by CHRIS ROGERS
Eric Mullen was a stranger in a foreign land. He landed in Sicily on a Saturday, headed to a small town far from the English-speaking tourist circuit, and showed up at the bakery on Monday morning without hardly a lick of Italian. As the head baker showed him how it’s done, Mullen just tried to observe and absorb.
“He would bring over a bag of flour, say what it was in Italian, dump it in the mixer, bring over a cup of water, say what it was in Italian, and dump it in the mixer,” Mullen explained. “Six days a week, nine hours a day, you catch on to this stuff,” he added.
This is how it came to be that a young man from Winona is now slinging biscotti, cannoli, arrabiata pasta, caprese sandwiches, and gelato at downtown Winona’s newest restaurant, the counter-service bakery and cafe Sapori di Sicilia, Italian for “Taste of Sicily.” It has pasta, sandwiches, espresso, all manner of breads and pastries, and a menu with English translations in parentheses.
Mullen’s journey from Winona to Sicily and back began when Bob Kierlin, the owner of Main Square Community, was looking for someone to launch a restaurant in the new residential-commercial building on downtown Main Street. “A friend of his had recommended me because of my business background in the Garage Co-Work Space,” Mullen said, referring to the city- and chamber-sponsored co-work space and business incubator Mullen helped found.
Mullen said he had no culinary experience at the time — outside working for Culver’s — but he was a foodie and loved making Italian food at home. He submitted a rough proposal for an Italian restaurant at Main Square, and the company tapped him to make it a reality.
“Then I thought, how can you make authentic Italian food? And the answer I came up with was, go to Italy,” Mullen said.
Mullen wound up in Sicily by fortuitous chance after his initial plans to study cooking in Bologna fell through. With the help of some Italian American friends, friends of friends, and an Italian exchange student from the small town where he ultimately apprenticed, Mullen was able to connect with an artisan bakery and a pastry shop, where the Sicilians were generous with their know-how.
“It was amazing,” Mullen said. “I didn’t think there was any other way you could authentically learn a culture or recipes.” He added, “Sicilians, like all Italians, are extremely proud of their culture, and I was there wanting to learn their recipes directly from them … I think that’s why they were so willing to work with me.”
The baker gave Mullen pages of recipes, which the Winonan is now working to translate for his English-speaking staff, and Mullen said he still occasionally texts his Sicilian mentors questions about kitchen troubleshooting.
“The ciabatta has been one of the more finicky things to make,” Mullen stated. “One issue with ciabatta is how light and airy the dough is. I call ciabattas snowflakes. They’ve each got a life of their own, and if you try to shape them too much, you kind of press the air out and it defeats the purpose.”
The new cafe had a soft opening in December and has been gradually expanding its menu.
Mullen described Sapori di Silicia as offering Winonans something new and unique, but still approachable. While the recipes come from Sicily, and the menu items are in a different language, the food itself is not so foreign, Mullen said. Porchetta, he said, is really just pork roast. “It’s just the Italian version of foods everybody likes,” he stated.
Sapori di Sicilia is located at 211 Main Street in Winona. More information is available at www.cafesaporidisicilia.com and on Facebook @CafeSaporidiSicilia.