Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Baroque nights

“Are we going by vespa?  There might be no parking there” Vincenzo says while deciding which shirt to wear. He knows I love moving by my vespa. A car is an option for me for long distances or when storming.  We also are late for our funky birthday party at centro storico (1).

Late November  and we are still blessed with mild weather. Not much traffic. We are driving slowly, enjoying a warm breeze over our faces. As we approach its historical center, the black lady appears with its lava stone Baroque-style palazzos, the ruins of its Greek and Roman theatres emerging from the decadent atmosphere of the narrow streets, built after a Mt Etna devastating eruption and a disastrous earthquake wiped out most of the town in 1669 and 1696. For our Baroque-style, we have been listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. I’m afraid we do not fully understand the importance of such an honourable mention, nor our politicians use it to enhance our touristic potential. Our indolence is stronger than our shrewdness.  

“Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck are just arrived, guys!” Jerry shouts out hilariously,  looking at us arriving on the back of my vintage-style moped-saddle. Somehow, we remind him of the Oscar winning movie Roman Holidays starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn riding a vespa in Rome.

The best part of driving a vespa is you can easily free yourself out from our heavy traffic and park wherever you need. So, I’ve  parked just down the scalinata Alessi, where the Niewsky, our party venue, stands halfway along the flight of steps. One of the few real institutions in town, a very unusual place for a birthday party, it matches our freakish guest of honour well. 
“This place still retains the same Che Guevara-Buena Vista Social Club-smoky-shabby atmosphere it had in late ’80s” Enzo notices while greeting old and new friends. It was back on 1986 when Saro, its out-and-out communist  owner, opened the Niewsky, the first pub in town, giving rise to a new trend of reclamation and renewal for our centro storico. In a short period of time, the youth seized the area, clubs and restaurants invaded smoothly the sleeping Baroque buildings. Nightlife rescued our streets from blight and crime, the local movida was so intense and vibrant to be compared to the Madrilenian one. This was the primavera Catanese,  a sort of permanent spring which gave the city and its people pride and identification for about a decade.  

It’s Thursday night and both the Niewsky and scalinata Alessi  are packed with people.  Indoors, men and women around their  ‘40s having their organic dinner, no Coca Cola, only red wine sipping. Outdoors, students camping out along the steps drinking beers and mojitos. Our Baroque nights speak a blend of European languages; Italian, Spanish, English, French. The Erasmus exchange project among UE universities  for students’ mobility is the tangible heritage of our primavera Catanese.
Memories flow back to my Erasmus experience in Rotterdam in ’93 and I feel like suffering from Peter Pan’s syndrome of eternal youth.

Gripped by misrule and impasse today, Catania goes through a very difficult period. But its nights still throbs with life.

(1) Centro storico = historical centre

Monday, November 9, 2009

The second life of Bellomo Gallery

No doubt, Sicily is a true open-air museum with its Greek temples and theatres, Roman and Byzantine mosaics, Medieval-style villages, Baroque-style palazzos and towns, Art-nouveau decorations.

For this, you'll be somehow disappointed if you expect to find a tons of art museums throughout the island as this seems to not to be a priority for our politicians who definitely lack of a far-seeing long-term strategy in terms of cultural politics.

But we do have fine pearls to show and the Bellomo Gallery is one of them. 

Take a walk in Ortigia, the Baroque-style historical centre of Syracuse, get across the scenographic Piazza Duomo, dazzling light and airy, a triumph of limestone prevailing in its monuments, the imposing Cattedrale and the noble palazzos defining the square. This square has been several times the perfect set for famous shootings.
Proceed to the Badia di Santa Lucia, a small church, once a nuns' convent, now hedging in temporarily Caravaggio's Bury of St. Lucy

Finally, head towards Via Capodieci 14. The Gallery of Palazzo Bellomo stands here, brought back to its second life thanks to long works of restoration.

Luigi Messina, its enlightened director, is one of those rare exemplary in Sicily public administration of pleasant and passionate men  who just care about what he does and the way this has to be done. He is so proud of the museum's new life, you cannot be infected by his enthusiasm, energy and own volition.

I can't say what it is more interesting, if the Palazzo itself, a building dating back to XIII-XIV century, being the most comprehensive architectural masterpiece in Syracuse of the age of Frederick II, or the Medieval and modern art collection it offers to amateurs. 

 Antonello da Messina's Annunciation is absolutely the highlight. Its partial restoration has revived that predominant and eye-catching cobalt blue as well as numberless small important details which enriches the painting and mark it out.

But the Gallery offers more. A sequence of refined pictorial collections of the XV century, but also silver and gold pieces, historical clothes, fabrics, ceramics, weapons, carriages.

No bookshop nor cafè at disposal for visitors at the moment. Burocracy in Sicily is slower than everywhere else in the world, we trust sometime in the future the museum will be provided with them. Cultural marketing is a process we still have to metabolize in Sicily.
Its admission fee fixed at Eur 8,00 per person might be maybe too much, I heard people complaining there is no right balance between price and the offer. 

Despite to that, we would like to believe the Bellomo Gallery is meant as a concrete step forward to try to turn our art patrimony from a heritage of the past into a real investment for the future of the territory and its population.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

28 dead people, 9 missing. We are all guilty.


This morning, the Cathedral of Messina gave hospitality to the solemn funerals of 21 of the 28 victims of the severe rainstorm which caused a lethal landslide in Giampilieri, a suburb south of Messina, and involved the small town of Scaletta Zanclea and several other tiny villages named Altolia, Briga and Molino built on the slopes of the Peloritani Mountains, along the Ionian Coast in Sicily.

A girl of 5, young brothers of 22 and 23, elderly people in their 70s and 80s, a Romanian lady, this tragedy affected all families, all ages.
Sorrow, despair, anger, flood of tears. Friends, relatives, we are crying for one of our beloved.

