Glancing out the window of an Alitalia jet on yet another of my regional trips across Italy, I was confronted with an image that was both unsettling and beautiful. Ominous puffs of steam and angry explosions of lava spewed out of the crown of an absurdly archetypical volcanic mountaintop set against an implausibly cerulean Mediterranean Sea that dominated the view from the airplane. I knew from the guidebook on my lap that this was Mount Etna, a perpetually active volcano that looms threateningly over this strange and spectacular island even during those rare periods when it is “dormant.” Full of contradiction, Etna helped create this island floating off the tip of Italy’s mainland a half a million years before I flew past it, but always reserves the right to destroy the land surrounding it. Both protector and enemy, its mineral-rich ash continuously feeds the local flora and shapes the taste of this great island’s indigenous food and wine, while its frequent rumblings never let the locals forget that a powerful force – one completely beyond their control – sits watch over everything on this island.
Needles to say…my Sicilian experience began in a surreal way.
I found myself at many points during my time there thinking of the famous surrealistic painter Salvador Dali who would have been inspired by many of the images we encountered during our long, strange weekend in Sicily. Dali was constantly blending the real world and his imagined version of that reality into remarkable paintings that defined surrealism. But the “reality” we saw and experienced in Sicily was bizarre on its own terms. And that was surreal enough for me!
It was autumn. It was the weekend of “I juornu re Muorti” (the day of the dead) something we had not counted on, but that added a plaintive note to our journey. We drove from Catania to Taormina, a lovely hilltop town on the east coast where we would headquarter for the weekend. Every so often we could see twinkling candlelight in the cemeteries along the way where the living came to celebrate the dead by placing candles and flowers next to their loved one’s gravesites. “It is a very somber, yet joyful holiday,” Paolo stated. “By honoring the dead, we celebrate life.”
Green and grey were the colors that dominated my view from our car as we drove through the Sicilian countryside. The lush vegetation of the island was interrupted only by craggy, rocky hills; a scene I couldn’t help but associate with Copolla’s famous film, “The Godfather.” I could clearly see Al Pacino’s character, Michael Corleone somberly walking the rugged, stony countryside with two imposing bodyguards always at his side.
The steep, winding roads leading to Taormina were too great a temptation for my former-racecar driver and business partner Paolo Volpara to ignore. Hairpin turns were his specialty. Ironic that my very first hair-raising drive with Paolo took place on this very island five years earlier during an advertising conference. He and my then husband Bob had arranged a meeting with the European Manager Directors in Taormina. During a break in one of the meetings Paolo offered to take several of us for a ride through the village and into the hills around Taormina. I was invited to sit in the front seat. Thirty minutes of terror later we arrived back at our hotel all with white knuckles and clinched teeth. I was grateful we had not killed anyone – or ourselves. Little did I know that I would one day be back to this beautiful village with that same crazy racecar driver, now as my business partner and friend. By then he had convinced me that even though he drove fast that he was an incredibly safe and excellent driver. Excellent I agreed with. Safe – hmmm? I was never able to persuade him that a less excellent driver might come out of nowhere and it would be impossible to prevent a calamity. He’s still with us, however. So maybe he was right!
We had lunch in Lower Taormina at a restaurant by the sea facing Isola Bella, a tiny island and nature reserve tucked close into the harbor connected to the mainland by only a narrow stretch of land. Our focus this trip was on Convito’s new bar, which was to be a part of our newest downtown Chicago location. So in addition to studying the regional food and the wine as we always did, we also wanted to sample some typical Italian cocktails that might become a part of our new bar menu – cocktails that would please the American palate while still remaining true to their roots in Italian culture.
We began our lunch with the Sicilian antipasto relish known as caponata. It consists of chopped sautéed eggplant, tomatoes, celery, onions and capers in a sweet and sour sauce. The name Caponata is thought to have derived from the Catalan word caponada – a similar relish from Catalonia in northeastern Spain. That makes sense since Catalan invaders came to Sicily as early as the thirteen hundreds. But as usual, there are several other stories about caponata’s origins. One suggests that it must have been a recipe invented on the sea as a mariner’s dish because of the large amount of vinegar it contained which was a quick way to keep food edible for extended periods of time.
