I have always thought that travel is essential to broadening perspective. But it is also true, I believe, that a certain kind of travel is essential to the well-being of the soul.
Traveling for my book obviously qualified. (Though of course a reading of it will reveal that certain places prompted the effect more than others.) A trip to Puerto Rico two years ago– something that I have been thinking of a lot given the dire circumstances the island now finds itself in– was as close as I came to reviving this spirit since. Until last week’s trip to Sicily, that is.
Yes, my wife, Jennifer, and I spent three days in Rome after our sojourn to the island. It was pleasant enough. I had never been to Italy before, and there were things I wanted to see and do in the capital. Mostly, I wanted to eat. Pizza. Porchetta. Carciofi alla giudìa. Everything else that had an artichoke in it. And for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. At those times when I had a plate of food in front of me, I knew that there would be days back home when I would be wishing to be in Rome once more, despite the absurd throngs of tourists that we were assured constituted light crowds, despite the persistent annoyance of peddlers shoving selfie-sticks and roses in my face, despite the difficulties in connecting with a population that I discerned to be essentially welcoming but couldn’t quite figure out, and despite the new pastime of running headlong through Leonardo da Vinci Airport as a result of agonizingly inefficient passport lines (this happened during both legs of our trip, the second time despite arriving before 7.00 for a 9.40 flight).
In Sicily, though, I knew that I would always want to be there, just as I always want the option of exiting my front door to the places I love most in the world, there to re-engage the essential spirits that played upon me from the moment I first apprised them, wide-eyed for all my lack of sleep, the very air feeling different within my lungs.
As with most places I have come to love, I have not processed fully just what it is about Sicily that affected me so profoundly. Certainly it is not a perfect place. For one, the traffic is chaotic and unruly when it isn’t downright terrifying, the result of a distinct shortage of traffic lights and dividing lines and the habit of native drivers to consider every inch of the road their own at all times. Even the calm assurance of our driver, Pasquale, as he navigated the worst of Palermo’s streets with the indifferent recklessness that seems necessary for the task could not fully arrest the concerns of this native New Yorker and established veteran of Boston side roads, Atlanta highways, and Los Angeles gridlock. I dare say my mother would have been catatonic for the duration of the trip, nothing but a case of Sicilian sparkling wine and an empty bottle of Xanax to prove to her that she had ever left her living room.
Still, there is a kind of honesty even to this primitiveness that reflects everything that is enchanting about Sicily. It is the “real” Italy– or at least a part of it. A place whose people still hack out un-glamorous lives beneath an essentially African sun, wresting from a demanding landscape every ounce of flavor and beauty they can. It is a contradiction of sorts, where fertile, volcanic soils produce grapes, olives, pomegranates, figs, and pistachios, and where the sea is a bounty of unique species, but where unemployment and poverty are yet endemic. And yet Sicilians are relentlessly welcoming and inspirited, most complaints about the Italian economy inevitably relaxing into proud declarations of their island’s beauty and their own cultural richness, as though they cannot help but betray the fact that they are fully aware that they live in a special place.
Here, of course, I must acknowledge that we did little in the way of roughing it with the locals. Yes, upon our arrival we explored parts of Palermo in our usual manner, walking about neighborhoods that most tourists never see and joining in (well, at least I did– my wife hates disorder) on the riotous patronage of Panificio Graziano because I was damned if I was going to leave Sicily without eating some of their spongy, richly-flavored sfincione. But for the most part, we enjoyed the favored privilege of being the winners of a contest organized by Wine Enthusiast and Wines of Sicilia D.O.C. More than once I felt a bit awkward in my role as patrician benefactor, chauffeured about the island by my Marsalan subject, scandalously engorged on an endless parade of meticulously crafted dishes and liter upon liter of vino gratis. But hey, we all have to make sacrifices in life.
