Arrivederci, Sicilia! What we loved, and what we’ll never understand.

The thing about being a fish out of water is that people are walking around on their two legs and breathing air, and being a fish, you spend a lot of top flopping around on your side trying to get some water in your gills.

Traveling in any foreign country requires embracing the unknown, which can be uncomfortable. There’s the language difference, of course, but adjusting to the rhythms of life can be just as difficult. As I’ve noted, shops open and close with little rhyme or reason. As in many European cities, they close at lunchtime, which is remarkably civilized. Shopkeepers go home for lunch or a nap, or something, then stay open into the evening. This is just dandy, except when you want to mail a package at 2PM. I wandered past the corner grocery on Wednesday at 3 and it was closed at midday, it was closed on Wednesdays, and they were closed for some kind of vacation – the Sicilian trifecta! Today, the supermarket was closed at 2. The supermarket! Restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7 or later, although I’m told that in Argentina they don’t start the party until after 10.

Oh, and I’ve really enjoyed watching Sicilans park their cars. This would never fly back home.

"Parallel" parking in Sicily

“Parallel” parking in Sicily

I will also never wear a man purse.

Nope, sorry, not gonna get one.

Nope, sorry, not gonna get one.

We made a grudging farewell to Ortigia.

Farewell, Ortigia.

Farewell, Ortigia.

We were sad to go because we had just started to find our groove there. We knew where the good restaurants were and we had our sights set on a few others. The other night we wandered into this really cute place that felt like a tapas joint in Madrid. There were lots of wines by the glass, and plates of meats, cheeses, and just yummy stuff in general. The hosts were gracious and friendly and the tiny café was filled mostly with young, hip locals who were having a dandy time. Places like that just make you happy. As promised, we returned to the ridiculously good deli (which was even better the second time, if you can believe it) and felt like regulars. (I had a moment with one of the busboys last time when he cleared a small piece of bread off our table and I started crying. It took him a second to get the joke, and then we all had a nice chortle. When we came in again it was like an old friend had come back.)

One more look at Fratelli Burgio.

One more look at Fratelli Burgio.

The aftermath

The aftermath

Then we pushed on for Noto – a city that is said to represent the best in Sicilian Baroque architecture, and which was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 2002.

Noto

Noto

Things started slowly when we couldn’t find our apartment. It’s in the center of the old city, just behind the famous Duomo, but 1) we were having trouble negotiating the one way streets and alleys, and 2) our host neglected to mention that our apartment is on an unmarked alley off a long street of stairs. Having been failed by google maps, we triangulated on what we thought might be the place, and eventually connected with our host, who speaks even less English than we speak Italian. After an hour of driving, walking, and crawling in circles, we finally walked through our door. And yes, there was the tiniest bit of bickering.

The town itself reminds me of a wedding cake – it looks pretty good, but it feels like it lacks a bit of substance. The people seem kind of standoffish, and once you’ve walked the length of the main street, you’ve kind of got the place covered. To be sure, the architecture is quite amazing – there are more palazzos (palazzi?) than you can count, and, like everywhere else we’ve been, they are charmingly crumbly without actually falling down.

Our day at the museums was entertaining without being terribly educational. The Notoans (Notoites?) need to up their museum game just a bit. On the one hand, you can wander into a gem, like the jewel box theatre in Noto called the Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo. It’s pretty new – it was built in 1870. It’s one of those theatres with all the boxes, like in Amadeus. Our visit continued our tradition of visiting theatres without actually seeing any theatre. It was also singularly uninformative. There was no commentary, no information, no nothing. You show up and a guy points you to the theatre, and you go in a look around and take pictures. That was about it. We also had the place to ourselves, so we could have climbed into one of the boxes and taken a nap.

Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo in Noto

Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo in Noto

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We also had a hilarious visit to the Palazzo Ducezio, which houses the Noto city offices. The tour consisted of a visit to the Hall of Mirrors, which now serves as a meeting room for official city business and such. The ceiling was painted in 1826 and restored in 2001. It’s lovely, but I felt a little like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation. A woman led us into the room, and said, basically, here’s the room, and then she stared at us. We went, we looked, we left. We also toured another palazzo that houses a rather sad collection of paintings with mildewing mattes and other underloved pieces of art. Janine and I found ourselves tallying up the value of each visit, kind of like one of those ladies of a certain age you see on the Upper West Side bus – you know, with the fur coat – might. For our five dollar ticket, we figured the art collection at about a dollar, the hall of mirrors at about a quarter, and theatre came in at, oh, two bucks. You win some, you lose some. On the other hand, in Ortigia we saw a real live Caravaggio in the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia for free. It’s also free to look at the outsides of the buildings wherever you go, so there’s that.

On the other other hand, if you try to take a picture of Elmo in Times Square, he’s liable to tackle you to the ground and start beating you if you don’t give him a buck or two. So maybe I should be a little more forgiving.

Ok, enough with the culture and onto the food.

We’re leaving Sicily tomorrow, and the food has been distinctive and really great, so I thought I’d try to remember the dishes that stood out.

At that little tapas place, we had little rectangles of cheese that turned out to be ricotta mixed with honey and orange juice and baked in the oven. Baked ricotta – who knew? Those made me weep. They were creamy, sweet but not too sweet, and they made my heart sing (after I was done weeping). We also had eggplant parmigiana that was just eggplant sliced thin and stacked like a lasagna and cooked with a simple tomato sauce and topped with ricotta salata. So simple, but killer.

Janine says that the Pasta Norma I made when we arrived in Forza was the best she had in Sicily. All you need are good eggplants – you chop up eggplants, cook the bejeebers out of them in olive oil, add tomatoes (they add ricotta down here, but I didn’t have any) and top with ricotta salata. Good stuff.

One day we went to the local market in Ortigia and bought some of those jumbo prawns we’ve been devouring whenever we have the chance.

The outdoor market in Ortigia.

The outdoor market in Ortigia.

Janine made a great pasta with eggplant, tomato, and peppers, and I broiled the prawns simply with garlic, oil, and salt, and I must say, they were as good as any we’d had. It stunk up the apartment, but it was worth it.

Our dandy dinner.

Our dandy dinner.

By the time we reached Noto, we had acquired a medium-sized collection of condiments and marinated things. (We can’t help ourselves. An entire shelf of our refrigerator back home is dedicated to pickles, olives, and other condiments). We had bought olives, marinated mushrooms with mint, sun-dried tomatoes and capers with oregano in oil, and we still had some of Janine’s pasta sauce. I had the contours of a chicken dish in my mind as we pulled out of Ortigia and we found a butcher shop that was actually open and I bought half a chicken. When we arrived in Noto, the kitchen had almost no equipment, but inexplicably, it had a tagine. So Sicilian Chicken Tagine it was and I’d have happily paid real money for it at a restaurant. Sadly, we forgot to take a picture.

There were other great things – the arancini (deep fried rice balls) and the anchovies marinated in orange juice, vinegar, and sugar in Taormina, the cannoli at Giuseppi’s place in Forza, and all that great, cheap, flinty, bracing white wine.

Finally, on my deathbed (after I’ve had a Peter Luger steak), I will ask for one of those mini mozzarella balls in cream topped with olive oil and ground pistachio at Fratelli Burgio in Ortigia, and I will refuse to die until I get one.

It is on to Rome, where if I don’t finally see the Sistine Chapel I will go on a hunger strike which will make my blog entries considerably shorter. What are your favorite things to do in Rome?

The world’s greatest lunch is in Syracuse.

You need to go to Syracuse. No not that Syracuse, the other Syracuse (sorry, Syracuse). Siracusa. The one in Sicily. The Greeks liked it, the Romans liked it, and now I like it.

Embarrassingly beautiful Siracusa.

Embarrassingly beautiful Siracusa.

After the deep meditation that was Forza d’Agro, we shook things up by heading down to a comparatively riotous town, which is to say that it has more than two restaurants that are open at any given time.

