Bringing Italian cooks' secret ingredient home to America's kitchens
Almost everyone returns from a European vacation with souvenirs, but South Orange native John Savittieri brought a whole new career home in his suitcase last year when he visited the tiny volcanic island of Pantelleria, Sicily, in the Mediterranean Sea.
Savittieri’s suitcase was crammed with a harvest of edible treasures from the small, rocky farms on the island, where the harsh soil, relentless winds, and hot sun combine perfectly to nurture capers, the secret ingredient that adds a big burst of flavor to many a dish on tables all through the Mediterranean. The unopened buds of the shaggy, sprawling Spinosa bush, which thrives in Pantelleria’s challenging climate, capers are relatively unknown and sadly unsung by many of the world’s other cuisines. But they have long been featured in such Italian classics as chicken piccata and cacciatore, and are essential for legendary sauces on salmon, say, and other pieces de resistance. Capers also brighten Beef Carpaccio, those wispy-thin veils of raw filet famously served up to the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Evelyn Waugh (and George Clooney, Woody Allen and Anthony Bourdain) at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Moreover, of late, enlightened bartenders the world over are beginning to pop caper berries – the larger version of caper buds – into dry martinis instead of the sameoldsameold olives.
Savittieri says he was instantly intrigued by caper culture while he was first vacationing on Pantelleria two years ago. The island is especially celebrated among Italian cooks for its exquisite, small, and flavorful piccoli capers. Carefully cultivated on miniscule plots under fierce conditions – the only fresh water on the island is rainwater caught in cisterns on the curved roofs of the damusi (traditional lava-stone farmhouses) – the capers are hand-picked and hand-packed, not in brine as is usual with ordinary capers, but in sea salt from Trapani, Sicily. The salt itself has been famed since antiquity for its reduced sodium and wealth of minerals like magnesium and potassium, coaxed from the sea through a long process of evaporation in shallow reservoirs.
The caper harvest is organized by a farmers’ co-operative. “No industrial farming here,” Savittieri points out. Because the harvests are so coveted by Italian cooks on the mainland, “There just weren’t enough Pantelleria capers to go around so they haven’t been readily available to American cooks.”
He decided to change that. Newly retired from a storied career as a furniture designer and maker (for such design industry stars as Albert Hadley, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and David Rockwell), “I had been toying with the idea of moving to Italy and exploring my family heritage,” he explains. Actually, it was TV food star Anthony Bourdain who suddenly focused Savittieri’s interest on the little-known island of Pantelleria.
“Some years ago I watched Bourdain’s TV episode about historic Palermo, then he hopped a small plane to Pantelleria,” Savittieri recalls. Bourdain was following a number of world celebrities who have made that journey since the ancient Carthaginians first discovered the tiny island later inhabited by Greeks, Romans, and the Arab conquerors who nicknamed it the “Daughter of the Wind.” More recent visitors who have been charmed by Pantelleria’s black volcanic beaches and ancient lava-stone damusi have included the likes of Sting and Cate Blanchett, and fashion great Giorgio Armani, who for many decades has vacationed at his ocean-side estate on Pantelleria.
The island drew Savittieri back, too. By his third visit this past summer (2022), his business idea had a name: A&J Savittieri Prodotti di Pantelleria (the initials are borrowed from the two daughters he and his then-wife raised on Parker Avenue in Maplewood, diagonally across from Columbia High, from which he was graduated in 1974). An artist and celebrated woodworker, Savittieri trained early-on with the artisans of Peter’s Valley School of Crafts, then took his talents into the vibrant design world of New York City. Thumb through the top design journals of that era and you’ll find his furniture and fittings in the chic digs of Manhattan’s boldface trendiest. His work has been showcased in major watering holes and killer eateries: Think back to Nobu, the fusion sensation Robert DeNiro created with chef Matsuhisa (with chairs, wall sconces, and sculptural tree light fixtures by Savittieri). There was also Vong, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s breakout restaurant (custom furniture and lighting by Savittieri). And the café in the famed Lipstick Building by Philip Johnson and John Burgee (Harlequin bar and woven stainless umbrella trees by Savittieri).
