Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin.
If I could sum up the Italian character in three words, I would say: emotive, social, gastronomic. Of course, one cannot define a culture in three words; that’s an absurdity, particularly for a country as varied and steeped in both culinary and social traditions as Italy. In the gastronomic arena, Sicily is no exception. Here, gastronomy reigns supreme from the large northeastern city of Catania to its quaint southern tip, Syracuse. And while differing vastly in size, Agrigento, sitting along the expansive southwestern coast compared with tiny Cefalù, dotting the northwestern coast, both share their generous appetites for gastronomy.
Like the other 19 regions of Italy, Sicily is a roadmap of culinary desires. Eating is social, shared with friends, families, and sometimes strangers. The caveat of traveling solo in Italy is sitting alone at a table, which is draped in a pristine white tablecloth and set minimally for two or for ten. Enter the single woman who shyly slides into the seat not far from a gaggle of men dining with abundant joy. Across the table, two couples engage in an animated conversation while the owner welcomes each person who walks through the door as family. The single lady, me, sips a glass of Etna Blanco. On occasion, a couple at a neighboring table will strike up a conversation and other times, I observe the gastronomic delight infusing a restaurant, but not as part of the social fabric. Noticing I was a rarity in Italian culinary practices, a solution appeared in a snap– call up a few of the island’s historical deities to dine with me. Following are a few scenarios of one such solution.
Catania: A block off Plaza Verga, Trattoria Giovanni Verga’s sign boasts three generations of fishermen: nonno, padre, filgio- grandfather, father, son. Here, Poseidon, one of the twelve ancient Greek Olympians who presides over sea and storms, would be the prefect dining companion.
He’s a sturdy looking dude, mature, sporting a dark beard. Thankfully, he left his trident at the door. The chatty Poseidon immediately goes into his birth history: he was swallowed whole by his father, Kronos, but thanks to Zeus and the goddess Metis, he was released from his father’s jowls. I tell him this isn’t an appetizing dinner conversation, and could he address the menu and suggest something from the sea since that’s his domain. Whole fish are lounging on a large bed of ice across from us just waiting for a taker. I admit to Poseidon that I’ve never eaten a fish in its entirety, especially one the size of yardstick.
Without glancing at the iced fish, Poseidon articulates, “sea bass, red porgy, a ray fish, blue fin tuna. brown grouper…you can’t go wrong in Sicily, but how about starting with a plate of sardines?”
“I’m not a fan of sardines,” I say, wrinkling my nose. I ignore his scowl, and order pasta vongole. I request a second glass of wine for my guest. The waiter raises his eyebrows, but returns with another glass of wine.
I’ve eaten a lot of pasta vongole in my life, but the pasta al dente, fragranced in garlic, white wine, and morning caught clams. rates 4 stars. Divine. While Poseidon watches me twirl my pasta onto a spoon, the restaurant fills with diners. By now, it is 10:30pm. Families, lovers, and large groups saunter into a welcoming“Bonasera” while waiters bustle from the kitchen to the floor as they take and deliver orders. The joy of choosing the perfect fish, the clinking of glasses, conversations elevating and descending reminds me of the joyful chaos in the film The Big Night starring Stanley Tucci and Isabella Rossellini. Yawning, Poseidon bids me farewell. I order another glass of wine and vicariously experience one of the most remarkable social dining experiences of my life among complete strangers.
After my big night at Trattoria Giovanni Verga, I returned. Neptune declined my invitation, so I was once again on my own. My intention was to try a grilled fish, but when I saw seafood risotto on the menu with timid cherry tomatoes, rose-colored shrimp, and asparagi di mare, a sea asparagus delicacy that tastes nothing like asparagus, I caved. Dining al fresco at 10:00pm, I was again privy to people laughing, slurping fresh oysters, cracking lobster shells, and families chatting with their kids, all of whom were dressed to the nines for dinner. I relished the family spirit, these little clans sitting together at a table set with silverware, glassware, chatting and shared food.
Syracuse: My next dining adventure was in Syracuse. The first sight upon arriving at the historical center of Ortygia, Syracuse is the Fontana di Diana, inspired by the romantic myth of the water nymph Arethusa, her pursuer Alpheaus, and the goddess Diana.
I invited the Arethusa and Diana to dinner at the popular, a Putia, a local restaurant advertised as Sicilian rustic with a colorful décor. There’s always a wait to eat here. The owner, and his personable staff all greet, cook and serve at a Putia. Diners are elbow-to-elbow in this unpretentious one room eatery, which delighted me. There are a few outdoor tables when weather conditions are optimal.
I’m not sure how the nymph and the goddess felt about the dining coziness; however, they were too busy recounting their history to take notice. According to the myth, Arethusa was in the forest when she decided to take a refreshing swim in a river. Alphaeus, the river god, immediately noticed her. Smitten by her beauty, he swam after her. Uninterested and unable to outswim Alphaeus, Arethusa whistled for Diana, the goddess of the hunt, to help her out of this jam. With alacrity, Diana transformed Arethusa into a fresh water spring that flowed from Greece, under the Ionian Sea, and emerged in Ortygia.