(We were regularly mystified by the whimsy that was the restaurant schedule in Forza d’Agro. Some places would be shuttered for days on end, but without a sign in the window or information on a website, it was impossible to know when they’d be willing to receive visitors. We went into a few places that were OPEN – the lights were on and the door was open – but they’d shoo us out. Crazy.)

We’re staying on the island of Ortigia – a little appendix of land at the tip of Syracuse sticking out into the Ionian Sea. It’s the old part of an old city, and the architectural clichés keep rolling in, folks. It’s got the winding alleys with crumbly walls and clotheslines full of t-shirts.

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I think everyone probably has washers and dryers and the chamber of commerce gives people money to go to the Goodwill to buy old t-shirts to hang from the line for the old school charm of it all. The Piazza Duomo is said to be one of the most picturesque squares in Italy, and that’s saying something. It was redone in what is called the Sicilian Baroque style after an earthquake in 1693 destroyed much of southeast Sicily. The whole area, including the buildings, sidewalks, and plaza are made from a pale yellow limestone that make everything glow at dusk.

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We had drinks at a cafe right across from the Duomo when the sunset lit it up. I knew this was a special moment when the hostess pulled out her camera a took a picture.

This new-fangled Duomo was built on top of the foundation of a Greek temple that dates back to the 6th century BCE, so they’ve been praying in this spot for a long, long time.

In cute little towns with picturesque windy streets, sometimes the best thing to do is to just wander and see what happens. The other night we spotted a hip looking restaurant, but we were seated as the other half of a four-top. This can be quite awkward, in which you try not to bother the people who have just been hustled over to one side of their table so you can horn in on their real estate. On the other hand, Janine had just been mentioning that notwithstanding my winning personality, she was a little starved for human interaction in English with someone who isn’t me. I was unoffended, although I hoped that the human interaction she was starved for wasn’t a dashing fellow in his late twenties or somesuch. As it turns out our table mates were a retired couple from Scotland who had spent the past three weeks in Syracuse. By the time our evening was over four hours later, we had exchanged numbers, moved on to a bar down the street for round two (or three), and pledged undying devotion to Jim and Geraldine, two of the most charming and lovely people we’ve met in a long, long time. They will doubtless read this entry, and thus I use this forum to reiterate our pledge to take you up on your kind offer to visit you in Edinburgh in the spring. If the other night is any indication, we are going to have a hell of a time there.

Next year in Edinburgh!

Next year in Edinburgh!

And talk about history. When you wander around the set of the Odyssey, you are talking about some old stuff. We continued our tour of old theatres, which included this gem, the Greek Theatre.

Tell the Nederlanders to top THIS!

Tell the Nederlanders to top THIS!

I entered the hallowed grounds, muttered “I got your Marquis Theatre RIGHT HERE” and spit five times. (Thus continues my tedious complaint about how they tore down five – count ‘em five – theatres to build a crappy hotel with a crappy theater in it in 1982.)

We ambled about the archeological park that includes the theatre, which dates to the 5th century BCE (before wireless microphones, I think), a limestone quarry, another theatre, and a cave prison that was constructed to produce perfect acoustics so that Dionysius could listen in on his prisoners. We learned all this after the fact, of course, since there was no information about any of it on the site. In fact, just like at Mt. Etna, the ticket office was hiding at the back of a parking lot past all the souvenir stands. Someday they’ll hire some consultant who will tell them to put the ticket office in the front and print a few brochures.

I end this installment with a few words about the best lunch I’ve ever had, and I don’t think I’m kidding. We braved the rain this morning in order to check out the food market, at which we bought six of the most beautiful jumbo prawns I’ve ever seen. We then made our way to a salumeria at the end of the road, where they put together the craziest spread of meats and cheeses that you or I or anyone you know will ever eat.

The greatest deli on the planet.

The greatest deli on the planet.

