks to the influence of American film and TV – here the number is in fact usually seen as good luck, if anything.

The number 17, however, is viewed with suspicion and Friday the 17th instead is seen as the unlucky date to beware of.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted on Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors, and so on – so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is thought to be because in Roman numerals the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning ‘I have lived’: the use of the past tense apparently suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some Italian shops and offices closed per scaramanzia’.

But why then does 13 often have a positive connotation in Italy instead?

You may not be too surprised to learn that it’s because of football.

Ever heard of Totocalcio? It’s a football pools betting system in which players long tried to predict the results of 13 different matches.

There were triumphant calls of ho fatto tredici! – ‘I’ve done thirteen’ – among those who got them all right. The popular expression soon became used in other contexts to mean ‘I hit the jackpot’ or ‘that was a stroke of luck!’

From 2004, the number of games included in Totocalcio rose to 14, but you may still hear winners shout ‘ho fatto tredici’ regardless.

Other common Italian superstitions include touching iron (not wood) for good luck, not toasting with water, and never pouring wine with your left hand.