from Sandy Needham

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sicily Dispatch

The theme of our Sicilian vacation is “Fred and Martha.” Fred is Fred Plotkin, the author of The Gourmet Traveler’s Guide to Italy. Some friends gave us his book for our 5-week stay in northern Italy in 2004. We just could not face Sicily or the road to Rome from the tip of the boot without Fred’s passion, palette, intimate portraits of each region of Italy and its populace, his descriptions of dishes and agriculture and wines, not to mention his recommendations in each city. There was a 2010 edition from UK Amazon awaiting us at our Palermo hotel. Also awaiting us there was Martha. This is the name we affectionately (at first) attached to the American woman’s voice on our new GPS. They were both our constant companions.

We can fly directly from Natal to Lisbon, so a trip to Europe is a simple thing compared to travel to the US. The incredible food started right away in the Lisbon and Milan airports! I sat people-watching in awe…Europeans seem handsome, healthy, fit and chic. We had a nice room in Palermo with ceilings so high that we could see an entire dome out the tall balcony door. The cappuccino at breakfast came in a cup the size of a soup bowl. Yea. The only problem was the alarming amount of noise in the morning: garbage being dumped – all breaking glass, seemingly amplified voices arguing, a dog chasing a motor cycle; after we laughed about a car alarm being the last missing sound, they began drilling into metal at a nearby construction site! Oddly, these morning car alarms and construction noises persisted in other cities.

Sicily has been invaded and occupied by so many cultures, it is possible to find endless varieties of architecture. Here, the Palermo cathedral combines Arabic, Greek, Romanesque, gothic, and Renaissance influences:

Palermo cathedral




















The former nobles of Sicily had so much money that this chapel with priceless Byzantine mosaics (these are not paintings) is part of a family’s palace-fortress:

chapel mosaics Palermo

Besides its beautiful buildings, Palermo still has remains of bombed out properties from World War II:

bombed out-Palermo 











Here’s Newton-as-beast-of-burden:Newt shopping Palermo

We picked up our rental car, a Lancia, with stop/start technology that kicks in at every full stop to save gas and reduce pollution. Ah, Europe. Martha led us with her soothing-yet-confident voice to a gorgeous beach just outside Palermo on a lazy October weekday. The temperature was near 80°F:

Palermo beach

My favorite ruin of the whole trip: a well-preserved Doric Greek temple of sandstone, surrounded by green hills in Segesta. As occurs in the Parthenon, these columns and horizontals incorporate a slight curve to fool the eye that they are straight, while managing, unlike mechanically straight construction, to float and express a grace that, when beheld, nearly lifts me off my feet.

Segesta temple temple view segesta











In Trapani, gargoyle masks on a church and a leather goods store :

Trapani gargoyles leather store-Trapani

I am always grateful in foreign lands to have Newton at the wheel, despite my aversion to speed and sudden maneuvers. After learning to drive in Brazil, there is not much that can flummox him. Did I mention that I call him Walter Mitty sometimes when his persona slips into a Formula One driver? The funny thing about driving in Sicily is that the cities forgo traffic signals and stop signs and just use the “nose into oncoming traffic” system. Honking ensues immediately for those who hesitate! The old streets in the city centers can be so narrow that pedestrians must step into doorways to allow room for the cars to pass. Newton was intrepid at one point and, clapping in both rearview mirrors, started through…well, the eye of a needle. Alas, this was too narrow for any skill level and we had to figure out another way.  Martha became a little vague around traffic circles, as we were not absolutely sure how to count the exits; she was fond of recalculating directions in the GPS tradition when instructions and diagrams failed us and demanding U-turns of us, ever more virulently.

Here’s Newton watching the road AND the purple line on the GPS screen map:

Newt and Martha

We happened upon an inviting wine bar in Marsala one evening, beckoned by some intriguing recorded music. Forswearing the sweet dessert wine for which the town is famous, we sampled a sparkling rosé brut and a good red while enjoying the rousing debate over whether Roman men or Sicilian men are more virile. The free hors d’oeuvres, which melted in our mouths, forced us to buy a jar of pistachio pesto spread to bring home. Never have I tasted pistachio all the way up my cheeks! We didn’t realize what early dinner hours they observed around there and arrived at one of “Fred’s destinations” as the kitchen closed. The non-pizza dinner we had at a mobbed night spot was the only bad meal we had in Sicily.

