Alberto Morello never shied from proclaiming that his lifelong goal was to open a Sicilian restaurant in honor of his upbringing on that Italian isle. But who knew this pensively jovial chef behind the Olio e Limone family of downtown Santa Barbara eateries wanted to be a professor of history, art, and culture as well?
In just my first few minutes of visiting Bedda Mia, the State Street restaurant that Alberto and his wife/business partner, Elaine Morello, opened two months ago, I learned that coral is Sicily’s home color, as reflected in the gold-red walls; that the folk-art-decorated Sicilian horse-drawn carts were “the Teslas of their time,” and that their colors and iconography turned into a fashion line by Dolce & Gabbana last year, as witnessed in the surrounding photographs; that puppet theaters were common to Sicilian street corners, as seen in the back of the dining room, near the fake hearth that symbolizes typical kitchens of yesteryear; and that Sicilian oregano inspires nostalgic reverie in natives like Alberto, who proclaimed, “Sicily is right here” while waving a branch in my face.
Much of this inspired nodding from my dining partner and longtime friend, Giuseppe Bonfiglio, whose parents emigrated from Sicily before he was born and then ran Italian restaurants in Santa Clarita for decades. But even he was getting eye-opening lessons from Alberto, like how those ceramic Moorish heads found throughout the island relate to the legend of a love-scorned woman who beheaded an invader and turned his noggin into a planter. Of all the art and photography he commissioned for the restaurant, Alberto is most proud of his own elaborate Moorish head vase, which he placed looking into the restaurant next to the entrance. Sporting an elegant female face, the prominent piece echoes the “my beautiful” translation of the Sicilian phrase “Bedda Mia.”
Giuseppe speaks relatively fluent Italian, but he was immediately impressed by the menu itself, which is written in the island’s own tongue. “I love how they write it in Sicilian,” he said. “Ten to 20 percent of it, I don’t understand.”
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The food and wine curriculum came next, starting with “Purpu a Zalata” (octopus salad in celery, parsley, oil, and vinegar) and “Pisci Spada Cunzatu,” which is a flat, skinny slab of swordfish carpaccio in herbs and lemon oil. Both reflect simplicity, which is Sicilian to the core. “In Sicily, people go straightforward with ingredients,” said Alberto. “No camouflage.”
The wine started white, with a zibibbo from Trapani, and then shifted to a fruity, refreshing frappato from Ragusa, which cut right into the “Pasta cu l’Agghia di Custonaci,” a coiled maccheroni with an almond- and pecorino-based pesto, blasting in spicy garlic. The most revelatory dish of the night was the “Cassateddi in Broru,” a slightly sweet, ricotta-filled agnolotti swimming in a cinnamon-spiked lamb consommé. “This is very unusual,” said Alberto of his concoction, which exists somewhere between pasta and soup, equal parts delicate and rich, with lemon peel balancing the savory base.
Four dishes in, we were served a robust nero d’avola from Siracusa as we ventured into the entree: “Agneddu Mpanatu,” lamb chops pounded thin and coated in a Palermo-style crust of pecorino-laced breading. I find tender dark meats crusted in slightly salty coatings hard to resist, especially when splashed with squeezed lemon, and these chops went down with glee, despite approaching overload. The sides of asparagus with pork-jaw bacon and lemon-roasted potatoes in that special oregano probably deserved more of our attention.
Our final lesson, an extensive one, was dessert, accompanied by a marsala from Trapani. Alberto couldn’t resist bringing out three: the “Cassata Siciliana,” a bright-green sponge cake with ricotta, marzipan, dried fruit, and pistachio dust that screams of celebration; “Sette Veli,” a delightful seven-layer mousse cake of chocolate and hazelnut praline; and “Bianco Mangiari,” a traditional almond milk pudding playfully topped with rainbow sprinkles, like a rustic panna cotta loaded with nutty flavor.
With each dish, whether a slice of swordfish or sugary scoop, Alberto exuded knowledge and pride, imbuing every bite with meaning and memory. From the start of the Bedda Mia project, Elaine made it abundantly clear that — unlike their owner-operator situation at Olio e Limone, Olio Bottega, and Olio Pizzeria — the Morellos do not actually own this restaurant, and are merely the hired operators. But this clearly clings closer to Alberto’s heart than anywhere else, and that authentic connection rang true for my Sicilian compatriot.
When I asked what he thought during our dinner, somewhere between the art lesson and the lamb lecture, Giuseppe replied, “It feels like home” — without the slightest hint of irony.
1218 State St.; (805) 770-8777; beddamiasantabarbara.com