Talia! Sicily, Global Province Letter, 23 May 2013

“Where but in Sicily would they think to make such  a dish from oranges?” De Bartoli sang.  “I have traveled the world. I have seen it all and drunk it all. And I can say without chauvinism that the terroir of Sicily is the grandest of the world.  We are not a region….”  He paused and held up his right index finger to bellow, “Siamo un continente” (“We are a continent”). –Robert V. Camuto, Palmento:  A Sicilian Wine Odyssey

Goethe wrote in the eighteenth century, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.” –Robert Camuto

Italy Tugs at the Heart.  Perhaps 30 years ago, a well appointed company jet touched down at Westchester Airport to haul us up to Cape Cod. Perhaps 8 of us, mostly the company’s principal executives, were there to mull strategy for all the company’s product lines, each of which battled for space on supermarket shelves. The firm was revered, one of the great names in American business, but not exempt from the wrenching dislocations to all businesses caused by a financial sector which is out of control the world over. Our conclusions were waffling and indecisive. But we were able to cut to the quick on other personal questions.

For instance, during lunch Tom turned to Don, the company’s general counsel, and queried, “Don, you and I have literally been everywhere in the world—Asia, Europe, what have you.  When it is all said and done, which country is your favorite?”  In no time at all Don replied and Tom agreed, “It is not even close. Italy. That’s the country where culture and other pleasures drop off the trees.”

Naturally they were mostly referring to the north, to the Italy of Tuscany and Bergamo and Lombardy. But it could just as well have been Rome or Sicily. We recently tripped to Rome and found it the best walking city in the world: one ambles around any corner only to see a new architectural surprise. Everywhere there is a new shape, a new vista, a different century. Perhaps Robert Hughes in Rome captures this wonderful feast best, explaining the city’s history through all its great visual symbols from the Pantheon to Bernini.

But maybe Sicily, that southernmost province and island off the Italian mainland, that easily peeks at Tunisia and the North African mainland, maybe it offers the best surprises and most important lessons to be gleaned from Italy. 

The Wines of Sicily.  Sicily has long been Italy’s biggest producer of wine grapes, much of its output filling up the bottles of wine houses in other regions. As Marco De Bartoli, the winemaker who singlehandedly revived quality marsala, says—its rich earth and climate is as good as it gets in this world, and in the region, but he and other major wine authorities also say that the Sicilians have a talent for making the worst when they have the capacity to do the best. “Ninety percent of the wine Sicily produces is merda.” De Bertoli says, repeating, “Merrrrrrrr-daaa” (Camuto)  The wonderful climate and earth of Sicily have given issue to more than a 1,000 varietals:  in time more of these will be pressed into service by the wine trade. The variety as well as the abundance generated from the Sicilian earth is amazing.

We ourselves are less than thrilled by the wines cherished by the bulk of the producers. The possibilities are vast, but the wine trade often goes down the wrong road.  De Bartoli’s marsala, though admittedly first rate, does not do much for our palate.  We find it and the all-pervasive nero d’avolas harsh and unappealing.  However, if one can luck into a 20-year-old unfortified Bartoli marsala, balance and refinement do shine through.

Mount Etna.  There is now finally common agreement that Sicily’s most interesting wines today are produced at the base of Mount Etna, the still rumbling volcano, and in towns adjacent to the volcano.  We spent 3 hours or so walking the vineyard and sampling the wares of Ciro Biondi (www.vinibiondi.it), a native of the Etna region whose family has been producing wine there for several generations.  He embodies several of the themes that make for greatness in wine and Sicilian food products.  The best of any product comes from one small region; it is harvested or produced by a family that has been in the business for decades or centuries.  Overall production can be measured in the thousands or millions, never a billion. If it be a wine or a dish on a menu, it will be understated.  Recipes use very few spices—perhaps oregano, cinnamon, and one or two others.  The trick of the better artisans is to know that less is more, and not to over-gild their creations.  The secret of the best in Sicily is under-design, not conspicuous embellishment.

The best creators of wines and foods are reaching back to old ways of producing things. The better winemakers don’t throw in additional yeasts and avoid all sorts of modern tricks. One producer on Etna has taken to producing his wine in amphora, eschewing the vats and barrels favored by today’s enologists. Curiously, too, the market for the small run fine products in several arenas is in export to other countries, Italy itself often consuming less than 20% of output.

Biondi’s delicious wines, incidentally, more than fulfill our prescription.  They are quite understated, and so exquisitely tolerable for an afternoon’s drinking.  A couple of other wines rise above the pack in the region.  We think of Azienda Vinicola Benanti (www.vincolabenanti.it), one of whose wines rescued our meal at an expensive but lackluster Roman restaurant. From nearby Faro comes Palari Faro and a handful of other Faros, all deserving the attention of those looking for special, easy, but elegant reds.

