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Ann's Italy Food Journal - Part One  Ann's Italy Food Journal - Part Two    Judy's Italy Food Journal The Reluctant Parisienne    
 
     

 

About the Author

Judy Gorman Browning is a food writer, who recently returned to live in Hawai'i and was previously living and traveling with her husband Frederic in Europe.  She is the author of three cookbooks, including "The Culinary Craft," which won the 1985 R. T. French Tastemaker Award for best cookbook.  She formerly wrote a syndicated newspaper column called the "Recipe Clinic" and food articles for several magazines. 

Everything Rhymes With Pizzeria

It is Wednesday, July 5th when we leave for our trip to Sicily.  The weather has turned hot in Bad Kissingen and we wonder what that means in terms of the temperature in Taormina, which is our final destination.  Whenever we’ve told people that we’re going to Sicily in July, they’ve looked at us like we’re nuts.

It’s 2:45 in the afternoon, fifteen minutes earlier than we had planned to leave, but we’re all packed and we’ve finished the bottle of wine in the fridge by toasting our trip so it’s time to go.  The plan is to arrive in Frankfurt about 5 o’clock, have a few drinks and an early dinner, then go to bed early in order to get up for our plane, which departs at 7:05 in the morning.  The incentive for spending the night is not only the convenience of being so close to the airport, but the cost of parking our car in the hotel lot is included in the price of the room, which is only 110 Euros.  Clearly a bargain.

We arrive at the Mercure Hotel in Kelsterbach pretty much as planned, except the air conditioning in the car isn’t working. Following what has become standard operating procedure for us, we zip along the route to Kelsterbach in good time, but then spend what seems like forever driving around for the last tenth of a mile, trying to find the hotel.  This time is no different and the heat makes things worse, so we’re hot and tired by the time we pull into the parking lot.

The Mercure is a typical airport hotel with what looks like excellent conference services and consequently they have a bar and a restaurant.  The interior décor is minimalist, severe even, with its boxy rooms, white paint and lots of stainless steel.  We request a wake up call and a taxi for the next morning, settle our suitcases in the room, and go off in search of something cold to drink.

The bar is hung with small German flags and paper streamers of black, red and yellow in observance of the country’s participation in the final playoffs of the World Cup.  But by this time, Germany has lost to France and is out of the game so the room has the forlorn air of Christmas decorations left up too long.  Freddy orders a beer and I have a rum and tonic with lime, which is most refreshing.

The restaurant is, oddly enough, called the “New York Restaurant.”  I fail to see any connection; however, the food is quite good.  Freddy orders a smoked salmon pate and something called pork “neck” with sauerkraut.  The pate is adequate, but the pork is exceptional despite the fact that it is a pair of chops when he expected something more closely resembling a “neck.”

I have the Cream of Chervil Soup, which is interesting in the way that Cream of Parsley might be, and I’ve requested the Roast Turkey with Mango Relish.  This is an example of a sound culinary concept poorly executed. Strips of turkey breast fillet, which appear to have been sautéed, not roasted, are arranged over chunks of ripe, juicy mango.  The flavors should be compatible, but there’s no cohesive element … no component to bind the tastes together.  They’re just two separate flavors existing side by side.

We’re in bed by 9 o’clock.  The room is decorated in what I’ve come to think of as “contemporary German,” with the usual low, unyielding bed and a coverlet that doesn’t quite fit from one side to the other.  After a few minutes of “tug the coverlet” to see which of us gets to stick out, we fall asleep.

We’re both awake before the phone rings.  We’re excited to see Sicily; we’ve been looking forward to this trip for months so we’re up and ready to go.  Downstairs, where a taxi is supposed to be waiting, we run into our first obstacle of the day.  There are two taxis and two drivers and they have some disagreement between themselves as to which one should take us.  It turns out that neither takes us.  There are two taxi companies in the area and this has caused some confusion.  We must wait.  It is the first of such “waits” for us this day.

The first leg of our flight is to Milan.  It is with Alitalia and is scheduled to depart from Frankfurt on time.  We have a few minutes to grab a cup of coffee at the coffee bar, which is run by the Steigenberger Hotel chain.   It’s early in the morning and the waitress is surly.  When asked for a bottle of water she is annoyed because we misunderstand that the “stille” water isn’t available in small bottles.  Then when she brings our coffee and chocolate cream cheese muffin, and Freddy pulls out his credit card, she says, “Oh, sorry.  I’ve already rung it up as cash.”  Well that’s easy … oh sorry, no tip.

We board the plane and take our seats, but when the time comes to take off we are told that we must wait for passengers making a connection.  Once we land in Milan, we have to wait once again, this time to be picked up on the tarmac by a bus.  We board, standing packed together, more like cattle than passengers, and lurch to the terminal.  Thankfully, it’s a short sprint from one gate to another because we don’t have much time between flights and we’re late because of the delay.  Not to worry.  There’s an announcement that this flight, too, will be delayed.  And so we wait.   Now it’s beginning to seem funny.  When we finally do once again board the bus, we’re driven back to the same area of the tarmac.  We could have walked from one plane to another.  As we pass the baggage cart, I remark to Freddy that I see at least one of our bags.  A comment that comes back to haunt me.

