Stefano Zagami is 88, but looks like he might have another 50 years in him. He makes his own wine, eats 10 cucumbers a day and keeps three freezers stocked with all varieties of island flora and fauna: prickly pear (one of the few gifts Spanish invaders left in their wake), runner beans, and animals that try to eat his prickly pears and runner beans. One of the freezers contains a stack of ten rabbits and a whole fish frozen into a swooping C, like the most unforgiving case of rigor mortis imaginable.
Stefano’s freezer fixation, especially on an island capable of producing heart-breaking fruits and vegetables throughout the winter months, is a holdover from harder times. Filicudi was a leftist island during World War II, which apparently evoked the ire of Mussolini’s thugs, who would raid the houses of Filicudari. “Every piece of food was taken by the carabinieri,” Stefano says. “We had to hide the little food we could hold on to.”
Hunger eventually forced most residents off the island, much as it did across Sicily. “After the war, everyone went all around the world. A thousand people lived her before the wars. After, there were only 24.”
Whereas most Sicilians ended up in America, the Filicudari moved en masse to Australia. In Sydney, Stefano found a world far removed from the terraces of capers and grapes he used to tend back home. “It’s not what job I worked, it’s what job didn’t I work. I was a candy man, a cook, everything.”
When he returned in 1992, he came back to the house he had abandoned 42 years earlier, perched high above the Mediterranean in Valdichiesa, 100 meters from one of Filicudi’s two mountaintop churches. The house was in disrepair, so Stefano went to work restoring it to its former glory and beyond. Today, its white plaster frame and sweeping views of the sea recall the dramatic residences of Santorini.
His son, Deodato, still lives in Sydney, with his Ecuadorian wife Maria. His daughter Dina ended up in Argentina, where she makes traditional Filucudari fare to remind her family of where they come from; on Sunday’s, her kitchen is filled with the smells of slow-cooked pig’s foot.
Every July, Deodato and Dina meet in Rome, where they make the long trip down to the island to be with their father. They spend most of that month on the patio, under the snaking grape wines that protect the property from the brutal Sicilian sun. There they will all sit until late in the evening, eating Stefano’s pears, drinking Stefano’s wine, and imagining what it would have been like to have never left Filicudi.