Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sicily Exhibition Tours America

Sicily is often referred to as a crossroad. Indeed it is a place where geographically and culturally civilizations met and melded in ways that continue to this day to influence scholarly debates on ethnic identity in antiquity. It is not surprising therefore that Sicily’s Department of Cultural Heritage contains “Sicilian Identity” as part of its title and mandate.

Sicily was critically important not only to the naval powers of ancient Rome and Carthage, but also to Hellenistic Greek expansion and colonization. Punic and Greek settlers left traces of their magnificent cultures throughout the island.

World-famous among the archaeological treasures of western Sicily is a sublime statue of a charioteer, known simply as the “Youth of Mozia”. 

My own fascination with this statue spans decades and it has become for me the symbol of my homeland—not just of Sicily, but specifically of the area near Lo Stagnone lagoon where I was born and the nearby island of Mozia .

Imagine then my reaction earlier this summer at the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, in seeing the Youth of Mozia standing serenely at the center of the exhibition room as if in greeting. My experience was akin to seeing a beloved relative in an unexpected and far-away land!  

The Youth of Mozia is currently in the United States as part of an extraordinary exhibition, Sicily: Art and Invention Between Greece and Rome, which brings together antiquities from Sicily and Western Europe to tell a story of Classical and Hellenistic Sicily during a tumultuous period of political and social upheaval between 480 BC and 212BC. 

This unique exhibition was made possible by the Regional Department of Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity and the J. Paul Getty Museum, and represents a continuation of an important cultural and scholarly dialogue between the United States and Italy. Having finished its tour at the Getty Villa, it has now gone to the Cleveland Museum of Art and will continue to Palermo, Sicily, in 2014.  

If you have an opportunity to view this exhibition, I highly recommend it. You won’t be disappointed and it’s worth the trip to Cleveland or even Palermo! If not, I suggest taking a look at the accompanying catalogue published by The J. Paul Getty Museum of the same title, beautifully photographed, with essays by notable Sicilian, European and American scholars and introductions by exhibition curators Claire Lyons and Michael Bennett.   This work is an important new addition to our collective knowledge of Sicily and I know you will treasure as much as I do.  

Until next time,
Ciao a presto!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Green Tomatoes: A Sicilian Woman's Musings on “Southern” Cuisine

Green tomatoes from my California garden.

My husband and I have an inside joke.  I call myself a “southern” woman, which, between America and Italy, can mean a lot of things. The fact is there are some strong similarities between the American South and the Italian South, which may explain why I feel in my element in the American South.   These musings are occurring as a result of a road trip my husband and I are taking from Florida to Washington DC.   Among my favorite areas are the small towns on the east coast of Florida, most notably Amelia Island, as well as Savannah, Georgia, and the beautiful Carolina coastline.
Oglethorpe Square, Savannah

Life unfolds slowly in the American South and there is time to savor it in all its richness—an attribute of the Italian South as well.  As my husband and I strolled arm in arm in the many lovely squares of Savannah, enveloped by the summer heat, I felt transported to a place and time familiar to me from my life in Sicily.   As we continue our adventure next month from DC to Sicily, I expect the similarities will become even more evident.

One of my favorite (American) Southern foods is green tomato, and I marvel that it is not a staple in Sicilian cuisine.  In fact I have never even heard of it except in the American South.  I would like to lay claim to this dish for Sicily, but I have promised you that I would write only on classical (read ‘historic’) foods of Sicily.  But let’s imagine for a moment what fried green tomatoes might look like in the hands of a Sicilian chef.

My 'southern' interpretation of fried green tomatoes!
For starters the tomatoes would be hand picked fresh from the garden and cut in thick round slices, then sprinkled with sea salt and ground red peperoncino.  They would be dusted with semolina flour, and flash sautéed in olive oil until  tender but not cooked through, with a bit of crunch to the bite.  A Sicilian cook would then take a handful of sweet, ripe “ciliegino”  cherry tomatoes, sauté them in olive oil in a separate pan, with salt and freshly ground pepper, until a delicate little sauce is formed.  The sauce would be spooned onto a plate, where the fried tomato slices would be stacked.  A dusting of aged pecorino cheese and a fragrant cluster of basil leaves would finish the oeuvre.

As my husband and I continue our trip to Sicily, who knows what influences of the American South might find their way into the culinary repertoire of the Sciacca family of Marsala! I will report my findings back to you!

Ciao a presto!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pistachio: Green Gold of Sicily

It is my experience that in the United States, pistachio is more likely to be associated with the Middle East than Sicily. Yet Sicily accounts for 1% of global pistachio production. 

Pistachio originated in the Mediterranean basin and was brought to Sicily by Arab conquerors sometime after the 11th century BC.  The pistachio tree thrives in Sicily’s rich volcanic soil and today pistachio production in Sicily is concentrated in Bronte, a town on the western slope of Mt. Etna. The Pistachio fruit is harvested from late August through October, when the famous Pistachio Festival takes place in Bronte. 

The word Pistachio,  Pistàkion in Greek, was likely corrupted to “fristach” in Arabic, which would explain why in Sicilian dialect the fruit is called “frastuca”.  But whatever the name, it is universally understood that pistachio is Sicily’s “green gold”.  It is ubiquitous in Sicilian cuisine and used in all aspects of Sicilian cooking, from pasta to meats, to desserts and liqueurs, as well as eaten plain and roasted.  Sicilian pistachio fruit has a highly refined flavor, and is considered by some to be the finest in the world.

I prepare pistachio in many ways including in a  simple but rich pesto for pasta.  One of my favorite Sicilian pasta recipes utilizing this delicious fruit is Pasta with Swordfish, Eggplant and Pistachio. My cousin Lillina Oteri of Marsala, an accomplished cook, is master of this dish and I enjoy her version best.  
You will need swordfish (a quarter pound per person) cut into cubes;  3-4 eggplant, cut into cubes, salted and allowed to “sweat”;  1 clove garlic and 1 small onion minced;  a handful of fresh mint;  a  cup of pistachio that has been  toasted and finely chopped.  Short pasta of your choice such as strozzapreti or penne works best for this dish.  Set a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil while you begin the sauce.

Rinse the eggplant and sauté it in olive oil until it is cooked and lightly browned and set it aside.  In a separate large sauté pan, begin browning the onion and garlic in olive oil, then add the swordfish cubes and sauté. Add the eggplant and gently mix, cooking a few minutes more.  Adjust for salt and add ground black pepper and chopped mint leaves to taste.
Drain the pasta which has been cooked “al dente” and add it to the sauté pan, gently mixing it together before plating.  Sprinkle toasted, chopped pistachio in place of cheese on each plate before serving.  Enjoy!

 Ciao a presto!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Buffalo Soldiers and Italian Freedom Fighters: Heroes of WWII

History is replete with instances in which the suffering of human wars brings together disparate people for the greater good, even in the face of overwhelming cultural and social forces prohibiting social contact and cooperation.  While this significant historical phenomenon has occurred many times in human history, the facts and intimate details are often overlooked in favor of more “traditional” stories of heroic deeds surrounding wars.   It is a rare gift to be given a glimpse inside the hearts and minds of people who have acted together with courage during times of war despite their cultural, racial, and social differences. 
The recent showing at the San Diego Italian Film Festival of Inside Buffalo Soldiers by Italian documentary filmmaker Fred Kuwornu is such a gift.

Wartime “integration” of separate races and classes  has been known to unleash powerful forces of social change throughout history.  During World War II, a group of African-American soldiers and their Italian comrades forged such an unlikely alliance.  Fighting side-by-side with the sole focus of survival and the defeat of German forces occupying Italy, African-American and Italian soldiers had no conception of the impact that their camaraderie would have in the United States, eventually leading to some of the great civil rights gains of the late 1950s and early 1960s.   
Inside Buffalo Soldiers captures this dramatic set of events.  The facts surrounding African-American soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division deployed to fight Nazi forces in Italy, are well documented. But until Kuwornu’s insightful work, no one had attempted to delve deeper into their personal stories through the medium of documentary filmmaking.

The term Buffalo Soldier originated in 1866 with the formation of the US 10th Calvary, an all black volunteer regiment that fought in the Indian Wars. It is believed the term may have been coined by Cheyenne warriors who viewed those black soldiers as embodying qualities of strength and perseverance inspired by the buffalo.  The term became synonymous with African-American soldiers.

The Buffalo Soldiers  of the 92nd Division came to Italy during WWII from an America steeped in racial discrimination, where African Americans were treated as outsiders in their own country. Similarly, Italy’s poverty, displacement by fascist invaders and wartime devastation left a mark on the Italian people. Kuwornu’s film hints of an unspoken solidarity on this account between black soldiers and war-torn Italians.  Whatever forces may have drawn them together, in 1944, two vastly different cultures, Italian partisans and Black American soldiers, united in a heroic struggle against the Nazis. Each was changed by the events that transpired and, one could argue, each made whole by the experience—Italians by the heroic support and solidarity of the soldiers of the 92nd and Back American soldiers by the gratitude and admiration of the Italian people. In sharp contrast to the experience that awaited them at home, what these soldiers found in Italy was grateful recognition for their deeds without discrimination.

 Lieutenant Vernon Baker
The untold acts of heroism by soldiers of the 92nd Division, which cost many their lives, have never been forgotten by the Italian people.  Italy was the first in the world to raise a monument  to the 92nd, commemorating the men who fought so bravely alongside Italian freedom fighters. In turn, those brave Americans have never forgotten the hero’s welcome given to them by Italians and the deep friendships that were forged as a result of that wartime experience. Sadly, it would take America another 40 years to acknowledge their contributions. In 1997, the Clinton Administration bestowed on them the Congressional Medal of Honor, the county’s highest honor.  Of those honored,Vernon Baker was the only surviving member to receive the award.

Kuwornu’s documentary intertwines, historical footage, interviews and life-like re-enactments of important battles. Kuwornu himself conducted the interviews, often surprised to be spoken to in perfect Italian by the former soldiers who went on to live successful lives as respected statesmen, professionals, businessmen and public servants.

Documentary filmmaker Fred Kuwornu
With his soft-spoken Italian accent and impeccable English, Fred Kuwornu first identified the importance of the story of the Buffalo Soldiers when working in Spike Lee’s movie Miracle at Santa Anna in Italy.

Kuwornu himself is Italian-born-and-educated of Ghanian and Italian parentage. Following university, Kuwornu worked  as a writer at RAI 1 TV before forming his own production company FKK FILMZ. His current project "Paisà Soldiers" is a documentary about the contributions by Italian-American Veterans in World War II. Kuwornu is an Italian voice that I predict we will be hearing much more of in the future.

For more information visit: and
To viewVernon Baker NYTimes obit visit:

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fabulous Dining in Rome's Jewish Quarter

Nonna Betta logo features a scroll
 made of pasta and rolling pins
The Jewish Quarter of Rome is an area that I have always enjoyed and in which I spend a lot of time whenever I am in Rome. Located across the Tiber in Trastevere, some of Rome’s best restaurants are found in this area.  Rome’s Jewish quarter once contained one of the oldest Jewish Ghettos in the world, having been constructed only 40 years after the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, which was the oldest. For more than 300 years, beginning in 1555 with the construction of the walled city, until 1848 when it was abolished and the walls destroyed, the Ghetto was home to Rome’s sizable Jewish population as well as the oldest synagogue of Europe. A beautiful orthodox temple in which men and women worship separately, sadly today the temple is continuously guarded by armed police.

Artichokes alla Giudea or Jewish style.
From a culinary perspective, it has been argued that the most authentic Roman cuisine is found in Jewish Roman cooking. Roman Jews are credited with preserving, within the walled city, recipes that date back 1500 years. Today, the great culinary traditions of Rome are best savored in the Jewish Quarter, which is lined with wonderful restaurants that cater to visitors and locals alike.
Squash blossoms filled with mozzarella
 and anchovy and deep fried.
A seasonal specialty that absolutely is not to be missed is the artichoke.  Roman artichokes differ from American varieties because they do not have a coarse beard at the center and they are so tender they can be eaten raw. Common preparations include steamed with fresh mint; finely sliced, raw, dipped in vinaigrette; or my favorite, alla Giudea or Jewish style, where trimmed artichokes are flattened into a flower shape and deep fried so that stem and tender leaves are eaten all together.  I can think of nothing more satisfying, as the textures and flavors of this dish cover all bases: crunchy outer leaves; a tender center; the sweetness of the young artichoke and the salt of the preparation.  My husband and I resolved to eat sensibly and got one order to share but upon seeing it arrive at our table, we immediately felt compelled to order another….and another!

Delicious pasta cacio e pepe e cicoria
from Nonna Betta restaurant.
Another seasonal specialty not to be missed is the squash blossom, classically prepared by stuffing it with mozzarella and anchovy, dipping in a flour pastel and deep frying. The use of squash blossoms is very common in Italian cooking and can be found in pasta, risotto, even pizza. Dinner one night was at the famous Roman pizzeria Ai Marmi, where my husband and I enjoyed a novel twist on the classic recipe--pizza with squash blossoms, mozzarella and anchovy topping.
Puntarelle alla Romana servered with
grilled scamorza or smoked mozzarella
 from Nonna Betta.
This time of year you can also find “puntarelle alla Romana” tender chicory shoots that have been crisped and curled in cold water and served with anchovy vinaigrette.  A favorite Roman vegetable, cicoria or chicory is also very commonly throughout Italy.  I enjoy cicoria in just about everything but I especially appreciate when it is steamed and graces the classic pasta cacio e pepe dish-- the oldest of Roman pasta recipes, made simply with cacio sheep cheese, butter and black pepper.

These delicious dishes are found in restaurants throughout Rome and the Jewish Quarter, but two in particular stand out for me and are consistently excellent.  Nonna Betta, which translates as “grandmother Betta” is charming, well managed and has great kosher Roman Jewish cuisine. Nonna Betta actually was the grandmother of the owner and matriarch of a family who has lived in the Jewish quarter for many generations.   

The chef at Giardino Romano
enjoys late night people watching
while preparing artichokes
for the following day.
Next door to Nonna Betta is Giardino Romano. Despite the proximity of the two restaurants the menus are very different and I would recommend trying both. Giardino Romano is Jewish but not strictly kosher and has other classic Roman dishes containing ham products, such as pasta alla carbonara and all’amatriciana, as well as shell fish, trippa (tripe), and abbacchio or lamb. Of interest at Giardino Roman is the charming indoor dining room which has been built around the preserved ruins of a 16th century building.  I have attached a photo of the chef at Giardino Romano, sitting late at night at one of the outdoor tables, trimming artichokes in preparation for the following day. The scene was so delightful, and the chef extremely gracious to allow me to photograph him.

A gorgeous sidewalk display
greets visitors at Giardino Romano.
Join me later as we explore the International Film Festival of Rome, and then make our way to Sicily. 

Until then,
Ciao a presto!

Friday, November 16, 2012

....A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Sicily

For some time now we have been sharing our mutual appreciation for all things Sicilian.  This week I am traveling to my home in Sicily, and along the way I’ve made a detour to my other childhood home-- the ever-beautiful city of Rome. I hope you will indulge me as I stray a bit from our agreed upon subject, and wax eloquent about the amazing food of Rome and the hypnotic magic of this romantic city.

View from our hotel located near Trastevere
Some years ago, while wandering through the neighborhood of Trastevere my husband and I stumbled into paradise in the form a little restaurant. Trattoria Da Augusto has been making stomachs rumble since 1954 and has been the source of many memorable meals for us these past several years.
Musicians play in Piazza
Santa Maria in Trastevere
I would put this experience high on my list of things to do in Rome.  Imagine that upon arriving in Rome earlier today, we stopped at our hotel simply to drop off our bags and immediately made our way--with much anticipation--across the Tiber River to Trastevere.  The two hour wait for Da Augusto to open was but a small sacrifice compared to the great reward of the meal that was to come. While waiting, we stopped at coffee bar at the Piazza at Santa Maria in Trastevere (scene of Woody Allen’s latest film To Rome With Love) where we indulged in a refreshing glass of freshly squeezed orange juice –the mid morning drink of preference among the locals.

Michael in front of
Trattoria Da Augusto
 Da Augusto gives new meaning to the notion of a family run business. This unpretentious little “hole in the wall” which caters to locals and the occasional lucky tourist who happens to get lost in Trastevere, employs the entire family and is run much like a family dining room.  The menu is whatever they are cooking that day. Don’t even ask to see a written menu because there is none… well not exactly—there is a flimsy xeroxed piece of paper, that is never used and which I took home with me as a souvenir!  
Behind Michael is the restaurant's owner
taking everyone's order without notes!
When enteringDa Augusto, the owner, a handsome, no-nonsense quintessentially Roman woman, orders you to take a seat and tells you what you will be eating that day from her kitchen. Her directness (which includes addressing everyone in the familiar “tu” instead of the formal “lei”) is unexpected, being used to the formality of most Italians.  Sprinting through the restaurant to take orders (all in her head) and give people their tabs (written on the paper liners of the tablecloths) she does not stop for chit-chat and does not entertain many questions. Once when ordering wine and water at lunch, for example, we asked (unsuccessfully) for two glasses each, which we did not get; one glass per person for whatever you may be drinking is the rule and dont even consider complaining! (My husband likens the experience to the hilarious Seinfeld episode of the “soup nazi"!)  But the owner is just one of the reasons why we keep coming back.

A very happy Michael
 enjoys Pasta all'amtriciana.
Those of you who have spent time in Rome understand that Romans are among the warmest people in the world, but not exactly shy. Romans from Trastevere (the oldest community in Rome), even less so. The folklore of Trastevere paints a picture of people who are earthy, loud, boisterous, proud and alive in every sense of the word.  

To illustrate this point, on the cover of the menu at Da Augusto is an Italian Popeye comic strip in which Popeye  orders spaghetti with spinach. The restaurant owner, a Roman, brings him another dish and says: “We don’t have time to waste; if you want to eat, eat this, otherwise nothing!”  In a nutshell that sums up the charm of Trastevere …and Da Augusto.

I found this outside another Trastevere restaurant.
It reads in Roman dialect:
"to eat well, you have to be patient and wait....dont annoy me!
Da Augusto’s kitchen is a miniscule room with a cut-out window open to the dining room, through which food is passed. The food is seasonal and depends entirely on what is available that day at market. Two of the owner’s sister’s cook and from that tiny space emerges some of the most mouth-watering authentic roman food you will ever eat. Today our meal began with pasta with ceci or chickpeas for me and pasta all’amatriciana, a tomato and pancetta based sauce for my husband—both of which are Roman dishes from antiquity.  We continued with a second course of baccala’ or salt cod in onions and olives and tomatoes for me, and agnello alla cacciatora, lamb with a vinegar-based sauce, for my husband.  Contorni or side dishes consisted of my favorite oven-roasted potatoes and a delightful seasonal salad of “puntarelle alla romana” a kind of Italian chicory whose tender shoots are crisped and curled in ice water, then served raw with a vinaigrette made with anchovies and garlic slices. Our wine was local from the Castelli region of Rome.

Lunch at Da Augusto filled our stomachs and our souls and, despite a 9-hour flight and 6-hour time change, we floated back to our hotel with the euphoria of pilgrims who had reached the promised land.  If you are passing through Rome, allow yourself to be swept away by this experience—you won’t be disappointed.

Ciao a presto!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sicily's Legendary Breads: Pane Cunzatu and the Sicilian Sandwich

Bread baked in a traditional Sicilian oven.
There is a snippet of a poem that lingers in my memory from a long forgotten author. It begins, “a mother is like warm bread.” The imagery of bread as sacrosanct, (and indeed the comparison of bread to mother—the most revered of Sicilian symbols) has inspired Sicily from revolutions to poetry.  But whatever the nuances of this important staple of the Sicilian diet, the fact remains that Sicilian wheat, and therefore Sicilian bread, is unmatched in the world.

Since  antiquity, Sicily was considered the bread basket of the Roman Empire because of its abundant and high quality wheat fields. Following the devastation of the Black Plague and political turmoil of the 14th and 15th centuries, wheat production all but ceased, making a comeback during the reign of the Spanish kings.  

Pane cunzatu
But external pressures and internal policies hindered wheat production so dramatically that farmers were unable to continue growing it, resulting in the great famine of the 1600’s.  A well documented event, the famine led to riots in the streets of Palermo.  (Those of you who have read the classic novel I Promessi Sposi will recognize these riots:  the bread crisis in Palermo was part of the same crisis that causes the rebellion in Milano.)  A quote in Mary Simeti’s book Pomp and Sustenance captures the sentiment of the populace in 1774:  “People of Palermo, put an end at once to your patience: you have suffered too long. White bread we demand, white bread.” This call to action unintentionally reveals the high standard of the Sicilian diet in antiquity.  In most of Europe, refined white bread was a perogative of the rich.

Pane squaratu--sicilian boiled bread.
Sicilian wheat,Triticum durum, commonly called durum wheat,  produces a hard golden colored berry, which is ground into conmeal-like texture known as semola. Semola is used to make pasta, but it may also be ground a second time, (rimacinato) to make bread flour.  Sicilian bread is made simply with rimacinato, water, salt and yeast, and does not use any kind of shortening. Durum wheat is high in gluten;  in the absence of oil or lard the proteins bind together in long chains.  The result is a distinctive chewiness similar to that found in pasta. Often fired in wood-burning ovens with special woods or almond shells, the resulting bread has a brown outer crustiness and strong, course, chewy yellowish crumb making it unique in look and flavor.

(It is interesting that this robust, yellow bread exists only in the countryside.  The city folk of Palermo and Catania eat a bread made with common wheat flour, not rimanciato, and shortened with lard or vegetable shortening to make a puffy, delicate white crumb and a flaky crust.  And in the region of Puglia, not far from Sicily in geography or culture, the bread is identical to that of bread of the Sicilian countryside or campagna.) In addition to wood baked bread a tradition exists of boiling bread before baking it, called pane squaratu. Laced with anise seed and made with  its distinctive four rosettes, it is one of my favorites and is often found in abundance around the pasqual holidays.

Pane cunzatu against a Sicilian loaf .
One of the favorite ways  Sicilians enjoy bread is known in dialect as pane cunzatu (loosely translates to seasoned bread).  Once found only in family kitchens, pane cunzatu is now available in many Sicilian bakeries.  While this preparation is best with Sicilian bread, I invite you to try it with any hearty bread fresh out of the oven.

You will need a freshly baked, still warm loaf of crusty bread;  high quality extra virgin olive oil; grated pecorino cheese; pomidorini or cherry tomatoes cut in half and lightly salted; a handful of fresh basil leaves and dried Italian oregano and ground black pepper to taste.

Cut the warm bread in half lengthwise and drizzled both halves with olive oil. Distribute the tomatoes on one side of the bread and sprinkle it with oregano to taste, black pepper, and abundant pecorino cheese. Distribute basil leaved on the tomatoes and close the two sides of the loaf, as if in a sandwich, pressing the bread to release and amalgamate the flavors.  Cut in thick slices and serve. Pane cunzatu is often used in parties and gatherings as an appetizer or light but rustic meal.  While the classic pane cunzatu is made with the simple ingredients listed above, I sometimes enjoy adding anchovy bits to this delicious preparation.

There are other ways  that Sicilians savor this delicious bread. Children are given slices of bread lightly drizzled with red wine and sprinkled with sugar (a practice I still enjoy occassionally even as an adult!)  Often bread is eaten with grilled or fried vegetables. On occasion, I fry eggplant and place it in sliced bread with basil and fresh fior di latte mozzarella. The result is a meal that happily overwhelms the senses! 

Ciao a presto!