We arrive in Catania somewhere around noon.  This involves boarding another bus and riding to the baggage claim.  There, a lot of fascinating people are milling around and the air feels wonderful.  It’s soft and easy to breath and the moisture is already plumping up my skin.  I’m entranced by the sheer joy of being there and I’ve having great fun “people watching,” so consequently I’m distracted from the fact that it is taking a very long time for the baggage to come out of the chute.

Finally, the one bag that I had spotted on the cart is in front of us.  It’s Freddy’s.  Mine is no where in sight.  Across the way, there is another room designated for “international flights” where people are also picking up luggage.  We don’t think this applies to us, but Freddy takes a look around in there anyway.  He doesn’t find anything so we head for the lost baggage counter.  The Italian man in charge sends Freddy back into the international room, types some combination of letters and numbers into the computer that separates him from me and says, “No problem. Your bag is in there,” indicating the room into which Freddy has just disappeared.

None of the bags lined up along the side of the room belongs to us.  It’s back to the man in charge.  This time, he once again consults his computer, and tells us, “It’s coming in on the next flight.”  When he promises to have it delivered to our hotel, I muster up my “look here, I’m not to be fooled with” demeanor and ask what time the next flight is scheduled to arrive.  He says five o’clock and I feel relieved.  How naïve.

Fortunately, we have our tour guide, Stephen Davies, waiting for us on the other side of the “arrivals” door.  Since he is a British expatriate, Stephen speaks excellent English, and because he has lived in Sicily for twenty-five years, excellent Italian as well, so I immediately feel better when he volunteers to take on the project of tracking down my luggage.

Meanwhile, it’s off to downtown Catania for a late lunch.  He knows of a hole-in-the-wall trattoria that is frequented by workers in the neighborhood and serves up home-style Sicilian food.  Sure enough, we turn down a nearly impassable one-way street, crowded with parked cars and there it is, a nondescript door leading into a room with tables occupied by swarthy looking men.  But I’m heartened.  The windows to each side of the door are clean and dressed with fresh curtains and the men smile behind their eyes. It’s just as I had pictured a trattoria to be.

Stephen goes over the menu with us, translating where necessary.  We’re served a delicious portion of the house pasta, penne with shrimp sauce, which is a local specialty and a delightful way to begin our Sicilian culinary adventure. Freddy orders patties of ground fish and I ask for Involtini di Pescespada.  Regarded as one of the classic dishes of the region, this particular offering of rolled, stuffed swordfish comes to the table as six tiny bundles on a skewer, beautifully grilled into a blackened crust, the small thinly sliced pieces of swordfish lightly stuffed with fresh bread crumbs, lemon juice, Parmesan cheese, and chopped pine nuts.  Glasses of the house red wine are a perfect accompaniment.

Since it is late in the afternoon and we have missed the renowned fish market, we ask Stephen to drive us around so we can see some of the city of Catania.  We stop and stroll across the city square, where we see the Duomo of Catania.  Like many important structures here, this cathedral was also completely destroyed by a volcanic eruption and then subsequently rebuilt.  In the center of the square is the famous elephant fountain, which was carved from lava and has become a symbol of the city.

The drive to our hotel in Taormina is some distance, and we’re anxious to get there so we proceed to the Villa Ducale.  From the air, I had noticed neat rows of what appeared to be bushes or short trees.  They turn out to be citrus groves and as we drive along we see thousands of lemon and orange trees.  The air is gloriously sweet.  There is a slight haze, which is probably vog caused by the continuously active Mount Etna. It’s like Kailua-Kona.

There is much to remind me of Hawaii.  The roadsides display a profusion of color.  Oleander in shades of pink, white and fuchsia wave gracefully as we pass.  Red and yellow lantana, purple bougainvillea, cactus and sugar cane grow along the way.  I had expected the landscape to be brown and barren at this time of year, and there are certain areas where shades of brown predominate, but here on the way to Taormina the flowers are brilliant and the citrus trees are bright green.

We arrive at the Villa Ducale to be greeted by more of the same.  The main building of the hotel is situated on the side of a mountain (as are most buildings here).  Guests must descend a flight of steps to reach the registration desk.  This is not a chore.  The steps are lined with a profusion of brightly colored blossoms, spilling over the retaining walls on each side.  Directly ahead, the vista opens up to the sparkling blue ocean below and the imposing mountains beyond. It feels like I can see forever.

We are greeted by a gracious young man of Indian origin.  He speaks perfect English and invites us to sit out on the terrace where he serves us a welcoming glass of champagne.  The terrace is edged by raised planters filled with flowers so that when we sit down it feels like we are embraced by a flower garden.  The space is cozy, and at the same time, expansive. We are looking out over the world; the whole of Taormina lies at our feet.  And we are alone, sipping our champagne, so it seems as if it’s all ours.

