Our next destination was Sciacca. We simply had to visit the Enchanted Castle, not really a castle and not really enchanted, but the work of outsider artist Filippo Bentivenga. We wandered the cobblestone paths winding through the hillside, admiring heads sculpted of stone and carved into olive trees in a series of terraced arrangements, paintings on the walls of a little house. We decided to skip lunch, and headed for Sciacca's port, and Bar Roma, where Aurelio Licata makes his exquisite lemon granita. Clearly I'm not the only person who's made the pilgrimage--he's got a Facebook fan club, "I love Zio Aurelio".
I had an appointment to visit the recently opened Verdura Resort outside Sciacca--chef Fulvio Pierangelini (his once top-rated restaurant Gambero Rosso is closed) is consulting for the restaurant and the website looked pretty exciting. There were no signs--super-navigator Vito had to call three times to get directions. When we finally located the gate and were approved for entry, we drove down a dirt road to the main building passing rows of staff housing, golf-carts transporting uniformed personnel. Suzanne's comment was "This looks like a James Bond movie". It got worse. Once in the lobby, the only sign that we were in Sicily was an occasional decorative amphora. It seemed like someone had magic-carpeted a golf resort to Sicily. I looked at the restaurant, asked for a wine list and menu, and was refused. They expressed disappointment that I didn't write for a golf magazine. We left, anxious to get to our next destination.
I've always been wild about Selinunte, the most beautiful Greek temples in Sicily. There are lots of inexpensive places to stay in the area, terrific restaurants, and amazing in-between meal activities. Pierluigi Crescimano, Tenuta Rocchetta's extraordinary Sicilian extra virgin producer, booked rooms for us at agriturismo Carbona since the Hotel Eracle where I usually stay (short walk to the temples) was closed. We met Pierluigi, sister Marilena, wife Antonella, daughters Gaia and Delia at their country home next to the frantoio (olive oil mill). Marilena is a wonderful cook and she made dinner. We began with just-pressed extra virgin, cultivars Nocellara del Belice, Cerasuolo, Biancolilla, and the area's justly famous bread, pane nero di Castelvetrano from a wood-burning oven, made with local tumminia wheat. Marilena made spaghetti with cherry tomatoes, pistachios and basil, roast fish, salad and served a tray of assorted Sicilian pastries that Antonella brought from Palermo. I got Marilena's recipe for the pasta, which is at the end of this post. We checked into our agriturismo and were pleased, the rooms neat, comfortable, inexpensive. The agriturismo farm's main product is beef (of course they also make extra virgin) and their restaurant menu features meat in all courses but dessert. We toured the vegetable garden the next morning after a modest breakfast-skipped all the cookies and pastries but focused on home-made preserves and pane nero.
I've visited Tenuta Rocchetta during the olive harvest ever since I met Pierluigi and tasted his extra virgins. Sergio Rizzo is his master frantoiano, picks olives and runs the presses like a maestro. It's always a thrill to see the almost phosphorescent green extra virgin streaming from a stainless steel pipe. Of course I ordered Tenuta Rocchetta's extra virgin for home use.
We took a back road to lunch and when I spotted a sign for the Planeta Foresteria (inn) I decided to have a look. We were welcomed, and impressed. The Planeta winery is one of Sicily's most important young (founded in 1995) wineries, with vineyards in the Vittoria, Noto, Menfi, Sambuca and Etna areas. Their inn is perfect, super-Sicilian décor and colors, comfortable lounging areas, books about Sicily and traditional ceramics displayed with great taste, fourteen rooms with huge bathrooms, and private terraces. Herb gardens with labeled plants, a gym with a view (instead of the usual basement location), pool, Turkish bath, private beach nearby. The restaurant is open for dinner only, and serves a tasting menu, simple, home-style dishes like macco (fava bean and wild greens soup), and braised lamb. I promised to come back. Lunch at da Vittorio, just down the road next to one of the most unspoiled beaches in Sicily, is sublime. It's one of my favorite fish restaurants in Italy. Fish and seafood are super-fresh, tasting of the sea. Appetizers appear including sweet raw red shrimp dressed with extra virgin and parsley. I never fail to have spaghetti with sea urchin sauce; Suzanne never passes up a plate of spaghetti con vongole. And who could resist Vittorio's turbot? Not me. Afternoon visit to Selinute, but dinner was out of the question.
In the morning we went to Castelvetrano to the Selinuntino Museum to see the impressive Ephebus of Selinute. We met Sergio, who took us to Panificio Gullo, the best bread baker in town. There are lots of shops selling pane nero di Castelvetrano that use yeast instead of levain, but Sergio knows pane nero as well as he knows olives. We bought bread for a Sicilian lunch of pane condito, loaves split in half, drenched with extra virgin, oregano, salt. We went to Mazara del Vallo to the Museum of the Dancing Satyr, one of the most moving works of art I've ever seen, with an expression of pure ecstasy. So I've included two links, one to explain the work, and the other with better photographs.
To thank the Crescimano family for their hospitality we took them to dinner at another favorite seafood trattoria, La Pineta. It's directly on the beach in the Belice pine forest preserve--you'll have to walk on the path to the restaurant--no cars allowed, and it's not easy to find, but well worth the search. Host-owner Angelo Rizzuto serves simple fish and seafood preparations, the menu never changes and I always look forward to a return visit--marinated fresh anchovies, shrimp skewers, pasta with mussels and clams or local lobster, grilled or fried fish and seafood, all fantastic. Finish with the fresh fruit or fruit like strawberries, chestnuts or kumquats hollowed out, stuffed with gelato of the same flavor, then frozen.
Tenuta Rocchetta, Via Ugo Bassi 12, Castelvetrano, tel. +39-0924-904364
Panificio Gullo, via Pietro di Giato 17, Castelvetrano, tel. +39-0924-81040
Final leg of the Grand Tour: Selinute's quarry, Ghibellina, a visit with Mary Taylor Simeti, wonders of Palermo.
PASTA WITH CHERRY TOMATOES, ZUCCHINI AND PISTACHIO NUTS
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil [50 gr.]
2 garlic cloves
2 AND A QUARTER cups thinly sliced zucchini [250 gr.]
2 AND ONE THIRD cups split cherry tomatoes [350 gr.]
14 oz. short pasta (Marilena uses schiaffoni, stubby wide tubes) [400 gr.]
ONE HALF cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano [50 gr.]
ONE THIRD cup chopped Bronte pistachio nuts [40 gr.] SEE NOTE
2 tablespoons chopped basil [5 gr.]
Freshly ground black pepper
Put 2 tablespoons [25 gr.] extra virgin in a skillet and sauté garlic. When it barely begins sizzle add the zucchini. Cook over high heat for 5 minutes, stirring. Add the cherry tomato halves, lightly salt and cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Add more salt if necessary.
Cook pasta in 5-6 quarts [5-6 liters] of salted boiling water until al dente, drain and add to the sauce in the skillet. Heat pasta and sauce together, and then add Parmigiano, pistachio nuts, black pepper, and basil. Mix well, adding some of the pasta cooking water if sauce is too dry. Remove from heat, dress with 2 tablespoons [25 gr.] extra virgin and serve.
NOTE: Pistachio nuts from the village of Bronte, on the slopes of Mt. Etna, are known to be Italy's finest. Get the best pistachio nuts you can.
- December 2009 link to article published in The Atlantic Magazine