As Schiavelli grew older, those stories, and the city about which they were told, took on a mythic quality. When he was nearly forty he made his first trip there, and what he found was more extraordinary than the "once upon a time" fables of his childhood.
In Many Beautiful Things, Schiavelli invites readers to join him in discovering the people, culture, and food of the city that has, in essence, become his second home. Equal parts memoir and cookbook, it is the best of both. Schiavelli is an accomplished and elegant writer who evokes a foreign and often closed culture from a unique perspective: an outsider fluent in the language with still-strong familial ties.
The recipes -- which reflect the ancient influences of Greece, North Africa, and Spain -- are simple, rustic, and delicious, depending on local products and seasonal bounty. This is not your usual Southern Italian fare but a unique regional cuisine: Pumpkin Caponata, Ditali with Drowned Lettuce, Fried Ricotta Omelet, Potato Gratin with Bay Leaves, Almond Love Bites, Veal Shoulder Roasted with Marsala, and Baked Pasta with Almonds (rigatoni baked in a pork ragu with chopped toasted almonds) are just a few of the extraordinary dishes you'll find in this book, all of which can be reproduced by cooks with delectable results.
Schiavelli provides a comprehensive list of mail-order sources. And if you want to visit Polizzi Generosa, there's a guide on how to get there, where to stay, and where to eat. Illustrated with black-and-white line drawings by Polizzi's best known artist, Santo Lipani (who also happens to be an extraordinary cook), Many Beautiful Things is a feast, both culinary and literary.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
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About the Author
Vincent Schiavelli is an actor with more that one hundred film and television performances to his credit. He has written on Sicilian cuisine for many publications and is the author of the critically acclaimed Bruculinu, America: Remembrances of a Sicilian-American Brooklyn, Told in Stories and Recipies and Papa Andrea's Sicilian Table. He lives in Southern California.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: My First Visit
First impressions are often accurate. They may not provide the whole story about a person or a place, but the insight they offer becomes a lasting reference point. My first visit to Polizzi Generosa, a place familiar through my grandparents' stories yet physically unknown to me, falls into exactly this category.
The weeks before my first trip to Sicily in 1988 were an exciting time in my life, a time of renewal and beginnings. I had spent September working on a film in France for the first time. At the beginning of October, I met an American harpist, Carol Mukhalian, who was living and working in Paris. As destiny would have it, it was love at first sight.
I had planned to go to Sicily after the Paris trip. I wondered if anyone named Vilardi, my grandmother's family name, was still alive. Since the emigration of my grandparents' generation nearly a hundred years ago, contact with the Sicilian part of the family had virtually ceased.
The only clue I had was from Angelina, one of my grandmother's first cousins. She had told me that we have a cousin who plays the tuba in the Police Band of Rome. But that was twenty years ago, and beyond that, I knew nothing of my Sicilian relatives. Having never found Polizzi Generosa on any map, it would be a true journey of discovery. When I told Carol of my plans, she agreed to join me.
We thought it best to travel as husband and wife. We had a hard enough time explaining to ourselves what was happening between us; a more traditional culture, we were certain, would not understand at all. Carol always wore an antique diamond and sapphire band on her right hand. She asked me if I would place it on the fourth finger of her left hand, and when I stopped shaking, we were on our way from Paris to Palermo.
The connecting flight from Milano to Palermo was impossibly delayed. I had managed to phone our hotel, the Grande Albergo della Palme (the Grand Hotel of the Palms), from Milano and asked to have a cold supper placed in our room for our midnight arrival.
When we finally arrived, we could see that the Grand Hotel must have been truly grand once, but time and neglect had taken their toll. Even the palms showed the wear of war and occupation. A diffident, aged bellman ceremoniously led us into a miniature modern elevator, and then down an endless twenty-foot-wide corridor to our room. Upon opening the door, I noticed first of all a hat rack. I always wear a hat and have observed that the modern world offers few places to hang one.
In a corner of the ample, high-ceilinged room was a small table set with two places. Under the protection of starched white linen napkins was laid the cold supper: chicken baked with garlic, herbs, and orange juice, green bean salad in a vinegary dressing, and potato salad with olive oil, capers, and onions. There was a chilled bottle of Sicilian white wine from the Regaliali winery and one of mineral water.
Dessert was a bowl of perfectly ripe fresh fruit. The pears seemed to cry when we peeled them, their flavor sweet and perfumy with an ever-so-slight astringency. Without doubt we were in Sicily. The thrill of our being there together kept us up until dawn.
The next afternoon, we bought a road map. For the first time I saw the name "Polizzi Generosa" printed on a map. My eyes filled at the reality: This place of childhood myth really does exist.
We rented a car, a Renault Cinque with Milano license plates. It took only the four-block drive from rental office to hotel to understand that in Palermo, to relinquish the right of way holds the same social status as being cuckolded. There are fewer traffic lights than Americans are used to, and their signals are mostly ignored anyway. To traverse an intersection, one must simply pull out into the chaos, leaving oneself in the hands of fate. Being in a small French car with continental plates gave us no primacy whatsoever in this madness.