Representatives of the Italian State all standing out in front to say goodbye to the victims: the Prime Minister, the President of Regione Siciliana, Ministers and members of the Parliament, their face contrite and grieve in front of the cameras.

This has been called "the announced tragedy" as many in Sicily and Italy, as announced were the dead people after the earthquake which destroyed the town of L'Aquila several months ago, as announced were the victims of the Vajont in 1969. 


We are all guilty.

We citizens are guilty, as we are too used to live ignoring rules, laws and duties. 
We are too used to elect politicians who honestly care nothing about their citizens, their territory, the real need of the communities they represent. We are too used to let these people trampling on our rights, ignoring undertakings, pursuing and achieving goals which often seems to be closer to their own interests then to those of their communities. We are too used to accept abuses of power of any kind. We simply forgot to be an active part of the society and we acts as powerless, becoming spectators of ourselves and our lives.

(AP Photo)

Politicians are guilty. 
There are many ways to carry out one's own role and  task. They simply have chosen the worst one, voluntarily misinterpreting their mandate and all duties belonging to it. Many of them are well-meaning, straight men. Others are not trustworthy, they are not up the job people have given to them. But we keep electing them, our eyes blind, our hands over our ears, we don't dare to open our mouth. Except when a tragedy arrives and breaks violently our silence.


The State is guilty as most of the time the our State is simply absent. 
Laws and rules are not applied. Faults and negligence are not verified. Penalties are not undergone. This State seldom foresees a strategy of preventive measures. 
This is the State of the unpunished and unpunishable people, except for the poor ones.


28 dead people, 9 missing. We are all guilty, waiting for the next national tragedy.

For not to forget  

Watch videos on Utube 

 Scaletta Zanclea: the disaster on Utube 

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Make couscous, not war!

When food acts as a powerful mean of cultural integration the outcome is an explosive mixture of food, music, live shows, wine tasting, artists, local people and people from everywhere all joining together to "make couscous, not war".
The chosen place for this colorful and tasty melting pot was San Vito lo Capo, Western Sicily, close to Trapani and Erice area, a seafaring village with blue and crystal clear sea waters and a beautiful white beach, an ideal place to extend your holiday and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of an early fall vacation.
Five days entirely devoted to King Couscous, a dish rich in history and open to the future, synthesis of cultures, symbol of opening, broadmindedness and cross-culture contaminations.
Chefs from Ivory Coast, France, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, Senegal and Italy challenged each other to prepare the best couscous of all, no matter if fish-based or meat based or with vegetables, no matter if traditional, exotic or with a haute-cuisine touch. Italy won, but this is of minor importance.

What was really striking was the atmosphere of real feast and joy you felt everywhere, anytime.
At the Gastronomic Village where you could chose among four different couscous houses: the San Vitese one, to taste the local version; the trapanese and Maghreb one, to taste couscous from Trapani; the Mediterranean one to be delighted by couscous made by countries overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the worldwide one to enjoy exotic versions from all over the world. You ate, you drank, and ate and drank and never had enough. It's always like this every year, since the first edition of the event, and every year is always better.

At the Couscous Lab, true culinary workshops led by Sicilian Master Chefs. We was particularly amazed by the one focusing on Alaska couscous made with salmon. It was introduced in Sicily by returning Trapanese emigrants who sought their fortunes far away from home in the cold Alaska lands. We really learnt a lot. Master Chefs were Pino Cuttaia, Ciccio Sultano and my very good friend Carmelo Chiaramonte, a spotlight chaser and a great chef. We enjoyed workshops very much.
At the Expo Village, a colored market, a lively souk, a good chance to discover the identity of the eight countries entering the competition through their handicrafts and people.At the Al Waha, the lounge area nearby the sea, its name meaning "desert oasis", a chic and trendy place where contaminations among music, tastings and relax take places.

At the Live Shows where music prevails with a different artist every night for contaminations of sounds, tunes and visions from all over the world.

Despite the weather was not that indulgent for most of the time, people were not intimidated and participated heavily especially during the weekend. From 12.00 am to 24.00 people coming widely from Sicily, Italy and even abroad shifted here and there trying not to miss anything: a dip into the crystal sea, strolling around the booths trying to discover that unique ethnic gadget, tasting wines and food, enjoying meeting friends sipping a glass of whatsoever and listening to the artist on stage that night.

That's what we did. The seven of us all together or each on his or her own, distracted by everything on our way along the weekend, holding forth on culinary questions, on that unusual ingredient, on how we liked or not this or that couscous, on our personal version of the dish, all of us being pretty good cooks with a sane sense of friendly rivalry. We had a good laugh.

We met people from UK, France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Spain as well as representatives of the 8 official countries.
George and Liz, from Richmond, south-west London (I lived in Richmond during my teens!) were truly amazed by the huge quantity of people, food and were impressed by the common sense of sharing and participation.
We all sensed how integration was naturally felt and not forced; food was only a very good and tasty excuse.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Isola delle Correnti, south Sicily, southern than Tunis

September 13th. 30°C in Sicily. Still hot and sunny. The perfect day for a last September swim. Lazy as we usually are on Sunday mornings, we decide to drive south Sicily, to the very southern beach in Europe, southern than Tunis.

Left Catania area, we drive towards Syracuse first. The landscape starts changing and limestone of Syracuse area slowly takes the place of the dark lava stone of Catania area. We drive immersed in a countryside where carobs, olive-trees and vineyards are all around. We pass by the town of Pachino, famous for its homonym cherry tomatoes. Here, the landscape is shaped as an unbroken plastic wave, for the greenhouses so largely diffused to cultivate this tasty vegetable.
An attentive eye immediately realizes the panorama is different from the rest of Sicily. Pretty similar to north Africa. From a geological point of view, here the plate is the African one.

