The flag of the Trinacria waves proudly between the streets of Manhattan. The colors and the graphics typical of the island are the backdrop of the most famous little Made in Sicily truck in all of New York. It’s called “Picciotto New York City” and it’s the food truck that Alessandro Ancona, pizza maker and chef from Castellamare del Golfo, introduced in 2016 on the streets of New York, from May to October and with two strategic locations: Midtown and the Financial District. Representing the tradition of Sicilian street food, Picciotto’s menu includes Palermitan-style anelletti pasta, bread and panelle, caponata, pizza, arancini and of course, cannoli. “We are in the right city”, states Alessandro, “one where people love to eat on the street, on the subway, while they walk and work”.
From when Alessandro settled in New York, success has not been slow to arrive. Students, Wall Street managers, Americans, tourists from all over the world – the clientele that loves Sicilian street food is vast: “Arancini, caponata and most of all, the panelle, are the most loved plates. You need time for them to learn and get to know new tastes, but I have to say that classic Sicilian street food is having great success amongst Americans, especially some plates like the panelle — very popular today — or the Palermitan-style aneletti pasta”.
And even if New York is the city of experimentation and multi-ethnic cuisine, not always do new cuisines have success. “Like our bread with chopped veal lung and spleen, or our arancini with cuttlefish ink. Despite New Yorkers’ curiosity, certain dishes are unacceptable because they don’t come together with the flavor and culture of American food”. From Midtown to Downtown, the Sicilian food truck roams about the traffic of New York, ambassador of Sicilian flavor, the traditional one. When he’s not on the streets of Manhattan, Alessandro rests on the weekends, goes around on his vespa or does catering, even this a formula that Picciotto has fully committed to.
A high school diploma in accounting and the start of a career in the restaurant industry as a pizza chef, Alessandro Ancona left his town of Castellammare in 1998 after working his way up in the kitchens of his hometown and in Riccione. He arrived in New York and began the difficult task of rising through the ranks in America — which in the kitchen demand a lot of speed, fatigue, and an unsustainable pace.
Together with Giusto Priolo, the owner of Cacio e vino, Alessandro was partner of the Sicilian restaurant in New York and managed the pizzeria, before making the decision to leave for a different project. This is how the idea for the Sicilian food truck was born. “Professional and personal reasons brought me to the decision to leave the restaurant industry and the pizzeria. I was very tired, and in the meantime my second daughter was born and I wanted to dedicate more time to my family. It was tiring to be closed up in a kitchen for hours and hours, without any contact with the outside world. With Picciotto’s little truck, I travel through the streets, I’m in contact with my clients. Of course, it’s always tiring, but it’s a different experience”. And Alessandro not only serves and prepares traditional Sicilian dishes each day, he is also the spokesperson of that tradition as an ambassador of taste.
“Those who try these specialty dishes for the first time become passionate about the origin of these plates, and inevitably of Sicilian history. Those who don’t know Sicily, after having tasted an arancino, wants to visit it right away. Those who know it, appreciate the authenticity of my dishes. I like telling stories of our island through food. After many years in the restaurant business, we asked Alessandro if he would invest in a Sicilian restaurant in New York that represents Sicilian street food and Sicilian culinary tradition. “New York is an incredible city; it gives you a lot of energy, but it is also unsustainable with regard to its expensive rents. The incredibly high rents and high competition force the restaurant owner to intervene on the food costs, inevitably raising the prices of its dishes. With street food and the food truck, I bypass the problem of super-high rents and offer competitive prices, leaving the quality intact, which is extremely high. Of course, the fact remains that Manhattan is a very expensive city. I exclude the idea of a restaurant, but I am toying with one of a Picciotto Corner, a corner with the best street food of the Trinacria. I’m also working on the idea of preparing my arancini and selling them to supermarkets”.
He returns to his native Sicily each year, along with his wife who is of Sicilian origin, but grew up in the United States, and his two daughters, Alessandra and Caterina. “It’s always a joy to return to my Castellammare and see it always beautiful and full of people during the summer. That is the sea where I was born, those were the streets where I grew up. Nostalgia, perhaps, but not too much. When I miss Sicily, I speak of it to my clients with a dish. And it’s at once happiness”.
Translated by Emmelina De Feo