Currently he’s contemplating a return to the Caribbean island of Mustique and a visit to the fantastical house first built for rocker David Bowie and his model wife, Iman, and later owned by a wealthy publisher from London who opened its doors to friends and friends’ friends, often free of charge. (Savittieri was invited twice to visit with his family.) Other guests, who can rent it for roughly $95,000 a week, can still admire the half-dozen towering brass fan lamps Savittieri conjured for the original sitting room.
Closer to home, Savittieri can grab a burger at Coda or Luna Stella in Maplewood and admire his own handiwork in the background. But ever since Pantelleria’s capers caught his fancy, he’s been busy designing and launching A&J Savittieri as his latest work of art and a gourmet cook’s dream-come-true. Prodotti di Pantelleria, presented in the custom oval wooden boxes he designed, include capers and caper berries with bags of other Pantelleria-grown herbs such as rosemary and oregano, plus an offering of “Trapani Medley,” a mixture of famous Trapani sea salt with rosemary and garlic. There’s also a ceramic miniature of a lava-stone damuso, specially made by a Pantelleria potter to hold capers right at hand once the cook has rinsed away the excess salt.
“One spoon of Pantelleria capers and you are cooking like an Italian Nonna,” Savittieri promises, with a wink.
For more information, click on eatcapers.com. By the way, he makes local deliveries in person.
Journalist Rose Bennett Gilbert always makes sure that her desk is within easy commuting distance to the kitchen.
Cooking with Capers
They may be small but they are unmistakable: Capers add just the right burst of flavor to almost any dish, Italian or otherwise. We’ve borrowed two classics from top chefs for you to enjoy at home.
Beef Carpaccio, Originated at Harry’s Bar in Venice
8-10 oz. filet of beef, well-trimmed and frozen
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 scant cup grape seed oil
3 tablespoons sour cream
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Dashes pepper & salt
Some olive oil
Wrap the meat in cling film and freeze it overnight so it can be sliced very thinly. Remove from freezer one hour before serving.
Soak the salted capers and dry them on a paper towel.
For the carpaccio sauce, mix the egg yolk, mustard and half the lemon juice. Add the grape seed oil in a thin stream, stirring constantly with a whisk, so that an emulsion forms, just as when making mayonnaise. Stir in the sour cream and season with Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and remaining lemon juice.
To serve, brush the center of the plate with a thin layer of olive oil. Cut the filet into the thinnest slices possible, about 3mm thick. The best way to do this is with a meat slicing machine, but a really sharp knife and a little practice will also do.
Arrange fillet slices on the plates. Allow to defrost for at least 15 minutes until it comes to room temperature. Spread the carpaccio sauce and the capers on the meat, and serve.
Poached Tuna with a Caper & Anchovy Sauce
(Tonno alla Moda del Vitello Tonnato)
From Marcella Cucina by Marcella Hazan,
the “Queen of Italian Cooking in America”
1 stalk celery
1 medium carrot and 1 medium onion, peeled
¼ cup wine vinegar
1 pound fresh yellowfin tuna, cut into 1-inch steaks
1 teaspoon very finely chopped garlic
2-3 flat anchovy filets, chopped very fine
2 tablespoon chopped capers
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon mustard
Black pepper, freshly ground
Boil celery, carrot, onion, and vinegar with a pinch of salt for 10 minutes in enough water to cover the fish later.
Add the tuna steaks, cover and simmer gently for 8 minutes.
While the fish cooks, combine the garlic, anchovies, capers, lemon juice, olive oil, mustard, salt, and liberal grinds of black pepper in a bowl and beat/stir with a fork to combine all ingredients smoothly.
When tuna is done, retrieve it with a slotted spoon, pat it dry with kitchen towels, and cut it into slices 1-1/2 inches long.
Choose a deep glass or ceramic dish that can hold the tuna in a single layer without overlapping. Smear the bottom of the dish with some of the caper/anchovy mixture. Lay the tuna slices flat in a single layer and cover with the remaining caper/anchovy sauce, smoothing it with a spatula. Cover with plastic wrap. Leave at room temperature and serve 6-8 hours later. It is even better if refrigerated and served at room temperature 1 or 2 days later.
Serves 8 as an appetizer, 4 as a full course. NOTE: It may be kept refrigerated for 4-5 days, but always bring to room temperature before serving.