Enjoy your dinner close to Villa Palagonia, in Bagheria, immersed in the atmosphere of the mysterious Villa dei Mostri. This is the ‘house’ of the Sicilian chef Tony Lo Coco who, with his restaurant I Pupi, carries the name of Sicily far, it is the soul of his recipes, indeed. From being an autodidact to becoming a Star Chef, Sicilian Secrets interviewed him.
Q: Tony Lo Coco and his career as a Star Chef, how did your story as a chef begin?
A: I am an autodidact, passion pushed me towards this job. I didn’t go to any catering college! Initially, I approached pastry-making, then in 2000 I had the opportunity to open my first restaurant just outside Bagheria, mainly focused on banqueting. After a couple of years, we have achieved a great success: we had to manage almost 370 events from January to December, huge numbers. But then something changed.
Q: What happened?
A: After a decade, I started feeling the desire to get closer to my clients. When you organize an event, you are in touch only with people who commission everything but then you have no relationship with the guests. So, I also opened a restaurant with 20 seats called I Pupi. It was completely different, for a while I managed both businesses at the same time, but in the end the will to change led me to close the banqueting business and continue my career there, where my heart really was. It was essential to be focused on raising the level of the cuisine. After 2 years from this decision, I received my first Michelin star!
Q: Do being Sicilian and Sicily influence your work?
A: A lot, I would say 100%. Every dish I think is linked to the history of my land, its recipes and its raw materials. I believe that my origins are partly responsible for the success we have, this is the merit of being Sicilians who have traveled around the world and understood what people who come to Sicily want to find.
Q: What is your culinary creation that you consider your masterpiece?
A: I love all my dishes, but I think that the fish stigghiola is a masterpiece. The inspiration comes from Palermo street-food remade in a modern way. For this recipe, that I have also presented abroad, I use tuna and cuttlefish, spring onion and parsley in order to visually recreate the traditional stigghiola. I like to introduce Sicilian food to foreigners, the flavors of our region and even more those of Palermo. The tourists who arrive in our restaurant can savor soul and memory of western Sicily. Even our local customers appreciate it because these dishes have a traditional taste that they recognize but with something innovative.
Q: Can you tell us about the project with Caritas that you carried out during the pandemic?
A: Actually, I have been collaborating with Caritas since before the pandemic. I generally cook with them for the holidays. When during the recent months we were forced to close the restaurant again, we certainly did not throw away the raw materials we had already prepared, on the contrary we used them to organize a take-away service for the families in need with the help of Caritas of Bagheria and the support of social services, for example, for Christmas lunch.
Q: Tony Lo Coco and his achievements, which one is the most significant for you?
A: To have the restaurant full every day. Acknowledgments are always appreciated, but the greatest satisfaction is having customers seated at the table. In my case, I’m proud to see tourists who arrive in Bagheria, a destination that is considered less cool than others in Sicily.
Q: Dreams and plans for the future?
A: For the future, we have several projects. At the moment, due to the period, the dream is to bring our restaurant and our name to the top of the world. Moreover, we are working to open a new space adjacent to I Pupi, to include a chef table that would allow us to create a closer relationship with our customers. And then, we would like to set up a small accommodation facility in the same area so that those who stay there can have a complete experience starting with a refined and particular breakfast. If we look at the present, I am already happy to know that also thanks to many colleagues and many young catering entrepreneurs, Sicily is growing and that all together we can contribute to the excellent reputation of our island.