We were awakened by a lot of noise and talking at about 3:00am on Monday morning. A few hours later the delicious smell of fresh bread wafted in our window. Later, when it got light and we looked out we realized that one of our neighbours across the narrow street is a bakery. If I can make it over there in my pyjamas by 6:30am I can get a crusty loaf for 1 euro.
We drove the 5km along the shore to where the cable car will take you up the cliffs to Taormina. This is a swanky town with glitzy shops geared to separating tourists from their euros. German was the predominant language we heard with a smattering of French and English. We realized that all the tourists, including ourselves, were of a certain age...we blended well. Even though it was a cloudy day, the views up and down the coast were stupendous. We found a supermarket and stocked up on the important things - vegetables, vino rosso and limoncello - and then lugged them around in a backpack while exploring the town. We ate our sandwiches in a beautiful park on the edge of a cliff and then took
the cable car down - leaving the amphitheatre for another, hopefully sunny, day.
We still had not seen Mount Etna as the clouds had been too thick. We had a plan to drive around it on Tuesday, however our larger-than-life host, John Garufi, invited us to accompany him on a business trip to Syracuse, Modica and other more rural points...how could we refuse such a opportunity? John was supposedly retired after a very successful business career in Montreal, Halifax, Egypt and the Middle East, but, needing to keep himself occupied, he got involved selling photovoltaic panel installations and business here in sunny Sicily is booming. Evidently, to meet their Kyoto target, the Italian government is heavily subsidizing such installations to the point where, over the long term, the cost to the customer is virtually nothing. Our invitation accompany John was made late at night after a lot of vino rosso and we were to leave at 6:30 am so there wasn’t too much sleep that night.
We saw the sun rise over the sea into a clear, blue sky and set off in John’s LandRover down the highway. On the other side of Taormina, we got our first look at
Etna. This mountain is some 11,000 feet tall and the top half was covered with snow except where a long tongue of lava had flowed through the night. Etna dominates the landscape of northeast Sicily and we were breathless with the view.
Olive, orange and lemon groves sped by us on the highway as the volcanic soil around Etna is very rich. At a highway rest stop we met John’s associate, Giuseppe. They downed small cups of Italian coffee - caffe or espresso - while we had cappuccino which is the same but with hot fluffy milk. Italians drink intense coffee brewed at less than the boiling point which keeps flavour high and the bitterness low. It ain’t hot but it’s powerful! The gas stop was a slice of Italian life as there were only men (except Darla): they were all standing up - as an Italian ‘Bar’ is a stand-up joint where coffee is drunk quickly from very small cups and then off you go. Booze of any kind is also available - evidenced by the strategic decorations of Champagne and Scotch bottles.
We carried on down the expressway to Syracuse where John and Giuseppe left us at a
ruin dating back a mere 7000 years. We toured a Roman amphitheatre and a Greek amphitheatre nearby. Interestingly, the Greek amphitheatre was better preserved. We also walked into the Ear of Dionysius, an enormous cave, shaped like and with the acoustic properties of an ear which was used as a prison for hundreds of years.. After a couple of hours they were back and we were off to the town of Modica, a Unesco Heritage site for its Baroque uniqueness. However, John was feeling he should take us to a special seaside village he loved and, besides, it was lunch time. If anyone’s army marched on its stomach, it was John’s as this man loves to eat good food and has fun searching it out. We ended up in the town of Marzamemi near the southeast tip of Sicily with little fishing boats in a sheltered harbour and the dark blue sea crashing at the breakwater. Evidently, the area is famous for its cherry tomatoes.
We ordered sandwiches made from fresh loaves, local sliced meats and vegetables. John ordered a bottle of the local house wine which we all remarked was rather special. John decided he should buy ten litres
to take home. A quick negotiating and a few mobile phone calls later and we were the proud owners of some plastic jugs of excellent wine at two euros/litre (about C$3.50/litre). Heading out of town we stopped at a roadside vendor selling fresh-picked artichokes, cherry tomatoes (a local specialty), green and red peppers, new potatoes and some unknown greenery. Intense negotiations ensued in which the integrity of ones mother and the origins of ones genes were questioned. We left with a crate of tomatoes, another crate of red and green peppers, 25 artichokes, a bag of new potatoes and a bunch of the unknown greenery. The cost was not sufficient to prevent said aformentioned vendor from being near tears at his poor bargaining skills. John, on the other hand was in high spirits as we headed down the road to his next appointment.