Our destination, Polizzi Generosa, lay about seventy miles southeast of Palermo. The last quarter of the trip was on a two-lane state road that turns off the main coastal highway just past the city of Termini Imerese. When we reached this junction, it was dusk. Above us in the distance were the lights of Polizzi. As we wound our way up and around the mountain, the city would disappear, then reappear larger, closer, like a series of stop-motion photographs. Sooner than seemed possible, after a perilous set of switchbacks, a large sign proclaimed Welcome to Polizzi Generosa in several languages.
Our arrival, while momentous for Carol and me, was hardly noticed by the men at their work on the outskirts of town. I asked a garage mechanic, in my best Sicilian, if he knew of a hotel in town. He graciously answered with great formality that unfortunately there wasn't a hotel in town, but there was one in the countryside below, the Villa Cariddi.
We wound our way back down the mountain and, following his directions, turned through an open gate into a courtyard. Before us was a charming little villa. In one room near the window, a grandmother sat crocheting. We had obviously turned into the wrong driveway, since the woman pretended not to notice us. We probably could have stayed parked in her courtyard all night. After all, this was Sicily, and what these strangers were doing in her courtyard was certainly none of her business.
I tapped on her window. She opened it. I respectfully apologized for the intrusion and said that I believed I'd made a mistake. With a warm, pleasant smile, she said, "Perhaps. But if you are looking for the Villa Cariddi, it is the next house up the road."
The Villa Cariddi was a strangely austere Sicilian baroque structure. The windows were shuttered, the grounds overgrown. The property was filled with howling cats in heat. At first impression it seemed abandoned, but wisps of light seeping through the cracks in the shutters, and the wonderful aroma of cooking, implied otherwise.
Carol waited in the car as I walked up to the massive door and knocked. I expected it would be opened by a kindly grandfather not unlike my own. The door swung open wide, filling the courtyard with light and noise from a bustling room. The porter was not a sage old man in a well-worn cardigan at all, but a young man wearing a Brooks Brothers-like button-down shirt and a crew-neck sweater.
He rudely asked, "What do you want?" Thrown by his greeting, I mustered enough Sicilian to explain that we were looking for board and lodging. With flat indifference, he answered, "We are full," and slammed the door, leaving us in the darkness with the cats.
I looked to Carol for encouragement and knocked again. He opened. I asked if there were any other places he could recommend. He said, "To tell the truth, there are other places, but they are difficult to find, there are no telephones, and only I know where they are."
I knew what he was getting at, but his manner was rather disappointing. Instead of crossing his palm with silver, I quipped, "So, if you please, tell me something: How do they find clients?" He laughed coldly, slamming the door in my face once more. I turned and walked back to the car. Without understanding a word, Carol knew what had happened. She suggested that we go back to town for another look around.
We returned up the perilous route to Polizzi. Around the bend from the mechanics, we found a pizzeria. We stopped for a coffee and to regroup. The place was named Il Pioniere, The Pioneer, and was oddly decorated with large original paintings of the American Old West. In the center of the large room, well-worn rustic tables and benches made of split logs completed the theme. Near the bar, at small café tables and chairs, sat a group of old men drinking coffee. We stood at the bar and drank ours. The room rumbled with the same kind of silence as in a western movie when the stranger walks into the saloon.
I asked the man behind the bar if he knew of any hotels. He sang out, "The Villa Cariddi." I told him that we had already been there and that it was full. I asked if there were any others. He nervously answered, "I don't know. I don't know." Suddenly, one of the old men stood up and declaimed in a loud voice, "You know what you should do?" And then to the crowd, "You know what they should do?" Everyone held his breath. He continued, "You should go to the Università della Muratori." I translated for Carol, explaining that he said we should go to the "University of the Bricklayers." She rolled her eyes. I, uncertain of his meaning, asked if this was a hotel. "Yes," he said. "It has an odd name but it is comfortable, with very good food. The owner is named Santo Lipani. Be sure to tell him that the Distribbuturu Agip sent you." At first I thought this was some grand municipal title, but soon realized that this gentleman was the distributor or owner of an Agip-brand gasoline station.
As the kind gentleman was giving us directions, the barman magically remembered that he had, behind the bar, a stack of brochures for the place. Carol and I exchanged a glance but said nothing.
After the business of hotel directions was settled, I mentioned that my grandmother was Polizzani. The distributor said, "I know that. I can hear it in your accent." All of the old men now smiled and nodded at us.
I realized that everyone we had come in contact with knew exactly why I had come to Polizzi Generosa. Their code of respect prevented them from speaking to the issue; they would not invade my privacy. But now that I had brought it up, they were free to ask my family's name.
"Vi-lar-di," the distributor pronounced carefully. He said it again almost in a whisper, building the drama of the moment. He became lost in great brow-knitting thought. Finally he said, "There is a barber here with that name who has a brother who plays tuba in the Police Band of Rome."
"My God!" I almost shouted, "that's my cousin!"
With a fatherly attitude, the gentleman told me to calm down. "It's late now," he said. "Go to the hotel, have a nice dinner, rest, and tomorrow come back to town and you'll find your cousin Giuseppe Vilardi." I thanked him and we finally shook hands. As we left, all of the old men came to the door to see us off.
Soon we were down the mountain again and turning onto the dirt road leading to the University of the Bricklayers. The night was cold, foggy, and dark, the road muddy and rutted. A light, barely visible in the distance, encouraged our progress. When we grew closer, the outline of a square, rustic two-story building could be seen.