The road to Isola delle Correnti now runs along the coastline. We can see the old massive tuna-fishing building, still charming but closed to the public, and in the distance the natural wildlife reserve of Capo Passero island.

It's a bright day, colors are vivid.

Before arriving, a quick stop to the small fishermen village of Portopalo for another black and strong wake-up espresso. A village with no highlight, except for its surrounding nature, fresh fish and strong red wine. Local people are sunburnt, slackened by the long summer, chilling out at bars for a cool corner and a drink. It's midday, no shade.

A couple of minutes later we reach Isola delle Correnti, ready to enjoy our last Sunday at the beach. Houses are here and there, nasty ones, and some shacks, side by side to greenhouses. It looks like a battlefield.
Isola delle Correnti is the extreme tip south of Sicily, namely the Island of Stream, dividing the Ionian Sea from the Mediterranean one.

A small fortress dominates the whole island and soon my mind flies back to ancient times. Who lived there? Walking on a stretch and here you are to visit and imagine.

It's a suggestive place. If the Mediterranean Sea is rough, just turn the corner and the Ionian Sea is unexpectedly calm. Winds reign unopposed. You can only obey and follow the stream.
It's the paradise for wind-surfers and the paradise for sandy beach lovers.

The beach is still wild, one of the fewest in Sicily. Golden sand dunes offering wild fragrant herbs, pine-needle are all over and so seaweed remains.
The sea is transparent, light blue and still warm. Caribbean style. Caribbean Sicily.
It's silent, you can only hear the sound of the nature, the sea, the wind, the waves.
Few people around us, summer survivors, tireless fellows.

Time goes slows. Problems are far enough for today. It's September, last close of summer.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sicily or how to survive when travelling The Godfather’s land and experience the best of it

If your are taking this title seriously and what you expect is to have a serious survey on how to survive on what you expect to be the mafia land, I’m sorry you will be disappointed.
If you are taking this title seriously and what you expect are useful tips and tricks for discerning travelers in Sicily, you’re on the right way.

Prejudices about Sicily are still alive and die hard. If you think yourself as a traveler, Sicily is the perfect destination to get a challenged about. Mafia? Yes, it’s true, it’s our major problem and no, you will never meet a true mafioso on your way, real life in Sicily is not Michael Corleone’s . Don’t mistake mafia with ordinary delinquency, the same you will find everywhere else in the world.

Culture and places
Sicily, the world in an island? "… A landscape in which it is possible to find what on earth seems to be made to seduce eyes, mind, imagination…". Guy de Maupassant was very impressed by Sicily during one of his Grand Tour in Europe.
A culture shaped by centuries of dominations. We had the Greek, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Barbarians, the Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the Angevins, the Spanish and their Bourbons. Each of them left in Sicily their heritage, their way of living, food, architecture skills, and each of them contributed Sicily to be the place where the world met and till meets. A holiday in Sicily is a journey to the roots of the world, a journey to a rich source of nature, history and culture, melted into a small triangle of land in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. Greek archaeological parks and open-air theatres located in impervious and strategic positions, Imperial age villas widely decorated with precious mosaics, Arab gardens, Norman castles and cathedrals with gorgeous byzantine decorations, opulent Baroque-style historical centers and noble palazzos: thanks to its cultural and architectural Babel Sicily is the view of time.

People and  folklore
Mourning-dressed women and short moustache men? Ah, that’s one of my favorite bias! Sicilians are blond, red, black, brown-hair, short, tall, dark and blue-eyes, beautiful women, handsome men, fashion-addict or shabby youth. If you travel inland and visit remote villages it may happen you to meet old mourning-dressed and wrinkled women with a black head scarf or old moustache men lolling out at the main square reserving you a piercing and questioning glance or a frank smile. Sincere local folklore waiting for a shot. Sicilians are daring and wits like the Muslims were, elegant and knowledgeable like the French, resolute like the Spanish. A bit of every civilization still lives in us.

Thanks to this heavy past of dominations, Sicilians are open, generous and nice people. They are skeptical, surly, sometimes rude, definitely parochial people, certainly not well disposed to queue and respect rules of any kind, truly disorganized by nature and, at the same time, able to voice a smart cleverness, adaptability and a talent to solve the most tangled problems. As we are lazy bones, we seldom turn this talent to everyday life, unless we are really fed up with something and our private life is somehow strongly involved. Sicilians are people of strong contradictions in the land of contradictions.

Bear in mind that “let’s meet at noon” does not necessarily mean noon "sharp”: we do have a wide-ranging concept of time, so we tend to be never on time. Sicilian mind is flexible.

Heavy traffic? Remember, when driving the rule seems to have no rule. So, unless you would like to turn on you travel into a real surviving camp along Sicilian roads, be careful about the idea of renting a car to drive on your own. Road signs are optional so, get ready to make a GPS your very best friend for the rest of your journey. Don’t be upset if double parking or park on sidewalks is so common: we like to challenge people’s patience and get them fit with a daily gymkhana (local folklore or civil chaos?).

But if walking or driving your car you simply ask about directions or you are in trouble, be sure you’ll find generous people ready to help you one way or another. Speaking no English (most of the people still don’t) is not that important, they know the way to let you understand the point. Sicilians are theatrical people.

Be open, flexible and generous and you’ll make the most of them.

Food and Wine
Be on a diet? What a fool you are thinking to watch your weight while in Sicily! Here, food is serious topic. If you are a foodie-kind of traveler you’ll risk an overdose.