We are given room number two, which is across the street from the main building in a separate villa.  We have a suite consisting of a large bedroom, a terrace, a living room and spacious modern bath.  There is a welcoming basket of fruit, a vase of flowers and a complimentary bottle of the local red wine sitting on the coffee table in front of the couch.  The sitting room also contains a lady’s writing desk, small tables at both ends of the couch and a bureau which holds the TV and mini-fridge.  It’s so comfortable I could live here.

The bed is overhung with a lace canopy, which gives the room a very Sicilian ambience.  Linens are changed every day and occasionally they are trimmed with old-fashioned lace.  We settle in and sip our bottle of wine on the terrace while deciding where to have dinner.  There is a complimentary meal included with our travel package so we inquire about it.  We’re told that the owner of this hotel also owns the Villa Fabbio and it is here that the free meal is served so we make a reservation.

The Villa Ducale runs a van service into Taormina town, so Mario, who drives it along with his many other duties, not only takes us to our destination, but also walks in with us to introduce us to the Villa Fabbio staff.  They know we are complimentary guests but the service is gracious and attentive all the same.  We are shown to the roof-top restaurant and given a terrace table that looks out over the spectacular view below. The sky is clear and the stars are out; there is a faint haze around the moon, giving it a soft, romantic glow. Below us, the lights along the shore shine brightly.

The meal is quite good, but of course, it’s the setting that is perfect.  Freddy orders grilled calamari, which arrives whole and attractively charred, but the flavor is bland and it’s somewhat of a disappointment.  I have the lightly seared tuna, which is also attractively presented, here but in a vertical arrangement.  We are thrilled to be eating in such a gorgeous place.  And to add to our pleasure, there are no restrictions on our meal, we can order whatever we want, including Prosecco before dinner, and bottle of wine and dessert if we wish it.

The humorous moment of the evening occurs when I try to order an after-dinner cappuccino, knowing full well that Italians never drink cappuccino past ten o’clock in the morning.  I decide to see if I can get away with it, anyway.  I’m wrong.  The waiter bends over close to my face and good naturedly scowls at me as if to say, “Signora, that is simply not done.”  Okay, I get the message.  I plead that espresso is too strong for me in the evening and he brings me one that’s decaffeinated.

Friday finds us up early and ready to head out with Stephen. The problem is that I’m wearing the exact same clothes as yesterday and my luggage has still not been found.  I can’t be a good sport much longer.  I want my “Sicily skirt” and other special things I’ve brought along on this trip, so Stephen enlists his wife, Lucia, to bird dog the Alitalia staff.  It’s a blessing that she has perseverance.  My tan pants are beginning to look like I’ve slept in them.

Despite my wrinkled slacks, we climb into Stephen’s van with its large, comfortable seats and functioning air conditioner and head up the coast to Messina.  The Sicilian countryside in this area consists of a series of mountains, amazingly connected by highway bridges and once I get the knack of looking down without feeling woozy, I actually enjoy careening along at “Italian” speed.  We whiz through tunnels and out the other side to cross yet another stretch of highway suspended in the air on stilts.  And always the bright blue Ionian Sea shimmers in the background.

On the way to Messina, we stop by the small village of Savoca, which is famous for the Bar Vitelli, a site used for filming in the first installment of The Godfather.  In fact, the entire town seems to be dedicated to promoting the memory of this mafia related series.  Down the street there is a bed and breakfast called “Il Padrino,” whose business card bears the side profile of Marlon Brando.  Old newspaper clippings and Godfather memorabilia plaster the walls of the tiny main room of the bar, but the real action takes place outside at the café tables.  Stephen, who is up on his Godfather trivia, sits us at exactly the table where a famous shooting scene took place, and we order white wine, which is served in what used to be called “jelly glasses.”  It couldn’t look more authentic.

There are a few elderly women sitting at another table.  They are eating the locally preferred breakfast of lemon granita (made by the proprietor) and sweetened bread sticks.  Otherwise, we have the place to ourselves.  I spend some time clicking photos of Freddy framed against the crumbling exterior wall, seeking the perfect “Don Brownino” pose, and before I notice, the place has filled with tourists.  There’s not an empty chair left.  We are finished, so we wander into the inner serving area to pay our respects to the ancient woman who runs the place.  Then it’s off to take photos in the courtyard across the street where the famous wedding reception scene took place.  It’s amazing to note that while more than thirty years have gone by since the making of The Godfather, this little town, which was it setting, continues to draw so much attention.

We proceed on to Messina, where Stephen wants us to see the astronomical clock.  On the way, good news comes via cell phone.  Lucia has located my luggage.  We can pick it up at the airport after three o’clock.  I’m almost excited.  I have the nagging feeling I’d better not celebrate until I can actually see my bag.

