A Cave of Men, and Qualms

July 26, 2014

Around eight in the evening, in a town I don’t know, I pause to shoot this wide-eyed fella and his a wispy beard.

Come on in. Don’t I want to see the club?

I hesitate. Will someone spring on me? Twist my arms and slaughter me?

Man at Club Entry, copyright Jann Huizenga

You have to stoop to get inside the old scratched door. Claw marks?

The place is dusky and cavernous.

He says the name is La Caverna.

I squint and pick my way through the pitch-darkness. Who is lurking at the back of the cave?

It’s only Mr. White Glasses, smoking. Turns out he’s the owner of the cavern.

Mr. White Glasses, copyright Jann Huizenga

Mr. White Glasses leads me toward an even blacker room in the back. Is this where they hold the hostages?

Mr. Little and Friends, copyright Jann Huizenga

But no. There is only sweet Mr. Little and his tame friends playing a game.

Mr Little's Friends, copyright Jann Huizenga

Laughing, chatting, joking. Not even drinking.

I’m charmed.

The fella leads me back out and wishes me a buona serata.

Sicily Man, copyright Jann Huizenga

I almost never feel any qualms about traveling sola in Sicily. But once in a while, if you could read the thought bubble over my head it would say, “Nitwit. Is this really a prudent thing to do?”

Do you travel alone? How cautious are you?

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Mother and Child, Sicily

July 5, 2014

They were strolling hand-in-hand down the street like extras in some Sicilian film. They stepped into the tabacchaio and when they emerged, I went in pursuit. How was it that I’d never seen them before, in this dinky place of 2500 people?

Sicilian Mom & Son, Copyright Jann Huizenga

Concetta handed me her card. Turns out she runs a restaurant called U Saracenu,  in the heart of Ragusa Ibla. I haven’t eaten there since those days when my house was a kitchen-less mess.  The place seemed then like a throwback to a much earlier era, and when I popped in today, nothing in the decor had changed. The previous owner, built like a fridge, used to tell me exactly what I wanted to eat.

“I’d love a big salad, please.”

“Oh no. This no weather for salad. You need hearty fare in this rain.”

And he’d lumber from the kitchen balancing a steamy bowl of minestrone, or ricotta ravioli doused in ragú.

But he has retired, and the chef (Concetta’s hubby) and Concetta are now the proud owners, serving the same old-style, no-nonsense, no-pretense Sicilian fare at prices you’ll like.

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Inside U Saracenu, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

The front room is the lightest room and you sit next to an old feed trough; the restaurant is a former animal stall.

 

 

 

 

 



 

 

U Saracenu, Ragusa Ibla, copyright Jann Huizenga

Translated, the name means “At the Saracen’s Place”–referring to the Arabs or Moors who ruled Sicily for a couple hundred years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chef at U Saracenu, Ragusa Ibla, copyright Jann Huizenga

Chef Angelo Gelasio

 

 

 

 

 

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Cooking in A Convent, Sicily

June 21, 2014

Happy summer!

My buddy Roberta and I welcomed the season with a luscious summertime lunch whipped up by the chefs-in-training at the Nosco Cooking School at Antico Convento Ibla in Ragusa Ibla. Talk about “Farm to Table” fresh! The chefs were out in the school’s garden picking our lunch a mere 30 minutes before we scarfed it down. Their assignment was to find something in the garden that inspired their creative fancy.

Chefs at the Nosco Cooking School in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

The squash blossoms were out in full glory. (Can you guess what ended up in one of the dishes?)

Nosco Cooking School, copyright Jann Huizenga

This chef threatened to stab me if I didn’t stop taking his picture.

Nosco Cooking School, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

The wizard behind the magic is Peppe Barone, below, a chef who has inspired and trained many top chefs in Southeast Sicily. (He also owns the restaurant Fattoria delle Torri in Modica.) You can watch him on TV here.Peppe Barone of the Nosco School, copyright Jann Huizenga

An illicit aside:

Right under that rock wall is a deep black hole. Peppe explains: “It is the tunnel that the monks dug. It leads all the way to the nunnery.” He was not kidding. (The convent and nunnery were vacated sometime in the 1950s.)

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Goodies in hand, the chefs traipse back to the kitchen and get to work.

Nosco School of Cooking, Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

Steam steam steam. Chop chop chop.

