Upon arrival they present us both with aprons—mine says “I’m on vacation” in Sicilian dialect, Nathan’s has an iron-on image of Michelangelo’s David, his little marble penis dangling somewhere around Nathan’s bellybutton. We will be doing exactly zero cooking tonight, but everyone has a good laugh when we suit up. White wine is poured into plastic cups and passed around the table. Cheers to the Americani!
For all the amazing meals to be had in the restaurants of Sicily, I wouldn’t trade a reservation at the best table in Palermo for a dinner made in the house of a Sicilian family, especially one as large and lovely as this one. Sabrina Di Caro, a close friend from Barcelona and an integral part of our roving Sicilian rabble this week, has invited us home, to the southwestern coastal town of Ribera, to dine with her family. All 12 of them.
Spaghetti al pesto trapenese
Pasta con le sarde
Sabrina’s two aunts, Lina and Giuseppina, drop the pasta a few minutes after we arrive. What’s the most important part about pasta I ask Giuseppina? “Il pomodoro.” “Il pomodoro, chiaro,” echoes Lina. The tomato, of course. Ask that question anywhere else in Italy and you’ll hear expositions on the importance of the pasta itself, perhaps a lengthy explanation about cooking it perfectly, about how the sauce is only the condimento working in the service of the noodle, but here in Sicily, the idea of pasta and tomato are inexorably linked and anyone being honest with himself will answer thusly: pomodoro!
In this case, the pomodoro forms the base of a salsa cruda, a cold, uncooked sauce added to hot pasta at the last second—a common way to eat pasta in the summer, not just because it’s still 90˚F at 10 pm across Sicily, but because the tomatoes are so perfect right now that cooking them would be criminal. I’ve had this dish a dozen times—tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil—but this is the first time it’s made sense to me.
Tomato may be Sicily’s most important ingredient, but le sarde is the island’s most emblematic dish: fresh sardines, cooked until the flesh breaks down into a pesto-like consistency and the rich oils of the fish marry with the olive oil and tomato to make an intense, brooding base for the supporting cast: pine nuts, raisins and onion, plus, the critical ingredient. “Wild fennel,” says Giuseppina. “Without wild fennel, you don’t have le sarde. You have some other pasta.” But you don’t want some other pasta. A single bite will slay any canned-sardine trauma you bring to the table and when all is said and done, you will leave this island an evangelist of the holy powers of little oily fish.
Salsiccia alla griglia
Giuseppe has been feeding the fire for hours. His grill is a thing of beauty, a large adobe fire pit with a smooth dome and thick cast-iron grates spread across the raging fire. As I stand admiringly in its glow, he puts a hand on my shoulder: “I built this oven by hand, bit by bit.” Its awesomeness would make a Weber blush.
Beyond Giuseppe, though, not a masculine muscle has stirred all night. Nathan and I offer to help clear off the pasta. “No no, sit down,” says Lena. “You see? Men don’t help around here.” She’s right, of course: In Sicily, men don’t make pasta or eggplant parmigiana or wash the dishes after dinner. But they do make meat, at least if it means cooking over a live flame. This division, this fear of the stovetop but dominion of the grill, is one of those little details that connects the men of Sicily to men all over the world.
Giuseppe proves a skilled grillmaster; by the time he covers the grate with thin coils of pork sausage, he has lulled the fire into a gentle glow that crisps the skin and renders the fat in perfect harmony. I’m told these are a special sausage from the southern part of Sicily, but when I bite into it, I’m transported to a sunny California backyard: fennel seeds and red pepper flakes, gentle beads of fats oozing . We call it “Italian sausage” in the States, but really, it’s Sicilian sausage.
A jug of Giuseppe’s homemade wine is placed on the table and he gives me a nod. I can feel every last drop of it crawling down my chest, but I manage the best “che buono” I can conjure. Everyone looks to see if I’m just being polite, so to assure him that indeed, I’d be happy to drink his potion all night, I finish the first glass and ask him to pour me another. “Careful, now,” Sabrina’s mom warns me. “His wine is very strong.”
Granita di limone
Sicilian dessert can easily last twice as long as an American dinner. First there is fresh fruit, followed by ice cream or something chocolatey, then a round of espresso, a few cigarettes, and finally, digestivi—a little nip of the strong stuff to help the food settle. After wedges of watermelon—dense and sweet and lipstick red—Lina emerges from the kitchen with a round of lemon granita, a lip-puckering, palate-cleansing specialty of the island—what the rest of the world calls Italian ice. Cups are scooped clean and a discussion on the greatness of Sicilian lemons soon follows.
By midnight, the table is carpeted with watermelon rinds and ashtrays and bottles of grappa. Azzurra and Matteo, 4 and 8, are still very much awake, still asking us if we knew Michael Jackson. Though the conversation takes some wild detours— “remember that guy from the north who drove home with the cheeses on his roof!”—it always turns back to the greatness of Sicily. With every passing minute it becomes an easier discussion to contribute to, and after a day at a famous tomato factory, hanging out with Sicily’s oldest chocolate maker, whipping past the ancient Greek ruins above Agrigento, we have plenty of lumber to add to the fire.
Everything seems just right: the amount of food, the light wine buzz, even the sloppy Italian (i.e. Spanish with an Italian-ish accent) Nathan and I volley around the table. The only slip-up comes late in the meal when, pressed for our itinerary, we tell the Di Caro family that we will be moving on tomorrow. “Why would you do that?” they all ask.
That’s a damn good question.