The town of Messina is a bustling metropolis.  Trucks and cars and busses compete for space in the same lane, while motor bikes buzz around us like mosquitoes, cutting back and forth, passing on the right and left. To complicate matters, traffic is being barred from entering certain streets so we end up right back where we started … no closer to the Cathedral and its astronomical clock.  And it is well past noon, the time when this remarkable clock rings it bells and displays it’s moving parts in an animated commotion that can be heard all over the city.  Apparently, for some reason the clock did not perform today because by the time we finally pull into the town square parking stalls, there are only a few people in sight.  Still, we exit the van, take a few photos and stroll through the Cathedral, Il Duomo di Messina.

Since our main objective of the afternoon is to stop by the airport, we head back South, towards Catania.  Stephen has a special place in mind for our lunch.  He directs the car towards the shoreline and the village of Fiume Freddo.  Here we find Bosco Marino Lido, a lovely restaurant with tables set outside under the trees a few feet from the beach.  Perfect.  This is my lifelong vision of what it would be like to have lunch in Sicily.  The waiter is charming and bent on pleasing us.  He brings us complementary bruschetta,  which in this case is a 12 inch pizza crust topped with fresh chopped tomatoes, crimson and bursting with fresh flavor, chopped onions and black olives.

Freddy orders a primo (or first course) of fried calamari, the first in a series of several on his quest for the “best” while we’re here.  I skip the primo because I want this meal to feel like a picnic in someone’s back yard.  I order the antipasto plate, which is abundant with thinly sliced ham, salami, black olives, hearty cheese, sliced tomatoes and assorted marinated grilled vegetables.  The bread is outstanding and so it the olive oil.  I am thrilled with my feast.  Freddy has ordered grilled whole fish as his secondo and the waiter presents it on a platter, but we’re talking and not paying  attention to the fact that the waiter has put the fish down behind us and removed the bones, skin and head. This is too bad because although the fish is tasty, it is lacking in the flavor contributed by the grilled skin, and Freddy thinks no whole fish is complete without its head.

On to the airport.  After several impediments, including the guard who doesn’t want to let us through the “arrivals” gate, and the desk clerk who checks her computer and says, “Your luggage is still in Milan,” and after enlisting Stephen who lets forth a stream of fairly loud and agitated Italian, we find my bag lined up with the other lost baggage along the side of the “international room.”

Clean clothes in my possession, I’m ready for the next adventure so we drive up to Mount Etna.  It is nearly 5 o’clock when we get there and it’s colder than is comfortable so we scrap plans to take the cable car up the slope of the volcano.  Instead, we opt for a beer for Freddy and an almond granita for me.  This is my first granita and I love it.  The Sicilians make several flavors: almond being one because almonds grow prolifically on the slopes of the volcano, making it particularly apt for enjoying at this location.  They also make chocolate, coffee, lemon and orange.  I’ll try others as I go along.

It’s late when we return to our hotel and we’re still full from lunch, but this is Sicily and I’m dying for an authentic pizza, so we hop in the van and cruise along the twisting and turning, single-lane road to town.  Driving along we can look down at the red tiled roofs of the mountain side homes below us.  Cars go by us with a short “toot-toot,” which I’ve been told means, not “thank you” for pulling over, but “get out of my way … I’m coming through.”  We’ve also been told that Stop signs are a “suggestion,” and indeed it turns out that way.  No one seems to come to a full stop unless forced to by the presence of another, larger, car in its way.

We alight from the van and begin to stroll through the town of Taormina.  We’re looking for a particular pizzeria that Stephen recommended, but it is closed so we think we’ll just pick one that appeals to us.  Descending steps down a slender alley we come upon Ristorante Pizzeria Taormina.  Sounds like just what we’re looking for.  Freddy orders Maccheroni con Sarde … long tubular pasta with a sauce of Sicily’s famous sardines.  It is outstanding.   I, however, skip the first course and go straight for the Pizza Anthony … the most wonderful pizza I’ve ever had … a perfect crust topped with excellent fresh tomato sauce, slices of the local salami, green and red pepper strips and “fresh cheese,” which is similar to fresh mozzarella, but more fully flavored.

Our waitress is delightful.  Angela obviously enjoys her job as she flits from table to table cajoling people into trying this or that dish.  She doesn’t have to try too hard with us.  Freddy orders a whole grilled fish and this time pleads with her to leave the bones, skin and head on.  She is hurt.  She really wants to show off her boning skills and initially takes this as an affront, but when she realizes that he’s serious … that he’s a Hawaiian and used to eating fish heads … she is mollified.  We’re sitting at a table that overlooks the lights of the shoreline and the houses below; we’re very content.

Stephen has cautioned us that the next day will be “full,” so we should get an early start.  We negotiate upwards for 8:30 and he reluctantly agrees.  We have no idea how “full” it will be.  As we head south toward Siracusa, I see wild fennel along the roadside.  In certain places, citrus branches heavy with plump oranges and huge lemons hang almost close enough to touch.  We’re on our way to see the second capital of the Greek empire and our first stop is the Greek theater and the Roman Amphitheater, which are within walking distance of each other.