There were two kinds of pecorino; ricotta rectangles with some kind of jam; and a fresh mozzarella ball splashed with fresh cream and dusted with ground pistachio. We had prosciutto crudo and cotto (cured and cooked); a salumi from Ragusa; an insanely good caponata of roasted peppers, eggplant, celery and tomato; marinated sun-dried tomatoes; a little panino of potato and bitter greens; and other stuff that my mind, which has been turned to slush from the food, just can’t recall, even after looking at the picture. We chased it with local Sicilian whites. The whole shebang came to about twenty bucks.

Janine with all the crazy lunch stuff.

Janine with all the crazy lunch stuff.

We’ll be back tomorrow and if it’s half and good and twice as expensive, I’ll still be happy.

The people under the stairs – Part Three!!

So there we were the other night, watching Gigli dubbed into Italian, when Janine turned to me. “Do you hear that?” It was voices, coming from below us. I went to investigate. Sure enough. We have people living under the stairs.

I kid you not. The place we’re renting has a bedroom and a kitchen upstairs and two bedrooms downstairs. In the vestibule at the bottom of the stairs is a pair of strangely arranged rugs.

Hey, what are those rugs doing there?

Hey, what are those rugs doing there?

I pulled back the rugs to reveal a trapdoor that leads to an apartment downstairs.

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Hiding the bizarre trap door, that’s what!

There was a party going on, at which half the cigarettes in Italy were presently being smoked. Seriously? I did some reconnaissance and discovered that there is an apartment down there. It has a separate entrance at the front of the building, but our apartments connect. In addition to the trap door downstairs, there is a flimsy melamine board that can separate the top floor of our place with our two bedrooms downstairs. Janine could lock me in the basement if she wanted to – kind of a low-rent Cask of Amontillado. To their credit, apart from that one little party and the smoking, which we mitigate by tucking in the rug, closing our melamine board and keeping the door to the rest of our place closed, the people downstairs are just fine – nothing like that other downstairs neighbor you might remember.

Our next door neighbors are another interesting case. Every day, sometime between 9:30 and noon, they start their engine by cranking up Enrique Iglesias’s song Bailando. When the song is over, they make it a bit louder, and play it again. And again. The other day I think they got through it four times, at which point the stucco was flaking off the side of the buildings. And then, just like that, the music stops and Forza d’Agro becomes a sleepy medieval village again.

Our other regular musical treat occurs daily at 12:05, when the main church broadcasts Ave Maria from its speakers. Perhaps that’s when mass begins, or perhaps the parish priest is attempting to cleanse the air of Enrique Iglesias.

I take this moment to digress slightly to respond to the very thoughtful comment from my friend Hubert, who noted after my entry about the many churches in this small village that Catholics usually have lots of churches, including a church for baptisms, a church for Sunday mass, and a church for funerals, which sounds like a lot of church-building for sixteenth century peasants, but perhaps they have extra time on their hands. I should point out that there are at least two more churches in Forza that are not in use at the moment, which seems to support Hubert’s analysis. My mind immediately began to apply this approach to other religions. I hope these places have good signage. Imagine walking mistakenly into the synagogue that just does the circumcisions, especially if you’ve been drinking.

Forza d’Agro doesn’t just have churches. It also has Giuseppe Carullo, the most cheerful, hardest-working man in the pizza business. Peppe (as his father calls him), looks to be in his mid-forties, and wears a short-billed cyclist’s hat at a jaunty angle on his head and a sunny, earnest expression on his face. I admit I wasn’t crazy about his pizza the first time I tried it, but we went in the other day searching for a sandwich to take with us to Mt. Etna and he whipped out a pizza dough, baked the bread in his wood burning pizza oven, stuffed it with prosciutto, mozzarella, and fresh tomato, packed it up, and sent us on our way with a great big smile. It was crazy good.

We then headed off to Mt. Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe at 10,000 feet. The mountain had its last big eruption just three months ago, spewing lava and otherwise putting on a show.

