About five years ago I happened to pick up a copy of a book called Sicilian Walks: Exploring the History and Culture of the Two Sicilies, by William J. Bonville (Mills & Sanderson, 1988). I’d never heard of the writer, a stern-looking older fellow with a shaved head wearing a bolo tie. His output seems to be a book every decade, the first being a novel written in 1968; the second an essay on expression in the arts; and finally the eccentric travel book I held in my hands. The gist of the guide is a walking tour from Naples south, taking in the the heel and toe of Italy and making a full circle around Sicily, all with an accompanying historical narrative. This intrepid foot traveler takes trains and busses from city to city and occasionally rents a car to get to out of the way sites, but mostly he walks.
His premise is that the southernmost part of Italy is another country, removed culturally, historically and climatically from northern Europe. I took his advice to ”go south from Rome for the surprise of your life.” So with his book in hand and a list of recommendations for hotels and restaurants which I doggedly extracted from a group of people I barely know who live in and write about Sicily, I set out with a photographer for a quick one week tour of Sicilian food and, indeed, wonderous Greek ruins.
Palermo feels like a sleepy Naples, at least the old part of the city did during late February. We walked everywhere, through narrow alleys, outdoor markets, and traffic clogged commercial boulevards, staying at the centrally located, comfortable Hotel Massimo Plaza ($113 for a single a night), across the street from the romantically lit concert hall of the same name. This tiny second story hotel hosts many of the artists booked in the grand hall across the street. Some of them stay up late after performing, knocking on doors (sometimes the wrong door) and hopping from room to room. I’d still stay there again.
You get an idea of what will be featured in restaurants around the island by surveying the markets. Old Palermo is divided into historical quadrants with markets in each. At the Capo market, the sidewalks were lined with tables of thorny purple artichokes, fresh favas, peas, gray-blue capillo olives strewn with branches of rosemary, skinny cardoons, red-hued garlic and shiny green tomatoes.. Silvery, clear eyed fish–mackerel, anchovies, sardines–gleamed on ice. Foragers from the mountains sold bouquets of wild mountain fennel, much shorter and less bulbous than ours; thick brown bundles of leggy wild oregano with lots of seeds; wild mint, basil and parsley; wispy purple wild asparagus; mountain rosemary and sage; and bags of snails. Neat bundles of wild greens boasted of freshness with moist roots still attached. North African vendors sold couscous, ground spices, dried flowers of prickly pear to brew into tea. Huge capers preserved in coarse sea salt, jars of preserved anchovies, small shelled red pistachios from Cattania and the thickest, richest artisan-made tomato paste (this is what I brought back) made me want to cook. A vendor gave me a wedge of a nobby bulbous overgrown lemon, a member of the citron family, locally called cedro. It had the texture of a cucumber and the perfume of Meyer lemon without any bitterness. Sicilians shave them into a refreshing salad with fennel and olive oil. My one regret is that I never came across one I could try.
At a fry shop in the Vucciria market on the via Pannieri, no. 28 we ate crisp chickpea pancakes (panelle), luscious potato croquettes and crisp/creamy slices of eggplant sprinkled with sea salt and a little lemon. Everyone around us ate these these deep fried tidbits stuffed into soft sesame buns to eat as sandwiches.Talk about carb loading.
If I could only have one meal in Palermo, it would be at Sant’Andrea, a few austere, renovated rooms in an ancient building off a charming piazza built around a typical Sicilian baroque church. All is simplicity–dark wood floor, a vaulted brick ceiling, exposed stone lintels, distressed wood framing the windows, stone peaking out from beneath the ochre stucco-ed walls. The food was as evocative– and stylish–as the surroundings. We were brought a bowl of those greenish blue cracked olives marinated in olive oil and lemon and thin slices of fine textured, unsalted bread. An antipasto of fried things –cheese, chickpea pancakes, cauliflower croquettes of creamy smoky-cheese scented bechamel, fried sardines. As part of the antipasto we each got a big polpette (meatball) made of fresh sardines in a pureed tomato sauce seasoned with pine nuts and raisins. It was light and delicious.
We ate thick al dente fettucine with one curly edge, slathered with a ragout of fresh peas, favas in their skins, and artichokes stewed with a little nutmeg. A bowl of soft runny sheeps milk ricotta was served on the side to spoon in. We also had this curly pasta in a tomato and sardine sauce with raisins and pinenuts with a very subtle fresh sardine flavor–a different turn on the polpette. It came with a bowl of salty, toasted, fine breadcrumbs which you spooned on like parmesan. Both were luscious. We drank a berryish, soft, merlot from theTasca d’Almerita winery, a bottling from Sicily’s biggest wine producer, Regaleali.
We had more of that sweet sheeps milk ricotta in cannoli for dessert, sauced with pureed kiwis which grow locally, accompanied with an elegant Sicilian dessert wine,Vecchio Sempere, which tasted like old sherry. The meal for two cost 62 euros. We left a few euros on the table as additional tip and floated back to the Massimo Plaza.
The next morning we rented a car and drove for 45 minutes to the haunting remains of the Elymian city of Segesta, on the way to Trappani and Erice. The roofless temple on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere with 36 perfectly intact doric columns dating from 424 BC is one of the most moving ancient sites I have ever seen.
We spent a night in the quaint medieval mountain town of Erice at the hotel Moderno ($68 a night) where we sampled the dryish, toasted, Trappanese-style couscous moistened with fish stock served on the side and another tasty bottle of Sicilian red wine, this time from Dona Fugata, made from the spicy nero d’avola grape. The famous shop of Maria Grammatica, where freshly baked cookies made only of almond paste scented with different liqueurs and infusions, is located on one of the narrow cobblestone streets. The views from the old castle at the top of Erice down to the Mediterranean are breathtaking.