I parked the Renault in the courtyard and we entered a warm room, overlit by fluorescent lights and cozy from the fire in an enormous hearth. At the far corner sat two men eating pasta fasoli, macaroni and beans. They were shocked to see these two strangers on their threshold. I asked for Signur Santo Lipani and one of them came forward. He was in his mid-thirties, squarely built with fair skin, reddish hair, and a large blond mustache. The other man, of similar age but thin and dark, introduced himself as Domenico.
There was a room available; in fact the place was empty. He asked if we were hungry. He showed us to our room and said dinner would be ready in twenty minutes. I thanked him, using the old Sicilian formal pronoun, vossia. He said, "We are in the country here. It is very peaceful, serene. There is no need to be formal, no reason to call each other vossia. We can use tu."
The room was charming. A good bed, covered in a brightly colored quilt, filled most of the tiled floor. The tile continued past a door into the bath. The casement windows had beautifully carpentered shutters with hand-forged wrought-iron latches. The room was cold and had that sweet smell rooms acquire deep in the country. Although not yet eight o'clock, the peacefulness of the night was broken only by the wind and an occasional barking dog.
We lugged in our bags (I always carry too much and so, it turns out, does Carol), washed up, and returned to the main room. A table close to the fire had been laid with a crisp oilcloth and set for two. The dinner began slowly, with a modest antipasto of salami, olives, and bread. The flavors, however, were rich with country Sicilian robustness.
We "oohed" gleefully at the incredible flavor of the salami. Santo explained that this salami was made locally from pigs raised in the traditional way -- herded, not penned. The animals forage the hillsides, eating chestnuts before the time of their slaughter. The meat has a delicate sweetness and a richness, while at the same time having little fat.
The olives were rich and oily; black-brown, they were slightly larger than calamatas. They were skewered on toothpicks and toasted over an open fire. We learned that this was a style of preparation unique to Polizzi.
The bread, yellow with a firm crust, was made of durum wheat flour. Santo had baked it in a large wood-burning brick oven that stood on the patio outside the kitchen door. Pani 'i casa, as it is called, is the traditional bread of Sicily. Breaking bread here, in the land of my roots, stirred an ancient part of my soul.
Our pig-squeals of delight over the antipasto inspired Santo to prepare the first course. The antipasto, I realized later, was a sort of test to measure our appreciation of what would follow. Had our response been cooler, Santo would not have prepared the magnificent first course that soon came from the kitchen. Placing it on the table, he announced, "Taggiarini chi funci sarvaggi." I translated for Carol, "Homemade pasta with wild mushrooms."
Santo had foraged the mushrooms that very morning. Funci 'i ferla, as he called them, they look somewhat like our cultivated portabella, but there is little comparison in flavor. They have a deep, musty quality, enhanced by their preparation with parsley and the perfume of garlic.
Next came coils of thin sausage, made from the same pork as the salami. Sea salt and a pinch of black pepper were the only flavorings added to the ground meat. The sausages were pan-cooked, finished with red wine, and accompanied by a green tomato salad dressed with a wonderfully fruity extra-virgin olive oil and dried oregano. Santo said that the tomatoes were green because in these Sicilian mountains the growing season is relatively short. All of the tomatoes that turn red by the beginning of September are cooked into sauce and canned, or sun-dried into paste for the winter.
The wine was local, very fruity and very young, about two weeks old. It looked like unfiltered apple juice. Santo tapped it from a small barrel into a beautiful majolica pitcher. Despite its youthful flavor, it was strong. Carol and I became giddy as we toasted our arrival in Polizzi and the mutual pleasure of our company. I caught Santo and Domenico smiling in our direction. I could see in their eyes that they knew, "wedding ring" aside, we had just met.
On the table next to the wine was a glass carafe filled with the water of Polizzi, of which my grandfather had often spoken. I was thrilled to see it still as clear as the finest ground-glass lens, still as pure and sweet as the first flower of spring. I had now drunk the sweet water of Polizzi Generosa, and I felt as if the thirst of every cell of genetic memory was quenched by it. I think that I shall remember always my first meal in Polizzi Generosa, on October 30, 1988. My grandfather would have been 116 on that day.
After dinner we asked Santo and his colleague Domenico to join us. We sat around the table cracking hazelnuts and talking. The dark night was growing colder, and the fireplace provided great comfort against it.
The first thing they wanted to know was how we had found their place. I told them the story of our rude experience at the Villa Cariddi and how the Distribbuturu Agip had told us about the University of the Bricklayers. They were amazed to learn that we were told about the place in town. Domenico nervously laughed and remarked, "It is the mafia." This word Carol understood without translation. Her face registered alarm. Santo explained as I translated for her: "Domenico doesn't mean what you think. You are not from here, and perhaps your sense of the mafia is like it is in The Godfather, with gangsters and guns. But it's different here; it's about respect."
He cracked a nut for emphasis. "Let's say, for example, an important, well-respected man opens a hotel in the countryside. By and by, a stranger comes to town asking for a hotel. There are sixteen hotels around Polizzi, but the townspeople will give directions to just that one place, out of deference to the man of respect. Of course, tourists can stay wherever they wish, but a different hotel might be hard for them to find." He took a sip of wine.
