When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey, there were a few standard answers to the now politically incorrect question, “What are you?” Standard answers included “Italian,” “Irish,” “German,” “Polish,” or some combination thereof. In sixth grade we moved to a slightly more diverse town, and “Jewish” and “Black” got thrown into the mix. Never settling for standard, my well-rehearsed comeback was the exotic “Sicilian.” Not “Italian.” “Sicilian.” Besides our parents and grandparents, my three siblings and I were the only one hundred percent Sicilians that anybody knew. Well, except for mobsters—and they were in the movies.
Although I was frequently invited to eat dinner at friends’ houses, my usual response was “No, thank you.” I loved the dinners I ate as a child, the fragrant smell of tomato sauce simmering on the stove all day, or rosemary-rubbed lamb chops barely passed under the broiler, or grilled T-bones with oregano and lemon. We ate arancini, or rice balls, cooked by my Grandma Termini, the way other families ate grilled cheese or Spaghetti-o’s. Deep fried to golden perfection, filled with al dente rice, peas, and sauced ground beef, these “little oranges” are a treat I first remember from my fourth birthday party, when we still lived in Brooklyn. I was lucky to have a grandmother who lived around the block and who carried on the cooking tradition of her native island as best as she could with available ingredients.
One year ago, I received my Italian passport, and had my birth certificate registered in my ancestral town of Mazara del Vallo, Sicily. I first had to track down the birth, marriage, and death certificates of my grandparents and great-grandparents, all of whom had come from Sicily. Besides the family names I knew—DeSimone, Termini, DiBella, and Piscitello—I uncovered several which were barely familiar to me: Gennaro, Vegna, Bruno, Modica, Amato, and Vilardi. My paper journey became real at the end of last summer, when I visited Sicily for the first time, with members of another Sicilian family, the Planeta’s. I first met Francesca and Alessio Planeta at a wine tasting in New York, and mentioned to them that my great-grandmother was from Menfi, where their Ulmo winery is located. They were interested to learn that I am 100% Sicilian, and that my family had roots in Castelvetrano, where Allessio’s mother is from, and Polizzi Generosa, where they also have relatives. They proposed that Jeff and I visit them, and they would re-introduce me to my heritage.
Although I never complain about air travel, citing how difficult my ancestors’ ocean voyages to the New World must have been, getting to Sicily for the first time proved to be a particularly harrowing journey. After flight delays and a forced landing on the mainland (Sicily’s three airports were closed due to severe thunderstorms), we arrived in Palermo several hours later than planned, picked up our rental car—a Fiat, of course—and headed south to Menfi, only to discover that our route was impassable because of mudslides. I had spoken with Chiara Planeta several times throughout the day, but when I informed her that we would now be even later than our last estimate, she sounded more distraught than I did. I told her not to worry; we are seasoned travelers who never go anywhere without a map, and we would backtrack to the highway and meet her in Menfi in a little over an hour.
I would like to say that my first meal in Sicily was an elegant affair on a moonlit terrace, comprising multiple courses, each one filled with smells, tastes, and textures that set off a flood of emotion. That would have to wait until my second meal. Our first meal, a half hour detour off the autovia on the outskirts of Salemi, was a square of deep-dish pizza at a bar filled with construction workers. Half-starved after a day of airline pretzels, we knew we needed something in our stomachs. I paused during my first bite. The springy focaccia-like crust was lightly drizzled with sweet tomato sauce and dotted with rounds of melted mozzarella. I turned to Jeff, informing him that this was exactly like the pizza my mom’s father made in my youth. Exactly. And my grandfather always let me sip from the glass of red wine he would enjoy with each meal, a tradition I was upholding with this pizza.
I recalled how I would rush home after school on “pizza days,” the anticipation of the first scent of that heady combination of yeast and tomato growing with each step. As I burst through the never-locked front door and ran into the kitchen, Grandpa Termini would scoop me up in his arms, calling me “Micheluzzi,” dip a wooden spoon into a pot of bubbling sauce, and give me a taste of pizza yet to come. Each grandparent’s sauce was different; there was no better or best, and to this day when I make my Sunday sauce, it is hard to pinpoint exactly whose influence comes through strongest. Deep in thought and slightly relaxed from the glass of local red, my reminiscence ended as Jeff reminded me we should probably get to Menfi while we still had sunlight.
