By Mary-Celeste Lewis
“Ciao, baby!” a man yells cheerfully to you in a loud voice. “Baby” may be the only English word he knows, but his greeting calls your attention to an eccentric restaurant in a truck. The side reads “No Ziu Pinu” (“Uncle Joey’s” in Sicilian) and the tanned, friendly man who called to you leans out of this portable kitchen over a case of raw meat to beckon you forward. When he asks what you want, you shrug, so he smiles and starts frying up fresh meat. When he hands you the steaming sandwich, you can’t help but smile back and feel welcomed as you take your first bite. Welcome to Sicily, one of the friendliest islands on earth.
La Bella Sicilia
We’ve all seen movies that take place in those small, sleepy Italian villages where the old men wear plaid suits
and flat caps and sit under gazebos in the park playing cards. Laundry hangs from balconies and swings in the breeze, and fruit vendors drive through the streets, shouting out their wares. More than anywhere else in Italy, the region of Sicily has continued to do these things, making this region seem like an Italy from days gone by. According to Jessica Rosato of Como, a city just outside of Milan, the people of Sicily “have really kept their traditions. It’s very different from the North.”
However, when you ask travelers which cities they visited on their last trip to Italy, many list the big names such as Rome, Florence, and Venice—hot spots for tourism. Rarely do you hear of a vacationer visiting Sicily. Why don’t we ever seem to make it down there? In popular tourist destinations, it can be hard to see past the guided tours and into the lives of the people who live there. La bella Sicilia (beautiful Sicily), however, still awaits intrepid adventurers seeking a more traditional Italian experience.
Welcome to Ragusa
Although most of northern Italy has become thoroughly industrialized, southern Italy has maintained its agricultural feel. Much of the produce sold in Rome and northward is grown in Sicily, especially the oranges.
The feeling throughout all of Sicily is laid back, but it slows even more dramatically during the drive to the town of
Ragusa in the heart of the Sicilian countryside. Agricultural communities like Ragusa seem to move slower and
breathe deeper. Even the air is different in Ragusa. Ragusa is like a little town trapped in time, and though it boasts baroque architecture as beautiful as anywhere else, the humble people there are steeped in traditions that are rapidly disappearing in the larger cities. Rosato describes the feeling in Ragusa as “how you’d feel in your own home: everyone is social and cheerful.”
Annette Marshall had to wait many years for her opportunity to make a pilgrimage from her Australian home to her family’s homeland in Sicily—and she wasn’t disappointed when she arrived. Marshall’s grandparents were both Ragusani, natives of Ragusa.
“My grandmother taught me that love is the most important thing in the world, and it starts with family love,” Marshall says. She also explains that she and her family “always opened our hearts and our doors to anybody that came in our lives.” Marshall’s nonna (grandmother) exemplified that warm, friendly nature typical of the people of Ragusa. That affectionate nature and those welcoming feelings are exactly what Marshall found when she visited there.
Describing what makes Ragusa special, lifelong resident Liliana Rollo says that the Sicilian people, especially those from Ragusa, are more accogliente (welcoming and friendly) than people in the rest of Italy. As if to illustrate her own point, Rollo repeats several times during a brief telephone conversation, “I hope you’ll come and see me when you take a vacation in Italy.”
Sicilian cuisine is famous for a reason. Speaking of her childhood and of her grandmother’s legendary cooking, Marshall says, “When we’d get home from church, I’d help Nonna in the kitchen, and we’d have great Sunday lunches—and that was tradition.” Marshall loved her stay in Ragusa partly because “even the food reminded me of Nonna, and I realized how much she’d kept up the traditions of the food because everything tasted like Nonna’s!”
Ragusa has several delicious culinary traditions unique to the province—some are not available elsewhere in Sicily. You’ll find delicious cannoli (sweet, ricotta-filled fried pastry shells) at Dolcemania in Via Paestum 36. You’ll find arancini, fried rice balls filled with meat sauce, at the Pasticceria Giovanni di Pasquale in the piazza (town square) near the cathedral. L’impanata Ragusana is a creation made with very thin layers of dough wrapped around flavorful toppings like tomatoes, ricotta, and sausage; it’s reminiscent of hand-held lasagna and can be found in most paninerie (bakeries) throughout the city. You’ll also find cassata Ragusana, sweet and simple ricotta-filled pastries. The city’s pizza is every bit as delicious as you’d imagine authentic Italian pizza to be. And the panini (sandwiches made with fresh, grilled meat) are beyond compare, especially at Ziu Pinu’s restaurant. It is well worth taking a trip to Ragusa even if all you do there is eat the local goodies.
Ragusa and Ragusa-Ibla, the tiny hilltop village next door, have maintained a food culture filled with rich traditions. The stone pathway from Ragusa to Ibla winds down dozens
of stairs and through twisting, crumbling passageways covered with romantic graffiti from generations of love-struck teenagers. Ragusa-Ibla keeps a traditional schedule between the hours of one and four in the afternoon; all shops and churches close promptly at one, and everyone goes home to have a big lunch with the family. A three-course meal, followed by dessert and a long nap, is a rigorously followed Sicilian tradition to this day, especially in towns like Ragusa and Ragusa-Ibla.
For those who want to try traditional home-cooking but don’t feel comfortable inviting themselves to a stranger’s house for lunch, there is agriturismo (agricultural tourism). Agriturismo is more than just visiting farms; it’s putting yourself into the lifestyle of a countryside Sicilian for a few days, but without all the work. This method of vacationing, a few steps beyond bed-and-breakfasting, is steadily growing in popularity in Italy and throughout all of Europe. People escaping from city smog can often rent rooms in renovated farmhouses, which usually have traditional kitchens that are open to curious visitors from all over.
Angela and Alessandro of Florence wanted a relaxing holiday, so they tried staying in a refurbished farmhouse called Tenuta Carbonara in the Sicilian countryside. “It was truly unforgettable for us,” they rave in an online comment. But the best part of their stay seemed to be their ever-hospitable hostess, Nella Tuminello, who runs the Tenuta Carbonara establishment.
Nella is a one-woman wonder. She cares for her guests and makes sure they feel at home in a laid-back
environment. Her traditional, home-cooked Sicilian meals are met with rave reviews by even the hardest-to-please guests. In fact, for those who can’t get enough of her cooking, Nella teaches cooking classes. In these two- to three-hour demonstrations, Nella guides guests through the steps of making cassata Ragusana, l’impanata, or other regional delicacies, like ravioli stuffed with fresh local ricotta. Tenuta Carbonara isn’t the only place you can stay at in Sicily—there are many fine opportunities for agriturismo in the region. Nella and other hostesses may not speak much English, though, so be prepared to watch their demonstrations carefully!
Taking It Slow
As its laid-back reputation suggests, Sicily is best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. You don’t necessarily need to go to the town of Ragusa or to the farmhouse at Tenuta Carbonara in order to find that mysterious “it” factor that makes Sicily such a wonderful place to visit. It could be the beautiful Mediterranean climate or the region’s tenacious hold on its traditions. It could be the cracked and crumbling plaster finishes on the houses, the lazy palm trees swinging in the breeze over baroque wrought-iron balconies, or the food culture that causes the streets to empty at midday to allow for home-cooked meals. It could be the sun-dried tomatoes and bottled olives still prepared by hand at home—or the young men sitting right next to the old men playing cards in the park, suggesting that this quiet Sicilian way of life is here to stay.
“I came home, and I felt more alive than I’d ever felt in my whole entire life,” Marshall says of her life-changing trip to Ragusa. If you’re looking for high fashion, busy people, and a cosmopolitan lifestyle, try Milan or Rome. But if you’re looking not only to meet amazing people and eat wonderful food but also to slow down and be inspired, head down to Sicily. It’s waiting for you.
Also see the novel Eco del Gusto by Emmanuele Lombardo, available in English as well as Italian.