Award-winning young Italian chef Martina Caruso’s love of food is in her blood and she has the tattoos to prove it. At just 29, Caruso has become a hit in the world of haute cuisine by using the sunshine flavors of her tiny volcanic island of Salina and giving a modern twist to traditional recipes. This year, she was awarded the female chef of the year title by the Italian Michelin guide.
Earlier this year, she was named Italy’s Female Chef of 2019, just three years after she became the youngest Italian to win a Michelin star at the family-run Signum restaurant and hotel on Salina. The flavors from the idyllic island infuse Caruso’s dishes and her favorite ingredients are even tattooed on her arm: garlic, oil, hot pepper, octopus and the sea.
From a young age, she watched her father Michele, who as Signum’s chef, was devoted to traditional recipes. “At first, my father did not give me any room, he did not want me to become a chef, a tiring job,” Caruso says.
But she left home for three years to train at a cooking school near Sicily’s capital of Palermo. Caruso later took her place as a chef in the family restaurant, where she showed off her technical and creative ways of cooking. “I convinced my father by showing him what I knew and how to do,” she said, with simplicity being her mantra, “but simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
For one of her appetizers, Caruso makes “bagna cauda,” a traditional dish from Turin in the Piedmont. It consists of garlic and anchovies, but she gives it a Sicilian kick by using sea urchins. Salina is known for its capers, but Martina does not only use them in cooking, she also uses them to make ice cream, something to be savored in small quantities, due to the potent flavor of the green berries.
Her menu also includes chargrilled moray eel, which she cooks on embers in her garden. The delicate white fish is scarcely eaten on the island today, but she is enthusiastic about continuing to use eel, since it has been one of the traditional ingredients of the island. Another local speciality is her “mezzi paccheri,” short tube-shaped pasta with an intense squid sauce, based on a recipe made by fishermen’s families.
“French cuisine is very much based on technique, the marriage of flavors. To think up a dish, Italian chefs may be more traditional and that’s what I do by listening to the country’s elders,” Caruso says.
However, Caruso’s mother Clara, the mayor of the small town of Malfa, has never even cooked an egg. Instead of the kitchen, Clara turned her attention over the course of 30 years to transforming a number of old pastel-colored properties into what has become a boutique hotel in Salina, an island of just ten square miles. She has also tried to increase tourism on the island by inviting artists into a former palazzo that has been turned into a cultural center.
Salina was featured on the silver screen in the film “Il Postino,” which was shot there 25 years ago. The classic is screened every day during the summer at an outdoor cafe on the island.
At the restaurant, Caruso’s father Michele still takes care of ingredients in the early morning and her brother Luca works as a manager. But the talents of women in the kitchen are very much in evidence, where a significant number of Italian women have been distinguished by Michelin awards.
For Caruso, the Michelin title is “an important moment” in terms of her image, but her rise to fame has not prompted her to leave the island, whose population goes down to just 2,000 in the winter. “I can explore the world in the winter, but I won’t leave Salina – it’s home,” she says.