When Lorenzo Noto was growing up in Sicily, his mother would wake every morning before sunrise and plan the day’s meals.
She would shop every day in the markets of their town, Cefalu, a city nestled between the Madonie Mountains and the sea, where she would buy fresh meat, cheese and vegetables.
Many years and some three continents later, Noto, who opened Noto’s, an authentic Sicilian restaurant in downtown Murphys in September 2006, still follows his mother’s traditions.
“I can’t cook anything unless I have fresh meat, fresh basil, fresh rosemary and fresh garlic,” said Noto, who also starts his days “thinking about the kitchen.”
“We prepare our food fresh every day,” he said of Noto’s. “What I created here is exactly what you would see in my town,” he said of the restaurant’s menu of pastas, seafood, and other Sicilian dishes.
At age 9, Noto jumped at the chance to work in a friend’s restaurant after school in Cefalu. Since then, he’s been passionate about preparing and serving food to others.
Noto has lived in Murphys the entire five years he’s been in the U.S.
In 2003, he and his wife at the time opened Lorenzo’s, a Sicilian restaurant still in operation just down the street from Noto’s.
About six months after opening Lorenzo’s, he and his wife separated and, “I wasn’t available to go there anymore,” he said of the restaurant, the first he’d ever opened.
“It was my son,” Noto said. “It was my baby.”
Noto’s mother and father had flown in from Sicily so his father could help Noto and his then wife renovate an old and dilapidated building and turn it into Lorenzo’s. His father, Filippo, reconstructs old churches in Sicily, and worked for three months on the restaurant before returning to Sicily.
Since leaving Lorenzo’s, and having to pass by it often, Noto said he “could see my family (still) working on it,” in his imagination.
Noto then got a job at Crusco’s, an Italian restaurant in downtown Angels Camp.
It was very difficult to leave Lorenzo’s, but Noto said he had dreams of opening another restaurant.
“I never lost for a minute the idea to open another restaurant,” he said. “I believe I want to do what I do for the rest of my life. When I’m not here I miss it.”
Some people were skeptical of his opening Noto’s so close to Lorenzo’s.
He said his intentions weren’t mean (to open a new restaurant so close to his ex-wife, who still runs Lorenzo’s), adding that it was challenging to find a place to rent to open a new restaurant in Murphys, where he lives.
“My intention is to keep it going. I love food. I love business. I love cooking.”
Last spring, after much searching, he and friend Kevin Raggio, who shares partial ownership of Noto’s, discovered an empty metal building for rent in downtown Murphys.
“I came here many times before I said I’ll do it,” he said of the “metal barn” that was once a bagel shop among other things.
He finally decided that with a lot of work he “could get it done.”
After five months of working every day from morning to evening (with the help of friends and members of the community), “I made it the closest I could to look like an old, Italian restaurant,” he said.
For some of the walls, Noto mixed several types of rustic-orange colored or “arancione” paint together with plaster and with his bare hands artistically smeared the concoction in circular motions to get the look of a Sicilian restaurant.
On other walls, he used stained concrete.
“There isn’t one place in this restaurant that my hands have not touched,” he said.
A local artist painted a picturesque Cefalu, and its adorning rocks and surrounding blue sea, on an old barn door from Angels Camp. It hangs on the wall across from the vast wine collection.
For areas of the ceiling, he used old, recycled ship’s metal.
Many customers enjoy the Sicilian atmosphere and also enjoy the music of Lorenzo’s Sicilian accent.
“They say, ‘I love your accent, mamma mia,’” he said playfully. “I say, ‘I’m Italian, what am I going to do?’”
A painter himself, Lorenzo has a visceral and artistic approach to food and restaurant ambiance.
“I don’t have a recipe book. I take my mom’s basic sauce and I elaborate with my tastes.”
He calls his mom in Sicily every day for cooking ideas.
“I say, ‘Hey mamma, what do I got to do here? I’m making a mess,” he said with a smile.
He also calls his friends and other family members in Sicily often to stay connected.
“I feel my family is far away in some ways, but in other ways, I feel they’re close to me.”
It’s important to him that he and Noto’s represent his family well.
“We put a lot of love into it,” he said of his family’s cooking. “We really express ourselves into the plate.”
Outside of Italy, Lorenzo has also spent time in the kitchens of England, Germany and Switzerland.
“Calaveras County is one of the most beautiful and interesting places I’ve seen,” he said. “This community is great. There are a lot of genuine people.”
“I’ve been a lot of places and never felt at home. I feel at home every day here.”
Contact Bethany Monk firstname.lastname@example.org.