Arriving in Modica, we finally learned just what was meant by the term ‘Baroque’. John left us in the centre of town as he picked up his client and headed off to see his worksite. We wandered around but were still too wasted to ‘climb 258 steps to the Duomo’ that the guide books suggest.
on secondary roads, crossed through a long stretch of rural Sicily to John’s next client. The countryside was magnificent. Green fields of grain and pasture divided by dry-stacked white stone walls some four feet high. The region is famous for these fences, some twenty inches thick at the base and tapering to about twelve inches and then capped off with a chiselled, rounded, half-moon stone.
John was determined to complete his plan for the day and we still had a few stops after dark. As we passed Etna on the way home we could see a river of red lava glowing in the dark. In the meantime. John’s stunningly beautiful wife, Rosa, had phoned to inquire just what a retired man was doing on the road so late at night. When we arrived back at Letojanni Rosa had prepared breaded chicken, escarole salad and her beans and rice ‘Dominican Style’. Rosa is from Dominican Republic and her blend of Dominican and Italian food was a treat we were to enjoy many times. We have had beans and rice before and never remarked upon it. However, Rosa’s method is superb: first she caramelizes onions, then adds the rice and makes a
risotto with chicken stock. Black beans are boiled separately and added to the risotto. Then a little white wine, some grated parmesan and some chopped parsley. Risotto Dominicana will, in future, be a staple in our house.
We are still not sure whether the best part of the day was seeing the special sights of Sicily or just being with John - the best tour-guide and story-teller in Sicily.
The following day we took our car, drove toward Etna and took a side road that goes around the mountain. We climbed through switchbacks and cruised along roads walled with lava stones fencing in gardens, olive, orange and lemon groves as well as pistachio and almond orchards in full bloom. At this proximity Etna dominates almost half of the horizon with the sun beaming down on the snowy peak. We passed through some fairly large towns, each with it’s own special relationship with Etna and her past eruptions: Linguaglossa, which means ‘big tongue’ as in red hot lava flowing through town in the 17th century; Randazzo, built of lava stone; the town of Bronte which was given to Horatio Nelson in thanks for putting down a local rebellion. Lava is everywhere
Resting for Eternity
Canadian Military Cemetery in Sicily overlooking a lake and Mt Etna
- in the fields, the walls of houses and fences and on the roads.
We spun out of the Etna circumnavigation at the town of Adrano and drove along the side of a broad green valley some 20 km from ridge to ridge. Small fields with crops of every kind were growing beside pastures with cows and sheep. Just before Agira, we reached our destination which was the Canadian Military Cemetery with the graves of most of the 500 of our soldiers killed in Italy in WWII. We walked up and down the rows of headstones looking at the names and messages from loved ones carved below. It was rather moving thinking about these mean and boys who went away and never came home.
That evening we ate again at John and Rosa’s downstairs as Rosa made John’s favourite dish of boiled artichoke hearts, potatoes and peas accompanied by barbequed pork chops, another fresh escarole salad from their garden and washed down with pitchers of the fruity, full-bodied wine John had bought on our trip. John and Rosa’s neighbours and good friends, Giovanni and his lovely wife Sonja, who live across the street were there as well. At the end
of the evening everybody double-kissed everybody else good-night.
On Thursday we met John and Rosa in the port town of Messina where John has his office. John wanted to show us the mountain-top view of the Tyrrheanian Sea to the north on the left, the Port of Messina ahead below, the hills of Calabria ahead to the east and the Strait of Messina leading to the Ionean Sea to the south on our right. But first it was lunch time and he had to expose us to Sicilian fast-food. Braving the main-street traffic of Messina we wove our way downtown to a rather elegant stand-up joint with twenty whole chickens roasting on a large spit as you walk in and glass cases of various foods to choose from. John picked out deep-fried cones of rice with tomato and meat in the centre; small calzones with fresh anchovies and cheese; and a dish of roasted peppers, eggplant and potato in olive oil. The owner, as loud and brash as John, paid particular attention to Rosa and Darla, even coming around the counter to shake their hands as we left.
Back in the car, with the traffic much worse as it was
one o’clock - closing time for all the businesses when everyone goes home for three or four hours and then back again at four or five pm to open until eight pm. It took us an age to get through the traffic, out of town and climbing up the switch-backed roads to the 3500 ft viewpoint. The view was hazy but stunning. We could see the volcanic islands, ships in the Strait of Messina and the ever-so-short distance - 5km - between Italy and Sicily.
We actually cooked for ourselves the next two nights - simple meals to eat up what was in the fridge throughout John and Rosa’s generosity. The days were cloudy and we read our books in the apartment. On Saturday night we were invited downstairs again for the weekly family gathering. It was another barbeque on the street - hamburgers and pork chops. Sonja brought a broccoli and sausage quiche in a crispy crust and Rosa made a hearty lentil soup and a salad of escarole and fennel root. More pitchers of that lovely wine; lots of family talk around the table. We are welcomed as members of the family, albeit temporary. It feels good, like
we were always meant to come here...what took us so long?