Convito has a Caponata story all its own. We have been making it almost from the day we opened in 1980. The kitchen in our first tiny store was a 4-burner electric stove smack dab in back of our deli adjacent to our meat slicer. Waiting on customers, slicing meats and preparing salads all at the same time was difficult to say the least – especially the salad prep and cooking aspects of the business. From Convito’s inception, our plan was to offer customers an array of salads and antipasti that we would prepare each morning on premise. During those first weeks and months, I did the majority of the cooking with the occasional assistance of some of the more talented cooks on the Convito staff. But none of us had worked in a high volume professional kitchen and what I didn’t plan on was how popular prepared foods would be. It became impossible to keep up with the demand.
Quickly we decided we needed a real “cook” – someone devoted exclusively to that area of our business. Fellow restaurateur and friend Leslee Reis knew the perfect person. Violet Caldarelli, a sixty-something housewife at the time and former owner of a Chicago school supply store was the answer. In addition to school supplies, Violet sold her student customers salads and sandwiches that she had prepared early in the morning. Her tuna salad was famous. She had also helped Leslee with her catering business so she came to Convito more than qualified. She actually turned out to be a godsend in more ways than one. Not only was she an excellent and efficient cook, but we also benefited from her outstanding customer service skills. One of the dishes she made each morning was caponata. Actually she made it several times a day sautéing up pounds and pounds of eggplant. “When they bury me,” she often said, “eggplant will be sprouting from my grave.” A perfect Salvador Dali painting! (Violet just turned 100 in March and Convito still sells her ever popular tuna salad named “Vi’s Tuna”)
1 ½ pound eggplants, roasted
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2 red bell peppers, diced
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 – 3 heaping tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
4 tablespoons pitted black olives, sliced
2-½ tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Roast the eggplant. Chop coarsely. Set aside. Cool.
Heat 1-tablespoon olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion & celery and sauté until soft – about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, sauté for another minute then add the peppers. Sauté for another 5 or 6 minutes until peppers are tender. Add the eggplant. Add 1 more tablespoon of olive oil. Stir vegetables together and sauté for another 5 minutes. Taste salt to taste
Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the capers, olives. Mix well. Add the sugar and vinegar. Turn the heat to low and cook for about 20 minutes stirring frequently. The dish should be thick and sweet. Season with salt & freshly ground pepper to taste. Allow to cool. Serve at room temperature.
Serving suggestions: with bruschetta or as a delicious relish on grilled fish.
Our headquarters that weekend was the San Domenico Palace Hotel, an elegant Renaissance-inspired hotel with beautiful terraces overlooking the Bay of Taormina and Mount Etna. It was built on the original structure of a former 15th century Dominican monastery transformed in the late eighteen hundreds to a hotel. Lots of “monk paraphernalia” was scattered throughout the lobby and hallways giving the hotel the strange feel of a fashion-conscious monastery that one might find in a Fellini movie.
Taormina itself is lovely. Often described as a Sicilian Monte Carlo, it was a nineteenth century favorite of the English aristocracy, a location where self-exiled author D. H. Lawrence was inspired to write Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It is still a gathering point for artists and authors.
We walked through the winding medieval passages of the town in search of a suitable bar where we could begin our research on Convito’s new liquor menu. Until 1984 Convito had served only wine and beer. Our new bar would open almost immediately upon my return to Chicago, and I was anxious to make sure it had an authentic and unique character that matched what I had been doing with food for many years by this point. But not being a cocktail type – I was a wine girl myself – I was curious whether some of the local drinks might translate well to a Chicago audience.