Delighted to have clean clothes to choose from, I have worn my “Sicily skirt,” purchased especially for the trip.   Now, too late, I realize that its swirly, flowing design would be more fun to wear somewhere else; it was not the best choice for climbing the loose gravelly slopes of the Greek theater.  Good thing I’ve brought along pink rubber slippers to wear instead of the little black heels that go with this outfit.  But we manage to hike up to the top of the theater and feel very romantic, walking along holding hands in the same place where thousands of years ago Greek citizens also walked.  Then, it’s down the slope and around behind the theater to the Ear of Dionysius, a limestone quarry into which an ear shaped, single-echo chamber has been formed probably at the direction of Dionysius, who it is said, used its perfect acoustics to eavesdrop on political plots.  About this time, I’m getting hot and tired and I make a mental note that this kind of “exploring” is not my favorite kind of vacation. 

But there’s more.  On our way to the Roman Amphitheater, we gratefully rest under some trees and have an orange granita, possibly the most refreshing preparation I’ve ever eaten, or sipped, anywhere in the world.  (The consistency of the granita is such that it can be eaten with a spoon, sipped through a straw, or as Freddy does, slurped slowly directly from the glass as a way to prevent brain freeze.)  The vibrant orange flavor is ambrosial.

Next, we venture forth to see the Roman Amphitheater, distinct for the fact that the Roman design places seats on both sides of the arena, creating a sort of theater in the round.  Next, it’s off to the Catacomba Di San Giovanni, where legend says Saint John the Baptist is buried.  There is a tour beginning at noon so we join them in descending the stone steps into the dark, dank underworld.  After listening to a rather lengthy explanation of the various mosaics preserved on the walls, I admit to myself (and then to Freddy) that I’m getting cranky.  I’ve had enough, so we meet Stephen back at the van.  From here, we drive into the city of Siracusa and park the car.  Stephen wants to show us the antiques and gift shop that he and Lucia run in addition to their tour business so we have an opportunity to walk the narrow streets and see the ancient buildings up close.

The gift shop is called “Paraphernalia” and offers, of all things, models of New England lighthouses.  Sicily isn’t even noted for its lighthouses.  Why would anyone come to Sicily and buy a replica of one from New England?  I wonder about this out loud, but Lucia assures me that they sell very well.  She is a delight.  Also a British expatriate, she bustles about her shop graciously offering us the use of the bathroom facilities to fresh up and a cold glass of white wine.  Coincidentally, or maybe not so as her mother was born here, she is named after Lucia, the patron saint of Siracusa.  The wine perks us up and we head out the door to find lunch.

Ristorante Veliero turns out to be one of those wonderful places where all kinds of fish, shrimp, lobster and mussels are displayed abundantly in a huge bin of crushed ice.  Everything looks delicious.  Freddy selects a whole fish for himself and a lobster to be prepared for me for the main course.  Meanwhile, he has an antipasto and a pasta …batter fried calamari then ravioli stuffed with shrimp.  He’s in heaven. 

Picturing the huge, plump shrimp I see behind me arranged on a bed of torn lettuce, I make the mistake of ordering shrimp cocktail.  This comes as a small aluminum ice cream dish filled with tiny, tasteless shrimp covered in some kind of gooey dressing.  This wasn’t what I had in mind so Freddy points to the voluptuous shrimp lying on the ice and asks to have three batter fried.  The waiter graciously serves me six.  

This meal is a treasure.  Part way through, an accordion player comes in and serenades us.  It feels like we’re in a movie.  The white wine is cool and crisp and provides the perfect foil for the rich, unctuous lobster.  Freddy enjoys his calamari and ravioli, and devourers his grilled fish.  He had said, before we came on this trip, that he was going to “eat his fill” of fish and he’s well on his way.

I’m craving a gelato for dessert, but first we walk over to the harborside and sit for a while under the trees.  We’re waiting for Stephen to catch up with us.  He has eaten lunch at home today.

We find a small gelato shop up the street and I choose stracciatella … elegant chocolate chip.  Savoring our gelato cones, we walk across the street to see Diana’s pool, which is a large salt water pool that you look into by leaning over a stone wall because it is below street level.  It has a mythic connection to the goddess of the hunt.

 On our return trip, Stephen asks if we’re up to exploring Castelmola, the ancient mountain village that sits even higher than the Villa Ducale, where we are staying.  In fact, when we sit on our balcony we can see (and hear) cars straining to get up the steep incline approaching the town. The view from the wall at the edge of the town square is even more spectacular than from our hotel and it turns out to be a thriving little town for being so difficult to reach.  We are in search of something cold to drink and on Stephen’s suggestion that I “observe everything in the place,” we enter Turrisi, a dark, wood paneled, very old bar.  I soon discover what sets it apart is not its age … the place is filled with fertility symbols, stone statues with outsized male genitalia and a collection of every conceivable type of penis replica imaginable, including the base of a lamp and a wooden carving that runs the length of a table.  It does, however, have a balcony with a view of the town square so we find a rail side table and order rum and tonic with lime.

