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A Taste of Sicily at Ballaro

Ballaro exteriorRichard G. Jones Ballaro, 77 Second Avenue.

When many of us hear “Palermo,” we think “Mafia,” or possibly “the guy who cuts my hair.” To Giusto Priola, Palermo, on Sicily’s northern coast, conjures up almondola, a chewy cookie made of boiled almonds, sugar and egg white, or the soft, pulpy pizza dough known as sfingione. Giusto was born in Misilmera, a little town 15 minutes outside of Palermo, and is now the master of a mini-empire of Second Ave Italian restaurants — Cacio e Pepe at 182 (between 11th and 12th); Cacio e Vino at 80 (between Fourth and Fifth); and Ballaro, across the street at 77.

Giusto is a warm-blooded fellow with close-cropped black hair on a rather round head. He left Italy 14 years ago to work for a friend in the commissary of the Pier 59 studio, where he made pastry for photographers and models. In 2004, he opened Cacio e Pepe, a Roman-style restaurant where the signature dish, a simple and traditional Roman pasta, is served in a hollow carved into a giant block of pecorino. He began to slip a few Sicilian specialties into the menu, like tuna with agua dolce. Giusto says that his customers asked him where he was from. When he told them, they said he had to open up a new place. “They invited me to open a Sicilian restaurant,” says Giusto with a sparkle in his eye. “This was my dream.” Thus was born Cacio e Vino, which serves classic Sicilian dishes like arancina —rice balls mixed with ground beef, peas, ham and bechamel — as well as pizza and schiacciate, a kind of stuffed pizza.
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