My first was a Negroni, a famous pre-dinner cocktail made with Vermouth rosso, bitter Campari and gin. It was served on the rocks and garnished with a lemon peel and a wedge of orange. Too bitter for me, but the Italians love bitter drinks. “The bitter aperitivo”, claimed Paolo, “gets the digestive juices flowing.” Paolo ordered the Americano, also made with Campari (a dark red bitter liqueur), sweet vermouth and club soda. I was interested in the origins of the name. According to Paolo it was originally called a “Milano-Torino” and was invented in 1860 at Gaspare Campari’s bar in Milan. It became Milan’s signature drink, but it is said that in the early 1900s the Italians noticed that so many of the American visitors to the bar enjoyed this cocktail so it was renamed The Americano as a tribute to them. Whatever the story may be, it has grown in popularity over the years reaching an apex when David Niven as James Bond ordered it in the original 1953 film version of “Casino Royale.”
Sunday was to be a day of exploration. We drove to Messina the 3rd largest city in Sicily known for its curved seaport (almost like a hook) and long and complicated history of power and conquest. Lunch at Pippo Nunnari, a restaurant with its own adjacent food store was especially interesting to me. I always get ideas from any food establishment that combines a restaurant with a market like we were doing at Convito. My favorite of course is Pecks in Milan. (Blog – Lombardia II Milano – Street Smarts) First I was amazed that a store was even open on Sunday in Italy (back then almost nothing was open on Sundays in this very religious country) and then astounded at the number of people who crowded around the food cases making it almost impossible for me to even see what was in them. I did catch glimpses of pristine cheeses and a whole assortment of fresh and aged sausages. The food, the displays, the crowds of people reminded me of Zabar’s in New York, a food emporium that always seemed bustling even during non-peek hours, but in Pecks I found an authentic Italian perspective that I always sought to emulate at Convito.
We had lunch in the restaurant adjacent to the market. The crowd appeared to be a combination of “after mass” folks and hungry tourists. I ordered the specialty of the restaurant and of the area – Pasta alla Norma – the famous tomato eggplant pasta dish. It is my kind of dish. Tomato combined with just about anything appeals to my “savory-tooth”. This very peasant, very simple item appears on almost every Sicilian menu.
Whenever I write about a new part of Italy I always check the regional cookbook collection that Paolo gave me back in the early eighties – the “In Bocca” series. Each book contains regional recipes, wonderful art and priceless translations as well as great stories about the history of many of the regional dishes. In the “Sicilia e le isole” book it states – “the recipe for Pasta alla Norma derives clearly from Catania and maybe it has been called so in order to connect it with the highest lyric composition by Bellini (the tragic opera Norma)”.
I chose to use the Pasta alla Norma recipe (following) from the book instead of Convito’s more precise recipe. It is much more vague and less specific than ours – sort of the way Italian home cooks cook – by feel and emotion. “Creativity should never be impeded by a mere recipe,” my partner Wanda Bottino would say.
Rigatoni alla Norma
(from In Bocca Sicily)
The translated recipe follows: “Prepare a tomato sauce as usual and flavour it with basil. Cut 3 nice Sicilian eggplants into cubes, put them in a colander, salt them and leave them there for about 1 hour so that they loose the bitter liquid. Finally fry them. Boil 700 grams of pasta until chewy but not soft and season them with tomato sauce. Prepare the individual helpings and enrich them with some of the eggplant and a good amount of grated salted “ricotta”.
After lunch we drove along the seaside through many tiny villages. The land was parched. The villages for the most part were poor with many of the houses displaying large patches of decaying walls where the stucco had worn away exposing old worn brick. Occasionally we would see a person or two standing in drab doorways looking out over an expanse of nothing. These pockets of poverty were sad to see but not unexpected. Sicily is one of Italy’s poorest regions, with low incomes and high levels of unemployment. Today even though tourism is increasing rapidly each year and adding to a growing economy, unemployment remains high.
The first signs of fall color came into view as we approached the vineyards. A carpet of red and yellow leaves surrounded the vines and signaled the vineyard’s preparation for a season of rest. Now and then we saw a blanket of orange – the blood oranges of Sicily. Although blood oranges supposedly originated in China they are most closely associated with Sicily. They have a distinct raspberry-like citrus profile. A salad Convito has featured through the years is a classic Sicilian dish featuring seasonal blood oranges combined with shaved fennel and olive oil. The licorice flavor of fennel works beautifully with the unusual sweetness of blood oranges. We have also at times added black olives that lends another color as well an interesting taste to the salad.