"You see, it is much more profound than the American idea of mafia. It is something more difficult to grasp, this ancient culture of respect." For final punctuation, Santo put the nut-meat in his mouth and crunched it hard between his molars.
Domenico dissolved the sobriety of the moment by quickly changing the subject to America. "I lived there once for nine months, in Bruculinu," he gleefully announced. The section of Brooklyn he described was, not surprisingly, my old neighborhood. "What a place! People always running, and for what? After a while I couldn't take it, so I returned to Polizzi. I'm very happy about that."
Santo had never been to the United States, but he had spent time in Nicaragua, teaching farming techniques to the native people. "We were in the jungle," he said, "showing the people how to grow tomatoes and potatoes, the two most important foods originally from that part of the world, and they'd never seen them before. It was very strange."
I asked him why he called his hotel the University of the Bricklayers. "I have been building it on and off for ten years," he said, "and for me it has been a university." The walls were hung with a collection of paintings. Their style was a kind of modern realism, and the subjects ranged from historical battles to portraits that looked a bit like Sicilian Botero. Santo modestly acknowledged that the work was his. Domenico went on to say, less modestly, that Santo's paintings have been exhibited in Palermo, Catania, and Rome, as well as in galleries in other major cities throughout Italy. "Santo Lipani is not only a chef and a bricklayer," boasted Domenico, "but also a famous artist." Santo blushed.
They asked us how we had heard of Polizzi. I told them about my family. Santo said, "I know. I hear it in your accent."
It now being official that we were sort of paisani, Domenico brought out a bottle of homemade hazelnut liqueur. We toasted, first to my "wife," and then to our arrival. We toasted the dinner, and Polizzi, and the universe, and the mind of God.
Santo drew something on a small piece of paper and handed it to me. It was a caricature of me. At first it seemed very funny, but the information held in its image showed otherwise. On my shoulder flew two flags: the trinacria of ancient Sicily and Old Glory. Above my head were the words
I DO NONT REMEMBER SICILY.
Santo understood why I had come to Polizzi Generosa.
We drank and laughed and talked well into the small hours of the morning, our actions punctuated by the howling wind and the fire's crackle.
Back in our room, there was not the benefit of a fireplace, but the warmth produced by the liqueur held long enough for Carol and me to undress and climb into bed. Reviewing the day's events by the dim yellow light of a small candle, it was hard to remember that only the previous afternoon Polizzi Generosa had been just a red dot at the end of a squiggly blue line on a road map.
As we talked, lying on our sides facing each other, we inched closer. We could see our breath in the candlelight as we whispered "I love you" over and over to each other for the first time. The breath that formed these words surrounded us in a great protective dome, as we dreamily drifted asleep in each other's arms.
All at once, we were frightened awake by the sound of many feet in the gravel outside the window at the head of our bed. The candle had burned out, leaving us in complete darkness. There was the hushed voice of someone giving orders. We wondered what could be causing the disturbance, our imaginations certain of the worst. Could it be that we were to be targeted for staying in the unapproved hotel? We realized that we knew very little of Santo or Domenico or of Polizzi. How easy it would be for two people like us to disappear here without a trace.
Hearts pounding, we finally found the muscles needed to untangle ourselves. With all the courage we could muster, we quietly rose to wobbling knees on the unsteady bed and listened at the shuttered window. I could understand nothing of what was being said, and trying to convince us both that it probably was none of our business, I suggested that we return to bed. I dove for the safety of the covers.
Carol's curiosity, however, could not be postponed. Slowly she unlatched the shutters and peeked out the window. She whispered, "Oh Vince, you have to see this." I looked up to see the dawn's light illuminating the nude form of a beautiful woman kneeling on the bed beside me. Joining her at the window was beginning to seem like a pretty good idea.
What we saw outside was a man trying to negotiate his cow away from under our window. He pulled and tugged at the collar to no avail. His pleading turned to anger. He cursed the cow and all her kind in a colorful stream of epithets. The window was high and we remained unnoticed. At his final moment of desperation, the stubborn cow graciously complied and she led the farmer away.
Still on our knees, heads framed by the window, we felt embarrassed by our foolish assumption of mafia assassins. Our eyes followed the trail of man and beast. As our heads tilted up, we sighted for the first time the incredible splendor of where we were. Before us lay a mountain pasture, dotted with olive trees. In the distance, on a hill covered with broom, sheep grazed. We threw open the casement. The room filled with the clear, cold morning air. It was scented with wild fennel, and bay laurel, and earth -- rich, fertile earth. There was no machine noise, only the sounds of bleating sheep, and cowbells, and the chime of someone tinkering.
I thought of my grandfather sitting at our kitchen window in Brooklyn. Looking out over that bleak landscape through a tangle of clotheslines, could the remembrance of this splendor have caused the sparkle that ran across his eyes? What determination to find a better life must have driven him, must have driven all of them, to trade these pristine Sicilian mountains for Brooklyn's tenements.
The cold air made us shiver and we scurried to find our clothes. While stamping our feet and flapping our arms, we dressed quickly and went out into the light of the new day. Hand in hand, wandering the narrow dirt roads near the hotel, we found the morning alive with the activity of a rural life. Shepherds were moving their flocks to graze, and farmers were carrying implements on their shoulders to the fields. One man was riding a donkey, hurriedly traveling somewhere.