Blessed with a fertile land, a mild climate and a shining sun, Sicily produces a large variety of top quality raw materials and staples which give rise to an incredible range of delicious dishes, unique specialties and savory table delicacies. Sicilian cuisine is the perfect resume of centuries of culinary traditions and cultures. The Arabs left us the fish-based couscous you should taste only in Trapani area and as well as a large use of honey in confectionery, the sweet and sour, saffron, spices and raisins. The French gave us sauces, gateaux and their refined elaborations. The Spanish, their sumptuous presentations, salads and frittata (tortilla).

Then, the Monsu came, the French chefs cooking for the Bourbons and the local noble families who elaborated their Sicilian haute-cuisine style.

You can eat everywhere, anytime.

Bars serve a lot: typical pastry items for your breakfast out are the ravioli (a sweet pastry filled with ricotta cheese and drops of chocolate), cornetti filled with nutella, white or chocolate cream or jam, fried iris filled with cream or soft graffe with sugar dusting on the top. From spring to fall, you cannot miss the queen for breakfast, the frivolous granita (a kind of creamy sorbet made of several tastes such as almond, pistachio, coffee, mulberry, peach, lemon, chocolate) served rigorously in a transparent glass con panna (cream) e brioche. Catania offers the best throughout the island.

Not to mention the terrific tavola calda, our quality fast-food, a large selection of snacks like arancini, pizzette, cartocciate and scaccie which are a useful alternative to a proper meal. A world to discover.

Street-food is quite common especially in Palermo area where you can meet folks selling suspicious local dishes such as pane ‘ca meusa (bread filled with spleen) or stigghiola (entrails). Leave out your prejudices, street-food is safe and tasty.

Dining out at typical trattorie is a joy for food beginners and refined connoisseurs. Whether you like it or not, you will be thrilled by hundreds of appetizers and starters, dozens of different types of pasta, fish dishes and sea-food, meat tasty morsels. No matter where your personal taste leads you, caponata and parmigiana are absolutely the Sicilian cooking -must.

Desserts deserve a chapter apart; you cannot be your way back home without experiencing cannoli and cassata.

Sip a glass of wine from our quality native grapes such as a Nero d’Avola, Inzolia, Cataratto, Nerello Mascalese, or wash your meal with a Sicilian Chardonnay or a Merlot.

When in Catania, stops at a chiosco and order a seltz, limone e sale, a mandarino al limone or a chinotto and deal with a new soft-drink experience.

Stroll about local markets: polychrome and rowdy - that’s our Arab attitude, but don’t think to bargain – you’ll be right in the pulsing heart of the town, plain people immersed into their everyday life. Just mind your wallet and never forget your camera!

Going out at weekends? Sicilians enjoy life and local movida is intense and vibrant.

Catania is the nightlife queen. Catanesi people think there is always a good reason to chill out, seven days a week, twelve months a year. No agenda, they usually improvise. No matter if you are single, gay or who your fellow traveler is, get a Lapis and see what’s on.

Palermo is fine, too, but Palermitani tend to have that snobbish attitude to live a close party friendship with respect to the Catanesi who love receiving new friends with open arms.

Ease off, you're in Sicily! Buon divertimento!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Golf, food, wine and Europe's largest active volcano: a weekend out at Palmerston Golf Etna & Spa

To inaugurate our so eagerly awaited summer break from a very hard month (and a very hard year!) we (some friends, Enzo and I) decided to spend a weekend on Mt. Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. Close to home, about 30/40 minutes driving, a beautiful area that of Castiglione di Sicilia, located on the north-east side of the volcano, a Medieval village which still retains a certain charm in its old centre. An area where vineyards and wineries shape and define the landscape, surrounded by black cold lava flows and hazel groves, which make this part of the volcano one of the most interesting in Sicily for its oustanding wine production. A natural setting like no other.

Dominated by the white cap of the 3300 mt central crater of Mt. Etna, stands the imposing figure of the Palmerston Golf Etna & Spa - recalling somehow the old massive lavastone farms so widely diffused at the foothill of the volcano - surrounded by vineyards, orchards and hazel groves and facing on the back some awful uncompleted villas which sadly brutalize the gentle and overbearing view.

There was a specific reason for chosing the Palmesrton Golf Etna and Spa during those days from August 8th to 10th: on the occasion of St. Lawrence some nice events were planned in the area as the hotel management was organising a wine and food tasting on Aug 8th while the Municipality of Castiglione di Sicilia the annual "Calici di stelle" on August 10th.
Is there anything better to start your holidays enjoying nice folks, delicious food, drinking quality wines and gain all this thanks to a special offer the hotel decided to place on the market trying to revitalize their August attendance?

At arrival, the staff at the lobby gave us a warm welcome and the key of our room on the first floor (the hotel has two). Equipped with just two travelling bags, we kindly refused the help of the bellboy and run to our room as I cound't wait to relax at their Temple Spa. Our room was comfortable enough but not that large, with a small terrace and enchanting view both over the top of the volcano and a nearby vineyard abrutptly interrupted by those awful uncompleted villas (and which should be part of the hotel once finished to attract passionate golfers and business men).
Furniture is a bit disappointing but the interior decoration is embellished with quality curtains and superbe original paintings and drawings by Maria Leonardi Pennisi, a local painter and one of the owners of the estate). The whole hotels shows more than 700 of her paintings and I'd loved to buy one but - poor me - none was available.
Chilling out in the calm and sober-styled Temple Spa was exactly what I really deserved and desired most.