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Roberta and I went down to the dining room in high anticipation, studying the skulls, scrolls, and other frescoes, wondering why there were no more monks. Is gastronomy the new religion?

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Frescoes at the Nasco Cooking School in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

And then the moment arrived. We were poured a local bubbly rose.  And then these marvels–and many others–were placed before us, like benedictions.

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Eggplant and tomato torte

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Tomato pasta with local cheese–and do you see it?–the squash blossom! Stuffed with mozzarella and deep fried.

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Pasta with great big green leaves picked in the garden. That’s all I know. Divine.

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Pasta with a leek, onion & potato broth. Shoestring potato garnish.

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A “convent cannolo” with sweet ricotta cream. Cute and amazing taste.

A big GRAZIE!!!!! Chef Peppe, to you and all your fine sous chefs!

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The Nosco Cooking School at Antico Convento Ibla can arrange custom cooking classes for you  You’d need to find nine friends, to make a minimum group of ten. Or visit Ristorante Cenobio to taste the student chefs’ creations. The convent is at the back of the Ibla Gardens.

 

Summer 2014, Bella Figura

June 15, 2014

I went to a wedding the other night on my church steps.  I wasn’t invited, of course, but what I love about Sicilian weddings is that tourists and others can stumble through the church while the wedding is underway and hang around afterwards. Weddings here are fashion shows. (And the bride wasn’t the only one in lace.)  Sicilians may be experiencing serious economic woes, but you’d never know it judging by their glad rags.

 

Sicilian Woman in Orange Dress, copyright Jann Huizenga

Sicilian Woman in Black Lace Dress, copyright Jann Huizenga

Yellow nail polish and gold rings on 6 fingers

Young Sicilian Woman in Lacy Dress, copyright Jann Huizenga

Sicilian Woman in Pink Shoes, copyright Jann Huizenga

Sicilian Woman in Red and Black, copyright Jann Huizenga

I’m sure her nails and lipstick are red too.

Sicilian Couple, copyright Jann Huizenga

Young Sicilian Couple All Dressed Up, copyright Jann Huizenga

 

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Aeolian Islands Romance: The Stuff of Fiction (& Real Life)

June 5, 2014

Have you seen the super-romantic Il Postino (The Postman)? This is where it was shot, 20 years ago.

Pollara, Aeolian Islands, copyright Jann Huizenga

The tiny port of Pollara on the islet of Salina, Aeolian Islands, Sicily

The film is fiction: it’s all about falling madly in love: a simple, shy Sicilian postman wins the heart of his voluptuous true love with a little help from Pablo Neruda and Neruda’s seductive poetry.

But reality is just as fine. In November 2005, Libby Lush, a Sydney native who was on holiday from her job as a physiotherapist was traveling sola on the island. (Sola–Did you catch that, ladies???)

In Libby’s words:

Getting off the hydrofoil alone, with nowhere to stay and no contacts, there was the strangest sensation of ‘returning home’. Something about the place felt so familiar and comfortable. Salina had a magical, mystical and romantic feel to it. A full moon added to the atmosphere. There seemed to be more stars in the sky here than I’d ever seen before…  The island was peaceful, quiet, slow moving, yet definitely not boring. As if it belonged to another era but lacking nothing. The locals were warm, fun loving, generous, tolerant and hospitable. They seemed to have found the balance for a perfect life style with family life, social interaction, work and play all in harmony. 

Libby was sitting at the bus stop one day when handsome Santino roared up and offered her a ride. How could she refuse? But that was the extent of her “holiday romance,” and when Libby left the island after 5 days, she thought her days there were over. However….

Aeolian Islands Couple, copyright Jann Huizenga

Libby and Santino with the village of Pollara in the background.

As fate would have it my next visit to Salina would be six months later, followed by another trip that Christmas. Destino! Santino and I were married on Salina in November 2007 on another mild mid- November day. A perfect day.

Libby has learned perfect Italian, and she’s exchanged a busy urban life for a slow rural one.

Everyday seems to bring a new surprise. Salina is a place that enters your heart and soul and never leaves. The mistake would have been not to board the hydrofoil on that mid-November day in 2005. 

She now spends her days “cooking, sweeping, writing and living ‘la dolce vita’ on the island of Salina” with Santino.

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There is a difference between existing in a place and living in a place. (Elizabeth Lush)

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Thank you, Libby, for the inspiring story of your life.

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