People and Places

Report from Sicily II

Posted on October 30, 2011

Our week’s vacation in Sicily came to an end yesterday when we flew from Palermo to Rome, but it ended on a culinary and social high note. We spent the evening with our newfound friends Laura and Stefano and their 15-month-old son Jacopo in their Roman apartment over the best meal of the trip. Laura and Stefano are passionate about food and wine and the former has founded Mediterranea Trails, a travel association focused on slow food, traditional food customs, and experiencing Italy off the beaten track.

Because of Laura’s insider knowledge, we spent hours at Olio Verde learning about olive oils (and what a scam is the great majority of what is sold on our grocery store shelves) and Olio Verde’s extraordinary commitment to making oil the right way (nets suspended under the trees and not on the ground; hand picked olives; clean mills; low temperature processing, and very low acidity). Walking the farm with Gabriella Becchino, a member of the family, we marveled at the abundance of Sicily’s rich farmland: spicy arugala, grapefruits and lemons and oranges, celery that was almost sweet, figs, and, of course, the particular olives grown only in this valley and used in Olio Verde’s oils (sold at Whole Foods, by the way).

We spent time at the original 16C farm of the Planeta family, maker of fine white and red wines, in one of the most magically beautiful settings you can imagine — stone buildings set among the vineyards.  Marcello Planeta did a wine tasting for us and later on we did a two hour observation with one of the chefs in the Planeta kitchens, eventually dining on the end results that evening.  The Planeta staff sent us to Vittorios for lunch at maybe the best seafood restaurant we ever visited. We had two dinners at Vicolo’s, in Sciacca, where the connoli is served with honey and pistachios.  These are all slow food producers, dedicated to quality and traditional methods, and identified for us by Laura.

The aforementioned Gabriella sent us to one of her favorite trattorias in Castelventano, Giovanni’s. Giovanni, probably 70-years-old, works the place with his son Massimo and not a word of English was to be had. We ordered pasta dishes and nothing else, but then Giovanni brought us house wine, eggplant, bruschetta, bread, olives, our pastas, and then steaks, salad, fruit, and then one of the most amazing desserts we ever tasted: warm pastry half moons with a soft sweet cheese inside. Mind you, all we ordered was a pasta dish. The bill came, a single number scrawled on a scrap of graph paper (pretty sure Giovanni’s tax payments may be a little light). We waddled out after photos, numerous thanks you’s and “motto bene’s” and the sense that we might never have to eat again.

 Castelvetano is known as a center of mafia activity and there were some pretty tough looking customers in the place. Big guys with neck tattoos, menacing looks, and bulging forearms. We tend to romanticize the mafia, but as we later learned from Laura and Stefano, their reach extends throughout government, they are the source of widespread corruption, readily use violence, and constrain new business growth, innovation, entrepreneurialism, and effective government. On a happier note, our conversation took place in the Laura’s and Stefano’s charming apartment where in the small kitchen Laura produced a feast. It included meats from her father’s farm,an eggplant dish stuffed with meat and topped with an amazing pomodoro sauce her mother bottles every fall, a traditional Roman pasta dish, a heavenly peach tart, her mom’s homemade lemoncello, and finished with a taste of grappa. Stefano has a talent for finding good, small growth vitners and the wines with dinner were a delight.

As always though, the setting and the people make the food, and it was a treat to be invited into a home and share stories of family, travel, food, and passions (like Stefano’s mountaineering and Laura’s acting on stage). They take such pride in all that makes Italy special, indeed almost unparalleled, and they feel real pain at its chaos, corruption, and lack of expectation for something better. Italy has an embarrassing array of riches and assets with which to build a future. Unmatched design, engineering prowess, agricultural abundance, an educated population, cultural and historical attractions beyond count, and pride. But it struggles to do even the simple things. Witness the chaos of the airport this morning (on the bus from the terminal to the plane we actually saw pieces of luggage lying alongside the pathways out on the tarmac!), the filthiness of the roadsides (we joked about the “welcome litter” at the entrance to every Sicilian town), and a mind-numbing bureaucracy for almost any official activity.

That said, we left Italy this morning with a reaffirmed love for the place.  With all of its frustrations and squandered opportunity, there is in Italy a zest for life and love that still feels abundantly available to the visitor, even one as tragically unstylish as this one.  While we have a passion for travel and our list of places yet to be visited is long, every two to three years Italy beckons to us and we return for another dose of its charms.  Then we take two to three years to lose the extra pounds we carry as evidence of those charms.

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