The best meal in Sicily.  And maybe Italy.  It is in the smaller, unremarked towns in Sicily, not the bigger cities, where the eateries shine. We could be thinking of Coria, for instance, in Caltagirone—beautifully appointed, intimate, elegant cooking, seamless warm service. Most amazing of all is Erice’s Ristorante Monte San Giuliano.  There Chef Matteo Giurlanda showed us how he re-created the recipes of his mother including his fish broth couscous (ultimately an import from the Berbers) which was so simple and so evenly tasteful.  One other dish, orange slices from seamless fruit patiently cooked in a flat pan and topped with almond slivers provided a splendid follow-on to the couscous. Because of his restraint in his recipes and his preparation, one did not feel burdened down at meal’s end.  High up Erice on a clear day after a meal of couscous, one can catch a look at Tunisia, a reminder that the North Africa strain runs through the whole of the Sicily story.

Artisan Businesses Galore. Other Sicilian food businesses capture the same tale of elegance and simplicity.  The sheep milk ricotta of Azienda Zootechnica Casearia Dei Fratelli Cucchiara comes to mind. Modica is renowned as a chocolate town.  Of its many purveyors, surely Antica Dolceria Bonauto is the best.  Pierpaolo Ruta, whose family has owned the business for generations, not only can recount each step of the chocolate-making process, but is quite familiar with the African, South American, and other sellers of the best raw cacao across the globe. Tourists crowd his shop to see how it is all done.
In other words, smart Sicilians, stuck in an unforgiving sluggish economy, are moving upmarket, devising goods that will appeal to those with money in their pockets, most particularly foreign buyers.

Crisis.  For generations now Sicily has had a poor economy and a society taxed by inertia. Despite the unbelievable richness of its earth and climate, it has been infected with a lack of direction.  Some say its zenith came during the brief rule of the Arabs from 831 AD, others during the Norman supremacy.  In any event, it has been an awfully long time since Sicily was on top. A reading of Sicilian history—to include Greek and Roman and Bourbon rule—convinces one that it was never meant to be an insular place and that it was insularity, more than anything, that denied Sicily both enduring prosperity and greatness.

Now when you go to Sicily, the locals refer to the “crisis.”  That is, they feel at least that the long downturn since 2008 that has gripped Europe has been most severe on their island.  But, interestingly, generations of straitened circumstance has given birth to invention.  A man here, a woman there, do something exceptional, reacting to the worst with the best in their souls.  Who would have thought that Palermo would harbor Europe’s first gas lit street, Via Alloro, according to our correspondent?  Who would have thought that Palermo would include one of the world’s most interesting botanical gardens—much neglected by the locals and visitors, but the site of one of the wonderful tree collections in the world, including the gnarled and twisted ficus brought in from Australia?  Hard times have produced plenty of unusual businesses as well as civic institutions that will surprise any visitor.

Of course, centuries of adversity have accustomed Sicialians and Italians generally to constant crises and a relentless perversity where things are constantly going wrong.  With things often astray, the locals smile wryly but grin and bear it.  The last day our hotel in Rome did not manage to get our car to the front door in time:  a street protest  blocked part of the area. Alitalia predictably lost a bag for a while. The 5-star hotel in Catania provided keys that did not work, lighting that made reading impossible, a bathroom where anybody over 5 feet had a hard time standing up.  There’s a Rube Goldberg quality to Italy that makes one feel as if the Italian experience is about walking through a satire.

Destined to be Global.  As DeBartoli said above, Sicily is not a region, it is a continent.  Its earth seems capable of growing anything, so its flora includes herbs and plants and trees that come from afar.  But it also contains a globe-full of human DNA, encrusted with the memory of and sometimes the gene stock of Greek, Roman, Arab, and Norman times.  Its fate is to be multilingual and international, yet it has been inward looking for much of its history, a vassal of Italy and sometimes of the Mafia.  It is by looking out, way out into the world, that fertile Sicily will claim its rightful place in the sun.

P.S. Thirty years ago along New York’s Fourth Avenue in the Village there was an inordinately fine Italian restaurant (Sicilian) called Siracusa.  The two brothers who owned it served the recipes devised by their mother, an émigré.  The gelato and pasta were both homemade.  In fact, the gelato, if anything, was finer than that served up in Sicily.  Now and again, we would find ourselves alone there except for one table filled with the top brass of New York’s mob who knew where they should really eat. Again the food was simple but so tasteful, a rebuke to the over ornate Italian food generally served in New York’s eateries. Sicily provides a unique taste, but it is still a well kept secret.

P.P.S.  Interfering governments—both the EU and Italy’s government—make a tough business climate ever more difficult.  DeBartoli took marsala back to its roots, making it the old way.  But interfering bureaucrats would not let him call it marsala, giving that label only to modern inferior versions of the wine.




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