1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy


Originally Published July 1954

A perimetal pilgrimage to the largest of the Mediterranean islands produces greater aesthetic than epicurean rewards

Sicily signifies a great deal more to the traveler than a mere region of Italy, or the largest island in the Mediterranean with a disquieting emblem made up of a face surrounded by wings, serpents and three legs. It is a museum, an astonishing one, of diverse and unrelated civilizations-ancient Greek, Roman, Saracen and Norman, with smatterings of Spain thrown in, When the intrepid Garibaldi stormed the island less than a century ago and brought it into the newly founded Kingdom of Italy, he had annexed for his country an immense vineyard, an even larger orchard, a volatile, raven-haired, sun-browned population, and an absolute treasure of architecture and dramatic landscape.

But Sicily retains a mysterious atmosphere all its ownstrangely African, faintly Oriental. The Sicilians sing with a melancholy Moorish wail, and their villages are pervaded with the perfume of pungent Oriental spices. Their fishing vessels are rigged in slightly berserk fashion, with russet-orange sails, just as they are in Tunis or Cairo. Their swarthy complexions, luxuriant black hair and fine features suggest more than a few Moorish ancestors. They are not as gay as the Neapolitans, but have plenty of Italian virtues. The Sicilian farmers are hard workers, and have made valiant attempts to salvage every bit of arable soil on their island. The most uncompromising hills are terraced in the hope that they will provide a shelf where an olive tree or a few artichokes may take root. There is overpopulation in Sicily, and the poverty which goes with it. The Italian famiry for producing multinidinous progeny is never better illustrated than here. Bambini positively swarm. In other fields of activity, however, unemployment among the men runs high. The streets of mast Sicilian villages are crowded with them, all highly articulate, all gifted with flamboyant gestures. But the Sicilian women all seem to have something to do!

Sicily has been popular with foreign visitors for decades. Most of the pioneer travelers, in the early nineteenth century, were Englishmen-archaeologists who reveled in the remote temples of Segesta and Selinunre, and wine dealers who developed the sweet wines of Marsala into a formidable rival of port in the British market. By the turn of the present century the island had become established as a major objective for travelers, and so it remains today. Hotels were built or adapted to accommodate the tourist about then, and they remain the same also. There is a static charm to the hotel situation in Sicily. My venerable Baedeker dates from 1912, but its information about acceptable hostelrics is quite accurate today, except that full pensions ii no longer 20 lire per day. At present it costs more than that to mail a local letter or to buy an Italian newspaper.

The same few comfortable hotels in Messina, Syracuse, Agrigento and Palermo mentioned forty-two years ago are still the ones to recommend today. Taormina has blossomed out with a few new names, and there is one startling, ultramodern newcomer at Mondello, Palermo's beach resort, which deserves your attention. We have a firm conviction that today's traveler, unless he has had basic training in youth hostels or as an itinerant peddler, will not be happy in the lower categories of Sicilian hotels. Outside of Taormina, the charming exception to the rule, it is wise CO book the best.

Gastronomy plays fourth fiddle for the visitor in Sicily, and we might as well be candid about it. Conventional hotel food will be the lot of all but the most zealous seeker of local dishes. Sicilian specialties do exist, however, and the animated restaurants of Palermo will provide many of them. Rare is the tourist who can claim a first-hand knowledge of pasta alle sarde, probably the most celebrated Sicilian dish. It consists of boiled macaroni, in long strands, mixed with alternate layers of baby fmoccbio and young fresh sardines, both cooked in oil. This delicacy is served cold in pie-shaped portions, It tastes even better than it sounds!

Pasta alle Sards

Clean 1 pound of fresh sardines, discard the heads, tails, and backbones, and split the fish length wise. Roll the fish in flour, sprinkle with a little salt, and sauteé them in a little olive oil until brown on both sides. Trim 1 pound of fennel, wash it thoroughly, and cook it in boiling salted water until tender. Drain, squeeze out the excess water, and chop the fennel finely. Wash the salt from 12 anchovy filets and cook them slowly in ¼ cup olive oil until they are almost dissolved. Add the chopped fennel, a pinch of salt and pepper, and cook slowly in the olive oil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding a little more olive oil if needed. Stir in ½ cup tomato paste diluted in 1 cup hot water.

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