Cooking with the Duchess of Palma di Montechiaro

I’ve got to thank Santa Rosalia, nicknamed Santuzza, the patron saint of Palermo, for meeting the Duchess of Palma di Montechiaro.  I was visiting the city and a great friend (the Duchess’s sister-in-law, Marchesa Anna Tasca Lanza) suggested that I watch the opulent fireworks display in honor of the saint, held annually on July 15th (after a procession that winds through Palermo) from a fantastic vantage point, the Duke and Duchess’s terrace overlooking the city’s harbor. I located the palace, took the elevator upstairs to an apartment filled with locals of all ages—who doesn’t love fireworks?, and hunted for the host and hostess, Duke Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi—everyone calls him Gio, famous musicologist and the adopted heir of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampadusa, author of “The Leopard”, and his wife Duchess Nicoletta Polo Lanza.  I introduced myself as a food and wine writer and a friend of Anna’s and she enthusiastically welcomed me with a glass of wine.  She confessed that she was passionate about food and Sicilian cooking.  Me too.  We bonded. She had just created a program, “not just a cooking lesson” that included shopping, cooking, lunch and tour of their 18th century palace.  And she rented reasonably priced apartments in the building by the day, week or month.  And she was most simpatica. Three perfect excuses for a return to Palermo. The fireworks were fantastic, dramatic, reflected on the bay, Nicoletta served Regaleali’s wines (from her sister-in-law’s family) with Sicilian puddings--citrus topped with crushed pistachio, watermelon decorated with chocolate and cinnamon, white biancomangiare, all delicious.


I booked one of the apartments for a few days, spacious rooms furnished with Sicilian antiques and beautiful pottery (and I’m picky about Sicilian pottery), balcony overlooking the sea, fully equipped kitchen stocked for breakfast.  I vowed to never stay elsewhere.  I strolled down via Butera and simply couldn’t resist shopping.  The legume, seed and dried fruit and nut selection from Frattelli Battaglia tempted and I purchased passoline currants (dried black seedless grapes), chick pea flour, and cubbaitasesame brittle.   I passed the no-frills trattoria Salvo, tables and grill on the sidewalk—which I kept in mind for later in the week. The fruits and vegetables displayed at Antonio Biondo’s shop, especially the tomato olive salad and simply boiled seasonal vegetables would be perfect for a light lunch in my dining room.  I couldn’t resist an all-starch sandwich, sesame roll stuffed with panelle fried chick pea crepes, dressed simply with a squeeze of lemon, from the stand on the corner of via Torremuzza and piazza Kalsa,  and, munching away, crossed the piazza to Panificio Porta Reale for a loaf of sesame-topped Sicilian hard wheat bread for my breakfast. Nicoletta recommended the nearby Cioccolateria Lorenzo, specializing in everything chocolate—bars, pralines, mousse, cakes, and gelato in summer months when working with chocolate is difficult, along with coffee and tea, perfect for breakfast, light lunch or a snack.  I headed back to the apartment, detoured to via Alloro to the Enoteca Cana for a glass of wine, and purchased a bottle for my apartment.  I was in love with the neighborhood. 

I met Nicoletta for an espresso.  I was curious about her background.  She grew up in Venice; all the women in her family were interested in food and cooking.  Her mother was Venetian, her grandmother Tuscan. Nicoletta studied Russian in Russia, traveled to Paris and South America, picking up languages and recipes along the way.  She returned to Venice, got a job working for the music section of Biennale and their contemporary music festival which is how she met her musicologist husband.  It was not love at first site.  They did lots of entertaining, especially when Gio was the Italian cultural attaché in New York.  She immersed herself in “Profumi di Sicilia” by Giuseppe Coria, a classic and encyclopedic Sicilian cookbook. Her cuisine is decidedly Sicilian, seasonal, influenced by her Venetian heritage as well as her travels.  Nicoletta and Gio moved back to Italy, first Naples and then Palermo and began to restore the palace, an expensive, extensive, never-ending process.  She furnished and then rented apartments to visitors, and, using her entertaining skills, hosted luncheons for special groups in the palatial part of their building. And she created a cultural culinary Sicilian experience, far more interesting than a simple cooking lesson.

