From Sicily to Rome – Pick Your Metaphor

Moving from Sicily to Rome is quite a shock. I’m struggling to come up with the best metaphor. If Sicily is an old Fiat 500, Rome is a Maserati. No, that’s not right. Maybe Rome is Sicily’s more accomplished sibling. In Noto they charge 2 euros to look at some random ceiling. In Rome, you go to the Pantheon. Anything you can do, I can do better.

Except relax. We started our tour in Sicily to decompress, and we did that. Sicily was a charming, sunny (mostly), and yummy (usually) way to ease into our world tour.

Anyway, the metaphor doesn’t matter. But after spending almost three weeks in what we might charitably call a laid back atmosphere, we are now in the midst of the thrum of one of the world’s great cities. On our first night, we wandered about Trastevere, which is one of those Rome neighborhoods with windy streets, like Forza d’Agro or Ortigia, except it has people in it. And not just people, but hip people, wearing fashionable fashions and soul patches and shoes that cost more than twenty bucks. And street jazz. What passed for a crowd in Forza was a bus full of Dutch people.

We arrived on a Saturday night, and even though it was All Saint’s Day, a holy day of obligation, in Trastevere the people seemed obligated to get a drink. The bars and restaurants were jammed, which meant that they were open. This was good, because we were ready for human contact and we were hungry.

Hip, Happening, Trastevere

Hip, Happening, Trastevere

Our first stop was Pizzeria Ai Marmi. This felt like the Katz’s Deli of pizzerias. It was jammed full of people tucking into pizza and platters of beans and sausage and other homey stuff, and it was staffed by an army of guys who looked like they’ve been doing this very intricate dance for decades. Now I know, I know, pizza is a Naples thing, but Romans are entitled to pizza too. I also assume that there is no shortage of other excellent pizzerias in Rome, but our host recommended this one as his favorite and that was good enough for us. We were lucky enough to be seated just across from the pizza making operation, and it was like watching Nijinsky, Baryshnikov, and Nureyev dance a pas de trois. Or baseball’s famous double play combination, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, turn two. One guy rips little pieces from a huge mound of pizza dough and forms balls with them and then uses a rolling pin to turn them into disks thin enough to read the paper through.

Rolling out the dough

Rolling out the dough

He then arranges about thirty of them ever so nicely onto a big marble counter. At that point, his partner applies the toppings based on the orders arranged on pieces of paper on a pegboard on the wall.

Ready to go in the oven

Ready to go in the oven

Then the oven guy, who has been stoking a blazing wood fire, transfers the thirty or so pies to the oven using the longest pizza peel I’ve ever seen. By the time he gets the last one in, the ones that went in first are ready to come out. They go right onto plates and onto the counter.

Out of the oven and off to the tables

Out of the oven and off to the tables

Sitting ten or so feet away, the smell of the pile of steaming pizzas made me quite emotional, but you know how I am. By this point, the waiters had lined up, ready to get the pizzas to their tables within seconds. We watched this process repeat about every ten minutes. That’s three pizzas a minute. And how was the pizza? Perfect. The sauce was tangy, the cheese was creamy, and the crust was thin, chewy, and crunchy all at once. We also had a bowl of beans and sausage in a very spicy tomato sauce. Damn. Dinner and a show.

On our way home, we strolled through the piazzas and alleys of Trastevere, and Janine paused every two or three feet to regard the arts and crafts on offer from various sellers. She was taken by one jewelry stand, and we struck up a conversation with a fascinating fellow who was turning out bracelets and necklaces in front of our eyes. Was it my imagination or was he speaking Italian with a Mexican accent? Sure enough, he was from Monterrey, Mexico, so we switched from my hideous Italian to my merely lousy Spanish. What a fantastic and fascinating guy. Ivan is only thirty, but he’s been in Rome for six years, and he makes a point of traveling throughout the continent to buy materials and learn about other places. He talked about how the poor education system and failed political institutions in Mexico has made it impossible for him to succeed there. His travels have taken him to Turkey, Morocco, Serbia, and even Afghanistan, among other places. He’d love to visit New York or Japan, but he can’t get a visa to either place. It’s too bad – they could use his ingenuity and creativity. We exchanged notes on places we’ve visited and he gave us some suggestions that now has us rethinking how we’ll spend time in Turkey. We must have talked for twenty or thirty minutes and we had his undivided attention, which might have cost him a few sales. Janine bought a necklace and a bracelet (we are for the most part limited to purchases that are very portable), and of course she now has a story to go with them. Good luck, Ivan. It was really great to meet you.

Ivan, a true Renaissance man

Ivan, a true Renaissance man

Thanks to all for your excellent suggestions for things to do in Rome. We are doing our best to get to as many as possible, although we were stupid and only allowed for five nights. What were we thinking?

In the next month or so, we have Athens, Istanbul, Cairo, and either Marrakech or Fez in our sights. It’s too many places and not enough time, but we just can’t help ourselves. Seven months isn’t nearly enough time to see the world. If you have suggestions or thoughts about any of these places, please feel free to weigh in. The crowd is a dandy travel agent.

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.