We smiled and bid boniornu to everyone we passed. Their eyes shared with us the pleasure of our being in love. They knew we had come from far away, and were honored and pleased by our obvious joy at being there. It was as if we had traveled all this way just to see them. They returned our boniorni and smiled back at us with gracious pride.
An hour later, we flew into the hotel, excited and invigorated by the walk. A barely awake Santo was preparing coffee. He scooped a generous amount of finely ground espresso into a pot of boiling water. He let it return to the boil, removed the pot from the heat, and added a trickle of cold water to settle the grinds. Then he strained it through a small fine-mesh strainer. I remember my grandmother preparing coffee this way every morning of my childhood.
First Santo served the strong brew black, in small cups, as a kind of eye-opener. Then we had it in coffee bowls with hot milk, accompanied by toast and jam. Santo turned to face me and, looking squarely into my eyes, asked, "Now do you remember Sicily?"
After breakfast, we drove up to Polizzi to find my cousin Giuseppe Vilardi, the barber. It was Sunday morning, and the center of the city was closed to vehicular traffic. In traditional Sicilian fashion, the women were on their way to church and the men were filling the piazzas and cafés. Some were engaging in the Sunday ritual of passíu, strolling back and forth along the main street. Their pace was almost processional. Even though we were obvious strangers, everyone ignored our presence.
We found a barber shop. I stood in the doorway, but before I could speak, the barber informed me that we wanted a different barber shop, pointing us in the right direction. Clearly, he knew who we were.
Finding it, we stood outside the opened doorway and looked inside. It was an old shop. The chairs were white porcelain with green leather cushions. A client reclined in one of them with his eyes closed. A portable sink of shiny copper was in place under his head. The barber, who had his back to us, was wetting the man's hair with a kind of copper watering can and giving it a shampooing.
"Excuse me," I said, "I am looking for a barber named Giuseppe Vilardi." The barber turned, his hands full of soap, "I am Giuseppe Vilardi."
"I think we're cousins," I said.
With that, the man in the chair turned in our direction, opening one eye to give us the once-over. Remembering this was none of his business, he turned back and closed his eye.
Giuseppe was stunned with excitement. He moved toward me, his arms extended. We half shook hands and half embraced, the soap on his hands making it awkward. "But where did you come from?" he asked. I told him that we were from America, and about Cousin Angelina's information about his brother the tuba player. Although his portrayal of surprise was impeccable, I was sure he already knew all that. I also was now certain that the news of our arrival in Polizzi was all over town.
A genealogical review determined that we were, indeed, cousins. Although he was twenty years my senior, our great-grandfathers had been brothers. We were third cousins, not a distant relationship in a Sicilian family. Had we known each other during my childhood, I would be calling him Zú, (uncle) out of respect.
The shop was filling up with clients. Some of them spoke to me, happy at the reunion, pretending to be hearing of it for the first time. I did not want to further interrupt Giuseppe at his work, and said as much. He very apologetically said that Sunday morning was his busiest time. We made a plan to meet later in the day. He invited us to his home, to meet his wife and children. We embraced good-bye, sans soap, until later. Amazing! I could barely comprehend the ease with which I had found family six thousand miles away and ninety years later. I think Guiseppe took it more in stride. After all, family is family.
The city was becoming busier with the activities of Sunday morning. We stopped in a café to drink cappuccino and eat horn-shaped pastry filled with cream. Carol and I stood very close to each other at the bar, pastry cream running down our mouths. Carol moved to lick away a particularly luscious glob from the corner of my mouth when her eye caught a stern look from the barman. I turned to see what had stopped her. We moved a little apart to maintain propriety. The barman's acerbity changed to a smile, but still he scolded us with a shaking finger.
We finished our snack like proper Sicilian ladies and gentlemen and then left the café to find a place to steal a kiss, easier said than done. Our quest for an isolated spot took us on a grand tour through the beautiful winding streets of Polizzi Generosa.
We found ourselves in an ancient part of town with narrow winding streets walled by small two-story houses. At the center of this section rose what was, obviously, at one time a minaret. Clotheslines laden with brightly colored laundry, waving in the warming sun, bridged the streets. As Carol and I passed underneath, I felt as if these banners were placed there to herald our arrival.
It was near noon when we returned to the center of town. The strollers were now walking faster, on their way to Sunday dinner, carrying cake boxes or loaves of bread. From out of nowhere, an old lady in black appeared in front of us. She was uncommonly pale, with wispy white hair and a mouth full of misplaced teeth.
She spoke in a loud, exasperated, craggy voice. "Are you Vilardi?" she croaked. I half-nodded in the affirmative, and clasping her hands to heaven, she said, "Thank God! I found you! I felt you were here." In Sicily one would never betray a confidence by saying, "So and so told me you were here."
She fell in between us and, grabbing our arms in a vise-like grip, led us, silently, at breakneck speed through a maze of winding streets. We came to a halt in front of a small house. She nudged us inside to a large dark kitchen. In it were three men, the two older men sitting at an oilcloth-covered table. It was illuminated by the light from a giant television set, on which a soccer match was in progress. The youngest man was stirring a large pot of tomato sauce on the dimly lit stove. Without looking up, he bellowed gleefully, "You found them?" "Of course," she said nonchalantly. She now turned to us with a big smile. Her teeth sparkled like a drunken jeweler's fantasy. "Now," she said, "I can embrace you. On the street, what would people think." She clasped each of our heads, in turn, in her strong hands, planting firm kisses on our cheeks.
