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La Sicile Authentique

Located at the eastern edge of Marseille, Saint-Julien is a far cry from the bustling city center. Here, congested boulevards stretch into narrow streets, and birdsong, not the honking of scooters, fills the air. The residential neighborhood has mostly standalone houses, from 17th-century bourgeois bastides (farmhouses) to 20th-century homes built by immigrant families searching for a small-town vibe. One of them feels like it’s set in an Italian village, thanks to an enterprising Sicilian.

Liliane Casteldaccia runs La Sicile Authentique, an épicerie, restaurant and small catering company, out of the ground floor of the house in which she grew up. At the foot of the driveway, the wood-paneled dining area is peppered with maps and Italian memorabilia. Behind it, the market’s shelves heave with pastas, sauces and oils, next to which is a deli case stuffed with cheese wheels and charcuterie – the culinary traditions of Liliane’s homeland that she so passionately shares.

Her family moved from Agrigento, Sicily, when Liliane was only three years old – her father reluctantly left his family’s pistachio farm to join his wife’s family in Marseille. Her parents built the home that houses La Sicile Authentique, joining other Italians in Saint-Julien for its calm atmosphere. “The neighborhood used to be full of farmland,” explains Bartolomé, Liliane’s husband. Their street, Impasse du Maroc, is named for the Moroccan agricultural workers who moved to Marseille after the First World War to help the city rebuild. Now, it is home to another immigrant story.

Liliane had never entertained a food service job in spite of her love of cooking and conversation. But when the medical secretary lost her nonna (her reason for frequent visits to Sicily), she contemplated how to keep her and her daughter connected to their roots. “I could open an authentic Italian market, [something] that this neighborhood lacks,” she thought, bolstered by France’s entrepreneurial wave of the 2000s. Her parents were on board, joking, “If it doesn’t work, we’ll just eat what you don’t sell.”

“I could open an authentic Italian market, [something] that this neighborhood lacks,” she thought, bolstered by France’s entrepreneurial wave of the 2000s.

Liliane and Bartolomé transformed the house into a market, opening La Sicile Authentique in 2010. To stock her shop, she scours food fairs across Italy. “Products made for export are often not as high quality,” she explains; seeking out small producers directly is how she gets the good stuff. The Italian Chamber of Commerce in France also helped the neophyte by connecting her to cheesemakers, olive oil producers and other artisans.

Among the Sicilian specialties that she sells are giant jugs of unfiltered Palermitan olive oil, finocchiona (fennel salami), crema di pistacchio (pistachio paste) and dried stalks of oregano. Shortly after opening, Liliane began sourcing regional goods from across Italy, like apolline (shell-shaped pastries) from Salerno, hazelnut torrone (nougat) from Asti, and a salami-stuffed cheese from Calabria. From red Dolcetto vino to red sauce, you’ll find all the ingredients you need to make an Italian meal.

Or let Liliane do the cooking. The bubbly proprietor makes classic dishes à la bonne franquette – no-fuss – so her customers can taste the shop’s wares firsthand. Think arancini, saffron-scented rice balls oozing with mozzarella, and meaty lasagna that earns admiration from our Sicilian friends. Other popular plates are encornets farcis (meat-stuffed calamari) and polpettone, a hard-boiled egg stuffed meatloaf that Italians “love for picnics,” adds Liliane.

Pasta con sarde, the Sicilian specialty of fennel (from Liliane’s garden), sardines, pine nuts and raisins, is tossed with pangrattato. The olive oil toasted breadcrumbs, known as “poor-man’s Parmesan,” seem so ordinary but tie it all together. “The best dishes are the simplest,” Liliane says with a smile. Save room for her cannoli, the iconic ricotta-stuffed pastry that she garnishes with ground pistachios, candied orange and cherries.

Everything is made fresh in the tiniest of kitchens – still the original from when Liliane and Bartolomé lived in the space. “I’m not a chef, I just cook,” she says humbly. Like her mom, who “always had an apron on,” cooking for others nourishes Liliane. “My clients give me a purpose,” she shares. “Sicile Authentique is my baby.”

Just as you wouldn’t show up at a friend’s house unannounced for lunch, you must reserve in advance to dine here. Best to give at least a day’s notice. Or, you can try your luck the same day, like the regular who dropped in with friends when we were lunching. As they drank bottles of Moretti, Liliane fixed the group a charcuterie plate, some arancini, and extra octopus from a takeout order. A caterer for small events, her takeout menu is more popular than ever with Covid-19 closures, as families turn their own homes into Italian restaurants.

Far from foot traffic, who frequents La Sicile Authentique? Italians and Armenians from the neighborhood, plus “anybody who likes to eat,” Bartolomé explains. They find the out-of-the-way locale by word of mouth. With this familiarity – the sister of a client, the coworker of another –Liliane refers to her customers as “friends.” Fittingly her cell phone and business number are one in the same.

Liliane’s sister Philippine helps out in the kitchen while her daughter, Margot, has recently joined the family business, working the deli counter, making tiramisu and eagerly waiting to operate the new ice cream cart they just bought for summer events. “One must branch out,” says Liliane, her versatility part of the secret to her success. When not driving to Italy on the hunt for new products, she’s trying out new recipes, or making gift boxes to supplement business lost by the pandemic.

“Our people are workers,” says Bartolomé, himself the son of Italian fishermen who arrived in France via Algeria. “We’ve lived through so much hardship, no matter where we land we’ll make it work.” We’re happy the Casteldaccias landed in Marseille – and that Liliane made sharing la dolce vita her profession.

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