Novara di Sicilia, a small village nestled in the mountains was our next Dali-esque experience. As we entered the town we saw almost no one. The cobbled streets were empty and the stores closed. Silence dominated. We wondered if this was some kind of holiday or that most of the citizens of this small typical medieval town were elsewhere possibly celebrating the Day of the Dead. Slightly unnerved we hopped back in the car and shot out of town. Shortly after leaving Novara we noticed a portion of the road had fallen. No wonder there’s no traffic up here. The lane closest to the mountain was scattered with falling rocks. Strange, half finished houses – now deserted – appeared intermittently along the roadside. We went higher up the mountainside into the fingers of a cloud, which had deposited ripples of moisture on the surrounding roads and valleys giving the landscape an unearthly quality. I almost expected to see a limp Dali watch draped over the foggy mountainside. We were mystified by our findings – or lack thereof – so when we returned to the hotel, I looked up a description of this village in our travel guide and found a whole list of festivals celebrated throughout the year. We never returned and never figured out why the village was so deserted during our visit but chalked up the whole eerie experience to yet another strange occurrence in an increasingly strange weekend.
Back in Taormina we had a light dinner at the hotel then walked back to the center to sample a few more cocktails. This time we chose the Valentino Piano Bar, an upscale option not far from the hotel. It looked a little like a brothel – though a classy one – with velvet papered walls. But instead of the usual red velvet these were blue. I ordered a drink I knew I liked, the classic Harry’s Bar Bellini with peach juice and Prosecco. What is not to like? Later I ordered a drink with the juice of Sicilian blood oranges. It was divine. I can’t remember the ingredients (I neglected to identify them in my journal, an oversight perhaps attributable to the nature of this particular research!) so I asked my son-in-law (and this blog’s photographer) to invent one. He is our family “mixologist” always experimenting with different combinations of ingredients whether in new sauces or new cocktails. I’ve tried this cocktail and it is delicious!
2 to 3 ounces tequila
Juice of 1/2 lime
Juice of 1/2 blood orange
3 ounces blood orange soda
Lime wedge for garnish
In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine the tequila, lime juice and blood orange juice. Shake until well chilled. Strain into a glass filled with ice, top with the blood orange soda and garnish with a lime wedge.
Advice from Duke: “I use Silver Patron Tequila”
Our last day was spent in Siracusa. I, a student of history, did not realize when I was studying Ancient Greece that the Syracuse I was studying was actually the Syracuse we were about to visit – on the island of Sicily – not in Greece. The traffic getting there was horrific. Several miles before entering the city we drove by the largest oil refinery I had ever seen – a whole city unto itself. Cathedrals of metal and steel penetrated the sky like a ghoulish Manhattan. The stench was terrible. Time to end the Industrial Revolution, I thought.
Ancient Syracuse, at one time one of the major powers of the Mediterranean, was a magical and powerful experience. Greek influence was not so much in evidence in the buildings near the port mainly because other invading countries had left their mark long after the Greek glory had faded. Lovely billowy wrought iron balconies and buildings with Baroque facades revealed traces of Spanish invaders. Even though much of the port was in disrepair, I decided that if the graffiti could be wiped from the walls, a fresh coat of stucco applied on the now corroded houses and balconies repaired and refurbished, it would be possible to hear the whispers of a grand and elegant past.
Remains of ancient Greece, however, were spread over a tremendous expanse.
And what a past it was! Its ancient Greek theatre was especially impressive. Sixty-seven rows divided into nine sections with eight aisles is one of the largest amphitheatres ever built by the ancient Greeks.
