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?

9 thoughts on “Arrivederci, Sicilia! What we loved, and what we’ll never understand.

  1. When in Rome, a tour of the Vatican is a must (event for a nice Jewish boy). My recommendation is to go to Italyonline.com and arrange for a guide. Ours was a young man from Sweden who had his double PhDs in theology and art history and was working on his doctorate in anthropology. And he KNEW the Vatican. I could rail on here about his knowledge of the popes, why so many statues have fig leaves covering private parts (there is a box full of marble male genitals somewhere in the basement of the Vatican). Look for the acorns adorning the nudes in the ceiling, Michelangelo’s nod to Pope Julius II whose family name Rovere means Oak.
    Along with the usual sites and fountains, I also recommend a visit to The Capuchin Crypt, a small space comprising several tiny chapels located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini. Here, the Capuchin monks turn the bones of the fallen into incredible works of art.
    Still enjoying your adventures and hanging on every well-written word.

  2. Roma: finally a place with really some churches.

    I would recommend 5 of them:
    1. Pantheon – a temple dedicated to all gods, an architectural gemstone and the place where Raffaello Santi is buried – it is not far from Piazza Navona which features excellent ice cream (if weather permits) and has great fontane.
    2. Nearby Santa Maria sopra Minerva (as the name tells, in truth a temple dedicated to the ancient goddess Minerva) – it is maybe the most catholic and medieval of all churches – with azure ceiling and the remains of Catherine of Siena – the powerwoman-saint who made popes tremble.
    3. Santa Maria Maggiore (near Rome’s main train station Roma Termini) – it is 1500 years old and still looks fresh. It was founded on the 5th of August (the birthday of Jasmine) when once in two thousend years it snowed in the summer heat of Rome – it also has great mosaics to show.
    4. Nearby – Santa Maria degli Angeli – built by Michelangelo within the remains of the ancient Roman Baths – so you can see how the baths of the ancient Romans looked like
    5. San Giovanni in Laterano – this again is only a fake church – in truth it is the last and most georgous Palace of the Roman Emperors.
    Why do Romans Need so many churches? To have some decent background for all this wonderful art.

    I am sure you will enjoy it between some simple courses of food.

  3. My favorite time in Rome was on my honeymoon, when we rented a Vespa and rode all over the city on it, stopping for cappucinos and snacks. Swooping down on the Coliseum was incredible, and those scooters are easy to ride.

  4. Walk, walk, walk. Eat in Trestevere, pizza at Da Ivo. Hope to see a wedding at S. Maria church there. At 2-3am, in the streets and on the bridges, people are cooking on braziers. Best gelato on Via die Pettinari across from Hotel Ponte Sisto. Stay in room 601, the view from the balcony is spectacular. Nosh in the courtyard.
    Loving your Sicily travel posts!

  5. You can rely on fate for a guide at the Vatican. We did and it worked perfectly. A random American in Positano told us that if we walked up to the area with the cistine chapel someone would stop us and ask us if we wanted a tour. These folks have line sitters who hold places. Just as we walked toward the line, someone came up and asked n English if we wanted a tour. €20 each, and we met a group at a cafe and we all walked to the front of the line and bought tix, and had the best tour with an Australian woman who was an Italian art history grad from univ of Sydney. She was awesome. My mother hired her as a guide the next year. Unfortunately, she went back to Australia. But this is commonplace and safe. Plus, you you don’t have to wait in line. Worth the cost for that alone!

  6. In Rome, I recommend the Monti neighborhood. It’s close to the Coliseum but it definitely has a real neighborhood feel. Good wine bars, trattorias and interesting shops. Close to everything.

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