Despite the lack of useful and professional information given by the person in charge on duty, we indulged for 3 hours doing all our personal try-outs of all those therapies and treatments included in the fee which grants your access to the Spa: colour therapy and aromatherapy showers, hydrotherapy pool with jacuzzi, sauna and hammam, a zone for relaxation with chaise longues, magazines, herb teas and infusions. We only missed to try massages as the only masseuse on duty was fully booked and - shame! - we did not in advance.
Restored from all this, I was ready for our first gourmet date just that evening right there at the hotel, so no effort to reach the lawn where everthing was settled for a perfect tasting event, its evocative title being "2009 Taste Routes: wine, oils, flavours": a rich seventeen course buffet menu (yes, 17! Just to count some: from typical summer soup with peas and broad beans, to, home-made macceroni pasta with a strong meat ragout, to a selection to Sicilian cheese deliciously matched with honey, jams and wine jellies and more ... two variants of cou-cous, one with vegetables and one with meat as a tribute to our Arab heritage, then tagliata di tonno, a sort of thinly sliced grilled tuna steak with sweet and sour red peppers as side-dish, plus ... a dainty black pork from the Nebrodi Mountains on the spit, and three different type of desserts among which my favourite one, a Malvasia wine aspic with  sweet-smelling local peaches and again ... a final surprise for all the bystanders a sumptuous chocolate tasting which was definitely th knockout blow for all of us! ), all rigorously local ingredients, each dish matching a great Sicilian wine for a total of 15 different wineries representing the best wine-making Sicily can offer. The food and the selection of wine was superb, I cound't eat all 17 courses but the whole group did and this was the final response. The service was not that great, actually needed a bit more of coordination and staff.
A very professional jazz trio refined the atmosphere with the right music and the right voice, a gentle woman with a vibrant and emotional touch. It was one of those rare events where the right people is exactly at the right place and everyone truly enjoys each minute of it.You could easily breathe the feeling of full satifaction and total pleasure delivered by participants' attitude, no matter if they were 9 or 90 (two kids od ten shared our table and my God! They ate all courses with such a qualified appetite to dliver now and then their personal and fun opinions as authorities on food! I was truly amazed  and a bit envoius they had space enough for everything and I didn't ... or coundn't!).
I coudn't exempt from congratulating the management for such a pleasant evening and promise not to miss the next one on 2010.
The next day was entirely devoted to hanging out at the pool (why no bar there ...we waited for one hour before the bartender delivered our drinks), except for time devoted to meals.
Breakfast was not you would espect from a 4* hotel which would like to attract skilled travellers from all over the world both in terms of quality, quantity and presentation of food, expecially if compared with the night before.
We had lunch at the club house of the golf course as the hotel restaurant was closed. A' la carte menu was really basic, dishes not always well-cooked, wine was terrible and quality of service sufficient. But, prices were adequate and the atmosphere very relaxed.
Somehow it may sound clashing with positioning the managment aims to and clients' expectations but all in all you fell comfortable and make no effort to adjust yourself quite easily.
Now, folks, do you think my friends there at the Palmerston Golf Etna & Spa, the hotel manager Filippo Catania and the sales manager Federica Eccel, will continue to talk to me?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lunch with two Norwegian girls in an Albanian speaking village in Sicily

We met Kjersti and Susann at the end of June at Trattoria San Giovanni in Piana degli Albanesi, western Sicily. It was lunchtime. We popped in during a weekend entirely devoted to visit wineries, farms and relais de charme around Palermo countryside. Kjersti and Susan were sitting on a table in the terrace enjoying their typical home-made Sicilian meal, happily satisfied. We sat in a table nearby while Gina, the owner and co-chef of the trattoria, was trying to talk to them in Italian with a certain Tuscany inflexion, the two girls keeping smiling at her nodding politely in assent but with their eyes wondering "what?", the opposite table with thr
ee local gentlemen speaking a strange dialect, no way to understand it even for us, native-Sicilians.

That's how we met the two happy Norwegian girls having their two week holiday in Sicily, who happened for chance at the trattoria while driving south to visit Corleone (I guess for its appeal related to The Godfather trilogy and everything connected with the mafia, poor us!)
Those were funny circumstances. Except the two girls, none spoke Norwegian. They did not speak Italian, Gina - the affable owner - did not speak English but somehow they could understand each other. We speak English so we could enjoy a nice talk with Kjesrti ans Susann providing them with some tips for the rest of their fly and drive voyage in Sicily. We did not speak that strange language the gentlemen nearby were spoken but they could speak and understand Italian.
So, what language were the gentlemen speaking? Believe or not, ancient Alb
anian! They were Piana degli Albanesi natives. This is a small town in the countryside of Palermo where an Albanian community lives and still maintains its native language, although mixed with some Sicilian influence, since the end of the XV century when they arrived in Sicily after the invasion of the Balkan peninsula by the Ottomans. Along its street you can read road and traffic signs both in Italian and Albanian so I learnt that the Italian word Municipio (Town Hall) becomes Berska in Albanian.
For those travelling in Sicily, Piana degli Albanesi is worth a visit mostly during Easter time for its fascinating and picturesque Ortodox Easter procession with traditional Albanian costumes attracting visitors from all over. In Piana, you can easily see people eating a cannolo, as this typical Sicilian kind of pastry, an engaging and surpirisng dessert filled with ricotta cheese, is absolutely the quality trademark for this village. So, keep in mind to have one while visiting (and one is more than enough!).
Piana degli Albanesi is also famous for several important events in the history of Sicily and Italy and alas! for the sanguinary massacre at Portella della Ginestra by a gang of bandits lead by Salvatore Giuliano: on May 1st, 1947 they killed a mass of defenceless people celebrating Labour Day. The story of the bandit Salvatore Giuliano is very interesting and is worth more investigation for being him the first promoting the independence of Sicily. But this is another story.

Lets' keep back at our main one. Don't forget to have your meal at Trattoria San Giovanni welcomed by Gina and Vincenzo, wife and husband, running together the place with their home-made cuisine rich of Sicilian flavour and ingredients. This amiable Tuscan lady moved to Piana degli Albanesi 45 years ago, to follow her love for Vincenzo. Isn't this such an old-style romance?

As first course we had superbe home-made fresh pasta dishes: panzotti di ricotta al finnocchietto selvatico con pomodoro a pezzi, melanzane e ricotta salata (panzotti pasta filled with ricotta cheese favoured with wild fennel with rustic tomato sauce, fried aubergines and salty ricotta cheese) and tagliatelle al pistacchio (tagliatelle pasta with pistachio sauce). They use an extra-virgin olive oil which is so smelly and pure you can enjoy it simply with their fresh bread.

As second course we had involtini di melanzane arrostite con mortadella, sottilette e foglie di alloro (roasted aubergine rolls filled with mortadella cut and cheese and flavoured with laurel leaves) and salsiccia locale arrosto con finocchetto selvatico (local roasted sausages flavoured with wild fennel).

What a delight for our senses! The whole meal was so simple and so perfect in taste you could not ask for anything else. There is no need for haute-cuisine or Michelin star restaurants when you experience such a local delicious food!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Parmigiana di melanzane? Typical Sicilian!

Yummy, yummy! It's time of one of my favourite dishes, eggplant Parmesan, also known as parmigiana di melanzane.
Despite its name, the word "parmigiana" does not derive from that of the Parmisan cheese but is the Italianization of the Sicilian dialectic word "parmiciana" which are the slats of wood composing the central part of a shutter and overlapping in the same manner as the slices of eggplant in the dish. It seems that parmigiana is a heritage of the Greek and Arab dominations in Sicily as it recalls the Greek moussaka and the Arab tiani.
It's way of cooking differs from area to area so, as usual, I post my family recipe.

serves 4 pax

4 medium/big size eggplants
200 gr pulped tomatoes
1 small onion
1 clove of garlic
2 eggs
100 gr of mortadella (or ham)
salty ricotta cheese (or Parmesan)
extra-virgin olive oil

1. Slice eggplants about half a centimeter thick (you should slice them lenghtways), pour eggplants in layers into a bowl filled with cold water covering each one with salt and let them rest for about 30 minutes. Then, stir and let them rest
again for about 10 minutes on a dishcloth.

2. Use a frying pan, pour some olive oil and start frying the slices of eggplants on both sides until they get brown. Let each slice dry on a blotting paper.

3. Prepare the tomato sauce: cut the onion and the garlic finely up, pour some olive oil into a pan and brown them, then add pulped tomatoes and let everything cook for about 15 minutes until it thickens. Add salt and basil as you like.

4. In a oven-proof dish start arranging the fried slices of eggplants in layers and be careful not to place one on another if possible. Pour some tomato sauce
along the first layer spreading it evenly and grate some salty ricotta cheese (or Parmesan). Add a new layer of eggplants and cover them with slices of mortadella or ham. Proceed with layers alternating one with tomato sauce and ricotta cheese/Parmesan with another with mortadella or ham until you reach 4 or 5 different layers.

5. Beat the eggs and cover with it the last layer of eggplants. Preheat the oven at 200°C for about 10 minutes, then put the parmigiana into the oven for about 30 minutes until the eggs get a brown ring.

6. You can serve it warm or better let it rest and serve cold. Before serving, you can decorate it with some tomato sauce, flakes of ricotta cheese/Parmesan and basil.

Tricks & tips:
- use the long oval eggplant, dark purple in color, and be careful to choose the ones with the right consistency as they should be not too soft nor too hard
- to increase taste, you can add some mozzarella or
caciocavallo cheese between layers
- grill the eggplants for a savour but light version of
parmigiana but please, first cook it as per my recipe, you will taste (and appreciate!) the difference!

Buon appetito!

© Text and pictures by Doriana Briguglio

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Frivolous granita? Something you cannot do without it

Are you planning to visit Sicily? Are you a foodie-kind of traveler?

There is a list of local food and delicacies you cannot miss. Granita, arancini, cannoli and cassata are top on the list and if do not taste at least one of them you cannot proudly say "I was in Sicily"!

Let's start with granita, my favourite. What is funny to me is reading worldwide accredited and reliable guides writing that granita is made with ice and syrup. I suppose those writers have never been to Sicily or have never tasted granite in Sicily to talk and write nonsense.
It is true that in the past people used to prepare granita with snow and lemon juice, this was typical of Messina area, while Catania dignified the "minnulata" a granita made exclusively of almonds.
Born originally in Messina, granita is diffused all around the island. It is a kind of sorbet, the basic recipe includes water (not ice!) and sugar to which several ingredients are added to characterize its flavor: lemon, almond, strawberry, coffee, chocolate (it matches perfectly with the almond one), pistachio (try it in Catania area!), mulberries, peach, just to mention some.
Bars and cafès rigorously serve in a transparent glass and you may ask to add some panna (cream) on the top or at the bottom of the glass (this is used in Messina area where they add panna both at the bottom and on the top of the coffee granite) and match it with a fragrant brioche. So, while in Sicily ask for "granita con panna e brioche"!

Granita is a true masterpiece of Sicilian cooking and the favourite piece for summer breakfast (don't be afraid to have a granita any time during the day, you will see local people have lunch with it or eat it at midnight!).
Believe me, it is absolutely a must, a
frivolous titbit you will never forget!

In Sicily the method to make it is completely different from the north of Italy where they use to make ice, crush it and then add the flavour. Here, bars and cafes use a special machine with blades able to keep moving the liquid at a very low temperature so avoiding it to solidify. A high percentage of sugar in the liquid favours the preparation of a sort of cream which is the granite itself.

Now, you wonder, can we do home-made granita? Definitely yes!

Serves 4/5 people

½ a lt of lemon juice (use 8/10 organic lemons only)
½ a lt of water
500 gr of caster sugar
Grated lemon peel (1/2 organic lemons are enough)
A steel bowl

1. Grate the lemon peel and then squeeze the lemons to prepare the juice.
2. Boil the water and let it rest until tepid, then add sugar, lemon juice and grated lemon peel. Let it cool.
3. Pour it in the steel bowl and put it in the freezer. Stir the liquid every 20/30 minutes using a fork or a whisk so to avoid its solidification.
4. When the liquid becomes grainy, granite is ready. Serve it in transparent glasses with tea spoons and fresh cream.

Buon appetito!

P.S. The brioche recipe will be posted at soonest!

© Text and pictures by Doriana Briguglio

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sweet & sour Caponata

Hello from sunny Sicily! Yes, spring is on and summer is coming soon. Weather is getting warmer and warmer and it’s time for my favourite vegetables and food. I can start dreaming about caponata, parmigiana, peperonata, granite and all those unique dishes that give Sicilian cuisine a unique savour.

For Sicilian cookery tradition caponata means summer, eggplants, magic and delicate equilibrium between sweet and sour, flavours that get mixed up without confusing. Don’t ask me what caponata means. I tried to find out but the etymology is not that clear. It might come from the latin word capare meaning chopping up ingredients to mix them in a kind of alchemic way of cooking. It might come from the Italian name of the cat fish capone which was originally used in the past in the haute-cuisine of the Monsu’, the French chefs cooking for the noble Sicilian families. Common people couldn’t afford to buy fresh fish, quite expensive even at those times, so they customized the recipe using fresh season vegetables. It is not a difficult dish, it takes only a lot of time to cook it properly, but I would suggest you how to save time without losing flavor. There are many versions of caponata, I will give you mine, a family recipe.

Serves 4 pax

2 medium-size aubergines
2 medium-size yellow and red peppers
1 big or 2 medium-size onions
the core of 1 celery
about 20g of capers
100g of stoned green olives
about 30g of raisins
about 20g of pine-seeds
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp of sugar
1 coffee cup of vinegar (balsamic is fine)

1. Prepare the most important ingredients first: cut the aubergines in small pieces , use a bowl with cold water, pour the aubergines and let them rest for about 30 minutes , then stir them. Clean the peppers and cut them in small pieces, be careful not to leave any seeds. Cut the onions in small pieces as well as the celery and the green olives.

2. Use a frying-pan to brown each ingredient one per time: first the aubergines, second peppers, then onions.

3. Mix aubergines, peppers and onions and add all ingredients (except sugar, vinegar and bay leaves). Let everything cook for about 10 minutes giving astir now and then.

4. Add vinegar, sugar and bay leaves, give a stir and let everything cook for about 5 minutes.

5. Let everything rest and cool as it must be served cold.

Tricks & tips
- For a light version put all ingredients in a baking-pan and cook put in the oven for about 30 minutes at 240°C stirring every 10 minutes. Then, add vinegar, sugar and bay leaves, give a stir and let everything cook for about 5 minutes.
- You can also use zucchini as an additional ingredient.
- Caponata is usually a side-dish for meat and fish but, if you use no vinegar and no sugar you can also use it to season pasta (absolutely short pasta such as penne).

Buon appetito!

© Text and pictures by
Doriana Briguglio

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Therapeutical oregano and pasta?

During Easter holidays I had a couple of very good friends from Norway, we spent most of the time eating, you know :) … a welcome dinner at home on Friday, we went out for lunch and dinner on Saturday, family lunch for Easter day, and again what we call “scampagnata” (a day trip into the country) on Easter Monday, yes … definitely too much food!
I guess everything started on Sat morning when I brought them out for a walking tour downtown in Catania. We stopped both at the fish market and at the central marked and they were truly amazed by the mountains of fresh and dried oregano.
Then, eating here and there, they realized how much we use oregano when cooking and finally they asked that question. What about oregano and why do you use it so much? It was not only me surprised I mean, some of my friends there were really upset and looked at them as a sort of extraterrestrial phenomena!

I recovered and soon realized they were right somehow, we use a lot of oregano every day. I guess there are food and ingredients we take for granted and it is not so. It’s only us from Mediterranean countries or is anyone else in the rest of the world so crazy about oregano?
To tell the true they were a bit confused about oregano, they thought that oregano is the essential herb to be used for pizza only, they also confused oregano and wild majorana! They look very much alike, but sorry, they are not the same herb.
We urged to fill the gap and explain them how to use oregano when cooking, with some tricks and tips.
The oregano plant is a perennial which grows up to two feet tall and bears tiny leaves which lend a pungent aroma and strong flavor to a variety of savory foods. While its gentler flavor is sweeter and its aroma not quite as pungent, marjoram belongs to the same family (Laminaceae) as the oregano (Origanum majorana and origanum vulgare). Wild marjoram has leaves which are slightly hairy and more gray-green in color. When in bloom, the plant or oregano sports pink or purple flowers which are also edible. The leaves are used fresh from the plant or dried. Oregano is one of the few herbs that is stronger when dried than when fresh.
My granny used to praise its therapeutical properties thanks to its active principles, fat, mineral salts, proteins and vitamins: analgesic, antalgic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory and tonic. She used its brew to naturally cure cough, headache and rheumatic pains.

Back to cuisine, this is a fragrant and appetizing pasta dish, perfect to cook when your larder is almost empty or you have short time to spend in the kitchen or when you are just tempted by a good pasta dish.

Serves 4 pax

400g of ruled penne pasta
extra-virgin olive oil
1 big onion
1 tbsp tomato puree
grated parmesan cheese

1. Slice off finely the onion. Pour some extra-virgin olive oil in a frying pan and add the onion.
2.When it gets brown add a spoon of tomato puree and stir for a couple of seconds so to combine well the sauce, then add some oregano and taste as you go.
3.In the meanwhile, put a saucepan on to cook with water for the pasta and bring it to the boil. Add about 2 tbsp of salt and pour the penne.
4.Be careful to strain al dente then pour it into the frying pan stirring well the pasta and its sauce. Serve it in a bowl covering with parmesan cheese.