Baroque architecture in Marsala:

Baroque in Marsala

As Fred says, the Sicilian mafia presence is not particularly felt along the coastal areas as it might be further inland, if at all. My first reaction was at a lovely restaurant in Palermo where a small boy, as part of a large family dinner, was running around with a black toy pistol in his hand. My second reaction was later in Siracusa at a nice jazz club when a hulking guy was talking in a Don Corleone voice. It turns out that he was a tourist from Venezuela speaking Spanish; he was drunk and trying to interrupt conversation among Newton, an American young man and me. He then started to insult us. We left quickly as the young man went to inform the manager. A few streets over by foot, we suddenly realized that a car that had to do a turnabout in the tight street was being driven by him. We ducked into a doorway and luckily remained undetected by the drunken goon. That meant that the only mafia connection we encountered was the Palermo Opera House where Sophia Coppola as Michael Corleone’s daughter dies on the steps in “The Godfather III:”

 palermo opera house Opera steps                                                            

Fred explains that Sicily’s cuisine is famous for its flavorful fresh produce (resulting from rich volcanic soil) and fresh sea food, mixed with the spices of North Africa. One of my early favorites was pepper muscles. We loved the arancini – rice balls with meat or cheese; sarde a Beccafico – sardines stuffed with cheese, herbs and raisins; involtini – roll-ups of chicken, veal, etc. with cheese and spices; cuscus; piacentino (sheep’s milk cheese) and majorchino (pecorino cheese) with black peppercorns; calamari, shrimps, octopus, fish, clams, grilled zucchini and eggplant, and the wonderful greens. There used to be a tradition of French chefs and bakers in the households of the nobles, which led to a tradition of nuns leaving the convents and learning how to make French pastries and exquisite sweets. Some convents today thrive by supplying the best marzipan (pictured here) marzipan taorminaand pastries in Sicily. The breakfasts included in most hotels sometimes consisted of vouchers for a bar in the nearby piazza for cappuccino and croissant or brioche - as delicate and flakey as any French counterpart. Also famous in Sicily is the citrus produce, including madarino tangerines, along with several tangerine varieties that come out month-by-month. I tasted both a fresh tangerine and a mandarincino liqueur after dinner... yes, both, all the way up my cheeks! Fred was clear that he had no interest in the tradition of French cuisine in Sicily, apart from the pastries. He loves the fresh bounty from the local small farms, the fresh seafood from the fishermen, and the vino locale from the wineries that have always made up the fare of the traditionally poor populace. Eating in restaurants is a relatively new and casual phenomenon among the people. 














We peered through the gate of this building in a small coastal town and a lovely older man approached, opened the gate for us and explained in perfect English that this was his weekend refuge from Rome. Sweet:

Roman's retreat

We always like to joke with our kids about which funny little car is our actual rental:

rental car perhaps-Noto











In Agrigento there is an entire park of Greek/Roman ruins with the sea in the background. I felt like I was in the middle of an old French painting when I looked at this:

ruins painting-Agrigento painting of ruins

This was the last standing column of the temple of Zeus (later Jove), which tumbled in 1914:

Zeus temple

These human figure columns also supported the weight of the temple:

column figure-agrigento




Like many ruins around the Mediterranean, these temples were frequently appropriated by succeeding conquerors – after the Greeks and Romans, the Byzantines, Arabs, Christians…so many have been damaged, adapted, re-adapted, and restored.

