I Banchi di Ciccio, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

October 24, 2015

There’s a new treasure in the ‘hood: I Banchi.

Its magnetic force pulls me in every single day, either for a frothy cappuccino, pasta lunch, hunk of parmigiana or half loaf of bread, take-out dinner pizza or scaccia (available by the slice), or for an evening glass of the local peppery black Nero d’Avola at a table outside. The genius behind this casual-affordable-lovable place is none other than 2-star Michelin chef Ciccio Sultano.

Ciccio Sultano of I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Ciccio Sultano, the beating heart behind I Banchi

It’s open all day long–8:30 am-11:30 pm–shockingly long hours for Sicily! (closed Tuesday). Mornings are my favorite time to sally forth, when the duomo is the color of fresh brioche, doves flutter about, and the only thing shattering the silence are my boots on cobbles. Although I Banchi’s official opening hour is  8:30 am, their door is ajar by about 7:30 or so for coffee. Monica’s smile will brighten your day.

Monica at I BANCHI, copyright Jann HuizengaWhere else can you go in the village on an October morning with rain bursting overhead? And linger for an hour over a warm whole-wheat croissant (un cornetto integrale, per favore) while scanning the news on a no-hassle wifi connection? You’ll stumble in half asleep and wake up to the smells of baking breads, chocolate, cream, and espresso.  You’ll marvel at the stone walls honeyed with age and at the fact that these rooms were the once-upon-a-time stables of the adjacent baronial palazzo. Such a high life the cows must have lived here! Feeding from troughs hand-carved from the local black pece stone under spacious vaulted ceilings.

I BANCHI wall, copyright Jann Huizenga

Ancient horse ring still on a wall

I Banchi Ragusa, copyright Jann HuizengaA destination for regular folk and gastronomes with shallow pockets, I Banchi (the name refers to the old wooden school benches still found in some Sicilian schools) is many things at once: a cafe/wine bar/bistro/trattoria/pizzeria/bakery/salumeria/bookstore/wifi zone/hang-out place par excellence. Down to earth, welcoming, and warm.

Breakfast outside at I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Londoners in Sicily

In nice weather sitting on the cobbled sidewalk under oleander trees is pleasant.

In charge of day-to-day operations is Chef Peppe Cannistrà, a local Ragusan. Yay, Chef! Keep up the good work.

Chef Peppe Cannistrà, copyright Jann Huizenga

Chef Peppe Cannistrà

Alfio Magnano, restaurant director, is a font of wine wisdom. And, as you know, Sicilian wines are spectacular.

Alfio, Director, I Banchi

Alfio Magnano knows Sicily’s wines.

Breakfast at I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Breakfast at I Banchi

Breakfast at I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Breakfast at I Banchi

When you step inside, you’re in the bakery, face-to face with mini cassata cakes, chocolate truffles, fruit-topped puff pastries, and other gems. But with my doctor’s voice in my ears, I often go for the stone-ground brown breads–breads almost impossible to find in Sicily because locals, after millenia of poverty, seem to be under the impression that soft white refined foods represent the apex of well-being. But I Banchi is nudging Sicilians back to their their healthier past, to fiber-rich ancient grains.

The breads are made from Castelvetrano flour, a stone-ground flour from Western Sicily that uses an ancient grain called tumminìa (supported by the Slow Food Presidium as it was becoming extinct).

Wheat Bread at I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Bread from I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga


This ancient Sicilian flour, once in danger of extinction, is stone-ground and protected by the Slow Food Foundation.

Giovanni, Bread Baker at I BANCHI, copyright Jann Huizenga

Giovanni, bread baker at I Banchi

Pasta Made from Ancient Sicilian Grains, Copyright Jann Huizenga

A selection of foods are available for purchase at I Banchi, including busiate produced from antique organic stone-ground grain in western Sicily by Filippo Drago. I love that Ciccio is supporting ancient grains and other old-time Sicilian products.

For more information on Filippo Drago’s work, see Elizabeth Minchelli’s blog.

For lunch I can recommend the unusual fish lasagna with broccoli puree. Fish Lasagna at I BANCHI, copyright Jann HuizengaAnd for dessert nothing could top the cannolo, served here with a dollop of almond granita.

Cannolo at I BANCHI, copyright Jann HuizengaThe approach at I Banchi is in keeping with the spirit of this ancient little village founded by the Greeks and rebuilt by exuberant Sicilians in the 1700s. No flashy Milan-style decor, no garish signage (instead it uses small stencils on its traditional shutters), unlike some other establishments that have popped up here recently. Sometimes I moan that World Heritage designation leads to ruination and nothing but magnet shops, but having I Banchi in the neighborhood gives me hope.

Buon appetito!


PS: When you go, have a peek into the adjacent courtyard where a scene from Divorce Italian Style was filmed. The wine cellar’s amazing too.




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Pastry Gems

January 13, 2014

Welcome to Caffè Italia in Upper Ragusa, a swanky place on Piazza San Giovanni. But swanky in Sicily still means coffee for 90 cents, and a petit four for 50 cents–less than the cost of a Snickers bar.

Caffe Italia, Ragusa, Italy, copyright Jann Huizenga

I’ve ordered coffees all around, and four teeny cakes.

Ready for a tasting? Let’s tuck in.

Sicilian pastry, copyright Jann Huizenga

Sicilian pastry, copyright Jann HuizengaSicilian pastry, copyright Jann Huizenga

Sicilian pastry, copyright Jann Huizenga


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Yes, You Can! (Speak Italian)

February 3, 2010

She hoped to read Dante in the original, my sister did, to discuss him in his native tongue.

But first she needed to pick up some basics.

Student at ibla! Language School

So she came all the way from Los Angeles to enroll in ibla!, a tiny Italian language school housed in a palazzo just steps from Ragusa Ibla’s cathedral.

ibla! Language School, Ragusa Ibla, Italy

I’d already spoken with the director and head teacher. They’d assured me that their teaching method was “communicative” and “fun” and “modern.” But I wondered. I’d seen language classes in Italy where teachers clung to an approach as antiquated as the Roman Forum itself.

But here’s what Linda has to say about the experience:  I spent a week studying Italian at ibla! school in spring 2009 and loved it! The teachers were hip and fun and tailored the classes to our level. They used conversation, games, interesting exercises and homework and really helped us become more skilled in speaking Italian. I made some good friends, loved the comfortable classrooms and also the historic setting (Ragusa Ibla is beautiful). I recommend this school and am looking forward to returning and taking more classes.

The classes at ibla! are very small, especially in off-season—sometimes just two people.  This can be a beautiful thing if you like lots of practice and individual attention. But the downside—at least for some people—might be that you don’t get to meet many classmates, and you may be hanging out alone in your free time.

Haven’t  you always wanted to speak the language of love?  It’s never too late to learn. ibla! runs a special “Over50 Program” that combines Italian with the study of culture, wine and food. Yum. What are you waiting for?

If you’re lucky, you may end up speaking Italian with a baroque accent. Sicilians love exaggeration. Baroque is in their bones. Consider this: no food in Sicily is merely good, buono, it’s always buonissimo, to die for. No human being is just plain ugly, brutto, he’s bruttissimo, hideous. No car or view or cake or shoe in Sicily is ever beautiful, bella, it’s always bellissima, drop-dead gorgeous.

If it’s excitement and glitterati you’re after, study Italian in Florence or Rome. If you’re looking for baroque charm and hospitality in a sweet (and relatively inexpensive) stone village, I recommend ibla!

Piazza Duomo, Ragusa Ibla, Italy

Here’s ibla!’s website.

If you can’t make it to Sicily to study Italian, if you can’t leave home at all, think about taking advantage of a distance-learning program to polish your language skills. Cyberitalian is a website devoted to teaching Italian and Italian culture. The director, Maura Garau, once headed the Italian program at the United Nations Circolo Culturale Italiano, and she knows what she’s doing when it comes to language instruction.

If you’re already at an intermediate level of Italian and want to speak more idiomatically, enjoy and learn from Dianne Hales’ fun (free) blog Becoming Italian Word by Word.

Follow your own star, as Dante would say, or more precisely, “Se segui tua stella, non fallirai a glorioso porto.”


Do you have a yen to speak Italian? If you already know Italian, do you have a secret to help the rest of us?

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La Zagara, or How I Was Drugged in Sicily

January 21, 2010

Here’s how I got into trouble.

After teaching a short course in Ragusa in 2002, I’d returned year after year to Southeast Sicily to root around for a little casa. The Fates pushed back with all their might and I finally admitted defeat.

In the spring of 2007, I came to see friends one last time and close the Sicilian chapter of my life. Ciao, Sicilia.

A day before bidding the island farewell, I scaled the long staircase up from Ibla’s Piazza Duomo to see the cupola from on high. After many years cocooned in scaffolding thick as wool, it had reemerged triumphant.

San Giorgio Cathedral, Ragusa Ibla, Sicily

It looked good enough to eat, like whipped cream on a tumbler of granita. I felt a secret joy. Bells tolled, clouds slipped up from the valley. I inhaled la zagara—orange blossoms on the breeze—like a drug.

I turned. There, on an unassuming little row house with a mottled wall and weatherworn door, I saw the magic words: VENDITA.

House in Ragusa Ibla

I saw. I called. I bought. Cast myself into a new world just like that. 1-2-3.

Never imagining for a minute what was in store.

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Fannuloni and Chocolate

Jann Huizenga

December 3, 2009

For a year my showers were icy, my radiators cold. The new Renzo Piano stovetop just sat there, shiny and useless. I’d filed a dichiarazine and oodles of other papers, had a friend fake signatures and make phone calls when I wasn’t in town, shelled out €450 in utility fees at the post office, lost hours in grouchy mobs hoping for face time with a bureaucrat. I fawned, flirted, cajoled, and sobbed. After each trauma I self-medicated with chocolate.


Then one fine day in October, Enelgas—like God Almighty—said Let There Be Gas.

The experience soured me on bureaucrats, known here as fannuloni, slackers.

But I could no longer put off a visit to the dreaded water office, l’ufficio idrico. It was time to fess up that I hadn’t paid a centesimo for water since buying the house in 2007, nor even reported a change of ownership.

I take a number, A30, and wait. The slip of paper in my fist bears no relation to what’s flashing on the wall monitor, F6.

Non funziona,” says a farmer in from the countryside. The crowd swells. We take matters into our own hands and politely number off.

Finally seated at the sportello, I’m shooed away. You must, says the woman, purchase a marca di bollo at the tabacchaio, then proceed to the post office to pay another fee. Which I do. Back at the water office, my bureaucrat pulls out a form from a cracked blue folder and writes the date. “Friday the 13th!” she says. “A lucky day!”  (Just goes to show how topsy-turvy things are here.) The clock above her head is running ninety minutes fast.

I hand over my passport, my codice fiscale, and my water meter reading. Clickety-clack goes her keyboard.

“Our computer does not accept your name.”


“There is no key for J.” She fusses and gripes and stares at the screen. “And no key for H.”

She calls over the boss. After much ado, he locates the problematic letters. The printer whirrs, spitting papers onto the floor.

The name is spelled wrong; the date of birth incorrect. Corrections are made; the printer whirrs again. More signatures required.

“Are things the same in America as here?” my bureaucrat asks.

“Well, there’s less paperwork there.”

This produces a sudden outburst. “O, siamo maestri della bureaucrazia!” We are the maestros of bureaucracy.

An understatement, seems to me. I slink out of the office across Piazza San Giovanni to Caffè Italia, where I calm myself with a chocolate eclair and hot chocolate thick as pudding.


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