We joined a group for a tour of the ancient castle Euryalus built initially by Dionysius I to defend Syracuse from the Carthaginians. A strange little man conducted the tour. He was clearly not a fan of “Americani”. His piercing looks at me as he said the word “Americani” sent chills down my spine. The American invasion of Sicily during World War II was a part of his lecture for some reason. It would have been difficult enough to follow his lecture if he spoke regular Italian but with his Sicilian dialect it was impossible – even for Paolo. I had a whole year course on World War I and World War II at the University of Wisconsin so I was familiar with the Allies’ Italian campaign. Their goal was to remove Mussolini’s fascist regime so as to divert Hitler’s attention from the northwest coast where the Allies planned their crucial invasion. It began in July of 1943 and lasted for 38 days. It was successful. I was sure that I had also read somewhere that the Sicilians welcomed the Americans. Maybe not? “Obviously,” said Paolo, “our guide doesn’t have fond memories of those days. It seems that he holds you personally responsible!”
Even so, the tour was fascinating. I stuck close to Paolo and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and just enjoy the scenery. The point on which the castle rested was incredible. You could see for miles in every direction. Certainly a perfect place for a fortress. We finished the tour, stopped at a beautiful baroque fountain in the center of town where many little makeshift stands were selling gifts and flowers for the Day of the Dead celebration. I bought a colorful little ceramic vase by the famous ceramic artist Giovanni de Simone who at one time studied under Picasso. Clearly you could see his mentor’s influence – as well as a little bit of the whimsy of Salvador Dali. Later I learned that Picasso and Dali had influenced each other at certain times during their very prolific careers and that there have been exhibits and articles about their connection. Dali seemed to be following me around that weekend – even in my choice of a souvenir.
Our last morning in Taormina was gorgeous. We walked through the beautiful gardens of the San Domenico Palace Hotel before taking a final stroll in Taormina to view all of the ancient Greek-Roman sights and to have one last meal and cocktail before we left for the airport. We chose a lovely restaurant near the sea where we could hear the lapping waves of the Mediterranean brushing softly against the rocky coast.
Our cocktail research was coming to an end. After sampling many typical Italian drinks – and some not so typical – we narrowed our choices to three for our Chicago bar selection – the Bellini, the Americano and the Negroni. We also decided that it would be fun to invent a new cocktail each season – one based on Italian liqueurs. However, we surmised that the main draw to Convito’s bar would be Italian wines – red, white and sparkling – by the glass – a phenomenon that had not been around that long. In the fifties, sixties and early seventies, wine was not necessarily the drink of choice. Although wine was available in many restaurants, it was mostly sold by the bottle not the glass. Or if by the glass, the wine was simply described as white or red – usually neither very good. Cocktails like Martinis and Manhattans seemed to be the drinks of choice. Even with dinner. I love the old movies of those eras where everyone seems to have a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
But times had changed. In the early eighties a wine culture was developing in America and Convito was on the forefront of that trend. An increasing number of restaurants and bars carried an assortment of wines by the glass exposing customers to wines from different countries and many different varietals. It was an exciting time for Convito and for wine in our culture.
Today our Convito Café continues the tradition of offering a seasonal cocktail as well as a selection of wines by the glass. We always have five whites, five reds and two sparkling wines available by the glass. Our wine list is comprised of mostly Italian wines but we also feature particularly fine varieties from France, California and other countries.
Convito 35th Anniversary Cocktail
2 ounces Prosecco – Zardetto Private Cuvee
2 ounces Rosso Antico
Fresh Lemon Juice – from 3 lemon wedges
Garnish with a lemon twist
I could not leave Sicily without ordering tuna, one of the fish most frequently found on the menu. Tuna fishing has a long history in Sicily. For hundreds of years, tuna fishermen used nets to capture the large Mediterranean bluefin tuna. Today the tuna are diminishing in size and numbers requiring certain restrictions and regulations on fishing but tuna continues to be the most popular fish in this region. The following recipe is another from the “In Bocca” series cookbook.
“As tunny is a common fish here, we give you an easy recipe to prepare it. Cut 1 not thick slice of tunny per person and arrange them on the bottom of a baking pan greased with oil. Cover the slices with a layer of breadcrumbs and dot the surface with pieces of peeled tomatoes, salted capers, (previously washed) and chopped green onions. Salt, moisten with a drop of oil and bake for 35 – 40 minutes in a medium hot oven.
