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