Nicoletta—no one calls her Duchess or Duchessa, was making lunch for a group the next day and would be busy cooking.  “Could I join you, help out in the kitchen?” I asked.  My offer accepted, I tagged along while she shopped the Capo market—“the Vucceria isn’t what it used to be” she apologized.  She’s a skilled shopper and clearly had the respect of her venders; they provided the best catch of the day, freshly picked seasonal vegetables and fruit.  “Why bother with tasteless out-of-season fish or produce?” she declared. The colors, scents and sounds—screaming sales pitches in Sicilian dialect, of the market were intoxicating. Nicoletta chose seasonal tuna, bright red, looking more like beef than fish, carved to order from the entire tuna carcass, bought olives and pistachio nuts from a stand, ripe cherry tomatoes on the vine from another, salted anchovies from a specialist, sold from one large can.  Our last stop was for flowers from an old man on the corner.  The leisurely walk home was a mini-tour of Palermo, as Nicoletta pointed out churches, piazzas, fountains and buildings of historical note.  I fell in love with Sicilian Baroque.  Returning to our neighborhood we bought bread from Panificio Porta Reale, panelle from the nearby stand to be fried at home (“I make them from scratch when I teach”, she confided) and headed back to the well-but-not-excessively-equipped kitchen, attractive blue and white tiled walls hung with copper pots that she actually uses. I cubed the Piacentino, Sicilian sheep’s’ milk cheese flavored with saffron, laced with peppercorns, she pureed a black olive, caper, almond and pistachio tapenade, to be spread on bread rounds. “We’ll fry the panelle at the last minute” she told me.  She prepared the sauce—a pistachio pesto, pureeing the nuts with parsley, basil, a little Parmigiano and delicate extra virgin, to be served with fusilli.  And cut the tuna for the mint-flavored tuna stew. Nicoletta likes to serve lots of vegetables—we sectioned oranges, which were paired with sliced fennel for one of my favorite side dishes.  I peeled boiled potatoes for the Pantelleria-style potato salad, with tomatoes, capers, oregano. She made the most beautiful salad, tender greens, pomegranate seeds, citron (the fruit looks like a jumbo lumpy lemon, it was unpeeled, and sliced, the first time I’d ever encountered citron in its natural, not-candied state, and quite delicious), nasturtium flowers (from her terrace), orange wedges (with the skin), lemon zest.  “Our Sicilian citrus is so amazing, I use the skin as well as the fruit” she told me.  Everyone in Sicily makes caponata, sweet and sour eggplant, all year round but Nicoletta makes a winter version, when eggplant isn’t in season, substituting it with green apples.  I was intrigued. We juiced oranges and lemons for the citrus jelly—“please don’t use powdered gelatin—sheet gelatin gives much finer results” she insisted. It was served with strawberries spiced with cinnamon, cloves, star anise and pink peppercorns, decorated with orange blossoms.

Lunch was in one of the dining rooms in the important part of the palace—when it was built, its inhabitants dined where whim dictated, not in a designated room. Bookshelves covered the walls, leather-bound editions and folios—many rooms and hallways are lined with the polyglot collections of Tomasi ancestors, Lanza bibliophiles (including a Spanish diplomat and historian) as well as those from Gio and Nicoletta.  She also has lots of cookbooks. The table was elegant, silver pheasant centerpiece, set with linens and silver.  Plates featured the family crest, cut crystal goblets for water and wine, heirloom candelabras and low flower arrangements decorated the table. The service suited the room—white gloved uniformed waiters bore silver platters of the morning’s preparations.  The meal was elaborate, but when Nicoletta teaches the menu is reduced to a do-able 5 course meal, with readily available ingredients, lots of hands-on cooking in the kitchen. I couldn’t wait to get home to try her recipes.

Nicoletta gave me a tour of the palatial apartments.  It was easy to imagine Prince Giuseppe di Tomasi di Lampadusa in his floor-to-ceiling book-lined study, sitting in his easy chair, ready, flanked by a huge cache pot of elegant walking sticks, sipping a glass of Marsala (don’t know about the Prince but I’d choose Marco di Bartoli’s). The ballroom was impressive, with striped cherry and walnut parquet flooring, furniture and grand paintings from the 16th to 20th centuries, all beautifully but not excessively restored.  Images of the movie version of “The Leopard” came to mind.  Would Burt Landcaster and Claudia Cardinale waltz by?  And then we walked onto the terrace, with its spectacular hand-painted tiles, marble fountains, a jungle of vines—wisteria, bougainvillea, and plants like jasmine that I hadn’t noticed on my first nighttime visit, distracted as I was by the fireworks.  Not only had Santa Rosalia saved Palermo from the plague, she had brought me to Nicoletta.  Thank you, Santuzza.





Cooking with a Duchess:

Via Butera 28:

Fratelli Battaglia: via Torremuzza 12

Salvo: via Torremuzza 8

Panificio Porta Reale: via Niccolo Cervello 17

Cioccolateria Lorenzo: via Quattro Aprile 7/7a

Enoteca Cana: via Alloro 105




Apple Caponata (Caponata di Mele)

6 green, tart apples

1 ¼ cup (250g) green olives

1 cup (200g) capers

6 stalks (300g) celery

3 big red onions

2 cups (400g) chopped tomatoes

4 Tbsp apple vinegar

2 Tbsp honey

2 Tbsp currants

2 Tbsp pine nuts

freshly ground pepper

extra virgin olive oil

Rinse the capers and gently pat them dry. Chop finely the onion; dice the celery; pit the olives. Sauté in oil the onion in a large saucepan (add a few spoonfuls of water to prevent burning). Add olives, capers and celery and a generous amount of pepper. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes; if it becomes too dry add a few spoonfuls of water. Add the tomatoes and cook another 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, peel, core and dice the apples and add them to the sauce. Cook, stirring often, until the apples change their color and become pink. Add vinegar and honey, raise the flame to let the vinegar evaporate. Off the heat, add pine nuts and currants, stir and let cool. Let the caponata rest for a few hours before serving.

Orange and Lemon Jelly (Gelo di Arancia e Limone)

1 liter (4 cups) of freshly squeezed, strained orange juice

 2 lemons, juiced

150 g (3/4 cup) sugar

18 g (9 small sheets) of sheet gelatin

pure sweet almond oil

Put half the juice (orange and lemon) in a bowl and add the sheet gelatin to soften. Put the other half in a pot and add the sugar. Bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat, add the gelatin and mix well to completely dissolve.  Pour the hot juice into the bowl and mix well. Lightly coat a 1 liter (4 cup) mold with a few drops of sweet almond oil and pour the juice into it. Put in the fridge (not in the freezer!) for a few hours until it’s thoroughly set.


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