We introduced ourselves. Her name was Pasqualina Vilardi. Her youngest son, Peppe, came forward with his right hand extended and the wooden sauce spoon in the left. He pumped ours with great enthusiasm. His kisses on our cheeks were just as earnest. The two older sons, Moffu and Franco, were slightly less effusive. After all, cousins from America are one thing, but it was the crucial moment of the game.
In a jump-cut we were at the table enjoying a dish of macaroni. The sauce was a hearty tomato-meat ragù with rich, sharp pecorino grated on top. The second course was a veal shoulder roast, flavored with onion and Marsala. The meat was accompanied by a potato gratin made with olive oil and pecorino, perfumed with the woodsy mountain flavor of fresh bay leaves. There was also cicoria, a wild field green that is similar to dandelion, only shorter and more bitter. The cicoria was cooked and dressed with olive oil and lemon.
Pasqualina, whom I called Zà (aunt) out of respect, sat next to me at dinner. She stared at me the whole time, smiling with watery eyes. She thanked the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and all the saints in heaven for "bringing my cousin safely back to me." We figured out that her late husband was descended in some way from my great-great-grandfather. She kept taking my face in her hands and kissing my cheeks. This made it difficult to eat, but after all, the event wasn't about food.
The soccer match ended unfavorably for the favorite team. Immediately relegating the loss to the remote past, the sons spoke of how different Los Angeles must be from Polizzi. (More, I knew, than they could ever imagine.) Carol was sitting on the other side of me and I endeavored to keep her abreast of the conversation. They all watched with great interest the attention I was paying to my "wife."
Conversation drew to a slow stop. We sat around, sort of smiling and nodding at each other. There seemed to be one common thought: "Who are these people? What if we're not related?" Peppe ran to another room and returned with a photo album. Zà Pasqualina opened it and, pointing at a picture, said, "This is your grandmother." The battle-ax to whom she was pointing bore no resemblance to my delicate, beautiful grandmother.
She tried again: "This is your cousin Philip." I feigned memory loss. She turned pages in silence, pointing at photos, hopefully trying to coax some recognition from me. It was to no avail. All of these people were total strangers to me. Taking the book from her, I started to turn pages myself, frantically looking for a familiar face. At last, there she was. "Ah!" I said in victory, "Zà Angelina!" The photo was of the woman who had told me about the tuba player. The whole room sighed in relief. Then we ate hazelnuts. I looked up from nut-cracking and noticed that the Vilardis were not using nutcrackers to open these hard shells. They accomplished this strenuous task with their teeth.
All at once, the room filled with more than twenty people. They were Zà Pasqualina's other children and grandchildren and their families. It was a party. We toasted and were toasted with homemade hazelnut liqueur. I grew lax in my simultaneous translation. Carol had to tap me on the shoulder and ask, "What's going on?" A "Don't you know?" with a giggle was all I could manage.
Loosened a bit by the liqueur, the eldest daughter, Vincenzina, a no-nonsense woman, asked questions about this alleged marriage between Carol and myself. When I told her that we had been married for only three months, she said, "Well, that explains the attention. You're newlyweds."
The other daughter, Anna, and her family kept a large kitchen garden. The end of October is prickly pear season, and Anna's husband, Giovanni, had brought a bushel basket of the fruit. Fucurinnia, as the Sicilians call them, comes from the Italian fichi d'India, Indian figs. The Spaniards planted this cactus, indigenous to the American Southwest and Mexico, at a time when Europeans still believed that the Western Hemisphere was part of India.
Over the centuries, the Sicilians have come to believe that the prickly pear is theirs. The sweet deep red fruit found beneath the dangerously spiny skin could be a metaphor for the contradictions of Sicilian life itself. As befits their ironic sense of humor, Sicilians love to make jokes about prickly pears. Somehow the punch lines always have to do with someone sitting on the spiny fruit. The family howled as they told their favorite prickly pear stories, some of which were so old -- and so widely known -- that I had heard them from my grandfather as a boy.
Giovanni carefully peeled the prickly pears, presenting them to us whole at the end of a fork. While we were lost in ecstasy eating these rubies, someone asked what Carol and I were doing later. I said we were going to see Giuseppe the barber. The room went suddenly and profoundly silent. Vincenzina said, "We don't speak to Giuseppe the barber." It was an awkward moment. I did not wish to be thrown into the middle of a family feud.
It seems that the rift had something to do with money sent by their mutual great-grandfather from America. Although intended for the whole family, the story goes that Giuseppe's grandfather kept it all for himself. "It's not for the money," Anna insisted, "it's for the principle of the thing." All of the original players in this melodrama were long dead, but that hadn't changed this "principle."
Moffu, the eldest son, stood. Everyone turned to hear his opinion. "You know," he said, "you have come from far away. It is the right thing for you to do, to see Giuseppe the barber. After all, he's family too." Everyone agreed, pleased to have found a way out, and the party continued.
A short while later we left. There was much hugging and kissing all around. I took the opportunity to kiss Carol. Everyone chuckled at the playfulness of the "newlyweds." Zà Pasqualina came to the door and waved, slowly and solemnly, long after, I am certain, we had turned the corner and were out of sight.