Tricks & Tips
* When using dried oregano, crush it in the palm of your hand before adding to the food. This helps release essential oils and revive flavor.
* Oregano can become overpowering and bitter if too much is used on foods with mild flavor. Taste as you go.
* Don't be afraid, try it out with salads, fish and meat!

My Norwegian friends went back home with half a kilo of dried oregano in their suitcases!

Buon appetito!

© Text and pictures by Doriana Briguglio

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Easter delights for senses

It would be easy to say I made these small cute pastries but it wouldn't be true. These are masterpieces of the ancient tradition of the Sicilian convents and are made by the gentle and skilled hands of old nuns whose recipes will maybe disapper with them.

My good friend Aldo Grasso, I've already posted about him and about his Enoteca di Sicilia, did a great job. He is a taste hunter who travels aorund Sicily to seek and find out stories and recipes of our culinary traditions. Easter travel is undoubtly the most interesting one made to discover that great cutural heritage hidden into the kitchens of the convents. Pastries and desserts of Holy week come from cloisters located mostly in Western Sicily: Mazara del Vallo, Alcamo, Erice, Agrigento, Palam di Montechiaro, Mistretta. These pastries are true masterpieces of the culinary art, some of them dating back to the Midde-Ages. Made basically of Sicilian almonds, sometimes filled with pistach or citron, they offer a perfect balance of taste, fragrance and sugar. Aboslutely hand-made, there is no space for industrial production.
For those of you who see themselves as taste hunters I strongly suggest to order these unique Sicilian delicacies, a great delight for adults and children!

Enoteca di Sicilia
Viale Africa 31
95100 Catania (Sicily, Italy)
T + 39 095 7462210

Picture & text © Doriana Briguglio

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Easter or theatre?

Is there any other place in the world where feast and theatre are strictly weaved together to celebrate the Holy Week? If yes please, I would like to know.

I've recently made a plan for some friends of mine coming from US and willing to travel to Sicily during Easter holidays. I suggested them to visit those villages and towns where those days going from Palm Sunday to Easter Day are plenty of both sacred and profane rituals. A very unsual journey into the hidden atmospheres of the Christian faith and the theatrical celebration of Easter.

I sent them some pictures and links about places and performances and ... they were shocked! Excited! Exhalted by the idea of actively participating to those celebrations both as actors and audience, as most of the local people do!

Every town and every village participates to Easter feasts with its own rituals deriving from usages and customs, from ancient traditions in which it is not always possible to find out origins and motives.

The list of those places is rich but I would like to mention some of the most interesting ones, those I find most picturesque and fanciful:

- The Holy Week in Enna with its climax on Good Friday
- The Procession of the Misteries in Trapani again with its peak on Good Friday
- The Devils' dance (Ballo dei Diavoli) for Easter Day in Prizzi, Palermo area
- The Judaeans' feast (Festa dei Giudei) for Holy Thursday and Good Friday in San Fratello, Messina area
- The Diavolata for Easter Day in Adrano, Catania/Mt Etna area.
Which of the above pictures refers to the above-mentioned feasts?

If you happen to imagine a travel to Sicily and maybe plan it, take into consideration Easter Week and enjoy with us our celebrations! Don't forget to celebrate with the right Sicilian Easter menu (I will post some recipes at soonest) and chocolate Easter eggs!
And in the meanwhile, learn how to say Happy Easter in Italian:

Buona Pasqua!

© Text and pictures by Doriana Briguglio

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Torrone catanese at the market

What do you usually do when you need to get inspired?
Ops, I'm not getting mad, don't worry, no knives :)

When I need inspiration I like wandering about Catania, aimlessly, just look at the people, the places and wait to be brighted with a brillant flash of illumination. Usually, it works. My camera is always with me, you'll never know!

I don't know why but these wandering often lead me to one of my favourite places in Catania: the market. Well, I should say there are two main markets who are worth to visit: the fish market (what a terrific place! I promise I will tell about it soon) and the "fera 'o luni", the central market where you can find almost everything, food, beverages, clothes, shoes, accessories, dress-materials, detergents, soaps of any kind. What do you need? Be sure you can find it there! Any traveller visiting Catania should stop at both markets: you will never forget the people, their shouts, the colours, the smells. You might be shocked or better delighted, in both cases a unique experience.
So, I was there last week and I was lucky enough to find something it is not easy to see: the torrone making.

What's the torrone? It's a kind of noughat made basically of almonds and honey and is very common in Sicily as a sort of dessert, sometimes even a sort of distraction, when you've got that yen to eat something or for pangs of hunger. It's part of the inheritance left by the Arab domination in Sicily (a lot of the Arab tradition is in our food and recipes).

I stood bewitched by the maker: his figure quite dramatic, a typical middle-aged Sicilian man of Mediterranean origins, his movements gentle and speed, his eyes dark and brilliant. I'd never seen torrone making before, I was ravished!

I asked him to give me his recipe to make the torrone at home. He was very nice !

1 kg of almonds
1 kg of sugar
4 spoons of honey
Some orange rind finely cut up
Olive oil
Half a lemon

1. Dip the almonds in hot water for a couple of minutes, peel them and then wipe carefully.
2. Pour the almonds, the sugar and the honey into a large pan and cook on a very low flame, stirring continuously to avoid sugar to stick.
3. Prepare the top, preferably a marble one, and wet it with some olive oil. Use a spatula and damp it with the lemon.
4. Wait until the sugar is melted, pour the mixture on the marble top and use the spatula to level it.
When it is cold, cut it in reatnular pieces with a strong knife.

Buon appetito!

© Text and picture by Doriana Briguglio