Profile: Sapori di Sicilia

Kellen Brandt, features reporter

Sapori di Sicilia, meaning flavors of Sicily, offers classic Italian cuisine like homemade pasta, bread, pastries and more in Winona, Minn.
Eric Mullen, owner of Sapori di Sicilia calls it a “Sicilian bakery café” featuring elements of both eateries on the menu.
Mullen spent four months in Sicily studying Italian food before bringing that knowledge back to Winona to offer for the community.
Mullen, a Winona native said he knew Italian would be a good fit when he heard about restaurant space opening in Main Square.
“For how many years you hear about people saying, there’s no Italian food in Winona and you have to go to La Crosse if not further for Italian food,” Mullen said. “So, I thought, well, I feel like a town of 27,000 can support one Sicilian place.”
Sapori di Sicilia opened on Dec. 21 and has had a slower opening due to COVID-19.
“The silver lining of it is that we don’t know what sales and business, and anything would be like, pre-COVID,” Mullen said. “So, I am not angry about COVID because I don’t know what it’s like to run a restaurant pre-COVID.”
One employee, Jamie Washburn, has found some peace during the pandemic by working at Sapori di Sicilia.
“Before I got hired, I felt like I was stuck in a dark place while everyone was on lockdown,” Washburn said. “When I heard about the job on Facebook, it felt like a light at the end of the pandemic.”
Washburn is an artist and created two paintings for the café called, “Flying Sunshine.” The paintings are inspired by the buzz of the café and her enjoyment looking out the big windows at the café.
Washburn also loves food and enjoys cooking simple things that taste good.
“Anything I cook tastes good,” Washburn said. “At home, I make a lot of soup and gluten-free bakery items and get most of my ingredients from the Winona Farmer’s Market,” Washburn said.
The café has drawn in those who enjoy food, want to try something new or have an appreciation for authentic Italian food.
Mullen has little Italian ancestry in his family, but said he was drawn to the Sicilian style because of the food and flavor.
“We are part Italian, German, Polish, Irish, I mean we eat hot dishes,” Mullen said.
Mullen laughed, adding they eat ham at Christmas and are just “an American family.”
Everything in the café is homemade including gelato, pasta, pasta sauces, bread and pastries.
The menu is small due to the handmade nature of the foods, and Mullen plans to keep it small by slowly adding up to one or two more dishes when there is more staff to help.
“The four months in Sicily, made me realize how different Sicilian culture and food is, and I thought, ‘wow this is really something special I want to bring back to Winona,’” Muller said.
Sicilian-style food is simple and uses ingredients that don’t require complex seasoning to shine.
Mullen has no prior kitchen experience, other than three years of working at Culvers.
Winona residents had nothing but good things to say about Sapori di Sicilia and shared their favorites from the café.
For deserts, community member Grant Joseph’s favorite dish is the tiramisu and Nicole Fedor’s favorite was the cannoli.
Community member, Katelyn Kispert-Schwab, tried the spicy marinara pasta and the buttery sage pasta along with the gelato and said it was “very delicious.”
Community members all seemed to come to the consensus that the café is a good addition to Winona.
“It definitely fits Winona’s atmosphere and I’m excited for the outdoor dining as there is few and far between here,” Kispert-Schwab said.
While Fedor thinks the café does not quite fit Winona’s atmosphere, she thinks with time it will
become great.
“I don’t think it fits it, but I think it will be a great thing once people realize it’s here and how good it is,” Fedor said.
For some, Sapori di Sicilia is a taste of home.
Monica DeGrazia and her husband Emilo DeGrazia have a cousin, Giusy DeGrazia, who graduated from Winona State with a Master of English degree. Giusy contacted Muller for a special birthday dinner this February.
Emilo DeGrazia is a professor Emeritus at Winona State and turning 80 this year, celebrating with a special meal made and delivered by Sapori di Sicilia.
“Giusy contacted Eric at Sapori di Sicilia and Giusy and Eric planned the menu,” Mullen said. “The surprise dinner was delivered to Emilio at dinner time, and it was delicious—sausage and potatoes, Caesar salad, bruschetta, cannoli.”
The DeGrazia’s shared their appreciation and gratitude for Eric and Sapori di Sicilia for assembling this special meal and bringing authentic Italian food to Winona and the party.
Monica DeGrazia said Mueller’s grandmother worked as the secretary in the Winona State English department when Dr. DeGrazia taught at Winona State.
“Patty would be very proud of Eric,” DeGrazia said.
Much like the DeGrazia’s appreciation of Sicilian food, Trish Costanza, another Winona community member, grew up eating Sicilian food and pastries as her grandfather is Sicilian.
Costanza said the flavor of the red sauce tastes like one of the red sauces her grandfather made, and that the cannoli are very authentic.
“While growing up in Michigan during the ’60s and ’70s, my family bought cannoli at local Italian bakeries, and until now, I was unable to find authentic cannoli living in Minnesota,” Costanza said. “I am thrilled to have the real thing in Winona.”