We were to meet Giuseppe at his barbershop, and as we approached, he was strolling up the street toward us. When we met, he greeted us with a warm open smile and much hand-pumping. He probably knew about the dinner with Zà Pasqualina and her family, but I didn't mention it. Although in Sicily only a short time, I was beginning "to remember," as Santo might have put it.
We were now walking through a section of town Carol and I had not as yet seen. From behind high walls could be glimpsed the grand palazzi of the titled rich. Their terra-cotta roofs unified a mélange of architectural styles, built over centuries. I wondered in which one of these cold stone palazzi my grandfather had cooked for the Baron Rampolla.
The modest two-story house in which Giuseppe and his family lived faced a small piazza with a fountain. Francesca, his wife, came down to greet us from the upper floor. She was an ample, attractive, primly dressed woman in her mid-fifties. "At last, cousin," she cooed, "you've finally arrived," as if she had been expecting me for months. "And who is this beautiful lady?" I introduced Carol, "my wife," and we waited for the usual flicker of disbelief. Francesca did not disappoint us. Quickly changing the subject, she said, "But why are we standing here in the doorway? Please, come inside."
The hallway was under major renovation, with temporary stairs and railings. "Excuse the construction," Francesca chirped, "but there is an unsettled question about it with our downstairs neighbor; for twenty years it has been unsettled."
The apartment was beautifully decorated. The floors were made of colored marble laid in geometric patterns. The furnishings were antique, family treasures. Everything was immaculate and in its place.
We perched on a settee. Francesca offered pastries and coffee. The pastries were arranged on a silver tray covered with a crocheted doily. They all looked, somehow, like little breasts. The coffee was espresso, served in ornate china demitasse cups with silvered rims and handles. The coffee was excellent, with a sure layer of gold, 'a crema, on top. I complimented her, asking what brand of home espresso machine she used to prepare such wonderful coffee. She blushed and giggled like a schoolgirl. "Oh," she said, "I don't use a machine. You see, I take a little of the coffee and beat it with a little sugar. With a little spoon, I put a little on the top of each cupful. And that's my little secret."
We were joined by their son, Antonio, and their daughter, Maria. Antonio was handsome and fit, in his early twenties. He lived in Palermo, where he was a policeman. Maria was a girl of sixteen. She was shy and innocent, in the flower of her adolescence. She would be going to college next year in Rome. Giuseppe assured me that she would be living under the protective eye of her uncle, the tuba player. She rolled her eyes at this prospect.
We spoke of the family in America and made small talk. Both Antonio and Maria laughed at my Sicilian. To them, as to most young educated people from Sicily, the dialect is considered low-class and provincial. Perhaps one day they will see it for the strong expression of the refined ancient culture that it is.
Giuseppe wished there were some modern industry in Polizzi to hold the youth. I nodded agreement, but I knew that work was not their only reason for leaving. For them the past has not yet concluded, and they struggle in the present to find a Sicilian image for the future.
As if in response to my unspoken thoughts, Giuseppe stated his case. "Cousin," he said, "I know that there are other places in the world. But here I have my work. I go home for lunch. My family is nearby, all around me. My life is peaceful, contented, serene. You know World War II? We didn't have it here."
Dusk was gathering. It was time to go. The whole family accompanied us to the street. There were good-bye hugs and kisses, with reminders to send best regards to the unknown family in America. Giuseppe grabbed both my hands and squeezed them hard. Allowing me to look deep into his eyes, he wished me the old Sicilian farewell with slow, special emphasis: Tanti beddi cosi, so many beautiful things.
Carol and I strolled arm in arm to our car, parked early that morning. We reviewed the day's events to plant them, in every detail, deep in our memories. As we approached the overlook, the hazelnut and olive trees below were silhouetted by the setting sun. The echo of our voices and the sound of our footsteps on the cobbles were soon the only ones we heard. All of the townspeople had gone home. At long last, we were alone. Our eyes met, and we kissed and kissed and kissed as darkness fell.
Capunata 'i Cacuocciuli Artichoke Caponata
In northern Italy, caponata is a relish, usually composed of peppers and tomato. Sicilian caponata, however, is a dish of one or more vegetables cooked separately and joined together by a sauce. In Polizzi, this sauce always has a sweet-and-sour flavor.
This delicious caponata joins artichoke hearts, celery, and olives with a reduced tomato sauce, and is flavored with capers and vinegar.
The type of artichokes to use are called baby, or cocktail, artichokes. Although tiny, they are fully mature. Every artichoke plant produces a number of these on its outermost stalks. Except at the end of their season in early summer, these tiny artichokes do not produce a choke and their hearts are very tender.
This dish is best served at room temperature, as part of an antipasto or as an accompaniment to simply grilled meats or fish.
For 6 servings
For the tomato sauce
One 35-ounce can peeled whole Italian plum tomatoes, drained
2 cloves garlic, peeled
14 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons sugar
12 teaspoon dried basil
For the vegetables
6ounces (about 20) large green olives
2 pounds (about 20) baby or cocktail artichokes, about 212 inches long and 112 inches in diameter
13 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 ribs celery
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
14 cup red wine vinegar
Prepare the tomato sauce: Put the drained tomatoes into a bowl and crush them with your hand.
