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The End of a Noble Style

The End of a Noble Style:  Count Giuseppe Tasca d'Almerita of the winery Regaleali

Count Giuseppe Tasca d'Almerita, who died at 86, was often called "the last of the Leopards," referring to the grand lifestyle of Sicilian Prince Don Fabrizio Salina in The Leopard, a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. But where that fictional prince (played by Burt Lancaster in Visconti's 1963 film version) passively observed the decline of aristocracy, Count Tasca inherited a feudal estate and turned it into one of Italy's finest state-of-the-art wineries - all without losing his noble air.

I was introduced to Count Tasca by his daughter Anna Tasca Lanza, passionate defender of Sicilian culinary traditions - and author of Flavors of Sicily. Before our first meeting Anna explained that her father grew up surrounded by servants; when he wanted a sip of water he would ring for it - behavior that none of his children or grandchildren would even contemplate today. The Count always traveled with Mario Lo Melzo, his personal chef, or monzà, in Sicilian dialect, a corruption of monsieur. Chefs in noble kitchens were often French and always treated with respect.

Count Tasca was serious about food and wine, and I was lucky enough to dine as his guest often. Whether served in a banquet hall or in the family's private dining room, whether at the seaside or in Anna's farmhouse kitchen, the cuisine was baronial and superb. Everything, including family favorites and Sicilian peasant food, Mario prepared to perfection. I am dreaming now of his gelatin-glazed patè of game, chick-pea chips, fried pasta timbales, fresh warm ricotta cheese, fried custard, spleen sandwiches, risotto-stuffed cabbage, and magnificently grilled fresh lamb. They were almost always accompanied by wines from Regaleali, the family estate, where the vineyards grow local varietals - reds like Nero d'Avola and Perricone; whites like Inzolia and Catarratto.

Wealthy Sicilian families continue to have live-in cooks, of course, but they no longer enjoy the luxury of a monzà, tutored in culinary arts by his predecessor. Mario will stay with the family at home, cooking for events when called upon, but not every day. So, from now on such meals will be re-creations, not simply a matter of course. Although Anna has faithfully documented the culinary traditions of her family, something very great has been lost. Count Tasca's passing marks the end of the authentic princely life in Sicily.

January 27, 1998


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