The Last Tastes of Sicily

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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. With a stopover in Sciacca, she now heads to Palermo.

We began the day at the Cusa quarries in Campobello di Mazara, the source of Selinunte's stonework. A beautiful new museum, totally empty of tourists, answered the question "just how did they manage to quarry those huge columns and get them to Selinunte?" There's also the Museum of Farm Work--tools, furnishing, pottery, a terrific Sicilian cart. But most impressive were the quarries, huge drums of stone, some half-carved in the stone, others strewn in grass fields amid olive and carob trees, looking like the stoneworkers had just taken a break.

The village of Gibellina was totally destroyed in the 1968 Belice earthquake, relocated as Gibellina Nuova nearby, with installations by famous contemporary Italian artists. Alberto Burri covered the ruins of the old village with cement, with gaps where the streets once were. We wandered his cement maze, a moving experience. Unfortunately, it's falling into disrepair, with weeds and cracks in the cement. Or is this part of the artistic process?

Nicoletta is a marvelous cook, gives cooking lessons, takes her students shopping for groceries, and caters fancy dinners in the family palace.

We visited Mary Taylor Simeti and her husband Tonino at their organic farm outside Palermo. I adore Mary's books. "On Persephone's Island", "Pomp and Sustenance" (the new edition unexcitingly re-titled as "Sicilian Food"), "Bitter Almonds", and "Travels with a Medieval Queen". Tonino is an agricultural economist, and retired university professor. I'm a fan of his white wine, Catarratto, and tasted just released Nero d'Avola. We shared our Castelvetrano pane nero with Mary and Tonino, they served Ragusano cheese, and I bought more wine, to be sent home. Mary showed me the family's B&B, two quirky apartments with unspoiled views.

Palermo was our final destination on the Grand Tour and Vito skillfully navigated the city's chaotic traffic to our accommodation: Nicoletta Polo Lanza's apartments in her husband's historic palace, Butera 28, my very favorite place to stay. I've slept in a lot of Palermo hotels and B&Bs and had settled on the Hotel Plaza Opera for location and style, but once I stayed at via Butera 28, I was hooked. I adore the untouristy neighborhood and having an economical apartment with living room and kitchen. Nicoletta is a marvelous cook, gives cooking lessons, takes her students shopping for groceries, and caters fancy dinners in the family palace. She shared her recipe for gelo di agrumi, a simple refreshing citrus gelatin dessert with me as well.

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Photo by Faith Willinger

Once settled, we walked down the street to the Museo Internazionale della Marionetta to complete our Sicilian marionette education. We admired the sophisticated and international collection, with marionettes from Asia as well as Sicily, and even got to see a show in their theater and meet the puparo (manipulator, puppeteer). Nearby, Palazzo Abatellis was closed, under restoration (but has now reopened). We strolled around the corner and had an aperitivo at Kursaal Kalhesa, a huge stone room housing a bookshop, travel agency, caffe'-enoteca with interesting cocktails and wine selection, outdoor garden, restaurant with innovative Sicilian-styled or international dishes, and live jazz.

We ambled past the trattoria Salvo, tempted by the outdoor charcoal grill and fish displays, but remembering that we'd invited Nicoletta and her husband Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (remember him in Part V?), the Duke of Palma, who got us into the cloistered convent) to have dinner at Dispensa dei Monsu', where chef-owner Bonetta dell'Olio has an original approach to Sicilian flavors and respect for vegetables. She has sourced superior products including salumi and cheese. Wonderful menu choices include mosciame (tuna loin cured like prosciutto) with potatoes and mint, caponata with eggplant and apple, Gragnano pasta sauced with sea urchins or fish ragu, baccala "meatballs", lamb chops in pistachio crust, seasonal fruit, and lovely Sicilian cookies. Service can be and was exasperating. We were joined by Francesco Guccione, Bonetta's companion and biodynamic winemaker. We drank his delightful Sicilian red varietals Nerello Mascalese and Perricone with dinner. Unfortunately there's no more room at home for another wine order.

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Photo by Faith Willinger

We began our final day with a cultural outing to Palazzo Riso, Palermo's exceptional contemporary art museum, beautifully curated, with a wonderful gift shop and caffe'. No time for Serpotta on this trip. We visited the Borgo Vecchio market, vibrant, lively, with fish mongers who grill and fry fish to go in the afternoon, and Condimento Pronto da Giuseppe, a terrific stand selling panelle (fried chickpea flour crepes), prepared foods and sauces for pasta. Both are perfect options for those staying at via Butera 28.

But we were leaving town, having lunch at a favorite trattoria, Piccolo Napoli, next to the market. Two fishing boats supply the catch of the day, there's a written menu but no one uses it--they rely instead on owner Orazio Corona for advice. Appetizers are displayed on a table in the dining room, including classics like pasta with clams, cuttlefish ink, sardines and wild fennel, or cauliflower, raisins and pine nuts. Guests then continue with grilled or fried fish or seafood, cassata or fresh fruit for dessert.

Our last stop before the airport was Bar Alba to purchase the city's best arancine--the perfect culinary souvenir of our voyage across Sicily. I knew I'd have lots of wine and extra virgin olive oil waiting for me when I got home, but that a true Sicilian would have acquired something with sugar. Cassata? Cannoli?

La Dispensa dei Monsu', via Principe di Villafranca 59, Palermo, tel+39-091-609-0465, open evenings only, closed Sunday

Recipe: Gelo di Agrumi

Trattoria Piccolo Napoli, piazzetta Mulino a Vento 4, Palermo, tel.+39-091-320-431, open Monday through Saturday for lunch, Friday and Saturday dinner, closed Sunday

Trattoria Salvo, via Torremuzza 32, Palermo, no phone, open evenings only

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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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