After beginning our culinary march through southern Italy in Rome, we landed in Catania, the tip of the Italian boot, with views of Mt. Etna in the background the Mediterranean and the Ionian Sea forming suitable backdrops to a seemingly endless collection of historic leftovers from the conquering Greeks and Romans.
Our first stop was to be the most odiferous in Sicily, the colorful, grimy, and superbly smelly main fishmarket.
Two people in our group regrettably wore sandals, carefully stepping over fish debris that has missed the big white buckets next to every fish monger.
We arrived shortly before closing and the prices were starting to come down. Shouts of “Ho I prezzi migliori” (My prices are the best) could be heard as we passed the open tables and stalls. Upstairs there is a more refined market selling meats, cheeses, and all the mnost beautiful vegetables I’ve seen at any market with the possible exception of Les Halles in Avignon.
Our walk-through was more exciting than anticipated as the last series of fishmongers, set up just outside the main hall, felt it necessary to comment on the positive attributes of every woman who passed before them. One would think they would be paying more attention to the sharp knives and cleavers in their hands. But I forgave them because, the fact is that the Catania market is unique in that shopping is done mostly by men, whose job it is to buy the daily fish. Many stop briefly for a quick game of cards (I don’t suppose they are playing “fish”) before heading home with the evening’s dinner. The men of Sicily pride themselves on being able to choose the best of the catch from fifty feet.
We had lunch near the pier in a restaurant that overlooked the harbor and we then set out for a ride along the coast. We were heading to Ragusa which is not far off the coast of Africa and surprisingly close to the Equator.
I try to take in the scenery and to try to identify its uniqueness. This part of Sicily is the epicenter of an area that is being touted as Italy’s best food belt, with leading food writers and chefs including Mario Batali anointing it as the home of the country’s most honest raw materials.
The landscape does not prepare you for the culinary surprises ahead. Eastern Sicily has small hills and a rock-strewn landscape with carob forests and ancient stone walls cropping up in the middle of seemingly barren earth.
The land is broken up into small divisions set off by low pile ancient stones to denote a piece of land belonging to an individual or a family of individuals. It seems primitive unless you ponder how long this system has been in place and how long it has worked well. And then there are the sudden, unanticipated swaths of green, olive groves here, fields of lemon trees there.
Is it my imagination or does this place smell better than any destination I’ve ever visited?
We are staying at the luxury residence, Eremo della Giubilna. Walking up the long driveway we pass gardens and get a view of the hotel’s small airport. We will be staying at an old Arab feudal home, a fortified fortress overlooking the sea. It was, like so many of Italy’s best properties, formerly a convent. Built in the 12th century, the property has corners and courtyards that hint at its history. I will be sleeping in one of the former cells of a friar who once called the place home. I imagine the flat-screen TV is new.
The food was spectacular as was the wine cellar. In the 18th century the Nifosi family of wealthy landowners bought it and later restored it to what it has become. My favorite memory of the place occurred the night I walked out of the dining room and found a small, 91 year-old “Nanna” seated in a high chair. She looked a bit out of place and her body remained still while her eyes took in the movement of guests all around her. I think that many guests in our group did not imagine she that is the Nifosi who still owns the property.
After checking in and relaxing for a while we set out to drive to Ragusa to have dinner preceded by the wonderful Italian tradition of “passeggiata”, which should translate to “walking about town speaking with one’s neighbors, perhaps a few strangers, while stopping for an aperitif and some light snacks just before choosing a place to seriously dine”.
I have to say that I was shocked by the beauty of this town, with its perfect streetlights, hilly main street, friendly locals, lack of tourists, and sense of serenity. It didn’t hurt that the smells coming off the outdoor tables at the many small restaurants is something I will never forget.
As I walked through this movie set, it occurred to me that Sicily does not have an organic food store. The largest island in the Mediterranean is entirely organic. All of the food is grown locally and chemicals are unknown. Residents would never use the term, but the entire place in “Farm to Table”. I picked up a tomato at a small food stall and was invited to taste it by the owner. Sorry Whole Foods. You still have a way to go.
Our passeggiata was cut short by an appointment we had at the historic home of the local Baron. We knocked on an old wooden door on the main walking street and were ushered into a lovely downstairs courtyard where the Baron met us warmly and introduced us to his guests, the leading anti-mafia police Commander and the prosecuting attorney who would help keep the conversation “on track” without revealing the status of current “investigations and projects.” This was something I had wanted to set up but I didn’t know until we arrived that they would agree to the invitation. The Commander looked regal in his dress Carabienari unform. He was accompanied by a tough-looking investigator in a rumpled sports jacket, a fellow I would not want on my tail.
After pleasantries, the Baron invited us upstairs into his home. We had a heartfelt tour of the house, viewing pictures of his family and pausing before the family chapel. The Baron was beaming, having just learned he was to become a grandfather. We walked into the grand ballroom and toasted the news. Windows overlooked the town square and straight out the window, in the distance, we saw a beautiful church lit up to reflect a golden hue as the sun set over the hills behind the village.
The Baron and the attorney had wanted us to taste some of the lovely local specialties so we enjoyed drinks and conversation. I was about to start the Q and A with the local police when I noticed that the investigator had left, leaving the Commandant to brave the questions of the American visitors by himself.
Some of what was said should remain private and few real secrets were revealed. But we came to understand that the Sicily of the “Godfather” movies is somewhat removed from current realities. In fact, the three branches of organized crime in Sicily, of which the mafia is the least significant, have found better opportunities in the larger cities.
It was a warm, friendly evening and our hosts seemed genuinely touched that we were interested in their town and their way of life.
We left, walking out into the still warm evening light, to pick our spot for dinner. It was getting late, but as we wandered the hilly streets, hearing the conversation and the laughter as we passed each place where food was being enjoyed, we felt lucky to be here. And concerns about our safety was never an issue. The good Commandant would see to that.