It was cold and grey on Sunday...too cold. We thought there were a few flakes of you-know-what in the air. John & Rosa invited us to drive up to the Tyrrheanian coast and then inland to the mountain village of Montalbano.
We set out in two vehicles with John’s family of five, Giovanni and Sonja and Darla and me. As we headed inland and up the switch-backed narrow road we could see the fields further up were the wrong colour - white. Higher we climbed and soon we were ploughing through slush. As we climbed into Montalbano the snow was some 15cm deep. However, we made it to the pinnacle of the mountain in the town to an osteria, called Al Sakali, and it describes itself as an antica osteria Siciliana. Al Sakali is Arabic for ‘The Sicilian’ and the descriptive phrase means ‘old Sicilian Inn’. We stepped into what looked like an old stone building. Inside it was dark wood floors, stone walls and arches and a board and bamboo ceiling.
Those readers who find the food descriptions boring may want to skip ahead as we were in
for a long afternoon. We sat at a long table and waiters appeared with the first of what was to be some ten dishes of antipasto. I am going to list them here for coherence:
Crusty bread and some deep-fried bread;
Black & green olives, roasted tomatoes, and small, pickled piquant green peppers;
A plate with local cheese and local salami;
Deep-fried mozzarella and steamed broccoli;
More salami and lardo - slices of whipped lard that tasted like butter;
Cod, seviche style;
Roasted potatoes and chicken livers;
Deep-fried zucchini flowers;
Eggplant, zucchini and pumpkin breaded with parmesan and fried/baked;
Fresh, fluffy ricotta that was sweet but without sugar;
And that was just the beginning, although sensible readers will have already guessed that it was the end...we were full! However, we had a few bottles of fruity, full-bodied red vino rosso and that helped keep the appetites perked up. And we were on a mission...everyone knows there are four courses including dessert so one paces oneself.
Dishes and plates were cleared and we all stared glassy-eyed at each other with smug grins as we all new that primi was next: long, homemade macaroni noodles in tomato sauce with chunks
of pork ribs. Shredded on this was some of the fluffy ricotta that had been baked slowly so it was dried with rich concentrated flavours and easy to shred. Seems ricotta is an every-day staple with these hardy mountain folk who live is small hillside towns but are mainly engaged in farming. Pigs are kept, sheep are grazed, orchards and gardens are tended. Ricotta is an everyday by-product of keeping sheep so, blessedly, there was the freshest, lightest ricotta in different forms at every course.
Secondi was next... a platter of roast pork, with garlic slashed into it, and roast potatoes. It wasn’t a large plate, thankfully, but justice was done.
The boys were a little antsy at this point and needed to get outside for a break at the same time as some car jockeying was needed to let some other patrons depart. Naturally, a snowball fight broke out - a rare phenomenon in Sicily but one in which we Canadians could fully understand and participate.
Back inside there was coffee, tarta ricotta, (surprise) with raisins, redolent with cinnamon. Kinda reminded me of the taste of really good rice pudding (I love rice pudding). And then the bottle arrived...
a new one for us, it was liquore cannella (sp?) or cinnamon liqueur, which was, apparently, a specialty of the region. A few glasses of this went down very easily and did not taste like cinnamon.
OK, so the party was over and now we get in the car and head home with a glow of satisfaction. It was not to be as we took a wrong turn in the narrow streets - we still can’t understand how we lost our sense of direction in only three hours - and had to turn around and go back up a dogsleg of a steep hill to find the way out. Readers who have been paying attention will remember the 15cm of snow we ploughed through to get to the restaurant. Well, it came back to haunt us in a big way. To make the agonizing, slippery story short, it took over an hour to get the LandRover turned around and up the hill; the Mercedes winched up the hill by the LandRover; and us, much relieved, on our way in the right direction. Some of the high points were the arrival of a shovel on the scene and the arrival of
Where 'The Godfather' was filmed
a number of Italians each with their own opinion of what should be done to move the car through the snow. The low point was a sinking feeling that we might have to spend the night here...but that was not to be, we were on our way home after an unforgettable meal.
And so ends Week 7 of our trip to Italy as we are adopted in Sicily. We could never say enough about our pleasure to have had this week here in Letojanni with the warmth, generosity and hospitality shown to us by John and Rosa, their sons, Marco 13, John Luca 8, and Diego 5, and the family and friends. We know we will be friends forever.
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