We found all the people in Sicily. They were rounded up by the authorities and forced to march up and down the main drag of Taormina, a popular tourist town about a half hour from here. There they are, with their fanny packs and square eyeglasses, their very European loafers (without socks – natch!), and funky headwear. They begin at one end of Corso Umberto I and methodically work their way to the other, a scrum of opportunistic shoppers and 5-minute portrait models.
There are two guys entertaining the masses in the Piazza IX Aprile. One is strumming on his guitar and yes, the other one is picking away on his mandolin! What’s that song? I know I’ve heard it somewhere…of course! The theme from The Godfather! Get it? We’re in Sicily! I hope Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola are getting a cut.
As it turns out, every day the cruise ships hork up a couple of thousand seasick passengers and loose them on the shopkeepers and musicians of Taormina, who have adapted to the invasion by giving the people what they seem to want – designer jeans and pizzicato mandolin-ery.
On the other hand, there’s a perfectly good reason that the tourists have been flocking to Taormina since Roman senators started hanging out here a couple thousand years ago. It’s a lovely little medieval village with a cliché epic view of the sea. It also has a very old theatre. I thought the (late lamented) Morosco was old, but Taormina’s Greek theatre dates back to the 3rd century BCE.
The highlight of our visit to Taormina, by far, was the crazy good lunch we had. Whereas our dinner in Forza felt like it was conceived by the bastard child of Fred Flintstone and Mamma Leone (the Buca di Beppo of my youth) our meal at Al Duomo in Taormina was sublime. We started with anchovies that had been marinated in orange juice, white vinegar, and a little sugar. This is the essence of some of the best Sicilian dishes we’ve had – a little sweet, a little sour, and a little fish. We had what they called “meatballs” but which were really seared patties of raw meat served on fried lemon leaves. They were delicious, but you had to be in the mood. Luckily, we were. We had cavatelli with sardines, grapes, fennel, and bread crumbs, and perfect cannoli. When we were in southern Italy five years ago, we had grilled anchovies at every restaurant as part of a comparison study. Here, we always have cannoli, the Sicilian dessert of a tube of fried pastry stuffed with a sweet ricotta filling, for those of you who have never seen The Sopranos or Jersey Shore. Al Duomo’s were dusted with pistachio powder on one side and powdered chocolate on the other. They were great, although they are still a strong second to the ridiculously good ones we had on the plaza on our first night in Forza. Oh, and we had a white wine made from Grillo, a local white grape that I’d never heard of. It was everything I love in a white – flinty and fruity, but it slapped you in the face with acid like an old Skin Bracer commercial (good heavens, nobody born out of the U.S. or after 1964 will understand anything from this post). Sorry.
The energy was contagious. On Sunday, our catatonic little village came roaring to life. It was like Brigadoon. Restaurants were packed with actual Sicilians, sitting at long tables with huge families and having a dandy old time. On Saturday night, half the places were shuttered, but by Sunday at noon they were rocking. Apparently, Sunday is the day to eat, and it was nice to see. There’s nothing sadder than an empty restaurant, and we should know, having worked at a few. There’s one place, ‘O Dammuseddu Ristorante, which sits just outside the main part of town. On most nights the proprietor stands in the doorway, forlorn, waiting for someone, anyone, to feed. We’d go in, but I worry that it would be just too weird. On Sunday, I scampered over there to see if he was joining in the good fortune. Alas, the place was a morgue.
In addition to some great food we’ve had out, (including a crazy good deep fried rice ball with eggplant we had the other day) I have to say that I’ve really been enjoying our meals at home. For one thing, if we eat out at every meal we’ll run out of money by November. But the other fun thing is poking through the markets and finding great ingredients and figuring out what to do with them. We also like the routine of cooking. We start each day on the terrace with coffee, which we make in that iconic Italian coffee pot you all know. There may be better ways to make coffee, but here in Sicily, on this terrace, you’d get a knock on the door from the carabinieri if you tried.
For breakfast yesterday, we ambled down to the bakery off the main square and scored a very lovely sweet brioche, which I took home and topped with some prosciutto and a poached egg and I moaned and groaned at the perfect marriage of sweet roll and salty ham and I wanted to eat this for the rest of my life. Is it ridiculous that food can make me this happy?
Next time – believe it or not, we have MORE WEIRDNESS UNDER THE STAIRS!
Ooh, one more thing. If any of you have been to Mt. Etna, should we go through the north entrance or the south? Thanks!