In Sicily, Seduced by Art and Turbot

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Photo by Faith Willinger


Last month, Faith Willinger began documenting her Grand Tour through Sicily with a description of her time in Catania. She continued her journey in Sortino, traveled to Buccheri, Noto, Frigintini, Modica, and Scicli, visited Vittoria and Scoglitti, and made news in Licata.

The Enchanted Castle was a place we just had to visit in Sciacca. It's not really a castle and not really enchanted, but the work of outsider artist Filippo Bentivenga. We wandered the cobblestone paths winding through the hillside, admiring heads sculpted of stone and carved into olive trees in a series of terraced arrangements. We decided to skip lunch and head for Bar Roma in Sciacca's port, where Aurelio Licata makes his exquisite lemon granita. Clearly I'm not the only person who's made the pilgrimage--he's even got a Facebook fan club called "I love Zio Aurelio."

I had an appointment to visit the recently opened Verdura Resort outside Sciacca--chef Fulvio Pierangelini (his once top-rated restaurant Gambero Rosso is closed) is consulting for the restaurant and the website looked pretty exciting. There were no signs--even our super-navigator Vito had to call three times to get directions. When we finally located the gate and were approved for entry, we drove down a dirt road to the main building passing rows of staff housing and golf carts transporting people in uniform. Suzanne commented that it looked like a James Bond movie.

It got worse. Once in the lobby, the only sign that we were in Sicily was an occasional decorative amphora, or ceramic vase. It seemed like someone had sent a golf resort to Sicily on a magic carpet. I looked at the restaurant, asked for a wine list and menu, and was refused. They expressed disappointment that I didn't write for a golf magazine. We left, anxious to get to our next destination.

I never fail to have spaghetti with sea urchin sauce and Suzanne never passes up a plate with vongole, or clams. And who could resist Vittorio's turbot? Not me.

I've always been wild about Selinunte, the site of some of the most beautiful Greek temples in Sicily. There are lots of inexpensive places to stay in the area, terrific restaurants, and amazing in-between meal activities. Pierluigi Crescimano, Tenuta Rocchetta's extraordinary Sicilian extra virgin olive oil producer, booked rooms for us at Agriturismo Carbona since the Hotel Eracle where I usually stay was closed. We met Pierluigi, his sister Marilena and wife Antonella, and his daughters Gaia and Delia at their country home next to the frantoio (olive oil mill).

Marilena is a wonderful cook and she made dinner. We began with just-pressed extra virgin olive oil, cultivars Nocellara del Belice, Cerasuolo, Biancolilla, and the area's justly famous bread, pane nero di Castelvetrano, made with local tumminia wheat. Marilena made short pasta with cherry tomatoes, pistachios and basil, roasted fish, and a salad. She served a tray of assorted Sicilian pastries that Antonella brought from Palermo.

Later, we checked into our agriturismo and were pleased: the rooms neat, comfortable, and inexpensive. The surrounding farm's main product is beef (of course they also make extra virgin olive oil) and their restaurant menu features meat in all courses but dessert. We toured the vegetable garden the next morning after a modest breakfast: we skipped all the cookies and pastries and focused on homemade preserves and pane nero, or black bread.

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Photo by Faith Willinger

I've visited Tenuta Rocchetta during the olive harvest ever since I met Pierluigi and tasted his extra virgins. Sergio Rizzo is his master frantoiano, who picks olives and runs the presses like a maestro. It's always a thrill to see the almost phosphorescent green oil streaming from a stainless steel pipe. Pierluigi has also made an amusing, instructive poster about olive oil tasting called "child's play" with his daughter Gaia. I ordered some of Tenuta Rocchetta's extra virgin for home use.

We took a back road to lunch and when I spotted a sign for the Planeta Foresteria inn I decided to take a look. We were welcomed, and impressed. The Planeta winery is one of Sicily's most important young wineries (founded in 1995), with vineyards in the Vittoria, Noto, Menfi, Sambuca and Etna areas. Their inn is perfect, with characteristic Sicilian décor and colors, comfortable lounging areas, books about Sicily, and traditional ceramics displayed with great taste. There are 14 rooms with huge bathrooms and private terraces. As if that wasn't enough there are also herb gardens with labeled plants, a gym with a view, a pool, Turkish baths, and a private beach nearby.

The restaurant is open for dinner only, and serves a tasting menu, simple, home-style dishes like macco (fava bean and wild greens soup), and braised lamb. I promised to come back. Lunch at da Vittorio just down the road was sublime. Next to one of the most unspoiled beaches in Sicily, it's also one of my favorite fish restaurants in Italy. The fresh fish and seafood taste of the sea, and appetizers include sweet raw red shrimp dressed with extra virgin olive oil and parsley. I never fail to have spaghetti with sea urchin sauce and Suzanne never passes up a plate with vongole, or clams. And who could resist Vittorio's turbot? Not me.

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Photo by Faith Willinger

In the morning we went to Castelvetrano to the Selinuntino Museum to see the impressive Ephebus of Selinute. We met Sergio, who took us to Panificio Gullo, the best bread baker in town. There are lots of shops selling pane nero di Castelvetrano that use yeast instead of levain, but Sergio knows pane nero as well as he knows olives. We bought bread for a Sicilian lunch of pane condito, loaves split in half, drenched with extra virgin, oregano, salt. We went to Mazara del Vallo to the Museum of the Dancing Satyr, one of the most moving works of art I've ever seen, with an expression of pure ecstasy. For pictures, click here.

To thank the Crescimano family for their hospitality we took them to dinner at another favorite seafood trattoria, La Pineta. It's directly on the beach in the Belice pine forest preserve--you have to walk on the path to the restaurant as there are no cars allowed--and it's well worth the search. Host and owner Angelo Rizzuto serves simple fish and seafood preparations; the menu never changes and I always look forward to a return visit for his fantastic marinated fresh anchovies, shrimp skewers, pasta with mussels and clams, local lobster, grilled or fried fish and seafood. He'll finish off your dinner with fresh fruit, or strawberries, chestnuts or kumquats hollowed out and stuffed with gelato of the same flavor and frozen.

Tenuta Rocchetta, Via Ugo Bassi 12, Castelvetrano, tel. +39-0924-904364

Up next on the final leg of the Grand Tour: Selinute's quarry, Ghibellina, a visit with Mary Taylor Simeti, and the wonders of Palermo.

Recipe: Marilena's Spaghetti (with Cherry Tomatoes, Pistachios, and Basil)

This week, she visits Sciacca.

Panificio Gullo, via Pietro di Giato 17, Castelvetrano, tel. +39-0924-81040

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Faith Willinger is a chef, author, and born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and has spent over 30 years searching for the best food from the Alps to Sicily. More

Faith Heller Willinger is a born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and was seduced by Italian regional cooking. Faith has spent more than 30 years searching for the best food and wine, as well as the world beyond the table from the Alps to Sicily. She has no regrets about mileage or calories. Faith was awarded the prestigious San Pellegrino award for outstanding work as an ambassador of Italian cooking. She lives full-time in Florence with her Tuscan husband, Massimo. Her son Max lives in Milan. She's the author of the bestselling (9th printing) guidebook Eating in Italy, the cookbook Red, White & Greens, and the narrative recipe book Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. Faith teaches in her kitchen in Florence on Wednesdays, supplied with freshly picked produce from her favorite farmers. Check out her web site at www.faithwillinger.com.
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