Put the garlic and oil in a heavy 112-quart saucepan. Sauté the garlic over low heat until it is lightly cooked on all sides; remove and discard it.
Add the tomatoes, sugar, salt, black pepper, and basil. Cook, uncovered, stirring with the back of a wooden spoon, until a creamy consistency is reached. Then raise the heat to medium and let the sauce boil gently for 15 to 20 minutes, until it is reduced to a thick pulp. Stir from time to time to keep the sauce from burning. If the sauce is ready before the artichokes, take the pan off the heat and set aside until needed.
Prepare the vegetables: Smash each olive with a meat pounder or kitchen mallet and remove the pits. To greatly reduce the saltiness of the olives, soak the pieces in cold water for the remainder of the preparation time, changing the water three times.
Pour cold water into a medium-sized bowl. Juice 2 of the lemons and add the juice and rinds to the water.
Working with 1 artichoke at a time, cut off about 12 inch from the top of the artichoke. If the stem is long enough to trim and peel, do so; if not, cut off and discard the stem. (To help prevent the artichokes from turning black, pass the knife through the third lemon prior to each cut.) Remove the outer leaves to the place where the leaves are thin and pale green. Cut the artichoke into quarters and place the pieces in the lemon water.
Pour the olive oil into a heavy 9-inch skillet and place it over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, drain and add the artichokes. Sauté for 2 minutes to sear them. Add salt to taste. Reduce the heat to low, and continue to sauté until cooked but still crunchy, 15 to 20 minutes. Turn the artichokes with a spatula from time to time to prevent burning.
While the artichokes cook, blanch the celery in boiling water, uncovered, for 2 minutes. Drain it in a colander and rinse it under cold running water to quickly cool it. Thinly slice the celery, and reserve until needed.
When the artichokes are ready, raise the heat to medium-high and gently fold in the drained olives, the celery, and the capers. When these additions are hot, add the vinegar. Let the aroma rise for about a minute; then add the tomato sauce and continue to cook for 5 minutes, stirring to let the flavors amalgamate.
Turn the caponata onto a serving platter, and sprinkle with a few grindings of black pepper. Serve at room temperature.
Carni Cuotta ca Marsala Veal Shoulder Roast with Marsala
Adding butter to Marsala imbues its flavor with a subtle richness. Mixed with onions and peppercorns, it becomes an exquisite marinade for this veal shoulder. Slow-cooking the meat in this mixture gives it a soft, melting quality. In the end, this cooking liquid is transformed into a delicious gravy with which to sauce the veal.
For 6 servings
1 14 cups dry Marsala wine
1 medium-sized yellow onion, coarsely chopped
12 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, in small pieces
22 whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
3 pounds boned veal shoulder roast, tied or netted, about 4 inches in diameter
The day before the veal is to be served, put the Marsala, onion, butter, peppercorns, and bay leaves in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring, just until the butter melts. Transfer to a bowl and cool to almost room temperature.
Meanwhile, put the veal in a bowl and salt it on all sides. When the marinade has cooled, pour it over the veal, cover well, and marinate in the refrigerator for 24 hours. During this time, turn the meat several times.
About 3 hours before the veal is to be served, preheat the oven to 350°F, with a rack positioned in the center.
Put the veal in a heavy round or oval 4- to 5-quart pot with a tight-fitting lid. Pour the marinade, including the solidified butter pieces, over the meat, and bake for about 214 hours, until it reaches an internal temperature of 160°F. Turn the meat every 30 minutes.
Transfer the meat to a platter and let it rest in a warm place for 20 minutes before slicing. Discard the bay leaves and pour the remaining liquid, with the onions and peppercorns, into a small saucepan. Let it settle for a minute or two, and then skim off the fat (this will be about half the contents). Add 14 cup water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low, cover, and simmer gently while you are cutting the meat.
Cut off the strings or netting and thinly slice the meat. Arrange the slices on a warmed oval platter. Spoon on the onion and peppercorn gravy, and serve.
Patati chi Addauru Potato Gratin with Bay Leaves
This dish captures like no other the perfume of the clear mountain air of Polizzi Generosa. Whenever I cook these potatoes, I imagine that that glorious breeze has traveled 6,000 miles to visit me in my kitchen.
In Polizzi, the gratin is made with fresh bay leaves, but dried ones may be substituted. Just remember that bay leaves are inedible.
For 6 servings
2 14 pounds Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn, or russet potatoes
1 12 medium-sized yellow onions
Extra-virgin olive oil for greasing and drizzling
6 bay leaves
1 cup grated imported pecorino cheese, preferably Locatelli brand
Preheat the oven to 375°F, with a rack positioned in the center.
Peel the potatoes and cut them into lengthwise slices about 18 inch thick. Peel the onions, slice them, and separate the rings.
Using a small amount of olive oil, grease the bottom of a gratin pan that is just large enough to accommodate the potatoes in three layers. Put a layer of sliced potatoes in the pan. Lightly salt them, and sprinkle generously with black pepper. Cover with one third of the pecorino and onion, a light drizzle of oil, and 2 bay leaves. Arrange the second and third layers in the same way.
Bake for 1 hour, and serve hot.
Text copyright © 2002 by Vincent Schiavelli