In truth, though, the experience was only alien by degrees, as Sicilians are hard-wired towards excess (or at least what we in America would decry as excess). Hours after our arrival in Palermo, for instance, Jennifer and I were introduced to the peculiar Sicilian institution of the “light lunch”– something that Luca, our sommelier at Baglio Sorìa the following afternoon, admitted was anything but light. Our light lunch at Osteria Ballarò, where traditional Sicilian street food is elevated to their more refined setting, began with a generous portion of seared mackerel filets on a bed of sweet pepper coulis, was followed by a version of bucatini con sarde sharpened by the presence of wild fennel, and finished with a disbelieving look from our cameriere because we preferred to share our semifreddo with pistachios and stewed figs. Not to be left parched, we were presented with an entire bottle of Vigna Casalj Alcamo Classico, a crisp, herby bianco crafted from Cataratto grapes grown at 2,000 feet by Tenuta Rapitalà. I would spend the rest of my time in Italy looking for this distinctly Sicilian wine from one of the island’s first estate producers (their fist vintage was in 1976), the delicate nature of which belies both its price and the reputation of the grape for contributing to Europe’s “wine lake.” But for the time being Jennifer and I amused ourselves by quipping upon the idea of a pranzo leggero, invoking Keenan Thompson’s gregarious impression of David Ortiz delight at the prospect of a “big lunch,” stretching our arms outwards as we uttered what in Italy is both its expressed antonym and its defacto synonym.
Clamorous during the day, Palermo is calm and enchanting at night, when both the hot sun and the exhaust fumes disappear and its varying arrays of colorful lights tints each corridor a different hue. We melted into the green luminescence of the fountain behind the Cattedrale di Palermo (which itself glowed a hypnotic, Arabic yellow), joined the Festa di Siete Dolori, and wandered from alley to alley, content in the knowledge that the morning would bring our escape to Sicily’s northwestern wine region.
This part of Sicily appears as a cross between the Greek isles and the valleys of southern and central California, the clay bleached to a pale yellow from its exposure to the sun (exacerbated on this occasion by a drought that had gripped the island since February) and potmarked by hardy shrubs where it hasn’t been purposefully cultivated. It is one of five distinct regions where wine is produced in the province, and upon a hill overlooking a celeste lake Firriato offers up examples from their vineyards in each of them. Most of the Sicilian wines exported to America are reds (predominantly Nero d’Avola, the varietal most associated with the island), but like many of its top producers Firriato is just as proud of its whites, most notably its Gaudensius, a bracing méthode champenoise that sources its Nerello Mascalese from the volcanic soils of Mt. Etna, and the Passulé from its Favinia label, a chewy, salty moscato whose grapes are transported by traditional fisherman boats from seaside vineyards on the island of Favingana. Still, the reds here really shine. The Quater Vitis Rosso, a blend of Nero d’Avola, Perricone, Frappato, and Nerello Cappuccio is both bright and fruity and pointedly spiced with white pepper; the Cavanera Rovo delle Coturnie is a minerally, subtly tannic Etna blend of Nerello Cappucio and Nerello Mascalese; and the assertive, inky Harmonium, 100% Nero D’Avola from a single vineyard, is layered with flavors of dark fruit, ground pepper, and dark chocolate. Perhaps most surprising was the complexity of the Le Sabbie dell’Etna, the “entry level” version of the Rovo blend. It refused to shy from the onslaught of our pranzo leggero and its prodigious quantities of estate-pressed olive oil, and it came back just as impressive during one of the evening’s many courses of upscale Trapani cuisine.