Baked Tuna alla Siciliana
Nancy version; slightly changed (and much more exact!)
1 pound fresh tuna steak (3/4 inch thick
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (I used basil extra virgin olive oil)
pinch of dried chili pepper flakes
1/3 cup chopped black olives
2 tablespoons capers – rinsed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
¾ cup grape or cherry tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Dry tuna steak. Spread some of the olive oil on the bottom of a baking dish. Rub some of oil on tuna. Sprinkle with sea salt and chili pepper flakes. Place olives, capers, basil and tomatoes on top of tuna. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and drizzle with remaining olive oil. Place in oven and bake for 15 minutes or until the tuna is done to your taste.
At dusk before we went to the airport Paolo decided our trip wouldn’t be complete without a drive up Mount Etna. The small hillside villages were soon left behind as we drove higher up the volcano. “Are you sure this is safe?” I asked Paolo as our surroundings became more desolate and foreboding. “Never know,” he replied concentrating on the road, which was becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. As we neared the summit I noticed there were no longer any streetlights to guide our way back down. Great! That would certainly be a perfect ending to our already completely surreal regional journey.
Looking out the window I was again struck by a surreal realization. Lava was everywhere. It had long since transformed from its initial red-hot, molten state and now took the form of the ubiquitous black stone that was used as structure: it paved the streets, arched the doorways, lined the sidewalks. Even vineyards featured black lava trellises. Black, black everywhere.
Shockingly, as we neared the summit we found ourselves driving over brand new roads that had already replaced those destroyed in the last eruption. Oh, the optimism! The pragmatist in me found it hard to understand why people still live near this powerful, unpredictable volcano. But the danger is not without benefit. Accumulated volcanic ash leaves a uniquely nutrient-rich layer of soil that has much to do with the fertile nature of this island. They grow citrus fruit, grapes, olives and vegetables in this enriched soil. Tourism also thrives as visitors come from all over to hopefully marvel at the fiery display Mt. Etna might provide. One is never certain. Mt. Etna is most certainly unpredictable and temperamental. But all things said, residents seem to have a strong personal connection to the area and a great love and respect for this volcano.
Looking out the rear window of the car, however, we could still see patches of twinkling candlelight scattered over the landscape way off in the distance – macabre leftovers of “I juornu re Muorti”. Contrasted with the sea of black lava, it was an eerie, “Daliesque” sight.
As dusk gave way to night, Paolo and I found ourselves standing outside the car, lost in the eerie beauty of the scene at the summit. We might still be there were it not for the sudden realization that we were now in danger of missing our flight. So once again I was to destined to experience another “Paolo-Volpara-scary-drive.” This time it was reminiscent of the car chase I remember seeing in the 1971 William Friedkin movie “The French Connection” where oncoming cars were narrowly missed and traffic signals completely ignored. Its harrowing nature, however, seemed to fit the theme of the weekend.
Though most of the scenery flew by in a blur that night, one vision still stays with me. Not long after we left the summit, we passed a single wall of a house that stood amidst a petrified river of lava that had completely overrun the rest of it. Immediately next to it, another home remained completely intact – two huge streams of lava parting at the front door of the house as if some supernatural hand had diverted destruction from the doorstep. Etna’s power and cruelty became crystal clear to me with that one image. Rivers of recent lava (from an eruption just two months prior) carved its blackness into the mountainside. Some areas of dense forest were spared while others were covered in blackness. The arbitrariness of it all was unsettling.
Somehow it seemed very appropriate that we would end our trip with this final surreal journey up and down Mount Etna – our fantastic and bizarre touchstone for the weekend. The events and images of our trip are forever emblazoned in my mind beginning and ending with this amazing volcano.
Ultimately we made our flight and back to Milan we flew relieved that we were in one piece and very pleased with our research and all the wonderful things we had seen on this strange and spectacular island. My surreal Sicily sojourn! One I would long remember!