Fred is particularly enthusiastic about a man (deceased since publication of the 2010 edition) who made gelato and sorbet in the purest, most traditional way in the city of Noto. He eliminated any gums or fillers and concentrated on egg whites and natural flavors. The establishment, Corrudo Costanzo (#7 Via Salvia Spaventa), named after him and continuing his strict standards by way of his family, still makes the original Arabic sorbets of rose and jasmine, as well as what Fred considers the best taste experience of his career: sorbetto di mandarino. We were on a pilgrimage to taste these and the mulberry, lemon, pistachio, hazelnut and almond gelatos that Fred favored there. As we headed out from Agrigento, having duly entered Constanzo’s address into the GPS, Martha led us on a wild goose chase up and up and up into the mountains above beautiful farm fields separated by low stone walls. It seemed strange, as Noto was near the coast, but we put our madcap faith in the sometime trickster and headed to an autostrata on the other side of these mountains. The scenery was so lovely that I had mixed emotions about the beauty, the receding shore, the blind hairpin curves on a road too narrow for two cars, and the sinking gas gauge. The autostrata did eventually lead us to Noto, and we eventually walked our way to Costanzo’s only to find it closed for renovation. I had hoped to follow my Mother’s annual summer tradition of a meal of all the ice cream we could eat!

Siracusa is a wonderful city. It was a center of great learning in ancient times and produced Archemedes, among other notables. We loved the hipness of the city center – an island called Ortigia - combined with the traditional varieties of architecture, great stores, and another spectacular park of Greek/Roman ruins. Interestingly enough, not only the ruins, but the entire city of Siracusa is on the UNESCO World heritage list! church-siracusa siracusa street

inside -siracusa Gelati

Here are the Roman theater and a video of the Greek amphitheater, interesting to compare (the rectangular indentation in the center here was for stagecraft):

roman theater -siracusa

oh my feet -siracusa


While Newton walked around the amphitheater with his camera, I sat on a rock and  contemplated the concentric circles of pain emanating from the two outside toes on each foot. I know, I’m wearing sandals, but they are not my usual flip-flops, so I had blisters on all four toes. Just the beginning, as I would be forced into closed shoes later up north.







Here is a video of the “Ear of Dionysus,” who it is said could eavesdrop on prisoners held captive in this cave by way of its extraordinary acoustics:

We found a laundry service in Siracusa and washed our clothes. It is run by a friendly American woman who has the most handsome bachelor clients. Decent occupation. We followed Fred’s recommendation for food shopping and found great salami, cheeses, olives, bread, and wine all in one store for our post-ruins picnic. And speaking of tasting flavors entirely up the cheeks, we had unforgettable mojitos with giant fresh mint leaves lining the glass at a cool little music club. Maybe I should tell Fred? It seems odd that Syracuse was not on my radar before. Just a fantastic place.

There are no billboards in the countryside or the old city centers…imagine! The beauty is everywhere, unobstructed. We stopped in Taormina, built on cliffs that rise high above the sea. As Fred confirms, the many tourists do not spoil the gorgeous setting or diminish the charm of this city, even on an overcast day:

drive above taormina 












more taormina charm charming taormina











Martha had quite a bit of trouble getting us to the ferry in Messina that carries cars over to the tip of the mainland’s boot. She kept insisting that we had arrived, but there was no indication of a ferry there. We finally figured something out, though we were entering the port at the exit and had to be directed by helpful personnel to the waiting area. The ferry wasn’t till 8:00 pm, so the darkness continued through our arrival on the mainland a half-hour later. Martha knows when it’s dark and had her tricks ready for us.




  1. What a wonderful story of your adventure! I loved the pictures! And think that maybe you found your gelato eventually. Thank you so much for all the descriptions- and the pictures- I felt for a while that maybe I was along in your pocket. Can't wait for the next chapture!

  2. Amazing travels and photos! It was hard to imagine what you were up to so I'm glad I got to read AND see what it was like! Miss you <3 Elise

  3. Sandy, This is a wonderful commentary and I am honored to be part of your journey. I was in Sicily a few weeks ago and adored Siracusa more than ever. It really is a gem. But so is almost all of Sicily. Thanks too for your kind words about Italy for the Gourmet Traveler. Ciao, e buon viaggio, Fred

  4. What a wonderful trip and such beautiful pictures. I've never been to Sicily, but it is one place in Europe that I've often thought would be a place to visit. Fred and Martha seemed to serve you well. I can really relate to Martha. I often talk back to Jill(named by our Garmin GPS) during our road trips, especially when she thinks we are driving across fields instead on on the highway. Since this was your first stop, I hope you took extra suitcases given the picture of Newton carrying the bags. And especially I liked the picture of the olive tree. It must be hundreds of years old and produced hundreds of gallons of olive oil.

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