But it was the interceding afternoon, along with the entirety of the succeeding day, that cemented Sicily’s place in our souls. Though the road to Erice was blocked, we made the best of it with an engaging self-guided tour of Trapani, a seaside town where the cruise ships and ferries in the harbor immediately fade with the introduction of each tiny neighborhood of fishermen and artisans. There were teenagers sneaking tokes of marijuana beside an abstract sculpture of the Madonna, a man singing without embarrassment near an array of fishing boats, dogs playing with rocks on the pathway to the 17th Century Ligny Tower, sheets flapping with domestic patriotism from apartments jammed alongside 900-year-old ramparts. And though the city is an attractive destination for tourists, most locals don’t seem to know they are even there. Instead, they prefer to gather in semicircles of plastic chairs arranged on the sidewalks and occasionally in the streets, meander through the city’s small zoo, collect upon the patios of cafes to watch the afternoon’s football matches, retreat to narrow, cobblestone-paved alleys for superior gelati, granita, and cannoli.
Sharing their city with them put us in the proper mood for the next day, when we had become sufficiently friendly with Pasquale to sit with him and Debora, our host at the Planeta winery, and waste time in the best Italian manner, drinking wine and testing each other’s imperfect grasps upon the other’s language.
Like Firriato, Planeta has estates across Sicily, and all of their wines were available to us in the tasting room of their original estate outside Menfi, where the long, narrow, unpaved road leading up to it clearly deters many visitors despite its location within a part of the island that is nearly overrun by vineyards. They are especially proud of their Chardonnay, whose noble connections meshes with their commitment to the recently-formed D.O.C., seeing it as part of a design that will launch Sicily into international prominence as a producer of world class wine. The cellars smell of the grape and the French oak that gives it its buttery character, and from it I gleaned the beginnings of something I am sure will be good for Sicily on the whole but which I worry won’t be good for me, who selfishly prefer the island to be the same when I inevitably return to it. Like the Burdese, a lovely, dense Bordeaux-style blend, the Chardonnay is impressive, to be sure, and I can’t begrudge their success with it. But I preferred to leave California and Burgundy for Italy, and so I favored the endearing familial story behind their tart, refreshing Grecanico blend, La Segreto il Bianco, the uniqueness of their rosè of Nero d’Avola and Syrah, the unabashed provinciality of Plumbago, their single vineyard Nero d’Avalo, the nod to Etna’s most infamous eruption with their bright, minerally Eruzione 1614 Carricante, the revelatory cherry and pomegranate uniqueness of their Cerasuolo di Vittoria, and the pride they take in having revived the Mamertino, a blend of Nero d’Avola and Nocera that is described in the work of Pliny and known to be a favorite of Julius Caesar. These were the wines of a family at the forefront of a Sicilian viticultural renaissance, ringing of their own soil and soul, both modern and of a 500-year tradition, as exceptional as anything the broader world market might prefer.
It is no wonder, then, that La Foresteria, their resort in Menfi, is equally as inspiring. As much as I could ever hope for in a hotel, it sits atop a hill surrounded by vineyards, and upon its grounds grow pomegranate, olive, and fig trees, all bursting with gorgeous fruit. The resort’s restaurant, which includes a patio that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, uses these ingredients in their cuisine, along with the herbs grown adjacent to it, and dedicates themselves at lunchtime to simple, authentic expressions of Sicilian classics. Their caponata of fried and subsequently chilled eggplant was the best version of a dish I loved while growing up in New York, even its capers bearing an impossible flavor that even now sets my mouth to watering. And of all the pasta dishes Jennifer and I had during a week of spectacular pasta dishes, La Foresteria’s Spaghetti Syracusa was our favorite by light years, the anchovies playing upon the carefully sourced tomatoes to an effect somewhere between disbelief and euphoria. Even the spectacular supper of stewed monkfish, eggs with squid ink sauce, prawn soup, chickpea gnocci with octopus and squid, and tournades of scabbardfish could make me forget such a special pranzo leggero.
I may well have been influenced by this last day. I cannot deny that at that point I wanted to not only stay in Sicily, but at La Foresteria in particular. But even then I also wanted to move on to the next place, the next wine, the next dish of food evolved over centuries of love and patience. We had been to a portion of a fraction of the island, and for all our good fortune yet felt ourselves impoverished. For unlike us, Sicilians got to stay behind. And that just seemed unfair.