We began the day at the Cusa quarries in Campobello di Mazara, the source of Selinunte's stonework. A beautiful new museum, totally empty of tourists, answered the question "just how did they manage to quarry those huge columns and get them to Selinunte?". There's also the Museum of Farm Work--tools, furnishing, pottery, a terrific Sicilian cart. But most impressive were the quarries, huge drums of stone, some half-carved in the stone, others strewn in grass fields amidst olive and carob trees, looking like the stoneworkers had just taken a break.
The village of Gibellina was totally destroyed in the 1968 Belice earthquake, relocated as Gibellina Nuova nearby, with installations by famous contemporary Italian artists. Alberto Burri covered the ruins of the old village with cement, with gaps where the street once were. We wandered his cement maze, a moving experience. Unfortunately, it's falling into disrepair, with weeds and cracks in the cement. Or is this part of the artistic process?
We visited Mary Taylor Simeti and her husband Tonino at their organic farm outside Palermo. I adore Mary's books. "On Persephone's Island", "Pomp and Sustenance", new edition unexcitingly re-titled as "Sicilian Food", "Bitter Almonds", "Travels with a Medieval Queen". Tonino is an agricultural economist and retired university professor. I'm a fan of his white wine, Catarratto, and tasted just released Nero d'Avola. We shared our Castelvetrano pane nero (see part VI) with Mary and Tonino, they served Ragusano cheese, and I bought more wine, to be sent home. Mary showed me the family's B&B, two quirky apartments with unspoiled views, inexpensive.
Palermo was our final destination on the Grand Tour and Vito skillfully navigated the city's chaotic traffic to Nicoletta Polo Lanza's apartments in her husband's historic palace, Butera 28, my very favorite place to stay. I've slept in a lot of Palermo hotels and B&Bs and had settled on the Hotel Plaza Opera for location and style, but once I stayed at via Butera 28 I was hooked. I adore the untouristed neighborhood and having an economical apartment with living room and kitchen. Nicoletta is a marvelous cook, gives cooking lessons, takes her students shopping for groceries, and caters fancy dinners in the family palace. You'll find her recipe for gelo di agrumi, a simple refreshing citrus gelatin dessert, at the end of the post. Once settled, we walked down the street to the Museo Internazionale della Marionetta to complete our Sicilian marionette education. We admired the collection, very international, very sophisticated, with marionettes from Asia as well as Sicily, and even got to see a show in their theater and meet the puparo (manipulator, puppeteer). Nearby, Palazzo Abatellis was closed, under restoration (but has now reopened). We strolled around the corner and had an aperitivo at Kursaal Kalhesa, a huge stone room housing bookshop, travel agency, caffe'-enoteca with interesting cocktails and wine selection, outdoor garden, restaurant with innovative Sicilian-styled or international dishes, and live jazz on Thursdays. We ambled past the trattoria Salvo , outdoor charcoal grill, fish display and sidewalk tables tempting but we'd invited Nicoletta and her husband Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi (remember him in Part V, the Duke of Palma, who got us into the cloistered convent?) to have dinner at Dispensa dei Monsu', where chef-owner Bonetta dell'Olio has an original approach to Sicilian flavors and respect for vegetables. She has sourced superior products including salumi and cheese. Wonderful menu choices include mosciame (tuna loin cured like prosciutto) with potatoes and mint, caponata with eggplant and apple, Gragnano pasta sauced with sea urchins or fish ragu, baccala "meatballs", lamb chops in pistachio crust, seasonal fruit, and lovely Sicilian cookies. Service can be and was exasperating. We were joined by Francesco Guccione, Bonetta's companion and biodynamic winemaker. And drank his delightful Sicilian red varietals Nerello Mascalese and Perricone with dinner. Unfortunately, no more room at home for another wine order.
We began our final day with a cultural outing to Palazzo Riso, Palermo's exceptional contemporary art museum, beautifully curated, with a wonderful gift shop and caffè. No time for Serpotta on this trip. We visited the Borgo Vecchio market, vibrant, lively, with a terrific stand, Condimento Pronto da Giuseppe, that sells panelle (fried chickpea flour crepes), prepared foods and sauces for pasta, and nearby fish mongers who grill and fry fish to go in the afternoon. Both are perfect options for those staying at via Butera 28. But we were leaving town, having lunch at a favorite trattoria, Piccolo Napoli, next to the market. Two fishing boats supply the catch of the day, there's a written menu but no one uses it, relying instead on owner Orazio Corona for advice. Appetizers are displayed on a table in the dining room, great first course options include classics like pasta with clams, cuttlefish ink, sardines and wild fennel, or cauliflower, raisins and pine nuts. Continue with grilled or fried fish or seafood, cassata or fresh fruit for dessert. Drink Tonino Simeti's wine. Our last stop before the airport was Bar Alba, to purchase the city's best arancine, a perfect culinary souvenir of our voyage across Sicily. I knew I'd have lots of wine and extra virgin waiting for me when I got home. And that a true Sicilian would have acquired something with sugar. Cassata? Cannoli?
La Dispensa dei Monsù, via Principe di Villafranca 59, Palermo, tel+39-091-609-0465, open evenings only, closed Sunday
Trattoria Piccolo Napoli, piazzetta Mulino a Vento 4, Palermo, tel.+39-091-320-431, open Monday through Saturday for lunch, Friday and Saturday dinner, closed Sunday
Trattoria Salvo, via Torremuzza 32, Palermo, no phone, open evenings only
Gelo di Agrumi
4 AND ONE QUARTER CUPS (or 1 liter) citrus juice-orange, tangerine, mandarin oranges, grapefruit, but always include the juice of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons (20 gr.) powdered gelatin or 8 gelatin sheets
THREE QUARTERS cup (150 gr.) sugar
2 tablespoons (15 gr.) chopped pistachio nuts
Soak the powdered gelatin in ONE HALF cup juice. Or soak the sheet gelatin in cold water, then drain, squeezing to remove all liquid. Heat 1 cup juice, dissolve sugar in juice, add soaked gelatin and cook over low heat to dissolve. Add remaining juice, stir, then pour into a mold or individual serving dishes and chill. Garnish with chopped pistachio nuts.
-December 2009 link to the article published in The Atlantic Magazine