For over a decade, James Beard Award–winning chef Renee Erickson has played a pivotal role in helping define the contemporary Seattle dining scene. Her culinary point of view is firmly grounded in the natural bounty of the Pacific Northwest, filtered through a European sensibility inspired by her travels to France and Italy.
“I got hooked on Italy when I studied in Rome back in college,” recalls Erickson. “I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but, looking back, it changed my course in life in terms of caring about food and the culture around it.” She first visited Sicily four years ago, spending two weeks traveling and cooking across the island. She admits that even when she’s staying at a place without a kitchen, she can’t resist stocking up on ingredients at the outdoor Sicilian markets, her arms loaded with bags of wild asparagus, artichokes, peppers, pomegranates and anchovies.
“I don’t know if it’s being from Seattle and wanting to be near the water, but I’m really drawn to that intense salty climate that exists in Sicily,” says Erickson. “There’s something really bright about it.” She’s returning to Italy next spring to teach a week’s worth of cooking classes in the Sicilian countryside in Vallelunga Pratameno, just over an hour’s drive from the home of the definitive Sicilian amaro, Averna.
Averna is the first amaro Erickson remembers having, “forever ago,” and she’s still drawn to it, frequently offering a little after-dinner splash on the house to guests at her restaurants who might be unfamiliar with or intimidated by the liqueur. “Amaro can be challenging, and Averna is always something that I tend to suggest to people if they’ve never had one,” says Erickson. “It’s really a gateway amaro—it’s not too sweet, it’s not too bitter. The sweetness, the savory elements, the bitter component, and, of course, the citrus make it really appealing. It’s just so easy to like.”
Erickson takes a nontraditional approach to amaro, focusing on it as an aperitivo instead of an after-dinner drink. At home, Erickson typically serves Averna in a chilled rocks glass over ice with a squeeze of seasonal citrus—Meyer lemon and blood orange are favorites—topped with soda water or, if she’s feeling fancy, prosecco or sparkling wine. “There was a crazy bar in Sicily k that would build the drinks in the glass, starting with the amaro and then adding soda or prosecco, adjusting to a desired color that signaled it would have enough flavor without being too bitter or not too light,” recalls Erickson. “That’s how I do it at home.”
With drinks in hand, alongside the all-important tray of chips, olives and other salty things, an evening at her Seattle home generally turns to dinner discussions around her outdoor wood oven. “In the fall I’ll do some sort of braise. A lamb shoulder or something like that in the oven that would have a lot of onions, garlic, and simple, basic aromatics,” says Erickson, adding an improvisatory salad composed of roasted potatoes, fennel, turnips and whole onions, dressed with a savory anchovy vinaigrette, to the hypothetical menu. Finally, says Erickson, a fruit crisp, still bubbling from the wood oven, is bound to appear alongside coffee and a bottle of Averna, which she implores her guests to enjoy with scoops of accompanying ice cream.
And while geographically and culturally, Seattle couldn’t be farther from Sicily, Erickson’s memories linger—of charcoal-roasted artichokes and baskets of oranges and pomegranates piled up among the marketplace stalls—and continue to inspire her approach to respecting the purity of ingredients. Adopting elements of Italian aperitivo culture is another influence on her lifestyle: Even on an overcast Seattle afternoon, the aroma of Averna instantly conjures the Sicilian landscape, and way of life.