We arrived in Menfi just as the sun set, meeting Chiara at the roundabout near the entrance to town, which is filled with a giant three-dimensional sun. Most of Menfi was destroyed by an earthquake in 1968, so the rebuilt town itself has no real charm. However, this is the only name of any Sicilian town that my father could recall; I had to dig through records to uncover all the others. Fortunately, there are very good restaurants on or near the Blue Flag beach of Porto Palo, just outside Menfi, and Chiara took us to one on our first night, and another the second. Our first real meal immediately rocketed me back to childhood—we started with chicken skewered on rosemary branches and lightly grilled, then bowtie pasta scented with orange, and finally, succulent fresh figs with ice cream. Rosemary was a staple of my mother’s kitchen, and at least once a week we had roasted chicken liberally sprinkled with it. And Grandma Termini (nee DiBella,) who hailed from nearby Castelvetrano, always had oranges on hand. When I was very young and she would take my brother Jimmy, our cousin Theresa, and me for walks through Brooklyn, she always carried a bag of oranges with her, which we would eat on benches in a local park. Oranges grow everywhere in Sicily—or at least everywhere that grapes and olives and almonds do not—and I now see why they were such a part of my grandmother’s life. I also understand why Grandpa, with his incredible green thumb, had a fig tree growing outside every home he lived in.
Over the next several days, we got to know the Planeta family, and we got to know the area that my grandparents and great-grandparents are from. We visited Menfi; Castelvetrano, which dates to the Roman era; Mazara del Vallo, a port city with a still-thriving Arab market; and the glorious Greek ruins at Selinunte. I have traveled through much of Italy, and have never felt particularly connected to the food. In fact, I have felt closer to the cuisine of Greece and Turkey than that of Italy. Sicily was another story altogether: Whether in a restaurant or with the Planeta family, the scents and flavors were straight out of the pantry of memory. We have a family custom of grinding almonds in a mortar and pestle, which we spoon over pasta the way you would with grated cheese. I have never seen this on anyone else’s table here in the States, but with the Planeta’s, there were ground almonds at every meal, either on pasta or vegetables.
We toured the Planeta olive farm and olive oil mill, where their D.O.P. Val de Mazara Extra Virgin Olive Oil is produced. Extra virgin olive oil is ubiquitous now, but until recently it was hardly a staple. I will always remember my fifth birthday party, my first in our new town in New Jersey, when my mother put out a bowl of olives on the snack table, alongside the pretzels and potato chips and cans of Hi-C. The other kids in the neighborhood, my new friends whom I was hoping to impress, had never seen olives before, and made fun of me. I didn’t know then that my grandparents had come from a land of olive trees and sun and luscious red and white wines, and even if I had, it probably wouldn’t have made me any more popular among my peers. Thank goodness Mom spared us the other family favorite, anchovies—which I also saw a lot of in Sicily.
In Castelvetrano, we visited a traditional bakery, and met Rosa Gulla Termini, who bakes dark loaves of oval bread all day, every day, in a brick oven heated with olive branches. There is no familial relation, but the fig cookies for sale up front could have come right out of my grandmother’s oven. In actuality, almost everything we ate was a version of something eaten when I was a child, but fresher. Spaghetti a la vongole prepared with tiny clams fresh from the Mediterranean is certainly far superior to my mother’s linguine with canned clams, but that was all she had to work with. Ditto an elegant timbale of cappelini versus a giant tray of baked ziti, but the immigrants and their offspring made the bestof what they had. Seafood—octopus, calamari, shrimp, stuffed clams—was usually reserved for holidays in our house, but in Sicily these dishes appeared at almost every meal.
Establishing a family connection will have to wait for a return trip to Sicily—unless we count the Planeta’s, who embraced us like long-lost cousins. What I found in Sicily is that there is a reason I love the sun, and the stories of the Greek gods, and crisp white wine alongside broiled fish with lemon, or a luscious red paired with roast beef and onion gravy. Having seen the beauty of Sicily today, I cannot imagine what drew my forbears to leave this verdant isle, which natives like to call the smallest continent in the world. At the heart of the Mediterranean, Sicily has been touched by many nations, each of which has left its mark on her culture and cooking. In turn, Sicily, especially her cuisine, has left her mark on me—something she did long before our delayed plane ever set down on her rocky shores.
Watch Mike DeSimone in Sicily: