Fall 2012

 

EATING ITALIAN

 

 

A Table for Two in Sicily

 

 

by John Estano deRoche & Constance Pennacchio deRoche

 

 

Life beneath the sea is complex and diverse. What luck for Mediterranean islanders! Over centuries, Sicilians have crafted their richly imaginative cuisines around these gifts. And what luck for John, who craves seafood; not so much for Connie, who doesn’t. Fortunately for her, the glorious, rolling Sicilian landscape is equally rich. Its lavish produce and a long growing season yield superb complements and delectable alternatives to the frutti di mare.

 

The daily rhythm of food in Sicily stereotypically begins on a gentle upbeat with la colazione, the continental breakfast: sweetened bread or pastry, fruit, maybe uno yogurt, and absolutely un espressocaffè americano, caffè latte, or cappuccino. Around one in the afternoon, it’s onward to il pranzo. Many tourist highlights will be closed for the long mid-afternoon break (il riposo), so now is the time to kick back with our bib on. At la cena in the evening, food is traditionally more modest – and taken quite late by North American norms, because people return to work and finish late after the afternoon break. However, restaurants do also serve full meals at day’s end.

 

Sicilian restaurants cover the full gamut, of course, from the palatial elegance of crystal and crisp linen to the sweaty mob-scene of a sidewalk take-out. Personally, we are content at the mid-priced eateries, relaxing over bold yet expertly cooked dishes for a couple hours. Besides, the fewer euro we spend per day, the more days we can spend! And why not enjoy the occasional picnic? One can easily find cheeses, favourite salametti, fresh fruit, and ready-to-eat vegetables. Visit a bakery in the morning for fresh breads and dolci siciliani (the inimitable pastries). A decent bottle of Nero d’Avola can be had for one euro.

  Accenti EATING ITALIAN  A Table for Two in Sicily  John Estano deRoche & Constance Pennacchio deRoche
     

Spring is the finest season in Sicily, as our two weeks bear witness. True, it’s too late for the new harvest of sweet lemons and oranges, but not for the scirocco, scorching its way across Palermo, just as our ferry coasts in from Sardinia. This hot, arid North African wind recalls the vibrant and prosperous Muslim civilization prevailing on the island over a millennium ago, until the Norman conquest, which bequeath new palaces and magnificent cathedrals in places like Monreale and Cefalù. The heat folds itself into the ambience. Our Sicilian itinerary begins.

 

Recollections of special persons intertwine with our food memories of the four days in and around Palermo. Social encounters often make or break a meal. One heartening example involves our own cultural deficiencies and the kindness of a stranger. After a long and hot day trudging through town, we find an all-too-popular take-out spot. Warm, pungent aromas of pizzas, panini (un-squashed!), and other treats pique our curiosity. But being neither sharp-elbowed nor adept at shouting above the din of a crowd packed tighter than a can of Sicilian sardines, we stand there confused and ineffective. Then an astonishing young man notices our helpless agony amid the chaos. In three minutes, he has matter-of-factly secured our order.

 

Another cherished encounter takes place during un pranzo in Cefalù, a lovely and sophisticated town cuddled between the dazzling beachfront and its steep mountain backdrop, an easy train-ride east of Palermo. Spilling tables from its entrance down the alleyway toward the cathedral’s piazza, we find la Trattoria Al Vicoletto. John is overcome: spaghetti in nero di seppia (squid-ink sauce) is on the menu, and actually available that day (no thanks to the ecological damage plaguing the fishery). The charming signora serving us cannot but notice his enthusiasm. Bringing out the colourful dish, she eyes his shirt-front and ventures to tuck a napkin under his chin, remarking, with a mischievous grin, “come un bebè!

 

As the thermometer relaxes on the fifth day, we rent some wheels and navigate southward through the springtime interior, with its endless vistas of undulating patchwork fields and limestone outcrops, dotted with towns pre-dating the centuries when the whole island spoke Greek. Destination: the agriturismo called Tra i Frutti – a working farm at the Moorish-named town of Racalmuto, a short drive north of Agrigento.

 

So much for light colazione there! Every morning on the patio, owners Paola and Giuseppe serve a fresh variety of traditional Sicilian pastries with huge cups of cappuccino. There is warm toast with two homemade jams such as the splendid confettura di fico d’India (prickly pear) and a glass of hearty juice, like arancia rossa (blood orange). And always uno yogurt. After this pick-me-up, ironically, we’re in danger of collapsing into a riposo several hours ahead of schedule.

 

Now pull up a seat in imagination, for il pranzo at La Laterna, in the nearby town of Milena (or Milocca, as the vacationing Pirandello knew it). Join us for antipasto and un primo, which is all that our un-shy appetites can accommodate. We choose the antipasti misti, a rainbow of piatti tipici di Sicilia or popular Sicilian dishes, not imagining there will be seven of them. This is the equivalent of Greek meze or Spanish tapas: servings of diverse dishes to be shared by the table. We enjoy fresh warm bread with equally fresh ricotta cheese, and a plate of sliced eggplant or melanzane grilled perfectly and basking delectably in fragrant olive oil.

 

As counterpoint, we have a pickled blend of white eggplant, three sorts of olives, and artichoke hearts in a bath of olive oil and herbs. Enter the trio of reds, led by roasted sweet peppers in oil under an herb-rich sauce made with chick-pea (ceci) flour. And there are polpette (little meatballs, blending bread crumbs, grated hard cheese, and egg) in tomato sauce, besides a classic caponata alla siciliana of stewed eggplant, celery, onion, and tomato chucks, again in red sauce. Help yourself to the mezzo litro carafe of vino rosso, as we proceed to un primo of pasta al forno. It is actually two casseroles baked in one dish: on the “red” end, couscous in tomato sauce; on the “white” end, rigatoni in a cream sauce with bits of prosciutto crudo and a rosé tint. Afterward, we are immobilized without a digestivo. Will you take a hot espresso with John, or try a chilled limoncello with Connie?

 

 

Racalmuto is the ancestral home of most of Hamilton, Ontario’s Sicilian-Canadian community, including our anthropologist friend, Sam Migliore. He has put us in touch with his relative, Vincenzo (Enzo) Ingrascì, an artist from Milena. Enzo picks us up one morning and tests our Italian skills to the max, with a magical day of touring and visiting – and eating. He treats us to the talents of Maria Felisi and family at La Mulinella, renowned in the region for reasonable costs and superlative cooking in the Sicilian tradition. At this unlikely rural spot by the highway we indulge in a generous and diverse array of seafood antipasti, alongside a similar platter of cold cuts and cheeses (affettati misti). Next we challenge our pleasure thresholds with un primo of perfectly baked pasta. Enzo has chosen a bottle of white wine from Alcamo in Trapani province that blends the popular Catarratto grape with Greganico and a touch of uve aromatiche such as muscatel.

 

Another day, we relish the monumental avenue of ancient Greek temples below Agrigento, which oversees an “ocean” of rolling hills that fade out to the horizon, with the Mediterranean shining to the south. What a place to stroll while munching some crisp, warm, characteristically Sicilian arancini (deep-fried, cheese-filled balls of Arborio rice), from the on-site café!

 

A few days later we advance eastward to Caltagirone, centre of Sicilian maiolica ceramics – and one of the last Islamic bastions to fall to Norman “crusaders.” We park by a humble memorial to victims of the 1693 earthquake and tsunami that flattened eastern Sicily (clearing the way for an explosion of Spanish high baroque construction, in the aesthetic of yet another regime of foreign rulers). Our Vespa-mounted B&B host, Gaetano, helps us park, and we head to the fabled tiled stairway, the Scala di Santa Maria del Monte. The adjacent accommodations are named Tre Metri Sopra il Cielo, or “three metres above the sky.” signifying ecstasy. How true! Just steps from the best ceramics laboratori, the place serves excellent continental breakfast on a terrazzo above the lovely centre of town. We dine well that night (of course!), at the popular Il Locandiere.

 

The next day, we meander down to the plain, sweeping coastward to Catania, where Mount Etna’s lava has historically played havoc before cooling into the omnipresent black building-stone. From our top-floor B&B near the cathedral, our window opens to the silent white facade of the Baroque church of San Placido, and beyond to lavish skies over the Gulf of Catania. During daily breakfast on the rooftop terrazzo, we peer around the white domes and bell towers to snap pictures of Mount Etna’s smoky wisps – a culinary ambiance to steal your heart.

 

One day, Etna lures us past moonscapes of newly hardened lava, amid lush pastures, orchards, vineyards, and grain fields, to Randazzo, 15 kilometres from the crater. We amble the length of the medieval section and its three Greek, Latin, and Lombard parishes, toward our pranzo, across from the abandoned and tattered Convent of St. George. The Trattoria di San Giorgio e il Drago enfolds us in a fragrant welcome to its traditional Sicilian menu, fine local foodstuffs, and even better cooking. It is the perfect spot to share un primo of mezzelune ripiene di melanzane e ricotta con pomodoro e ricotta salata (ravioli stuffed with eggplant and fresh ricotta, done in tomato and aged ricotta). Then we diverge: Connie to un secondo of agnello al forno con patate (roast lamb and potatoes), John to coniglio in umido (rabbit stew). We float gently back to earth over complementary Sicilian digestivi, sampling at will from the two bottles: a sweet moscato (muscatel) and a ficodì liqueur (from our beloved fruit of the prickly pear, the fico d’India).

 

What is perhaps the highlight of our social encounters around food occurs late in our journey, in an unassuming little restaurant on Via Coppola, a backstreet near the centre of old Catania. Its posted menu resembles others along the same street. So it is happenstance that brings us into Trattoria de Fiore – and it is the quality of the Sicilian home-cooking that brings us back. The delicately seasoned and baked whole fish might have leapt from the ocean to the plate. On our return visit we are served not only another flavourful meal, but also a taste of life. Business is slow enough that Zia Rosanna, owner-chef, comes to sit with us. This sparkling middle-aged woman delights in her customers! With a mix of simple Italian, gestures, and aerial pictographs, she narrates her life as mother, widow, and restaurateur. We happily collaborate in her efforts to convey not only language but the inextricable meaning of endurance, work, and family. She remains, to us, more vivid even than the fine food she serves.

 

Now it is our last evening in Sicily. From the San Placido Inn, we watch the sky easing to a rosy dusk over the sea. Storeys below, wedding guests spill from cars and mill about the street in anticipation. Finally, here are the bride and groom. Che bellezza! Much kissing, then everyone siphons into the banquet hall. And our two-week adventure of food-and-place has ended in vicariously shared feasting. How perfect!

 

The entire visit has highlighted an essential lesson: that food is about far more than the substances we swallow. Indeed, it is the ultimate existential grounding. Food binds us to our material selves and the earth. Through eating, we connect socially to the elaborate networks of people who produce, bring, and prepare the food, and to those who share with us in its consumption. Our foods and our modes of eating are culture incarnate, culture performed. And both our foodstuffs and our recipes tell of place and time, the geographical and historical context in which we enact our being. To visit Sicily, to engage with its food and its people, to look into its eyes, is vibrantly life-affirming.

 

 

Constance (Connie) Pennacchio deRoche, a cultural anthropologist, grew up in Boston’s North End as a second-generation Italian-American with roots in the hills of Campania.

 

John Estano deRoche, a sociologist from Nova Scotia, is an “adopted Italian,” of Lunenburg German, Acadian, Irish, and Sardinian ancestry.

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