Along the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean in Messina, a handful of Sicilian fishermen keep the thousand-year-old tradition of swordfishing alive.
The seascape is dotted by felucca boats, their tall masts jutting high above the water. From atop the mast, a scout keeps watch, signaling that the hunt is on when he spots a sickle fin and long bill emerging from the depths.
Below, a crew of archers hurl their spears into the water, battling to pull the fish aboard.
“It’s the biggest resource we have, the seafood business,” explains chef Marco Barrila, a native of Messina.
Regional delicacies include braciole di pesce spada: skewered swordfish served with fresh herbs and crispy breadcrumbs over a colorful orange and fennel salad.
You’ll find this dish — and other nods to his Sicilian roots — on the menu at Barrila’s Insatiable Eats restaurant in downtown Riverhead, some 4,000 miles from where he was born and raised.
The thing is, he never exactly set out to open an Italian restaurant in Riverhead. “I never in 100 years thought I’d become a chef,” he explained during a recent lunch, between bites of fritto misto.
He started in the industry more than 50 years ago, working as a 13-year-old in his grandmother’s trattoria, La Caraffa.
“My grandmother was preserving everything from tomato to eggplant, making our own olive oil,” Barrila recalled. His mother stayed home, cooking and raising six children while his father worked for the government. The young Barrila worked behind the counter, delivering from markets on a bicycle or Vespa, in a bakery, butchering.
At the time, he might have harbored a little resentment for his father, who sent him to work after school instead of running off to play.
Surprisingly, it was as a young soldier in the Italian army that he refined his culinary skills. “I don’t know if we can call it destiny, but when I went to the army, in some magical way, that’s what brought me to cooking,” he said.
Barrila later enrolled at Scuola Alberghiera to broaden his knowledge of international cuisine.
When he arrived in New York at the age of 24, Barrila picked up work wherever he could find it: mixing dough in a bakery, cleaning fish in a restaurant, anything he had to do to get by.
“It was a beautiful experience. All these things I did when I was young came back to me in America,” he said. “That hard work when I was young helped me to become who I am today and sometimes I praise my father for pushing me hard to work and learn and understand that nothing’s been given to you for free.”
As for the food he was tasting in his new home?
“It was not my mama’s food for sure. But that was inspiration for me,” Barrila said. “I thought, ‘I can do better than this.’ ”
That dream realized led him to open Noi, an Italian bistro, on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in the early 2000s after working at institutions like Carmine’s and Fiorello’s Lincoln Center.
It was there that Barrila met his wife, then Sheila Minkel — a Noi bistro regular who fell for the opera-singing chef.
Through their relationship, Barrila also discovered the East End.
“I really loved this place because it reminded me of Sicily,” he said. “It’s an island, it has water, farms, wines. I really felt like I was home. And so I stuck here.”
The couple founded Insatiable Eats catering in 2009 as Barrila rose to prominence catering for high-profile celebrities and events like the Hampton Classic. He even appeared on episodes of “Chopped” and a recent episode of the Bravo series “Real Housewives of Miami,” when the women vacationed in Montauk.
Though proud of those accolades, Barrila doesn’t let it faze him.
He approaches those meals with the same passion he brings to cooking for Citizens 4 Humanity, a nonprofit he and Sheila founded in 2011 as a way to raise social consciousness and give back to those struggling in one of the priciest areas in the country.
Citizens 4 Humanity provides holiday meals and other services to local families, with a particular emphasis on single mothers, seniors and families suffering other crises.
“That’s how my Christmas Day and Thanksgiving days go,” Barrila said. “I believe if you’re blessed in life, you’ve got to do something. You can’t just keep it for yourself.”
It’s something he holds close to his heart, especially remembering his own mother, Francesca, and their humble beginnings.
“There were six children. My father was the only one working and I remember my mother, when it came to dinner time … she was so creative,” he said.
He described a soup she’d often make: discarded chicken parts, potatoes, rice — really, whatever was on hand. “It was a feast,” he said. “They were so creative with the little they had.”
And at family gatherings, it was always about the food: who made the best pie, or lasagna.
“It’s not who has the best clothes or who came in the bigger car. Food is a way to communicate, get together, make memories,” Barrila said. “Food is God.”
With decades of catering experience under his belt — opening and later closing the Manna restaurant in Water Mill and partnering with Lance Gumbs to open the Shinnecock Lobster Factory in 2017 on reservation territory — 2021 was supposed to be a quiet year. The 55-year-old chef was hoping not necessarily to retire, but to slow down from the incessant grind.
He and Sheila were searching for a commercial cooking space to centralize operations for the catering business and toured the former Michelangelo’s in Riverhead, which shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As soon as he saw the restaurant and dining space, the idea for his new venture was born. “I thought it was incredible,” Barrila said of the spacious opportunity.
Insatiable Eats the restaurant opened in December 2021, bringing a taste of Sicily to Main Street in Riverhead.
It isn’t your run-of-the-mill pizza-and-pasta joint.
The pizza is authentically Sicilian; light dough formed in an oblong shape with toppings that range from the customary — pomodoro sauce, mozzarella and fresh basil — to more creative, with artichokes, mushrooms, olives, ham or shaved truffles.
All of the pasta (more than 30 varieties are made regularly) is produced in-house using an Emiliomiti, which Barrila’s wife has joked is the “Rolls Royce of pasta machines.”
They include four kinds of ravioli, lasagne, pappardelle, rigatoni, bucatini — the list goes on, but Barrila doesn’t hesitate when asked to choose his favorite. It’s cassarecce, a short, loosely twisted pasta that originated in Sicily. “For me, it goes with any sauce — anything,” he explains.
Other highlights include the cassarecce ghiotta, another swordfish dish served with pasta, tomatoes, capers, onions and olives; gnocchi in a gorgonzola sauce with toasted walnuts; or hearty pappardelle costola breve served with braised short ribs.
You can certainly take leftovers home in a package, but a key element of their Riverhead business is that the restaurant doubles as a market, offering freshly-made pasta and sauces and a whole line of imported Italian goods for sale, including colorful Sicilian pottery.
They’ve also introduced Easy Entertaining, an offshoot of their full catering services; revamped a private downstairs dining room for up to 60 people; and plan to offer a menu of cheese and charcuterie geared toward those throwing parties at home or planning a day at the vineyards.
It’s a way to cater to modern taste buds, in direct response to what people want. “People eat differently now,” Barrila said, attributing that to the rise of celebrity chefs, bloggers, YouTubers and other foodies. “Everybody knows about food.”
That includes his twin daughters, Elsie and Francesca, who have amassed more than 18,000 followers on their Instagram (@barrilatwins), where they frequently post about food, fashion and fun in New York City.
Notably, however, the Insatiable Eats menu does not feature many beloved Italian-American dishes, from shrimp scampi to fettuccine alfredo or chicken parmigiana, though Barrila admits the latter is an excellent dish. “I love chicken parmigiana,” he said. “But [our menu] is a little different. We’re sticking with tradition,” Barrila said, like an edible “museum” of Sicilian cuisine.
He explains this as a plate of linguine vongole arrives at the table. Though these traditions, passed down through the centuries, are important to him, Barrila clearly isn’t afraid to break the rules, either.
Purists might cringe at the parmesan falling over his little neck clams, arguing that adding cheese to a seafood dish invalidates those delicate, subtle flavors.
“Ah, I don’t care what people say,” Barrila explains. “I love cheese on the vongole.”