Because of some bad driving decisions, we didn’t have time to visit the ruins at Selinunte (next visit) but drove straight south to Agrigento, where an ancient city with temples both standing and toppled, stand on a ridge between the sea and the modern city of Agrigento. We had to get to Rosemarie d’Almerita’s house at the Regaleali winery two hours drive north in the hilly middle of the island, where dinner was awaiting us.
Rosemarie’s sister, cookbook writer, Anna Tasca Lanza, offers cooking classes and residence in the winery’s more formal buildings. But Rosemarie has opened her comfortable house as a B&B. We each had homey rooms with full modern bathrooms and windows that looked out over the gardens and hilly vineyards. But the reason to stay here–besides the gorgeous drive through the interior–is to get a taste of a homecooked Sicilian meal. Yes, the best restaurant meals in Sicily are exotic and voluptuous, but the simple Sicilian meal prepared for us here by the bespectacled young woman, Cettina, made me very happy. It was pulled together from food grown or made on the estate. We started in the book-lined living room with a stunning green olive and celery salad with plenty of roughly chopped celery leaves. The olives and celery did a little dance together and tasted especially fine with small slabs of lightly salted sheeps milk cheese. (We visited the sheep on a walk around the estate.) Sun dried tomatoes from the garden reconstituted in extra virgin olive oil from Regaleali olives trees were the best I’ve ever tasted. Glasses of a sunny white wine made with a blend of native inzolia and chardonnay grapes, smelled like citrus.
We moved to a glassed in veranda right by the garden for a soup of pureed fresh favas, flavored with pancetta and onions, and thickened with short, fat, tubes of al dente pasta–a springtime pasta e fagioli. A coil of skinny griddled pork sausage made by the local butcher and a pile of crisp, yellow fleshed fried potatoes followed by a bowl of spicy arugula dressed generously in olive oil, wine vinegar and lots of sea salt set off a 1999 Rosso Regaleali, which that night, tasted like a fine burgundy. It’s an inexpensive red wine much distributed here. You must drink it there to understand it.
We had cannoli for dessert made with ricotta from that morning’s milking of the sheep. The shells, fried in olive oil, were shatteringly crisp and the ricotta was whipped with just a litttle sugar. The cannoli were served with bowls of house-made fruit purees and moscato de Pantelleria, which had a nutty sherry-like nose and tasted like raisins. A room at the home of Rosemarie Tasca d’Almerita costs $100, the dinner $50 a person, cash only.
We drove to Siracusa, stopping to see the Roman mosaics of the Villa Erculia in Piazza Armerina, a detailed evocation of life fifteen hundred years ago. These mosaics warrant a long, long detour.
Siracusa, on the lower east side of the island, with two protected harbors, was founded by Corinthians from the Greek mainland in 735 BC. At its height, a million people lived here. Aeschylus, Sophocles and every major Greek and Roman tragedian wrote for its famous theater. Comedy was invented here. You can sit in this open air amphitheatre, the Mediterranean glittering in the distance, and more than imagine the Orestia being played on the stage below. The ghosts from 2500 years of Western civilization can hardly be ignored.
We stayed right by one of the harbors on Ortygia, actually an island connected to the mainland by two short bridges, at the well located and appointed Grand Hotel, about $130 a night. Every day we ate at Don Camillo, an internationally known restaurant located in a vaulted stone wine cellar. It deserves its reputation. The food is local but cooked to high European standards.
The seafood fritto misto brought a daily changing array of tiny crispy deep fried fish and shellfish. A pan fried “frittelle” or dumpling of the tiniest white bait–neonatal fish maybe the size of a basmati rice grain–was so light and tender, it melted in my mouth. This season delicacy was were sublime with a salad of the sweetest radicchio, self-dressed with peppery green Sicilian olive oil and nero d’avola vinegar and sea salt from Trappani. We ate pasta a la norma with chunks of silken eggplant, creamy ricotta-enriched tomato sauce, basil and salty ricotta salata grated on top. It was a pasta you dream of duplicating at home but eludes you when you try. We ate gorgeous al dente spaghetti in spicy tomato sauce with shrimp, mussels, clams all out of the shell, and tons of olive oil and hot peppers followed by plates of Sicilian cheeses, sheeps milk pecorinos and cows milk cheeses from Ragusa. A refreshing sorbetto–more like an icy but drinkable sherbet–of Sicilian lemon, eggwhite and sugar, was served in a tulip glass.The long wine list offers a world of Sicilian wines, most of which are astonishingly moderate in price.
A meal costs about $35 a person with wine. The chef of Don Camillo, Giovanni Guarneri, deserves all the accolades and awards posted on the walls amidst the wine racks. Like a wizard, he delicately transforms wild and domestic bounty into dishes that seduce you back to his restaurant and to Sicily. Now when I think of Italy, I want only to head south.
Ristorante Sant’Andrea, Piazza Sant’Andrea, 4, Palermo (091) 334999
Don Camillo Ristorante, via Maestranza, 96, Siracusa tel and fax 093167133
Massimo Plaza Hotel, via Maqueda, 437 Palermo tel. 39 (0) 91325657 fax. 39 (0)91325711
Ristorante Hotel Moderno via Victor Emanuele, 63, Erice tel 0923869300 fax 0923 869139
Grand Hotel, viale Mazzini, 12, Siracusa tel 0931464600 fax0931464611
Anna Tasca Lanza, cooking classes and stays at the Regaleali Office at Regaleali 39 0921544011, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Rosemarie Tasca d’Almerita’s home, 39091583132, e-mail email@example.com