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: