Monday, January 27, 2020

These images are of the most unique journals I've seen anywhere.  I bought them at Edizioni Precarie (via Alessandro Paternostro 75) in Palermo, in the heart of the Vucciria neighborhood.  La Vucciria is one of Palermo's four historic outdoor markets (the others are Ballarò, Borgo Vecchio, and Il  Capo), and while it's acknowledged that La Vucciria is no longer the authentic market it once was, taking a walk through the area is quite interesting.  There's a chance I would have discovered Edizioni Precarie (Precarious Editions) on my own because the shop's window display is very eye-catching; but I learned about it (and much more about Palermo) from a wonderful, new-ish publication called Gourmet Mag, a seasonal Italian food and travel magazine, created by Claudia Rinaldi, who is a Venezuelan-Italian living in Rome.  The magazine is just one part of the larger Gourmet Project that Claudia founded (scroll down for more...)

Edizioni Precarie creates these handmade journals with food wrapping papers from La Vucciria "as a tool to talk about the historical markets of Palermo, precarious realities, in transformation."  Each journal is composed of different colors and textures of paper, and not all the pages inside are of the same size.  "The papers will used today for the market's tasty foods become letter papers and notebooks in which to keep thoughts, images, projects, ideas that must be kept fresh."  Conserva La Tua Freschezza! (Keep your freshness!) The notebook called Ricettacolo is meant to be for recording recipes, and each of these is referred to as a carta alimentare da lettera mercati di Palermo (which sort-of translates as food letter paper in the markets of Palermo series).  There are a few other appealing products for sale at this shop and studio, such as the Viaggio in Sicilia journal that I now wish I'd bought, and prices are modest, ranging from approximately 11 to 23 euros.  Hours are 11:00 to 7:00 Monday through Friday and 2:00 to 8:00 on Saturday. 

Back to the Gourmet Mag: I stumbled across a reference to it when I was searching for something about Palermo.  I'd never heard of it, though it is a relatively new publication, and each issue is devoted to a particular theme.  Palermo was the theme for the Spring 2019 issue and it's a must-have for anyone who is a fan of authentic recipes paired with gorgeous photos and travel tips -- and don't stop with this issue devoted to Palermo: you'll want to buy all the back issues and subscribe to future issues, all of which are available in printed editions and pdf.  I haven't been as excited about a magazine, and a culinary project, in a long time.  'For slow living people' is one of the phrases Rinaldi uses to describe what she's doing, which of course appealed to me immediately.  She also emphasizes that the magazine is an indie publication totally made in Rome, and she believes "handmade (flaws included) is always better than industrial...Make this world a person's world again."

It was clear to me that I needed to contact Rinaldi, so I sent her an e-mail and we began a chain of messages that led to a Q and A interview:   

*What inspired you to start the Gourmet Project? 
 
I was in a really dark place. I had been working as the HR responsible for 9+ years, in the same place... a place I loved. But I got a new boss, who turned the place into hell. Not because of long hours, or impossible tasks, nearly the opposite. There was no more space for creativity, no more challenges... my brain was atrophying, and my soul was numbing. I knew I had to go away. And I also knew it was the time to chose between corporate life and an entrepreneurial one.  At some point, the company launched incentives to exit, and without thinking twice, I volunteered.  I had no idea what I was going to do with the money or with my life. I only knew I was going to gravitate around food - I've cooked since I'm 10 years old! - so I opened a Facebook page, named it Gourmet Project, and asked my former colleagues, my family, and my friends to like it on spec.
For the first couple of years, I planned, dipped my toes, launched a couple of projects, and failed.
Then I began writing about Italian food, realizing how little I knew and how immense the world of Italian regional cuisine is. The more I dug, the more I found how it was deeply rooted in the culture, the lifestyle, and the traditions. Like many Italians, I took it all for granted, and I sadly realized most of it was disappearing. 
I'm a (compulsive, maybe) planner, and I love projects, and I had just found a big one: preserving Italy's heritage and sharing it with the rest of the world - or at least the few that were interested and listening!


*The Gourmet Mag -- there is an obvious similarity to the former (wonderful) Gourmet magazine in the States. Were you familiar with it? Did you consider other names? 

I remotely knew Gourmet, I had probably read an issue or two, so I didn't think of it at all. 
I already had the blog, Gourmet Project, and I needed a food-related name for the mag. But not a name exclusively related to Italian cuisine, as I wasn't sure it would be about Italy, at least not forever. 
It came naturally to name it the Gourmet Mag.  Indeed, I was quite embarrassed when, a few months after the first launch, I realized people would think I was trying to benefit from its popularity! That's not my style!
My real concern was to make a new product, a magazine I would love to read, worth my time and my money. 
I had stopped buying magazines, they were full of advertising, product reviews, and articles about... more products! It wasn't fun anymore.  I only read La Cucina Italiana (Italy's Gourmet equivalent) and indie publications, like Kinfolk, or Cherry Bombe. Still, I wanted to make something different, a little more personal, much more similar to a blog or a travel journal.


*Is there a particular past issue that has been very popular? 
 
The Palermo issue, no doubt!

*Is there an issue of the magazine devoted to Rome? 

Rome is my city. Beautiful, dirty, enchanting, chaotic, rich... but most of all, immense. I have included recipes, traditions, and specific neighborhoods in some issues. But it deserves more. Not a single issue, though. My mind is at work: neighborhoods? Historic ages? Great families from the past? Seasons? I need to put it all together and see what comes out of my swirling mind.

*What are some of the magazine's upcoming themes?

I'm working on the Winter & Chianti Classico (Tuscany) issue, so expect a lot of wine and meat. But also introspection, it's my favorite part of Winter! Then the sun will be back with the Cinque Terre issue in Spring. And more sun, a lot of lemons and limoncello in the Summer - Capri issue.

*Is there a part of Italy you haven't yet visited?
 
A lot of them!!! Talking about regions, I've never been to Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Molise.  I want to go back to places that I visited when I was very young - and didn't appreciate as I do now that I am old and wise - like Venice.  A couple of years ago, I took the DNA test for ethnic origins and... guess what! I'm almost 15% Sardinian. I must explore that island, very, very deeply!  And why stop? There are places that I didn't even know existed, like the Riviera del Conero in the Marche region (google it: it's wonderful), that a friend recently told me about.

*Many visitors to Sicily stop in Rome at the beginning or end of their trip.  To give them a few more recommendations, here are a few questions: What are your five favorite places to eat and drink in Rome right now? 
  1. Mamma Angelina (viale Arrigo Boito 65, no website) - a neighborhood restaurant near my home, it's our Sunday lunches and family reunions spot.
  2. Capoboi, Northern Rome: a delicious, superb, Sardinian fish restaurant. Plus, when you finish eating, you can go for a walk in the beautiful Coppedè neighborhood: the entrance is right in front of the restaurant.
  3. Taverna Trilussa in Trastevere: creamy carbonara, amatriciana, and other traditional pasta dishes. They serve you the pasta in the same pan where they sauteed it - very cute.
  4. Felice a Testaccio - historic venue for lovers of traditional Roman cuisine.
  5. Casa Bleve near the Pantheon - Roman and Puglia cuisine (and ingredients!) mixed in every dish.

Let me add one more, it's worth it:
Roscioli in the historic center: I go for the greasy "pizza bianca", the best in the city, and always come back with some other sinful "pizza al taglio" (street-food Roman pizza squares), a crostata, and a bundt cake.


*What are your five favorite places to go to in Rome? 

  1. Villa Ada, the biggest urban forest in Europe. It's a garden near my house. I go there, at least twice a week for a walk with my dog, to read a book, or for a Pandoro picnic!
  2. Galleria Borghese inside villa Borghese: Caravaggio's self-portrait, Canova's Paolina Borghese, Bernini's Rape of Proserpina... plus the building, and the gardens, and villa Borghese that surrounds it!
  3. The National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art: a messy exhibition of modern art. The spaces are huge, it's never crowded... I could spend a whole day there!
  4. I love the walk from the Trinità dei Monti church to Villa Borghese: it's a magnificent panorama of the roofs of Rome, including amazing terraces, domes, and statuary monuments.
  5. A good day is a day spent in the Ghetto, the Jewish neighborhood of Rome. You can eat fried artichokes at one of the delicious restaurants (I'm a traditionalist, so I still go to Giggetto's . You can eat "bruscolini" (salted and toasted sunflower seeds - a typical Roman snack) while walking around, admiring the synagogue, the old buildings, and the Ancient Roman ruins. And you can buy tomorrow's breakfast at Forno Boccioni, a tiny, old-world, bakery that makes the traditional ricotta and wild cherry pie, and cookies of the Jewish/Roman cuisine.


*You're buying a gift -- what are your five favorite shops in Rome?

  1. For a foodie gift, I go to Castroni (in the Prati neighborhood) they have la creme de la creme, specialties from all Italian regions. My favorite gift is putting together a themed basket like a bread spreads kit!
  2. Most of my friends are wine and spirits connoisseurs (or at least learning to be), so I often visit Enoteca Rocchi (one of the shops is near me): they have gems from every Italian wine-making region and from any part of the world!
  3. For jewels, I recently fell in love with a Roman artisan, Sancesario that makes vintage style jewelry - I love handmade!
  4. Some of my friends and family share my passion for vintage, so, a few weeks before Christmas, you'll find me hunting around Ponte Milvio's antique market. 
  5. I love books, especially old books: Libreria Cesaretti, near the Pantheon, is a magical place!


*Are there aspects of your life in Venezuela that you miss in Italy? 
 
My family moved to Italy when I was very young (8 years old), so it's hard to compare the two countries. 

But there's something undoubtedly: generally speaking, of course, people in Venezuela are really joyful. A bucket of ice, a bottle of rum, and some good music are all it takes to have a party and dance all night. And I love to dance! Here in Italy, people gather almost exclusively around the table: dinners with friends last at least three hours, savoring food and drinking wine and the end-of-the-meal spirits. I love it, really, but I still miss the dancing...

Claudia also generously shared a few of her Palermo favorites with me, notably Basile-Focacceria del Massimo (via Bara All'Olivella 76), very near the Teatro Massimo, where I had a tour (more about that in the next post).  She also recommended Mak Mixology on via Maqueda for cocktails and Osteria Mercede (via Pignatelli Aragona 52, also near the Teatro Massimo) for a seafood dinner but I regret that I was unable to get to these last two.  

Get lost in the Gourmet Project while I prepare the Palermo post.   


Friday, December 13, 2019




As I mentioned in my previous post, I had the opportunity to meet the authors Jacqueline Alio and Louis Mendola in Palermo.  While we were seated outside at historic Caffe Stagnitto we had a lively conversation about the books they've authored together and individually; about Sicily in general; and about Palermo, where they both live now.  I didn't have my tape recorder with me and my pen couldn't keep up with their comments, so we had to complete our conversation by e-mail.

Jackie and Lou each lived in the States for some years and they are fluent in English, Italian, and Sicilian.  The books they've co-authored include The Peoples of Sicily and the Time Traveler's Guide: Norman-Arab-Byzantine Palermo, Monreale, and Cefalù.  Among others, Jackie has written Margaret: Queen of Sicily, and Queens of Sicily: 1062-1266, published in June of this year, and with Francesca Lombardo (a food writer, sommelier, and culinary travel consultant), Sicilian Food & Wine: The Cognoscente's Guide.  Lou has written The Kingdom of Sicily: 1130-1860 and the popular Sicilian Geneaology and Heraldry, "worth its weight in gold" according to a reviewer for The Best of Sicily blog (Louis he is one of the foremost experts in the field of Sicilian geneaology).  All of these have been published by Trinacria Editions, a Sicilian publishing house with an office in New York.  I admire them, and their books, enormously, but I hold a special place for The Peoples of Sicily


You have individually and together written books that focus on Medieval Sicily.  What about this period in history is particularly fascinating to you?

JA:  Thanks to my parents, I have always had a connection with my Sicilian heritage and history. As a child, I spent three summers in Sicily and when we moved here it was only normal that I wanted to learn all I could about my family homeland. It is wonderful that I have been able to make a career from my passion in Sicily.  The unique religious and ethnic tolerance that existed in Medieval Sicily is something that I have always tried to promote in both my books and in my work as a guide. I believe that this is a heritage and a treasure to cherish for every single human being and not just for us Sicilians.
LMWell, I've always been interested in the Sicilian Middle Ages, through heraldry and books like Steven Runciman's "Sicilian Vespers," a classic, which was the first lengthy book I read on medieval Sicily. I met Sir Steven in England a few years before his death. He was a very nice man. For me, being Sicilian is a big part of my interest. That's different from many foreign scholars who "adopt" Sicily as their field of study. So I guess we could say it's a personal interest. My first article dealt with the Battle of Benevento in 1266. It was published in 1985.  

It seems to me that no one else could have written The Peoples of Sicily quite like you.  What makes you uniquely qualified to do so?
  
JA: I started to do some of my own research on the topics touched by "Peoples" for over 25 years and thanks to both my own travels and those together with Lou, we have been able to help people living outside Sicily to "connect the dots" with all the European and Mediterranean history and culture that have made Sicily and Sicilians what they are today.
LMThank you! We know Sicily, that's for sure. And we've traveled to places where the various civilizations came from. But "Peoples," compared to some of our other books, is based on the original research of a lot of other scholars, not our own. We just brought it all together in one volume, which nobody had ever done in this way. It sells better than our other books, even the guide to Sicilian genealogy. Readers find the implicit message appealing. The response to it has always been amazing.

Do you lead tours in Palermo and elsewhere in Sicily?  

JA:  I have been guiding for over 25 years and this didn't just start out as a job; it was a way to transmit my passion for Sicily to others. I used to guide all around Sicily but now I only focus on tours in and around Palermo in order to have more time for research and writing (which is my other passion).
LMWe do work together sometimes but Jackie is an official guide while I handle the planning and promotion, and an occasional lecture.  I should mention that here in Italy becoming a tour guide requires having at least a bachelor's degree, sitting an oral exam, and being fluent in Italian and at least one other language. Those qualifications might be compared to what is required to be a high school history teacher.

You wrote in the Preface that while the word 'multicultural' has become somewhat of a meaningless mantra, "Sicily reached its cosmopolitan apogee in the first half of the twelfth century.  It was not Camelot, but Sicily came closer to that legendary ideal than any other European kingdom of the Middle Ages."  Has this spirit continued to the present day?"

JA:  Back in the 90's I did some volunteer work at the Ballarò market area (which is now a street market but was founded as a souk over a thousand years ago) helping recently arrived sub-Saharan immigrants to integrate. Nowadays those who arrived back then and who have had a chance to integrate are helping some of the newly arrived.  The fact that so many immigrants live in the old city center alongside the locals and not in separate suburbs has allowed for us to find new ways to get along notwithstanding religious and ethnic differences. Both the municipal administration and the Archdiocese of Palermo have contributed in many ways (for example, by granting the use of deconsecrated Catholic churches to use for different religious designations, or by choosing a Palestinian doctor as the new municipal Cultural minister amongst other things).
LM:  If you look at the statistics, Palermo and Catania don't have large right-wing, vigilante-type groups that actively target Africans or other minorities, and despite some organized crime and political corruption the rate of street crime in Sicily is extremely low compared to Rome and Milan. There isn't even much drunk driving because alcoholism is virtually unknown among Sicilians. Palermo is actually one of the safest cities of its size in Europe. In the area around Ballarò the immigrants live among the locals. Visitors from northern-Italian cities, or even France and England, are amazed to see that. It's not full integration, not yet, but it's a good first step.  Personally, I view it more as Sicilians' indifference than actual acceptance, for now, but the effect seems to be the same. It's 'live and let live.' Historically, we've had a Latin-based monoculture here since around 1300. The Jews were suppressed in 1493 and some Albanian refugees fleeing Ottoman expansion began arriving around that time. Until recently, there hadn't been much real-life multiculturalism here, but the new immigration has re-introduced it.

What are some sites or places you think are essenziale for first-time visitors to Palermo and elsewhere, and what are some places you recommend for visitors who've been to Sicily before?

JA:  My favorite sites are the Arab-Norman ones: Monreale's Cathedral and Cloister are important, and a few other must-sees in Palermo are: the Norman Palace with its Palatine Chapel, the Cathedral, La Martorana Church, Ballarò Market, and Zisa Castle.  Personally, I like Palermo's colorful marmi mischi (mixed marbles, referring to marble inlays that are often white or gold reliefs on a blue or black background) Baroque that you find in some churches in town (such as Santa Caterina d'Alessandria - click on 'Chiesa' for a panoramic video of the interior) and also the Baroque Giacomo Serpotta oratories with their lovely stucco putti and women personifying Christian virtues.
LM:  That's a tricky question because it depends on the visitor's interests. Etna is not to be missed if you're a hiker or just an outdoors person. Personally, I hate the Baroque, which we have a lot of, but I love the Gothic, of which there's very little in southern Italy, where most medieval churches are Romanesque. But getting back to your question, my killer itinerary is Palermo, Monreale, Erice, Segesta, Cefalù, Piazza Armerina, Taormina, Etna and Siracusa. My feeling is that the Baroque, which attracts visitors to Ragusa and Noto, exists throughout Italy, and Segesta's temple and Greek theatre are more impressive, in a pristine rural location, than Agrigento's, which is too close to a city for my taste. By the way, unless you're a hardcore beach person, the best time to visit is mid November through late March. Fewer crowds, nice temperatures, and the countryside is green.

When you have a day off in Palermo, what are some of your favorite things to do?  

JA:  Exploring the old city center on my own where there is always a new cafè or restaurant opening up (too many neighborhoods to just mention one) is always exciting. I also love Ristorante La Galleria (no website; Salita Ramirez 2, right behind the Cathedral; (39) 091.251.5037): they only cook whatever is in season. I enjoy visiting new exhibits at the Archeological Museum and just sitting in the cloisters inside.  Of course going to a winter ballet at the Massimo Opera House is always fun.
LMI have a few "secret" places. A nice restaurant is the Vecchio Club Rosanero trattoria (Vicolo Caldomai, 18; no website but near the Quattro Canti), down some steps off Via Candelai, a medieval street along a Phoenician wall overlooking the area where the Papyrus River used to run. You can actually see the depression left by the river.  The restaurant is rustic, with stone walls, and very accommodating but don't even think of going without a reservation. They only do Western Sicilian and the prices are good. We have lots of good gelato places in Palermo but the absolute best is the Gelatone, on Via Rizzo outside the center of town. Organic ice cream in all kinds of flavors. Worth an excursion.

Contact Jackie at this web page for detailed information about her tours in Palermo and the surrounding area.   Click here for an in-depth interview with Lou that appeared in The Best of Sicily.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

(Sicilia carta corografica stradale, 1900, Antonio Vallardi editore,
in the collection of the Library of Congress)

"Sicily is Sicily -- 1860, earlier, forever." -- Giuseppe di Lampedusa, in a letter to his friend Enrico Merlo







"Sicily is everything we love about Italy --
times ten."
-- Dana Bowen, Saveur, issue No. 136 
                                                                                                                                                   
(Tempio di Giunone, Agrigento)

The trinacria, symbol of Sicily






"To live in Sicily -- or to wander among its small villages and
towns -- is to repeatedly step into and out of the past.  There are remnants everywhere, commingled with the modern, of the seventeen or so civilizations that have swept over this island for more than three thousand years..."
-- John Keahey, Sicilian Splendors

I'm back from a truly amazing and unforgettable trip to Sicily and Pantelleria, and in an attempt to post in somewhat of a more timely manner, I'll focus on this trip exclusively and return to older journeys later.  The raison d'être for this trip was a cooking class, though not an ordinary one:  Some years ago I was working on a special edition of Dream of Italy that was devoted to cooking classes in Italy, and I came across a class taught by Nicoletta Polo, the wife of Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, the adopted son of Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard.  Not only was that enticing enough but the classes were taught in the Lanza Tomasi family palazzo in Palermo and some rooms in the palazzo had been converted into apartment accommodations (so of course my husband and I stayed there).  Mio, Dio!  I've been a fan of The Leopard for many years, so this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I knew I had to act upon.  But, all the details about that will follow...

This post is about preparation and resources, helpful in deciding where to go in Sicily as well as in knowing what the essential reads and online sources are.  So as not to completely overwhelm you, I will write separate posts about Palermo and other Sicilian destinations, so the resources here are exclusively about Sicily in general.  I've received a great number of e-mails over the years from readers who say their most favorite part of my books are the suggestions for recommended reading.  I've long felt that it is not enough to give someone a list of books to read or websites to browse without identifying what is worthwhile about each book and each site.  So my recommendations are annotated, and readers may decide what they want to delve into on their own.  One reader wrote to me and said that he found my annotated recommendations valuable as a stand-alone resource, even if he would not go on to read any of the books, and I agree that one can learn a lot from my suggestions.  Earlier this year, a reader from Boston wrote to say "Thank you so much for your books.  They have changed my life and my travel perspective for the better.  Your selections for further reading are amazing and the excerpts are so interesting and powerful. (That might be the very best note I've ever received!)  There are a lot of sources here, just as there are in my books, and while I'm not implying that travelers need to consult them all, I do hope you'll want to read a few. 

Perhaps the first decision to make about a rip to Sicily is when to go.  I went in late September into October, and it was full-on summer, with temperatures solidly in the '80s and humid; but it's hotter in June, July, and August.  Our guide in Palermo (more about her in the Palermo post) told us that November is a particularly pleasant time to visit, and in fact the busy season is in the fall (but if you're keen to spend time at the beach that may not be ideal).  I was a little surprised at the wide open, uninhabited stretches of countryside we drove through from Palermo to Taormina.  Outside of cities and towns, Sicily is not nearly as developed as most of mainland Italy.  It's also not generally a perfectly tidy and polished island:  visitors should not expect Sicily to resemble the Lake District, the Amalfi Coast, or Portofino.  They should also lose old preconceptions about the Mafia, whose grip is much reduced these days.  What visitors will find is a warm welcome; unpretentious people; good, fresh food; layers of fascinating history and mythology (Sicily is believed to be the setting for many Greek and Roman myths, including the abduction of Persephone by Hades); and a staggering array of art and architecture.  As Goethe concluded in Letters From Italy in 1816, "Italy without Sicily leaves no image on the soul; here is the key to all."

Websites
Best of Sicily magazine - this is an online, monthly magazine published in English, and it's jam-packed with information and articles.  There are tabs for Localities, Scenic Regions, Food and Wine, History, Sights and Activities, Sicilian Identity, Sicily Concierge, etc., as well as information on student tours, places to stay, and FAQs. Visually, the site is too crowded, but take your time browsing and you'll likely find some very helpful tips. 

Faith Willinger - whenever I'm going somewhere in Italy, this is the resource I turn to first.  Faith is an author (Eating in Italy, Red, White & Greens, Adventures of an Italian Food Lover, etc.), food writer (the former Gourmet, The Atlantic, etc.), friend to many in the culinary world, and someone whose opinions I absolutely trust (about anything, not just food).  As a writer I've been lucky to interview Faith twice, in her Florentine kitchen, and I cherish those visits.  As it happens, while she is a self-proclaimed "born again Italian" and has lived in Florence for more than 40 years, she really loves Sicily, and the recommendations on her site are perfect.

Sicily Inside & Out - this site, with the subtitle 'Lifestyle From a Mediterranean Island,' is maintained by writer and blogger Rochelle Del Borrello, originally from Australia.  Rochelle met and married a Sicilian and has now been living on Sicily for many years.  She is filled with enthusiasm for the island and features lots of good interviews with others who love Sicily.  The site is "a real mixed bag, a combination of travel writing, personal essay, ravel advice, expat diary, culture shock, history, culture, language, and creative writing."  What it's not: "a light and fluffy tourist magazine...it's about both the beauty and ugliness which exist side by side on this island." 

Visit Sicily - a site with good visuals and a number of good brochures in PDF that may be downloaded on such topics as beaches, UNESCO sites, traditions, nature, ports, archaeology, Norman monuments, Baroque decoration, majolica, botanical wonders, villas and palaces, etc., plus MP3 audio guides.


Sicilian History
The Peoples of Sicily, by Jacqueline Alio and Louis Mendola (Trinacria Press, 2013).  One of my most favorite books, this is a unique paperback that presents all the "peoples" who have been in Sicily -- these include the Sicanians (indigenous inhabitants of the island), Elymians (who migrated from Asia Minor) and Sikels (who settled in eastern Sicily and were originally from what is now mainland Italy; Sicily, or Sikelia, began with these three distinct civilizations, and Sicilian is derived from two of them), the Punic peoples (Phoenicians and Carthaginians), Greeks, Romans, Goths and Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Angevins, the Aragonese and Castilians (beginning in 1282), the Spanish (after the unification of the various Spanish states), Albanians, and Jews.  There are also chapters on 'Land, Flora, Fauna, Cuisine'; The Faiths; 'The Great Schism''; 'Law: Melfi and Maliki'; and 'Monreale Abbey,' among others.  The authors open the Preface with, "Monochrome is boring.  Our world is much more than a single color," which is a truism in general but is particularly true about Sicily.  I had the great pleasure of meeting the authors in Palermo at the historic Cafe Stagnitta, the city's oldest torrefazione (coffee roaster), at Discesa dei Giudici, 54, steps away from La Martorana, Chiesa di San Cataldo, and Santa Caterina on piazza Bellini.  The coffee and conversation were great, and an interview with Jackie and Louis will be the focus of my next post.

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History, by John Julius Norwich (Random House, 2015).  Norwich, who passed away in 2018, was among travel writers I most admire.  He first went to Sicily in 1961, when he was on leave from working in the British Foreign Office.  He observed that "Apart from the beauty of the setting, I remember being instantly struck by a change in atmosphere.  The Strait of Messina is only a couple of miles across and the island is politically part of Italy, yet somehow one feels that one has entered a different world."  He wanted to know more about the island and as there were few books in English in the London Library he wrote his own, The Normans in Sicily (which I have not read).  This more recent book is a lively volume and, at a total of 362 pages (including the Index), is not daunting.  Of all Norwich has written in it, one observation continues to rather haunt me: he notes in the Introduction that Sicily has proved "to be the most unhappy" island in the Mediterranean, that despite the beauty and fertility of the island and its mild climate there is a lingering, dark quality.  But in his Epilogue he notes that Sicily now has its own regional government, its own regional assembly of ninety members, its own president, and a considerable degree of local autonomy.  "In consequence, as I mentioned in the introduction to this book, I hope and believe that she is happier now than at any time in the last eight hundred years.  Long, long may that happiness continue."  [As an aside, Norwich refers to "the great three-volume The History of Sicily by Moses Finley, Denis Mack Smith, and Christopher Duggan" in these pages and though I haven't tracked this down yet, I feel certain that for travelers who want more than a single book of history, it may be essenziale). 

Travels With a Medieval Queen: The Journey of a Sicilian Princess, by Mary Taylor Simeti (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardcover, 2002 / Phoenix, paperback, 2003).  Simeti is, by her own admission, not a trained historian, but as she writes in the Prologue, "I am an inurable and incautious amateur, and so, while respecting the rules of historical research as far as I am capable, I have exploited the liberty that amateur status gives me."  In tracing the story of Constance of Hauteville, she resuscitated her "very limited and long-forgotten training in medieval history" by reading everything she could about the era and then took a journey by car retracing the route that Constance took from Germany back to Sicily in 1194.  Constance was the twelfth-century Sicilian princess who married the German king Henry of Hohenstaufen (son of the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa), was crowned Holy Roman empress, and later returned to rule as queen in her own kingdom.  Simeti vowed in her earlier book, On Persephone's Island, that she would one day write Constance's story, but I admit that when I read that statement I quickly forgot about it.  It took Simeti seventeen years to keep her word, and if at first I didn't understand the fascination, it didn't take long before I did.  Palermo had, by the eleventh century, become the wealthiest and most cosmopolitan city in Europe, surpassed only by Constantinople, and it was this wealth that provided the dowry for Constance when she married in 1186.  It was "the most magnificent dowry that Europe had ever seen.  One hundred and fifty mules were required to carry the burden of gold and silver, of furs and rare silks woven in the royal silk workshops of Palermo," certainly a dowry worthy of the daughter of the greatest of Sicily's Norman kings, Roger II, who died shortly before she was born (Constance would later be the mother of Frederick II, also known as Stupor Mundi, Wonder of the World).  The book is illustrated throughout, with an eight-page color insert, and Simeti leaves Constance's story off just before the tragic events of the last three years of her life. 

Travel Narratives and Memoirs
A House in Sicily, by Daphne Phelps, Foreword by Denis Mack Smith (Carroll & Graf, 1999).  The house at the center of this tale is in Taormina, and sadly, I didn't start reading this memoir until after I'd left Taormina, when I discovered that the house (Casa Cuseni) is now both a Museum of Fine Arts and a bed-and-breakfast.  Don't make the same mistake I did: look into staying here and/or visit the museum -- advance reservations are mandatory!  Phelps inherited Casa Cuseni, in a spectacular location with views of Mount Etna and the Bay of Naxos, after World War II from her uncle, Robert Kitson, and she initially intended to go to Taormina (from England) to sell it.  It's not a spoiler alert to say she didn't, or there wouldn't be a book, and the first sentence of Denis Mack Smith's Foreword is almost all one needs to know: "Anyone reading this book will quickly realise that the author is a remarkable person with an unusual story to tell."  At the time of publication, Phelps had lived at Casa Cuseni for 50 years, but at the time of her death, in 2005, she'd been there for nearly 60.  The house and gardens (which have a unique system of cisterns that collect water for the garden terraces) were declared of "cultural and historic importance" by the Belle Arte in Messina, and it's one of the very few Sicilian properties that's still in the care of its expatriate family.  While Phelps's tales are centered around Taormina, this is a great read for Sicily in general as it recounts ways of life that have nearly vanished.

Casa Nostra: A Home in Sicily, by Caroline Seller Manzo (Harper, hardcover 2007 / paperback 2008).  Caroline was born in the UK, and the 'home' in the title refers to Santa Maria, her husband's family home in Mazara, on the west coast near Trapani.  At the time Caroline and Marcello officially take possession of the house, it's in a fairly advanced state of decay, and Marcello's mother, Maria, had sold all her assets -- including several hundred acres of vineyards -- and had only managed to keep the villa by selling everything in it.  The villa today is beautiful (there are before and after photos in the 16-page insert) and the stories of Marcello's family and how Caroline the inglesina was welcomed into it are charming.  Manzo's descriptions of Mazara are more substantive than those in most guidebooks, and she shares many island traditions and Sicilian phrases, like "Sicilia 'babba'," which is well known in western Sicily and translates to "in the east they're all fools." The word  'babba' means stupid and implies naive and unthreatening while 'sperta' means smart and also implies dangerous.  "Although for centuries the island was divided in three parts for administrative purposes, the real divide is a cultural one between east and west.  The east, where the Greeks first arrived, and the Byzantines resisted the Arabs the longest is the Sicily of Taormina and Syracuse, the relatively Mafia-free, progressive Sicily, the "good" Sicily that attracts the tourists.  The west, on the other hand, is disreputable Sicily, where the Arabs arrived from Africa and where the Norman conquerors met the fiercest Muslim resistance." 

Impressions of Sicily, by Carlo Levi (Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1958, translated into English by Angus Davidson).  The first two parts of this book were previously published in 1951 and 1952, while the third part, written in 1955, appeared only in this volume.  Levi had already made a name for himself with Christ Stopped at Eboli, and this book is written with the same eloquent compassion.  The first piece describes the visit by the mayor of New York (Vincent Impellitteri) to his native village, Isnello, near Palermo; the second is about the miners' strike at Lercara Friddi; and the third deals with the Mafia, land reform, and the social reformer Danilo Dolci (see more about Dolci below).  It's all a very rare picture of what Sicily was like at the time.  Levi writes in his Introduction that "Sicily, like the whole of the South -- but in its own particular way -- is on the move; and the acts, the words, the feelings, the struggles, the expectations, the deaths of which I have spoken here, and all the other, countless things that occur every day in the towns of the coast and the villages of the interior, are moments in its development.  Profound problems present themselves and seek solution, every day, through the life and the blood of human beings...[this book] is but a first, rapid picture of a world that is changing from one day to another and becoming bravely conscious of its own existence."   

In Sicily, by Norman Lewis (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press 2002).  Lewis, who passed away at the age of 95 in 2003, wrote thirteen novels but is better known to me as a non-fiction writer (Naples '44 is my favorite).  Writer Cyril Connolly said Lewis was unsurpassed as a professional literary traveler and was able to "write about the back of a bus and make it interesting."  Lewis wrote about other places in the world but he remained fascinated with Sicily his entire life.  In 1964, his book The Honoured Society was published, and Julian Evans, author of Lewis's biography (Semi Invisible Man, 2008), referred to it "arguably the best book ever written about the Mafia" (the book was also serialized in its entirety in The New Yorker).  For In Sicily, he returned to the island to see how it had changed and to visit old friends.  My favorite chapter is the one on African immigrants in Palermo.  Much is written about the uniqueness of Sicily with regards to its multicultural history and its tolerance for newcomers of all kinds.  Lewis underscores this by writing that "whatever may be one's opinion of law and order in Sicily, it is a country where remarkable generosity -- even when unexpected or undeserved -- is frequently encountered."  But a journalist, Giovanni, really put it to the test when, at the suggestion of his editor, he disguised himself as a black man (with the help of a theatrical makeup artist) and was "put ashore at night somewhere along the coast" and confronted with getting by in a big city.  Wearing second-hand clothes from a flea market, Giovanni polished the windscreens of cars trapped in the traffic jams of Palermo and then tried to sell the drivers a cheap lighter or a scratch-card purchased from wholesalers specializing in such junk.  As it turned out, a single day was enough to provide Giovanni with the experiences he needed for his story.  Lewis concludes the chapter by noting, "Human kindness in its manifestations in Sicily is richer -- probably as everywhere -- as one descends the human scale but even there the poor man is almost invisible to the rich.  Nevertheless the generosity and good grace with which the island's working people take in so many foreigners in distress, whatever their colour, cannot be surpassed anywhere else on earth."

Mattanza: Love & Death in the Sea of Sicily, by Theresa Maggio (Perseus, 2000).  Until very recently, every May or June, since at least the time of the Phoenicians, schools of bluefin tuna passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean to spawn.  For many years these schools were "numberless.  The bluefin were to ancient Mediterranean peoples what the buffalo was to the American Plains Indians: a yearly miracle, a reliable source of protein from a giant animal they revered, one that passed in such numbers that the cooperation of an entire tribe was needed to kill them and preserve their meat." The tuna were led into a series of complex net "rooms" -- called tonnaras -- by the fishermen and their Raiz (an Arabic word meaning "leader" or "head" and pronounced RAH-ees).  The tuna get worn out after several days and then they are killed.  If you've seen Roberto Rossellini's film 'Stromboli' you may remember there is an extended scene of a mattanza, a Spanish word meaning "slaughter" (from the verb matare, to kill).  Maggio, whose grandparents were Sicilian, explains that when Sicily was under  Spanish rule, in the 1400s, Spanish rulers sold royal titles and tonnaras to raise capital.  Maggio has been witnessing the mattanza off Favignana (an island off the coast of western Sicily, between Trapani and Marsala, said to be the place where Calypso rescued the shipwrecked Odysseus), for many years; by 1998, Favignana was her second home: she knew more people there than she did in her hometown in Vermont.  Maggio has written often of Sicily, including this piece about the mattanza in The New York Times, Waiting, and Praying, for Tuna.  Some feel the tradition is cruel, others that it's bloody but viable.  Either way, it's dying out as there are very few tonnaras left, and the bluefin are no longer numberless.  According to the 2017 Lonely Planet Sicily guide, the number of tuna caught by this method was relatively small and sustainable.  "The fact that the mattanza took place for about 900 years without overfishing is testament to this."  Writer Mark Kurlansky, in Salt: A World History, writes that the bluefin is vanishing not because of the tonnara but due to far more efficient fisheries in the Atlantic.  Tuna began to be caught year-round, with controversial drift nets, which the European Union has banned (probably too late) and there are now strict quotas on the tuna catch.  Favignana now has a museum  devoted to the history of the mattanza, which may be as close as anyone can get to it these days.  Initially, I wasn't sure I wanted to read an entire book on this subject, but in her review of the book, author Geraldine Brooks wrote, "If you think you do not want to read a book about the death of tuna, think again" which convinced me, and once I started I was hooked.  The mattanza is absolutely fascinating and is quite moving, and Maggio earned her way into the local community and readers will be grateful she did. 

Midnight in Sicily, by Peter Robb (hardcover, Faber and Faber, 1998 / paperback, Vintage, 1999).  I'd originally thought I would not mention this wonderfully written book until a later post, as it is mostly about the Mafia; but as it's about so much more -- cuisine, art, literature, traditions, etc. -- I don't want it to be overlooked.  'Satura,' a poem by Eugenio Montale (who won the 1975 Nobel Prize for Literature), appears at the beginning of the book, on the same page with lyrics from a song covered by The Everly Brothers, 'Night Time in Italy.'  I was intrigued by the line, "When it's midnight in Sicily..." so I listened to the song online and then read the lyrics in full, but interestingly, there is no line that reads, "When it's midnight in Sicily..." [It could be that the line is included in another version of the song; it reminds me a little of when I discovered that Audrey Hepburn never said, "Paris is always a good idea" in 'Sabrina' - that line was in the remake with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond.]  No matter.  Robb follows this page with the tale of Cola Pesce, a Sicilian legend about a half-man, half-fish.  Whether Cola Pesce came from Messina, Palermo, or even Naples, he belonged to the southern part of Italy that the Italians call the Mezzogiorno, "that point in the Mediterranean where Europe is no longer entirely Europe but also Africa, Asia, America.  The Mezzogiorno is the furthest part of Italy from Europe and the nearest to the rest of the world." More about this book will follow, but in short, it's really hard to put down.

On Persephone's Island: A Sicilian Journal, by Mary Taylor Simeti (hardcover, Knopf, 1986 / paperback, Vintage, 1995).  Simeti, who arrived in Sicily in 1962, was among the first Americans to write about Sicily, and this wonderful book details a calendar year of her life on the island, organized by season.  She came to Sicily to volunteer at the community development center set up by social reformer Danilo Dolci, intended to stay for a limited period of time, but ended up meeting Tonino, her future husband, and she's still there nearly 60 years later, also with two children.  At the time Simeti chronicled her life in Sicily, she and her family would spend the academic year in Palermo and the summer months at their farmhouse, Bosco, about 30 minutes away.  She observes that "Just as having children here has made me more than a mere expatriate and given me a stake in the future of Sicilian society, so the work I put into Bosco has won me, I feel, the right to put down roots.  What began as a burden became a blessing as I scraped and varnished and dug and planted, a visible, tangible explanation of my life here -- both for the Sicilians, for whom all the usual labels, such as name, accent, clothes, or college degree, are in my case illegible, and for the Americans, myself at times included, who wonder what on earth someone like me is doing in Sicily."   

Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean, by  John Keahey (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2011).  Keahey is also the author of two other books I love about two other Mediterranean destinations, A Sweet and Glorious Land: Revisiting the Ionian Sea and Venice Against the Sea: A City Besieged. He is, however, smitten with Sicily, and as he notes in the Preface, his goal in writing this (first) book was to better understand Sicilians and their unique culture, "which is demonstrably separate from Italy itself, through conversations with these Mediterranean islanders and by studying their writers, their myths, and a history that spans more than three thousand years.  This history is a key to everything else.  One foreign power after another has trampled over this land -- northern Italians were the final conquerors -- adding to and co-opting unique aspects of the island's character.  This is a people who never had control of their own destiny."  Practically no topic escapes his curiosity, and, among others, there are chapters on Lampedusa's The Leopard; Palermo; writers Leonardo Sciascia and Luigi Pirandello; language; the Mafia; food; historic painted carts; and lesser-visited towns such as Racalmuto and Enna.  Keahey's enthusiasm is infectious, and I filled this volume with a great number of colored flags so that I could continue delving into various topics.

Sicilian Carousel, by Lawrence Durrell (Marlowe & Company, 1976).  The title refers to an organized trip to Sicily that Durrell (1912-1990) joins -- he'd been meaning to come to Sicily for years, and finally did, both because of a belated promise he'd made to his good friend Martine, who spent some years living on Sicily but by this time had passed away, and because of his great interest in Mediterranean civilization, which Durrell believed reached its apogee with the Greeks.  Most of the book, in fact, dwells on the Greek history of the island, and early on he writes that "if the Greeks were gone and their monuments were dust there were still vestiges of their way of life to be found in the food, the wine and the wild flowers of the land they had inhabited and treasured."  (Later, he notes that in the early spring and again in the autumn after the first rains come, "Sicily like the whole of Greece is carpeted in wildflowers...")  Durrell can be a bit gloomy at times but is witty and funny when describing his fellow travelers on the Carousel, and he is quite serious about "the questions I had come to Sicily to try and answer.  What was Sicily, what was a Sicilian?" 

Sicilian Lives, by Danilo Dolci (Pantheon, 1981).  This volume is in Pantheon's wonderful 'Village Series,' which I believe only ever included three books, a shame as this one, at least, is excellent.  It doesn't take one long to run across Dolci's name when reading about Sicily.  Dolci (1924-1997) has been referred to as the Gandhi of Sicily, and a writer for Best of Sicily magazine wrote that "Into the 1970s, he was the single most important force for improvement in horrendous social conditions rooted in centuries of exploitation by ruthless landlords, dishonest government officials, corrupt police and, worst of all, the omnipresent black hand of the Mafia."  Dolci was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and he did win the Lenin Peace Prize, the funds from which were used to establish a string of social centers for the poor.  I think this particular book more properly belongs in a separate category all its own, but I'm including it here as it's a kind of memoir at one particular time in the history of Sicily.  The book is nothing more than a series of interviews Dolci conducted with a wide variety of Sicilians, but his questions are not printed in the book, only the answers, which tend to run on and reveal much else.  The Sicilian voices, which include those of a street cleaner, a baker, a princess, Dolci's Marxist-barber-poet friend, etc., are arranged into four categories, ''Home-Grown Plagues,' 'Waste,' 'Endurance,' and 'Resistance' and together they represent all the kinds of lives that are Sicilian, even today.  Dolci reminds readers that "If human beings had the slightest inkling of the secret, that we're only on this earth a fleeting moment, we'd cherish every day month and year a lot more.  We'd see time flow past and our life with it, which is all the more reason to cherish it and help each other out, physically, and be at one in peace of mind."  For more about Dolci's life and work, A Passion for Sicilians: The World Around Danilo Dolci (Morrow, 1968), by Jerre Mangione (also a Sicilian) is very good.             

Sicilian Odyssey, by Francine Prose (National Geographic Directions, 2003).  Prose is an award-winning novelist (my favorite of hers is Household Saints, which is set in New York's Little Italy in the 1950s and was made into a film) but I'm partial to her non-fiction writing.  She's also written about various places in Italy for a number of periodicals, and her pieces about Sicily in The New York Times are very good ('Enthralled by Sicily, Again,' 'Circling Sicily With the Ancients'.  Early on in the odyssey here (which she undertakes with her husband, Howie) she states that on a previous visit, she wished she'd been born in Sicily, and it's where she'd like to be reborn.  Their itinerary includes many locations around the island, including Siracusa, Palermo, Noto, Catania, the island of Mozia, and Ortigia ("...when I think about being reborn as a Sicilian, it's most often in Ortigia that I imagine my  new life.").  Prose shares some wonderful advice for visitors: "Life here burns at a high heat and lends an unusual warmth to the people who live it.  Though Sicilians have a reputation for dourness, for severity, for short violent tempers and an agonized religiosity, the fact is that almost every casual social interchange we have is characterized by a remarkable sweetness."  Later, she writes about the hill town of Castelbuono, in the Madonie Mountains, and how the locals are so proud to talk about their town's treasures.  She has similar experiences all over the island: "Especially in the smaller towns, the less frequently visited spots, you need only ask a simple question about a building, a painting, an archaeological site, a historical incident, and the person you asked will smile, light up, launch into a long, animated explanation.  People seem delighted to tell you the history of a place, a history to which they feel intimately connected." 

Sicilian Splendors: Discovering the Secret Places That Speak to the Heart, also by John Keahey (also published by Thomas Dunne, 2018).  Another book by John Keahey is just more goodness; I highly recommend them both as Keahey doesn't cover the same ground, and anyway, as he writes in the Preface, "Sicilians today make up a rich minestrone" of the people and cultures who conquered the island, and there is still so much to discover -- Keahey says "this never-ending exploration and particularly my relationship with the people are what keep me coming back."     

The Stone Boudoir: Travels Through the Hidden Villages of Sicily, by Theresa Maggio (Perseus, 2002).  I was so happy when Maggio followed up Mattanza with this thoughtful, evocative book, but even if I had never read a word she'd written I would have loved this after only reading the Preface.  In it, Maggio reveals that she'd seen a film called L'Uomo delle Stelle (The Star Maker) about a con man from Rome who drove around Sicilian mountain towns and charged villagers for screen tests he conducted with no film in his camera.  The film seems heartbreaking to me, but happily the con man is found out and goes to jail.  Maggio paid little attention to the storyline because she was so captivated by the "simple stone villages" depicted in the movie, and she made a list of the villages' names so she could visit them one day.  A few years later she went to Sicily...but forgot the list, so she left her itinerary up to serendipity.  Still later, Sicilian friends visited and brought a videotape of the film with them, and as the village names scrolled by she realized she'd been to all of them.  Among the towns she visited are Polizzi Generosa, Alimena, Petralia, Locati, Motta Camastra (where the streets are so narrow one has to back up to the edge of the town to allow a car to pass), and Santa Margherita, her ancestral village. When Maggio was young and asked her Nana why she'd never gone back to Sicily, Nana spat back, "There's nothing there."  An earthquake destroyed Santa Margherita in 1968, and the subject was taboo.  Nobody told Maggio what her grandparents escaped when they left Sicily near the turn of the 20th century.  "The Sicily Nana and Papa left was a place where ordinary people could work hard and never get ahead.  Bribes, threats, protection money, and high taxes sapped their savings and their souls.  So they came to America and did not discuss Sicily with the children.  The day Nana told me there was nothing there I decided that I would see Sicily for myself."  And in 1973, she first arrived in what was left of Santa Margherita.  Zia Betta gave her a stone amulet to pin to her shirt to ward off the Evil Eye, Betta's daughter Carmela turned down the bed covers for her, and Maggio thought to herself, "I am in Sicily, and there IS something here."  Indeed. 

Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons: Travels in Sicily on a Vespa, by Matthew Fort (Thomas Dunne Books/St.  Martin's Press, 2008).  Fort is a food writer and critic in England (he's been at The Guardian since 1989) and he first went to Sicily in 1973, when he was 26, with his brother, then 22. On that trip he became fascinated with the island and found that it "seemed different in some profound, subtle way that I couldn't put my finger on.  It was complex, convoluted, weird.  I couldn't make sense of it."  Sicily was, for him, unfinished business, and he finally went back 33 years later.  He decided to approach understanding Sicily through its cuisine, and to accomplish the task by traveling around in a "stylish, iconic" Vespa.  Fort made two trips, one in the spring and the other in the fall, exploring both the interior of the island and the coast.  His first stop was in Marsala, where he noticed that in a town so richly endowed with orologerie (watch and clock shops), time was treated as limitless.  "No one hurried.  Everyone seemed to have time for a coffee, a pastry, a chat, to exchange pleasantries, discuss politics, haggle over food.  Time was spent with a lavishness that contrasted sharply with the way we treat it in Britain.  We are, we claim, time poor.  Asset rich, but time poor.  We never have time to cook, to eat, for our children, for each other, for ourselves.  Sicilians might not be asset rich, but they have all these other things."  Fort's food observations (and others) are interesting and his journey is fun to follow, and readers will also learn of some worthwhile addresses for an upcoming trip.  Recipes are included at the end of each chapter (but only a few appeal to me).   

That Summer in Sicily: A Love Story, by Marlena de Blasi (Ballantine, 2008).  "This could only be a story about Sicily.  And Sicily could only be an island, less by the caprice of nature than by her own insolence.  As though she might have quit Italy had she not already been born separate from it."  Thus begins the Prologue to this tale, which began as a magazine assignment but ended as something entirely different and special.  By accident, Marlena and her husband are staying at Villa Donnafugata in a hamlet in the middle of the island.  "Here," de Blasi notes, "the substance of life lived three millennia ago or in the mid-nineteenth century or, as in this case, some seventy years distant, can seem essentially the same as that which formed the incidents of the day before yesterday."  De Blasi becomes close friends with Tosca, patroness of the villa who shares her long love story with the last prince (Leo) of Sicily descended from the French house of Anjou.  The story is remarkable and beautiful.   

Guidebooks
I still prefer to travel with one (or two) guidebooks (that I've read in advance), and I often bring an older guide that is undeniably out-of-date, which might seem foolish but I was inspired to do so many years ago when I read somewhere that Jan Morris, one of my most favorite travel writers, likes to travel with old Baedeker guides.  I'm guessing she likes to read about places as they once were so she could compare what was different, better, or worse.  I have several Baedeker guides though not one on Sicily, but I brought The Rough Guide to Sicily from 2002 and it was excellent -- I added a bunch of sticky notes with updated hours and prices but what made the guide still relevant was the 'Contexts" section (long a defining feature of the series) and the 'Sicily in Fiction' section, with excerpts from The Leopard, Conversation in Sicily (by Elio Vittorini), and The Day of the Owl (by Leonardo Sciascia).  I also consulted (but didn't bring along) the Cadogan Guide to Sicily (by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, from 1994 -- the 'Topics' section is still relevant, and the authors' discerning opinions  still hold up years later); and the Blue Guide Sicily (by Alta Macadam, longtime author of many Blue Guides to various parts of Italy, from 1999 -- the glossary, plan of Greek temples, Greek orders of architecture and types of vases are unchanged, and descriptions of monuments and sites are still valuable).  The one current guidebook I consulted was the Rick Steves Sicily guide by Sarah Murdoch.  I've not been a fan of this series in general, but I have it on good authority that Steves recognizes his series needs to be more substantive if he's going to attract more literary and discerning travelers, and I found many good and helpful features in this edition.

Illustrated Books
The Islands of Italy, by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, photos by Sheila Nardulli (Ticknor & Fields, 1991).  The islands included here are Sicily, Sardinia, and the Aeolian Islands, and this book is very much worth reading for the Sicily chapter alone.  Harrison is also the author of Italian Days (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), one of my favorites, though Sicily is not included in that book.  Her opening paragraph to the Sicily chapter is still apropos: "Mountains, Mafia, marzipan.  Solitary Greek temples, manic Spanish baroque, Moorish vermilion cupolas and golden Byzantine churches.  Cloistered pleasure gardens, stern Norman forts.  Market bazaars in which the North African and the Mediterranean, the savory and the seedy, mingle and mix: hot surprises in dark places.  Seas of honey-colored wheat.  Blood.  Closed, secretive faces; chivalrous men; imperturbable courtesy.  The world of the worldly rich and the world of the vanquished and lonely and poor.  The elegant and the brutish.  The nourishing sea.  The savage sun."

Sicily, Introduction by Donatella Trotta, photos by Rosario Bonavoglia (Universe, 2000).  This book, as Trotta writes in the Introduction, is "a voyage to the very heart of Sicily."  The text is limited to eleven pages but it's quite good, and the photographs are not the usual sort.  Trotta concludes that Sicily is "a land whose fate lies in an ancient, ineluctable ambivalence: those who stay here, always dream of leaving; those who leave, dream only of returning."

Sicily: Art, History, and Culture by Enzo Russo and Giovanni Francesio, photographs by Melo Minnella (Arsenale Editrice, 2006).  This is that rare book, of the "coffee table" variety with loads of illustrations and excellent accompanying text, my favorite kind.  I wish there were more of these in the world.  The cover image is of the magnificent, unforgettable 'Bust of Eleonora of Aragon' by Franceso Laurana (in the wonderful Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo) and the quality of the reproductions throughout the book is beautiful.  There are also two fantastic photos of the Quattro Canti in Palermo -- I think the only way they could have been taken is by Minnella lying on the street in the middle of the intersection.  This volume is very much worth the effort to find.

Cuisine
Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes From a Sicilian Girlhood, by Mary Taylor Simeti and Maria Grammatico (hardcover, Morrow, 1995 / paperback, Bantam, 2003).  Simeti was a customer of Grammatico's pastry shop in the hilltop town of Erice before she befriended Grammatico, who has quite a remarkable story to tell.  When her father, a sharecropper, died of a heart attack in 1952, her mother couldn't afford to raise six children alone, so she sent Maria and her younger sister to the Istituto San Carlo orphanage, which was run by nuns who earned money by making and selling culinary sweets.  The orphans learned every step in making the famous pasta reale (painted marizpan made to look like fruit) as well as pastries and preserves, and in an article Simeti wrote for Gourmet in 1991 ('The Almond Pastries of Erice'; not available online, unfortunately), Grammatico shared that she learned the recipes quickly: "I only had to see the sisters mixing up the dough once, and I had the doses written here, in my head."  Living conditions at the San Carlo were rather harsh, and  Grammatico's recollections sound like they're from another century, but they were not that long ago.  In her early '20s, she left the life she thought she wanted, as a nun in a Catania cloister, and began a new life as a shop owner in Erice: the Pasticceria Maria Grammatico (via Vittorio Emanuele 14) is a destination bakery and cafe, and is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. in May, June, and September; from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. in July and August; and from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. October to April.  "This is an art that is going to die," Grammatico told Simeti.  "...the young don't want to learn to do this.  They are thinking about money.  You can't do this thinking about money, or you won't put into it all the love that it requires."       

Cucina Paradiso: The Heavenly Food of Sicily, by Clifford A. Wright (Simon & Schuster, 1992).  The subtitle of this book is 'More Than 175 Luscious Recipes Reflecting the Rich Arab Heritage of Sicilian Cuisine,' and with it Wright began a fruitful, special interest in pan-Mediterranean cuisine (his A Mediterranean Feast, published in 1999 by Morrow, was honored with a James Beard 'Cookbook of the Year' award in 2000).  On Wright's first visit to Sicily, he found the Arab aura palpable, and a Sicilian gastronome and author, Tommaso d'Alba, told him of a Sicilian proverb: 'Scratch the skin of a Sicilian and you will find an Arab."  Among the three opening quotations in this book is one by al-Edrisi (1099-1165), the Moroccan-born geographer and cartographer who lived in Palermo at the court of King Roger II: "I remembered Sicily while death triggered my soul to memories of being expelled from the paradise it was."  According to al-Edrisi, twelfth-century Sicily was a "wondrous paradise," and Wright explains that one of the greatest contributions of the Arabs in Sicily was the Arab Agricultural Revolution.  One feature of this revolution was the development of kitchen gardens, which Wright maintains changed Sicilian diet and cuisine.  He writes that the latifundia, large and unproductive Roman and Byzantine estates, "were broken up by the Arabs into small farms, encouraged through taxes that promoted cultivated land.  I noticed remnants of the latifundia one day as I drove out of Caltanissetta past the famous vineyards of Regaleali (from the Arabic rahal 'ali, hamlet of Ali), the home of Count Tasca d'Almerita. there one can still find small plots of land divided by stone walls."  Wright points out the common characteristics of Arab-Sicilian cuisine, some of which are confectionery (the art of making confections came from the Arabs; "the combination of pistachios, almonds, figs, and other fruit with sugar and honey is an Arab legacy. Ice cream and sherbet originated with the Arab Sicilians."; blends of nuts or breadcrumbs with raisins or currants and saffron ("The Arabs used these to create exotic stuffings and seasonings."); citrus fruit married to meat and fish ("Citrus fruits, especially oranges and lemons, are cooked with fish, meat, and vegetables."); and the absence of antipasti ("What the Sicilians call grape 'u pitittu are snacks or tidbits rather than appetizers.  They are food consumed fuori tavola (literally, away from the table), like Arancine [rice balls] and Panelle [chickpea flour fritters], which are basically what we would call street food.").  As the recipes here attest, "Sicilian food is different from Italian food, even when the ingredients are similar or the same."     

La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio (1996), and Sicilian Home Cooking (2001), both by Giovanna Tornabene, Wanda Tornabene, and Michele Evans, both published by Knopf.  The Tornabene family has lived on land in the Madonie mountains with a 13th century Benedictine abbey since 1856, but when hard times hit in the 1970s, Wanda opened a restaurant, which was a resounding success and saved the estate.  Twenty years later, when La Cucina Siciliana was published, the restaurant was still held in high regard, but hard financial times were preventing Sicilians from eating out as often as they used to.   As Giovanna writes in the Introduzioni to Sicilian Home Cooking, historians say that Sicilians sopravviviamo brillantemente (are brilliant at surviving), "that when faced with adversity, we thrive.  We say, "Non abbiamo altra scelta che arrangiarci. [We have no choice but to be resourceful.]"  The mother and daughter Tornabene team went to the States on a book tour, and not only did Americans buy their book, they began coming to Sicily to stay at Tenuta Gangivecchio, which until recently offered cooking classes and accommodation; now it's unfortunately closed to the public, but these two books, and 100 Ways to Be Pasta: Perfect Pasta Recipes From Gangivecchio (Knopf, 2005), are a record of what life on the agricultural estate was like and are filled with Gangivecchio's tried and true recipes.   

The Heart of Sicily: Recipes and Reminiscences of Regaleali (Foreword by Mary Taylor Simeti, 1993) and The Flavors of Sicily (1996), both by Anna Tasca Lanza (both published by Clarkson Potter), Coming Home to Sicily: Seasonal Harvests and Cooking from Case Vecchie, by Fabrizia Lanza (Sterling Epicure, 2012).  Anna Tasca Lanza passed away in 2010 but her cooking school, on the family wine estate of Tenuta Regaleali, continues with her daughter, Fabrizia, who is also the author of a great little book, Olive: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2011).  Founded in 1830, today Regaleali has five estates, and Tasca d'Almerita has just been named 2019 European Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast.  (Note that tastings are offered at all the estates, and Regaleali offers accommodation in addition to the cooking classes.)  Each of these cookbooks has solid recipes, but each is also a portrayal of agricultural life in Sicily through the seasons.  "We Sicilians share a certain philosophy of cooking," Anna wrote in The Heart of Sicily.  "We don't make a dish from a recipe; rather we create it from what we have on hand, what is growing on the land at the moment."  Reading any one of these will likely inspire anyone to plan a Sicily itinerary accordingly, but the Epilogue in The Heart of Sicily, written by the Reverend Ronald T. Marino of Brooklyn, New York, might be the final encouragement to reserve a stay at Regaleali. 

Palmento: Sicilian Wine Odyssey, by Robert V. Camuto (University of Nebraska Press, 2010).  The word palmento refers to the place where grapes are pressed, in the Sicilian countryside and a few other places in Italy.  According to Jeremy Parzen, who has created the fantastic Italian Winery Designations Explained glossary on his Do Bianchi website, the word first appeared in the 13th century and is possibly from paumentum, spoken Latin for floor (akin to the Italian pavimento).  Parzen says that palmento can also refer to the place where wheat is milled, and the Italian expression mangiare a quattro palmenti (literally, to eat like four millstones) means to eat voraciously or to eat like a horse.  There are still palmenti in Sicily though most are not in use, but Camuto chose an appropriate title for his book, one of the volumes in Nebraska's 'At Table' series.  All of the winemakers featured, from all corners of Sicily, have a deep sense of place. Two chapters were of special interest to me, one on Planeta Estate and the other on Pantelleria, as I was going to both; but each chapter is interesting.  Camuto writes in the Introduction that "Modernity seems to have enriched swaths of mainland Italy materially, but robbed something of its soul.  Sicily, however, seems to have so far resisted the forces that transform places into replicas of everywhere else."  On the copyright and dedication page, Camuto has added, "To the hope that Sicily remains an island."

Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty-Five Centuries of Sicilian Cooking, by Mary Taylor Simeti (Knopf hardcover, 1989). This book has no equal, and is that unique combination of history, culinary history, recipes, illustrations, and an appendix that includes Simeti's personal favorites for eating out (though some of the recommendations may no longer be around, some still are, and in any case what she's written is still interesting). Simeti traces all the threads in Sicily's culinary history and includes food-related stories from her own family.  The 'Princes, Priests, and Not So Humble Friars' chapter is particularly interesting as it explains the tradition of monzù, which arose during the rule of Charles III in the 1700s when the Spanish united Sicily with the Kingdom of Naples.  Sicilian aristocrats then looked to Paris for their chefs -- "Originally Frenchmen and later Sicilians or Neapolitans who had served an apprenticeship in the culinary capital of the world, these chefs merited the title of monzù, a corruption of monsieur."  Simeti states that it's too early to give a fair evaluation of the role of the monzu in the history of Sicilian cooking; most of what's been written about Sicilian food has been quite recent, and was written by elderly aristocrats after The Leopard was published in 1957.  These accounts naturally highlighted the beauty of aristocratic Sicily and contrasted with the "economic and moral squalor" that obscured the island for most of the remaining 20th century.  In the chapter 'The Staff of Life,' which might be my favorite one, Simeti relates the enormous importance of bread, which was and is treated with the greatest respect. "Probably few Sicilians still believe that if they let a breadcrumb fall on the floor they will be punished in the hereafter by having to gather it up with their eyelashes.  And few families today would do as my husband's family did when he was small: kiss a piece of bread that had fallen on the floor before throwing it away...nonetheless to waste bread is still considered very, very wrong."  She is mindful that she belongs to the very small percentage of humanity that has had the good fortune to never have known true hunger.  "Had I continued to live in America, I might still consider bread as one more element in the category of foods that are delicious yet potentially dangerous and not really necessary, like chocolate or jam or gravy.  Sicily has taught me otherwise."  Every chapter in this book is filled with fascinating historical details, proving that culinary traditions are inseparable from a destination's history.  Simeti concludes by stating that the previous class distinctions in Sicily's diet (which were enormous) have mostly disappeared, and post-World War II prosperity has meant some traditions are only memories.  "People whose mothers and fathers counted themselves lucky to have lasagne cacate now eat pasta with smoked salmon and caviar on New Year's Eve, and when my cleaning woman's elderly aunt, down from their mountain village to have her bronchial tubes examined, wanted to present the doctor with a couple of chickens or a dozen eggs, her niece advised a bottle of Chivas Regal instead."

Sicily: Culinary Crossroads, by Giuseppe Coria, translaed by Gaetano Cipolla (Oronzo Editions, 2008).  This is one edition in a series called Italy's Food Culture -- to my knowledge only one other edition, on Puglia, has been published in English, but I hope there are plans to bring out more.  Aside from the fact that this is an attractive paperback, with color photographs throughout, the major point to highlight is that this isn't a book of typical Sicilian recipes.  "Indeed," as the author Coria writes, "their number has been reduced on purpose to include only those recipes that are exemplary, those above all that must be rescued from neglect, forgetfulness, or oblivion."  Coria refers to this project as a "rescue operation," and generally the recipes here don't offer food substitutions as this would diminish their authenticity.  The twenty-two page Introduction is fascinating and worth reading as a stand-alone essay.         

Fiction / Companion Reading
Andrea Camilleri
Camilleri, a Sicilian born in Porto Empedocle who passed away in July, created the character of detective Salvo Montalbano rather late in his life.  The books (there are over two dozen titles) and the tv series ('Il Commissario Montalbano') are wildly popular in Italy and around the world.  Camilleri wrote in a combination of Italian and Sicilian, and the first book, The Shape of Water, was published in 1994; the first English translations appeared in 2002 (Penguin is Camilleri's publisher in the U.S.).  According to his obituary in The New York Times, in an interview with The Independent, Camilleri said his father had been a fascist until one day in 1938, when Andrea told him a friend had been barred from school because he was Jewish.  "My father hit the roof, saying, 'That bastard,' referring to Mussolini," a memorable exchange as Camilleri said, "I've always tried to make Montalbano critical about the behavior and orders of his bosses, the imbecility of power."  A reviewer for Anna magazine in Italy described the series by saying, "Toss it all together with the sweet and sour sauce of contemporary Sicily, and you get mysteries that form a kind of saga."

Giovanni Verga
Verga, the leading author of Verismo (realism), was born in Catania in 1840, and though he lived in Florence and Milan for some years, he returned to Catania later in life and remained there until his death, in 1922.  He wrote a number of novels but is best known for his Sicilian works, Novelle Rusticane (Little Novels of Sicily) and I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree).  There are a few English language editions of both of these titles, but I'm partial to the Steerforth Italia edition of Little Novels of Sicily (translated and with an Introduction by D. H. Lawrence, 2000; originally published by Grove Press in 1953).  Steerforth Italia is an imprint devoted to the whole spectrum of Italian culture and life, and its backlist would be of great interest to any Italy enthusiast.  The subject of the stories in Novelle Rusticane is all parts of Sicilian life in the 1860s, a time when "Sicily is said to have been the poorest place in Europe: absolutely penniless," as Lawrence writes.  "A Sicilian peasant might live through his whole life without ever possessing as much as a dollar, in hard cash.  But after 1879 the great drift of Sicilian emigration set in, toward America.  Sicilian young men came back from exile rich, according to standards in Sicily.  The peasants began to buy their own land, instead of working on the half-profits system.  They had a reserve fund for bad years.  And the island in the Mediterranean began to prosper as it prospers still, depending on American resources." 

Maria Messina
I was unfamiliar with Messina (1887-1944) until I started reading about Sicily, and after so many references to her I knew I had to read her work.  I started reading Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily (Stony Brook, 2007, translated into English by Elise Magistro) first and thought that I might read just a few of the stories, but once I began I couldn't stop, and then the same thing happened with A House in the Shadows (The Marlboro Press, translated by John Shepley).  Messina wrote about what she saw and experienced around her, which was not uplifting;   Magistro writes in the Introduction to Behind Closed Doors that Messina "wrote at a time when nearly one-third of the island's population left in search of better lives, but the stories they left behind took almost a century to surface in history and fiction.  Since most immigrants could not write, they told their stories in Italian or in a more obscure dialect few Americans or other Italians could understand.  Often their stories died untold, even to their children who were busy becoming Americans.  Or, if told, they were dwarfed by the giant myths of men.  Through her stories, Messina becomes a firsthand witness, especially to the stories of those who returned broken-hearted, incapacitated, and ready to die."  Leonardo Sciasca, who called her "a Sicilian Katherine Mansfield" is largely responsible for the revival of her work;  John Keahey devotes a chapter about Messina in Sicilian Splendors, and at the end of it he shares a note he received from Magistro, who wrote that "Anyone wishing to discover Sicily, to understand Sicily as it once was, needs look no further than the works of Maria Messina."  Though Messina wrote numerous other books, I believe these are the only two that have been translated into English. 

Leonardo Sciascia
Sciascia was born in Racalmuto in 1921 and died in 1989 (has name is pronounced SHA-sha, which is derived from an Arabic word meaning head veil, and until Italian unification it was written Xaxa).  By the 1950s he was known not only in Sicily but abroad, and his political commentary was often controversial.  He has been described as "The conscience of Italy.  Defiant by definition" by Sicilians, and he has been a Nobel Prize nominee several times.  Ted Gioia, of the Postmodern Mystery website,  writes that the enigmas in Sciascia's novels "brought attention to the dark side of Sicilian public life, that mysterious island where crime and justice often come disguised in each other's garb."  Sciascia referred to his novels as "metaphysical mysteries," and Gioia adds that "his stories are Sciascia's most lasting legacy, no less truthful for being cast in the form of fiction."
Sciascia's books in English include To Each His Own (2000), Equal Danger (2003), The Day of the Owl (2003), and The Wine-Dark Sea (2000), a collection of short stories and my favorite (all of these are in handsome paperback editions by New York Review Books).

A Bell for Adano, by John Hersey (originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf in 1944; Vintage paperback 1988).

Prince of the Clouds, by Gianni Riotta, translated by Stephen Sartarelli (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997).

Sometimes the Soul: Two Novellas of Sicily, by Gioia Timpanelli (hardcover, W. W. Norton, 1998 / paperback, Vintage, 1999)

The Winter's Tale, by Shakespeare (many editions).  

Walking
Walking in Sicily: 46 Walking Routes Including Mt. Etna and the Egadi and Aeolian Islands, by Gillian Price (Cicerone Press, 2015).  For anyone interested in even just a single walk in Sicily, this little paperback is an excellent resource. Price has also written four other Italian guides for Cicerone Press, which specializes in walking, trekking, climbing and exploring guides, and she's a member of the Club Alpino Italiano (CAI). "Walking for pleasure is not widely practised in Sicily," Price writes, "and guarded curiosity will often greet ramblers, as getting around on foot has long been equated with hardship."  She adds that signposts and other trail markers are rather rare, and there aren't many commercially produced maps, but there are comprehensive sketched maps provided for each walk in the book.  There are walks that are easy and others that are quite challenging, and Price includes tips on what to take, when to go, emergencies, flora and fauna, regional parks, and mentions the Sentiero Italia, a 6,000+ kilometer route founded in 1983 that traverses the whole of Italy from Sardinia, via Sicily, the Apennines, and the Alps, all the way to Trieste.  It's the longest trekking trail in the world and follows a path through the Italia Minore, the lesser known areas of Italy.