Massimo had never seen the archeological site of Gela, overlooking a coast despoiled by oil refineries, or the fantastic Archeological Museum, always empty, always impressive. And it was a perfect stop on the way to Licata to see Pino Cuttaia, the island's greatest chef, and dine at his restaurant La Madia. We took a slow road on the coast, far more attractive than the main, traffic-clogged route skirting the town. We checked into Hotel Villa Giuliana, a new hotel that Pino recommended, which instantly became my favorite place to stay in Licata, above the city, easy parking, great views, lovely service, inexpensive. We got a coffee at a bar called Las Vegas - lots of neon, strolled around the city, admiring Baroque palaces, trying to ignore the urban sprawl surrounding them. Our dinner at La Madia was, as usual, fantastic, featuring lots of new dishes with traditional flavors, elegant presentations - rectangle of raw marinated anchovies topped with tomato, spaghetti with true wild clams, octopus with a crisp veil of its cooking liquid, boned but still whole red mullet, shrimp-stuffed artichoke. I never resist Pino's take on cannoli, a ricotta-filled pastry cornucopia. Pino, his wife Loredana and their sons Angelo and Alessandro joined us for lunch the next day at his friend Giacomo Cicatello's trattoria, Donna Rosa, where we dined on rustic home-cooking that inspires Pino's cuisine. Our lunch included sarde in beccafico, meatballs in tomato sauce, short pasta with peas, artichokes and wild greens, stuffed beef roll. Giacomo showed me the wild greens from the pasta dish, called mazzareddi in Sicilian, a vegetable I'd never encountered, a member of the wild cabbage family. He invited Antonio Santamaria to join us for dessert, thought I'd be interested in Antonio's self-published (only one copy) cookbook "Licata a Tavola", with recipes related by patients when he worked at a health clinic. I was fascinated. As we departed, Vincenzo Corrente, La Madia's maitre d', gave us a tray of ricci, special almond cookies from the best bakery in nearby Palma di Montechiaro. We drove through a tunnel of ugly strip malls with Agrigento's beautiful temples in the distance at dusk, into the countryside and the Planeta Foresteria, our base for the next few days. Rooms, with terraces planted with herbs, views of vineyards and the sea, are beautifully decorated, bathrooms are luxurious, and the main salon is filled with interesting books about Sicily. The restaurant is wonderful, open only for dinner with a five-course menu of innovative dishes prepared by chef Angelo Pumilia. There are three wine lists - all Planeta wines with all vintages (very reasonably priced), wines of friends (pricey), and the vault, special bottles (expensive) that can be ordered a day in advance.
We had big plans in the village of Sambuca. We visited the archeological site of Monte Adranone outside town, the polyvalent museum in the ex-monastery of Santa Catarina for Greek and Punic antiquities from the site, modern fabric sculpture by Sylvie Clavel, paintings (my favorite room) of Fra Felice da Sambuca (18th C.) and then stopped at the Carmine Church for a serious hit of Baroque. But the real reason for my visit to Sambuca was a pilgrimage to the Pasticceria Enrico Pendola, famous for minni di virgini, virgins' breasts (chastely called virgins' cookies in "The Leopard"). I bought three pairs for Sicilian friends. We had dinner at Ristorante Vittorio, not far from the Foresteria, which had been totally restored since my last visit, but the menu was exactly the same, as wonderful as ever, minimalist treatments, parsley and extra virgin garnish, local super-fresh fish and seafood. We feasted on sweet raw red shrimp, octopus salad, snails in tomato sauce (served with a wooden skewer to pry them out of their shells), spaghetti with sea urchins, clams or mixed seafood, roast fish and drank a Planeta Cerasulo di Vittoria. Sicilian whites and Champagnes are displayed in refrigerator cabinets, reds in niches in the wall. No room for dessert.
We began the next morning with the Cusa quarries (looks like the 5th century B.C. masons stepped out for a break) and the Museum, with farm tools, Sicilian carts and documents that explain how the stones were quarried and taken to Selinunte. Thus prepared, we headed for my favorite Greek temples in Sicily, a vast archeological park overlooking the sea. Simply spectacular! Time for lunch at the nearby restaurant La Pineta (no website as of this writing), on the beach in the Belice Reserve - park your car at the gate and walk down the road towards the sea. The menu never changes and is always a thrill, super-fresh fish, the simplest of preparations. We planned an afternoon visit to Mazara del Vallo to the museum of the Dancing Satyr, one of the most moving statues I've ever seen, and bumped into a parade celebrating Italy's 150 Birthday, complete with marching band. The museum, on such an important festivity, was free of charge. We dined with Alessio Planeta at the Foresteria, sampled a yet-to-be released sparkling wine from Etna (Carricante grapes) and the tastiest ravioli of the trip, green pasta, whipped cod filling, sauced with sea urchin and a hint of fennel. Dessert, in honor of Italy's birthday, was the colors of the Italian flag-raspberry sorbetto atop green pistachio cake, flanked by white almond milk mousse. I thanked Alessio for his hospitality with a gift, a pair of minni di virgini.
Next stops: Burgio, Caltabellotta, Sciacca, Castelvetrano extra virgin, Palermo, museums, and the neighborhood.