We’re exhausted when we get back to our hotel and don’t particularly feel like going out for dinner.  Also, it is the soccer playoffs between France and Portugal to decide who will play Italy in the final match tomorrow night.  So this is the perfect excuse to stay in and order something to eat.  Our hotel serves only breakfast, but it offers a limited menu of pastas and cold plates for room service.  We order lasagna for me, cannelloni for Freddy and an antipasto to share along with a bottle of Mount Etna red wine.  It is a delightful repast.  The food is nicely presented, the antipasto is excellent, the wine is exceptionally good and we just snuggle in and feel quite at home.

The next morning, we meet Stephen for breakfast on the terrace of our hotel.  The breakfast served here is one of the best buffet selections I have ever encountered.  Each place setting upon the colorful mosaic table top is comprised of fine white porcelain on Sicilian lace place mats with lace trimmed napkins, and heavy silver flatware.  There are silver pots for hot coffee and warm milk.  A basket of croissants awaits … each day offering a different filling … the lemon was exquisite.  There’s a vegetable frittata, thinly sliced cold ham, grilled peppers, sliced tomatoes and fresh cheese, stewed prunes, fresh nectarines, macerated pear halves, crusty bread and two massive chunks of local cheese to cut from.  In a steam warmer sits a round, hot bread stuffed with spinach and cheese.  All of this with the gentle breezes of Taormina drifting across the terrace.

Soon we’re off on our day’s adventure.  It’s Sunday and time to do some shopping.  Stephen takes us to Caltagirone, a mountain village situated inland.  It takes us about two hours to get there.  This part of the island is a palette of brown.  I have never seen so many shades of brown in one place before … from the café au lait shades of dried weeds along the highway to the black-brown of the rich, but arid soil.  Here, too, cactus and papyrus populate the landscape.

Caltagirone is famous for its hill of many stairs.  This is a stairway of what looks like hundreds of very steep steps built into the side of the mountain.  Each step exhibits a different ceramic mosaic riser.   People live at the sides of these stairs, there are shops there, too, and school children who live at the bottom have to climb to the top to go to school.  Originally constructed to join the “old town” at the bottom with the “new town” at the top, they are a daunting sight.

Caltagirone is also famous for Sicilian ceramic art.  The clay found in this region of the world is unique because it contains a combination of silicates found only in Sicily.  It is molded by hand and then left to dry in the sun.  The shaped object is then painted with ornate motifs, glazed and then fired in a kiln.  The patterns have come to be recognized by the rest of the world as uniquely Sicilian.  I love this stuff and know exactly what I want … a dozen small plates of different designs to use for serving appetizers.  I find just the right ones and a small pot to add to my ceramic vessel collection.  I can’t pass up a ceramic cat I immediately christen Lucia and with encouragement from Freddy, I give in to my desire to purchase a huge round serving plate.  It’s a “once in a lifetime experience,” he says.  I can just see it on the table of our lanai in Hawaii.

Upon arriving, we could tell that today was some kind of special occasion in Caltagirone.  People had begun to gather in the town square and police cars were blocking off certain routes.  Talk about serendipity.  It turns out to be the anniversary of the Fiat 500 … “il topo” … the mouse … that boxy little vehicle that was the first affordable car for families in Italy and Fiat owners have brought their treasured specimens from all over the country to join in this rally.

While I was in the store shopping for ceramics, and Freddy and Stephen sat outside sipping espresso, the commotion began to grow as more and more of these diminutive autos formed themselves into a stationary parade, lining the streets around and around the square.  By the time I come out, there is a formal ceremony taking place in front of the town hall.  A loud band plays enthusiastically and several young men dressed in blue and white medieval costumes toss flags into the air, then catch and swirl and throw them again in a display of this ancient celebratory art.

There is excitement in the air as local men and boys swarm over and around the little cars, examining them for whatever makes each special.  Voices are loud and gestures are abundant.  It is a glorious day to be in Caltagirone.

It is noon and time to search out lunch so we board the van and head to a vineyard that is also a restaurant.  When we arrive, there is some confusion about who said what yesterday to whom … all this in animated Italian between Stephen and the person who came out to greet us.  It seems that the restaurant is closed for the day.

Yet, as so often happens on a journey when you’re open to possibilities, we actually drive past a restaurant situated by the side of the road that I had seen and thought interesting on our first day but couldn’t find again. Il Gabbiano is a charming little place with terraced dining areas so everyone has a clear view of the ocean and the Isola Bella (little island) below.  The scene is spectacular. Unfortunately, the waitress tells us that the kitchen is closing in fifteen minutes, which makes us feel a bit pressured.  The next time we come we’ll plan ahead so we have plenty of time to sit by the black iron railing, graced with red geraniums, and look over the magnificent landscape.

Stephen suggests a drink in Castelmola to toast a successful tour.  He has been a most congenial companion and an outstanding guide.  He has shown us places we would not have had access to without him and he has gone to great lengths to make us comfortable and keep us relaxed.  We are sad to have reached the end of our time together. 