To get up to the top of Etna, you arrive at what looks like a truck stop with a hodgepodge of souvenir stands and schlocky restaurants, and have to trace the tram to the building where you can buy tickets to the top. Do you have to pay for parking or is it free? Who knows! It’s all just a bit haphazard, but perhaps that a bit of its charm. On the other hand, it can be a pain in the butt.

(We’ve often had to guess about how things are done. One day, we snuck through a hole in a fence by the side of the road to get down to the beach. (Until yesterday it was sunny and warm, with temperatures regularly hitting the eighties. Today, not so much.) We reached another absolutely fabulous beach area only after having driven past the entrance a half dozen times and concluding that there must be something down there. Indeed, there was parking, as well as beach chairs, umbrellas, bathrooms, a restaurant, and a bar that served a very nice Sicilian white in stemware that you could bring to your cozy little spot in the sand. Who knew?)

At Mt. Etna, if you’re cheap or crazy, or both, you get to the top by doing a 5 kilometer hike with a 3,000 foot elevation gain, which takes about four hours. The rest of us take a very comfortable cable car and then a four-wheel drive bus that looks like something out of Star Wars.

Kooky Etna Bus

Kooky Etna Bus

We made it up to the top too late to be able to hike close to the rim (as if!), but being up that high and wandering about was a treat in itself.

The tippy top of Mt. Etna.

The tippy top of Mt. Etna.

Yes, it's cold up there.

Yes, it’s cold up there.

As kitschy as it can be (although it’s quite charming later in the evening when the tourists are back on the boat), we found ourselves back in Taormina for one more really fantastic meal, at Osteria Nero d’Avola. We knew we were in for a treat when we arrived to the restaurant to find the chef owner, a very gracious and passionate fellow named Turi Siligato, working the room, introducing himself to the various tables, and showing off the scrapes on his arms that he acquired foraging for mushrooms that day. We started with fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with anchovies and caciocavallo cheese, those lovely mushrooms sautéed with a little bit of butter, and amazing mussels that are topped with pine nuts, fennel fronds, and bread crumbs and browned under the broiler.

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For our mains, we had dorado that was topped with more bread crumbs, crumbled pistachio, and lemon zest, and we had a simply grilled red snapper that walked through the door shortly after we did (well, it was carried by the fisherman). However it arrived, our server paraded the fish around the room and we just couldn’t pass it up.

Parading the fish.

Parading the fish.

It’s a real pleasure to have a meal that trusts the ingredients. I think I heard it from Mario Batali, but I’ve been telling my daughter all her life that the key to good cooking is perfect ingredients simply prepared. She rolls her eyes, but gosh darn it, I’m right! Chef Siligato delivered on this promise, for sure. I could eat like this every day.

With Turi Siligato at Osteria Nero D'Avola

With Turi Siligato at Osteria Nero D’Avola

Back in Forza yesterday, we wandered into Giuseppi’s place for a salad and another sandwich when the skies opened up and began dumping rain. A busful of tourists sought shelter and Giuseppe managed the room with astonishing aplomb all by his lonesome and with unmanufactured good cheer. He was host, waiter, busboy, and cook. He answered every question with a jaunty “Si!” that was a combination of “of course!” “you betcha!” and “thanks for asking!” At one point, he got on the phone to call for reinforcements, and an older fellow who was clearly his dad (a comparison of their memorable noses proved this) appeared. By the look of it, it was more for moral support than anything else. His dad, who was probably in his seventies, took a few orders, but Giuseppe seemed to have things well under control.

It rained and rained, and Janine and I, who had nothing better to do, sat there for most of the day and had drinks, then lunch, then more drinks, then coffee, then cannoli, then some more drinks. By the time we were ready to leave it was still pouring, so Giuseppi sent us away with his umbrella. Once we got back to our place (where we had conveniently left our own umbrellas) I tromped back to return the one we had been lent. When I arrived, Giuseppi seemed a little annoyed. His response sounded something like, “Now what did you go and do that for?”

Tomorrow, we push off for Siracusa, which rivaled Athens in size and importance when it was part of the Greek empire. I have a feeling that we’ll see some old stuff.