“Our Italians” is a series of interviews conducted with local food artisans, experts and producers in some major Italian cities, but also those who practice their craft in smaller, rural, less visited parts of Italy. These passionate individuals are committed to sharing the best in Italian food, wine and traditional products, through family-owned businesses and small scale enterprises, and we’re here to introduce them to you.
Today we meet Sandro Dibella of Cave Ox, a restaurant and wine mecca for wine lovers, located on Etna.
Casa Mia (CM): What is your background? How did you decide to create Cave Ox?
Sando Dibella (SD): I was born at the foot of Mt Etna, and raised in Solicchiata, the place where I will grow old.
CM: How did you discover wine and become so passionate about it?
SD: I inherited little Cave Ox from my mom, Francesca Spucches. At the time it was called Bar Grotta Bue because of a cave by the same name, located in the countryside of Solicchiata. My father, Sebastiano Dibella, had bought the cave because of its emotional meaning and childhood memories: this is where he and his neighbor – the woman who would then become his wife years later, my mother – hid during World War II bombings.
In my heart I always knew the place where I grew up was special. Obviously I was aware that good wine came from these soils, what I didn’t know was how good it was. Frank Cornelissen’s arrival in Solicchiata in 2000 fueled my curiosity. I wanted to know more about this wine maker from another country, landing in Solicchiata – the anus of the world, as he calls it. We immediately became friends and with him I began tasting wines from other places. A few years later we came up with little Cave Ox’s Friday wine tastings.
This awakened my passion for wine and the grand wine regions. On January 23, 2011 I inaugurated the new, larger Cave Ox with a million expectations, ideas and preoccupations, but at the same time one massive certainty: focus on TERRITORY.
CM: When did you meet your wife and find out she is such a great cook?
SD: I married my wife in 2000. At the time we were working different jobs: I was running little Cave Ox and she was managing her family’s mini market. She would often come by to help out during Cave Ox’s initial stage, and at the same time she was also working in her family’s business: a working machine, in other words. Friends and clients began praising her cooking and she let herself be persuaded to leave her family’s business to focus on the “heart” of Cave Ox, coming up with popular dishes that our customers greatly appreciate.
CM: Can you tell me a bit about how you put together your exceptional wine list?
SD: It happened over the years of the Friday night wine tastings at little Cave Ox, while tasting numerous bottles. I always had the project of the new Cave Ox in my mind and I began assembling what became our wine list for the passionate wine drinker. There’s still work to be done on it, but that’s all fun work.
CM: Who are some of the regulars at Cave Ox, meaning the winemakers and wine lovers who come by frequently?
SD: There are many wine lovers, and the number of Etna wine enthusiasts has been growing. The area has become almost a mandatory destination for wine connoisseurs from all over the world, and Cave Ox has become a nice “station” where producers, enologists, agronomists and others – local and not – meet and talk about wine and its territory.
CM: What gives Mount Etna wines such special qualities?
SD: A volcano that over centuries has erupted magma with immense mineral diversity each time; the incredible temperature shifts; a place where the Nerello Mascalese grape was planted – a variety that is capable of easily bringing the territory to the glass – all these elements, plus wise vineyard cultivation and proper winemaking procedures can render an excellent quality wine. This is why Etna wines can stand up to the greatest wines in the world. And we are only at the beginning.
CM: Does the food that you serve also have a local twist and if so why?
SD: We are surrounded by magnificent produce that include wild greens and vegetables. At Cave Ox we value and highlight these as much as we can. We offer them to our customers transformed into a variety of dishes, with the belief that the bitter component of our wild vegetables pair perfectly with the Etnean Mascalese.
SD: For guests visiting Etna just for the day, I would definitely recommend tasting our “rustic antipasto”, which includes local produce, cheese and cured meats. I would also suggest tasting our pasta dishes, which are Lucia’s seasonal inventions, that rely exclusively on the rotation of the seasons. In the evening, our pizzas made with natural starters are a hit.
CM: Is there anything else that you’d like to share with us about Cave Ox?
SD: Sharing and definitely conviviality of food and wine, essentially the feeling of being at home. This is how we have been described. It’s one of the best compliments we’ve received in the past few years.