We drive up the side of the mountain and end up in the Bar San Giorgio, situated right on the medieval town square.  This bar is famous for being so old (it was built in early 900), for possessing the autographs of many famous people and for its Vino Alla Mandorla, almond wine, which was beloved by Winston Churchill.  I, on the other hand, am not crazy about the idea of wine made from almonds, so I  order Prosecco and orange juice, but the waitress brings us three sample glasses anyway. The flavor is quite pleasant … sort of a light Amaretto … a nice aperitif, but too sweet for my taste.

We arrive back at our hotel in time to shower and change and take a cab downtown.  We want to join the locals to see Italy play France in the final match of the World Cup.  An outdoor café with a big screen TV is just the ticket.  We manage to get seats at a table (after a slight interchange with some Germans, who we offer to let join us).  This is Italy at its most authentic. The crowd consists of a few tourists like us, but most are local Sicilians rooting for the home team.  We order a bottle of Prosecco and thoroughly enjoy the evening.  The tables are nestled together under oleander trees, heavy with blossoms that release petals to drift down lightly as the night air stirs.  It is a scene I will remember forever.

The game goes into its final stages.  It has been tense.  Then there’s a hold-your-breath moment and the crowd explodes.  Italy becomes the world champion.  This calls for a pizza.  We quickly dodge waving arms and embracing bodies to escape up the stairs.  We want to beat the crowd to get a seat in the restaurant.  We make our way up the alley and around the corner only to descend another set of stairs in another alley to reach Pizzeria Taormina.  We needn’t have hurried.  We’re the only ones in the place.  And yes, this is our second visit, but their pizza deserves an encore, at least for me.  I again request the Pizza Anthony; Freddy orders Costoletta alla Milanese. The atmosphere is electric. The staff is delirious, taking photos of each other and sharing a bottle of champagne, which they also offer to us.  Angela is as personable and attentive as before, and although we are the only people in the restaurant, she treats us with great care.

Apparently, the Italian idea of celebrating has little or nothing to do with food, at least in this instance, because no one else comes in and the staff has been told that the restaurant will close early so everyone can go out and be with their friends.  When we exit the restaurant, it becomes clear exactly what the Italian notion of celebrating involves.

This part of town we’re in is usually closed to traffic.  There is a single prescribed route into the town square that taxis may use to drop off and pick up fares, but other than that the streets form a pedestrian mall.  However, tonight cars (that embodiment of Italian pride) are allowed to enter the town and parade through its tiny streets. The noise is beyond deafening.  I brace myself against the cacophony of horns, whistles, shouts and more horns, and scuttle along the edge of the crowd hugging the store fronts to avoid being trampled or poked in the eye with a flag.

I’m concerned that we won’t be able to find a taxi because no one will be working.  Nevertheless, when we finally make our way through the obstacle course to “taxi square,” we find one lone taxi driver waiting for a fare amid the noise and confusion.  He must be a family man who needs the money.  Gratefully, we hop in.  Nudging and jostling his car with patience and skill we get through the boisterous street and we’re out of town. 

Sunday had been our last day with Stephen; it’s now Monday and we’re on our own so we sleep late.  We need the rest.  About 11 o’clock we take a taxi back to town.  Freddy wants to visit the Greek theater, which he had seen years ago on a previous trip to Taormina, so we get dropped off at taxi square and proceed up the hill to the left.  This steep, narrow street is “tourist alley.”  Every shop is gaily hung with “Sicily” gewgaws … tee shirts and key chains, aprons, handbags, jewelry and shoes in a wonderful panoply of things to buy as a remembrance of this special place.  There are ceramics of all kinds, from plates to refrigerator magnets, painted with lemons or sunflowers … the by now familiar motif of this part of the Island.  It’s a lot of fun and we dawdle along the way taking it all in.

At the top of the street there is an elegant looking hotel that beckons us in.  We walk through and share observations on what it would be like to stay here.  It is very inviting, has a beautiful view and is situated right in the center of town.  Perhaps another time, we might try it.

From there, we approach the ticket booth for the Greek theater and attempt to get the best price on the entrance fee.  There’s a sign that says something about being over 65 so Freddy asks for one of those for himself.  The clerk looks at him like she doesn’t believe him and shakes her head “no.”  He pulls out his military ID with his birth date on it, but she doesn’t accept that.  Instead she gives him the price for “inside the European community,” an amiable enough compromise.

The Greek theater is almost as he remembers it.  But there is a band crew setting up for the evening’s performance and the presence of massive sound equipment somehow spoils the feel of the place.  We walk back down the hill and purchase two orange granitas on the way.  Lust gets the better of me and I order a size larger than I should.  I can’t finish it, but the flavor is so wonderful I keep nibbling.  How am I going to live without it?  I make a mental note to try making granita out of Ka’u oranges when I get home to Hawaii.