“So, ladies,” I interrupt, “Do you have a dinner preference?” Scrumptious pasta dishes range from Caponata, pasta pistachio et pancetta, pasta con i broccoli, garbanzo bean soup, and bruschetta al pomodorinio, but since we’re surrounded by the sea, I’m thinking about the swordfish.”
Arethusa and Diana order tonno al pepperoni and carpaccio di verdure. I order bruschetta al pomodorinio and grilled swordfish with a little radish salad. The bruschetta, topped with chunks of chopped tomatoes, is enough for the three of us to share. The swordfish appears plentiful and simply grilled to perfection. During dinner, Diana concludes the myth: “In a clamshell, Alphaeus seeking the love of his life, eventually merges with the spring Arethusa, allowing the two to intertwine forever.”
Agrigento: The romantic myth exulted my love of the deities and visiting the Valle dei Tempi, reinforced it. As I wandered through the vast historical site, I pondered which god or goddess I would nex share a meal with.
It rained my first night in Agrigento. Tired, most likely from my adventure of getting locked in the Bed & Breakfast upon my arrival, I dozed off and didn’t wake until 9:30pm. The dreary weather and fatigue dictated my decision to dine alone, so I put on my jacket and walked across the street to La Rotta. Had the weather been more cooperative, everyone would have opted to dine al fresco on the large patio with a sea view. La Rotta was uncrowded, so I was shown to a lovely candlelit table where a waiter immediately asked if I’d like something to drink. I ordered a glass of il frapatto red wine. The menu was extensive, yet I decided on a soute’ di cozzee e vongle, a clam soup. I had no idea what to expect, but a warm soup on a drizzly night sounded perfect. The waiter arrived with the most beautiful bowl of a saffron infused broth topped with a dozen clams, their tiny mouths perched open, and two slices of garlic toast. As I savored each spoonful, while the rhythm of the waves crested and splashed onto the sand, I wondered how Poseidon was faring in the tumultuous sea tonight. (La Rotta, Viale delle Dune, 92100 Agrigento)
I subsequently ventured back to the valle dei templi and while standing in front of the Templi dei Juno, I knew I would dine with this Roman queen of gods and goddesses, the champion and protector of the domestic roles of woman, including childbirth.
Seated at Trattoria il Pescatore, replete with a sea view, Juno reminded me she was closely aligned with Hera, her Greek counterpart. Juno explained that, in her role as queen of the goddesses, she had a few incarnations, and one was the goddess protector of young soldiers and affairs of state. “If you are not schooled in mythology, my history can be rather complicated,” she punctuated. I agreed noting that I sometimes saw her decked out in a goatskin wrap, and other times, with a crown of laurel wreaths, two juxtaposing fashion statements.
Since we entered the front door of il Pescatore, I hadn’t spotted the wall of iced fish waiting for customers to choose their favorite. I ordered sole meuniere thinking it would be a dainty slice of sole in sauce. My first course was the traditional Sicilian salad- oranges, thin shavings of fennel, a few green olives, and a bottle of Zagra Grillo to share. I was stunned into silence when my waitress arrived with an entire sole meuniere. It was delicious, but I lamented not ordering a whole grilled fish and sharing it with Juno.
During dessert, gelato and berries, Juno slipped out the door while I was discretely watching a well-dressed threesome-mother and teenage daughter dining in dresses, the father sporting an expensive suit and colorful tie–dig into an enormous platter of shelled seafood, apparently the starter. They ate with such gusto, it reiterated once again how much Sicilians enjoy the splendors of the sea as well as the company around the table.
Cefalù: The seaside town of Cefalù is an hour train ride from Palermo, and people often go for the day or a few days. Unfortunately, it wasn’t beach weather, but the sun peaked through the clouds as I came down the steps of the splendid Duomo, perused the lunch scene, and picked one of the many outdoor eateries for lunch. Pristine white umbrellas stationed in brown wine barrels shaded the lunch crowd from the sun. I kicked back, ordered a beer and the Sicilian salad while reveling in the warmth of the afternoon sun. Midway into my salad, a sudden whoosh filled the air, and without warning, the wind swept through the piazza. Glasses flew off tables; a pair of elderly, soused British women tried to grab their wine bottle before it went airborne; umbrellas threatened to fly; waiters panicked, dropped their orders, embraced the umbrellas, wrapping their skinny arms and bodies around them while trying to batten them down. I jumped up and joined in the umbrella brigade, all of us struggling to control the flapping umbrellas. Then, in 10 minutes, it was over. The wind seized; waiters cleaned up, grabbed their orders, delivered the wrong checks to tables, and with gentile Sicilian generosity and patience, it eventually all worked out.
Perhaps, Anemoi, the keeper of the four wind gods Boreas, Zephyrus, Notos and Euros, felt slighted that I hadn’t invited them to lunch, and so they decided to treat diners to a little wind havoc. Quite the temperamental foursome I thought to myself as I paid my check.
IF YOU GO: The Restaurant in Catania – Trattoria Giovanni Verga, Piazza Giovanni Verga, 6°, Catania; The restaurant in Syracuse – a Putia, Via Roma, 8, 96100, Ortygia, Siracusa. The restaurant in Agrigento – Trattoria il Pescatore, Lungomare Falcone e Borsellino, 20, 92100 San Leone, Agrigento.