We stroll along looking for a place to have lunch.  Freddy has it in mind to find a certain restaurant he thinks he saw Anthony Bourdain review on TV.  Spying a possible candidate, we walk into La Griglia.  W order cannelloni for both of us, grilled mixed fish for Freddy and sole for me.  Here the view is different; we are looking out over the red rooftops of the buildings behind.  It’s charming and it gives me the feeling of what it must be like to live in a town like this.

After lunch, we walk through the main portion of town.  We glance in the store windows but not with any particular interest in buying anything.  We didn’t have coffee with lunch so we head for an outdoor café that overlooks the water.  Freddy has a double espresso.  I summon up the courage to order a cappuccino and receive it without a scowl or reprimand.   This is a pleasant place to sit and people watch and we have nothing more pressing to do so we stay.  A couple has vacated a table overlooking the ocean so we ask to move.  The waitress is most accommodating.  We order more coffee, then proceed to order a couple of drinks and before we know it the afternoon is gone and it’s time to go back to our hotel.

We sit out on our balcony and sip wine that we’ve purchased a few days prior.  We’re watching the news on TV … it’s full of the head-butting episode from the soccer game the night before.  The sky begins to look like dusk and we don’t feel like going back into town for dinner so we walk across the street to the hotel terrace and order our favorites … lasagna, cannelloni and the antipasto plate.  We’re all alone.  The lights begin to twinkle on below and we feel like we’re in our own private villa waiting for the servants to bring dinner.  It’s a magical dreamlike atmosphere. 

After a while, a couple and their three teenage children join us.  They’re a cordial group and the oldest son is listening raptly to Freddy’s life stories.  He has just finished school and is in the process of deciding what he wants to do.  Clearly, he wants to experience adventure so he keeps asking Freddy more and more questions.  Eventually, we all finish eating.  The younger kids grow weary of the conversation and drift off to other things.  It’s time to bring our last evening in Sicily to a close.  I’ve fallen in love with this place and don’t want our time here to end.

It’s Tuesday and our flight doesn’t leave until late in the afternoon.  We’re under the impression that we won’t need to check out until our taxi arrives at 3 o’clock so we lounge around.  It’s not until I begin to take a shower that I hear the phone ring … it’s the reception desk telling us we have to be out in an hour.  We dress and pack in a whirlwind.  This is annoying, but the upside is that we now have plenty of time for a leisurely lunch.  Since we want to explore the part of town we haven’t seen before, we have the taxi driver drop us off at the Messina Gate, the entrance to town at the opposite end of the main street from where we usually alight.  We had planned to eat at the Baronessa, an elegant looking establishment that promised great views and refined cuisine.  Sadly, it is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays so we move on.  I had seen an interesting restaurant down the street so we backtrack until we find the Granduca.  This also has a marvelous view and we’re given a rail side seat.

Freddy orders Beef Carpaccio and Fritto Misto.  He decides he prefers the mixed fried fish over the mixed grilled fish he had the day before.  The Carpaccio is a slightly different cut of meat than we’re used to and it seems to have been aged.  It is served with an excellent olive oil, shaved Parmesan cheese and capers, just the way he likes it.  My first course is a plate of grilled vegetables with grilled scamorza, a young cheese whose consistency can stand up to the heat.  It is a delicious combination.  The vegetables include grilled radiccio, fennel, eggplant, zucchini and tomato.  The bread is full bodied and makes a marvelous accompaniment.  For my second course I have Costoletta alla Milanese, breaded veal cutlet in the style of Milan.  We have a bottle of Rosso Del Conte and find it to be excellent.  Although we’d like to linger over coffee, we’re beginning to feel pressured by the need to get to the airport so we leave.

Walking back to taxi square, I spot a pastry shop selling cannoli, those crisp fried pastry tubes filled with ricotta cheese, and I haven’t yet eaten one in Sicily.  So even though I’m more than full from lunch, I am compelled to buy one.  Freddy and I share.  It is a mouthful of memories; it tastes just like the ones my grandfather used to bring me when I was a little girl.  If that is to be my last taste of Sicily, it is a memorable one.

Since our bags are packed and ready to go, we sit for a few last moments on the hotel terrace letting the beauty of the countryside wash over us.  Eventually our taxi arrives, and we’re off on the hour’s drive that will take us to the Catania Airport. 

When we lift off and fly over the Sicilian landscape, and once again I see the tidy rows of citrus trees, my thoughts turn to lasting impressions.  The bread was extraordinary; the oranges have an incomparable flavor; the flowers are more beautiful than I expected and the mountains are steeper in real life than in photographs.  The air is soft and the evening skies are like velvet.  Sicily has found a place in my heart.

I shall remember the people as warm and friendly and the landscape as breathtaking.  Here are some of the most beautiful vistas I have even seen in life.  I love the musical sound of the language.  It’s fun to say “Ciao” in the place where it belongs and to find that trattoria rhymes with pizzeria … and so does pasticceria, panetteria, gelateria, and salumeria. 

 

 

 

 
     
 
NYC Culinary Tour  Ann's Italy Food Journal - Part One  Ann's Italy Food Journal - Part Two Judy's Italy Food Journal The Reluctant Parisienne