After beginning our culinary march through southern Italy in Rome, we landed in Catania, the tip of the Italian boot, with views of Mount Etna in the background and the Mediterranean and the Ionian seas forming suitable backdrops to a seemingly endless collection of historical leftovers from the conquering Greeks and Romans.
Our first stop was to be the most odiferous in Sicily, the colorful, grimy and superbly smelly main fish market. Two people in our group regrettably wore sandals, carefully stepping over and around fish debris that had missed the big white buckets next to every fishmonger.
We arrived shortly before closing, and the prices were starting to come down. Shouts of Ho I prezzi migliori ("My prices are the best") could be heard as we passed the open tables and stalls. Upstairs, a more refined market sold meats, cheeses and the most beautiful vegetables I'd seen at any market with the possible exception of Les Halles in Avignon.
Our walk-through was more exciting than anticipated, as the last group of fishmongers, set up just outside the main hall, felt it necessary to comment on the positive attributes of every woman who passed them. One would think they would be paying more attention to the sharp knives and cleavers in their hands. But I forgave them, because the fact is that the Catania market is unique in that shopping is done mostly by men whose job it is to buy the daily fish. Many stop briefly for a quick game of cards before heading home with the evening's dinner. The men of Sicily pride themselves on being able to choose the best of the catch from 50 feet.
We had lunch near the pier in a restaurant that overlooked the harbor, after which we set out for a ride along the shore. We were heading to Ragusa, which is not far off the coast of Africa and surprisingly close to the equator.
This part of Sicily is the epicenter of an area that is being touted as Italy's best food belt, with leading food writers and chefs including Mario Batali anointing it as home to the country's most honest raw materials.
The landscape does not prepare you for the culinary surprises ahead. Eastern Sicily has small hills and a rock-strewn landscape with carob forests and ancient stone walls cropping up in the middle of seemingly barren earth.
The land is broken up into small divisions set off by low piles of ancient stones to denote a piece of land belonging to an individual or a family. It seems primitive unless you ponder how long this system has been in place and how well it has worked. There are sudden, unanticipated swaths of green -- olive groves here, fields of lemon trees there.
Was it my imagination, or did this place smell better than any destination I'd ever visited?
We were staying at Eremo Della Giubiliana, a luxury residence. Walking up the long driveway, we passed gardens and a view of the hotel's small airport. We'd be staying at an old Arab feudal home, a fortified villa overlooking the sea. It was, like so many of Italy's best properties, formerly a convent. Built in the 12th century, the property has corners and courtyards that hint at its history. I would be sleeping in the former cell of a friar who once called the place home. I imagine that the flat-screen TV was new.
The food was spectacular, as was the wine cellar. In the 18th century the Nifosi family of wealthy landowners bought and later restored it. My favorite memory of the place occurred the night I walked out of the dining room and found a small, 91-year-old "nanna" seated in a high chair. She looked a bit out of place, and her body remained still while her eyes took in the movement of guests all around her. I think that many guests in our group did not imagine that she was the Nifosi who still owns the property.
After checking in and relaxing for a while, we set out to drive to Ragusa for dinner, preceded by the wonderful Italian tradition of passeggiata, which should translate to "walking about town speaking with one's neighbors, perhaps a few strangers, while stopping for an aperitif and some light snacks before choosing a place to seriously dine."
I have to say I was shocked by the beauty of this town, with its perfect streetlights, hilly main street, friendly locals, lack of tourists and sense of serenity. It didn't hurt that the smells coming off the outdoor tables at the many small restaurants were something I will never forget.
As I walked through this movie set, it occurred to me that Sicily does not have an organic food store. The largest island in the Mediterranean is entirely organic; all the food is grown locally, and chemicals are unheard of. Residents would never use the term, but the entire place is "farm to table." At a small food stall, I picked up a tomato, and the owner invited me to taste it. Sorry, Whole Foods. You still have a way to go.
Our passeggiata was cut short by an appointment at the home of the local baron. We knocked on an old wooden door on the main walking street and were ushered into a lovely downstairs courtyard where the baron met us warmly and introduced us to his guests, the leading anti-Mafia police commander and the prosecuting attorney who would help keep the conversation "on track" without revealing the status of current "investigations and projects."
This was something I had wanted to set up, but I didn't know until we arrived that they would agree to the invitation. The commander looked regal in his dress Carabinieri uniform. He was accompanied by a tough-looking investigator in a rumpled sports jacket, a fellow I would not want on my tail.
After pleasantries, the baron invited us upstairs into his home. We had a heartfelt tour of the house, viewing pictures of his family and pausing before the family chapel. The baron was beaming, having just learned he was to become a grandfather. We walked into the grand ballroom and toasted the news. Windows overlooked the town square, and straight out the window, in the distance, we saw a beautiful church lit up with a golden hue that reflected the sunset over the hills behind the village.
The baron and the attorney had wanted us to taste some of the local specialties, so we enjoyed drinks and conversation. I was about to start the Q-and-A with the local police when I noticed that the investigator had left, leaving the commander to brave the questions of the American visitors by himself.
Some of what was said should remain private, though few real secrets were revealed. But we came to understand that the Sicily of the "Godfather" movies is somewhat removed from current realities. In fact, the three branches of organized crime in Sicily, of which the Mafia is the least significant, have found better opportunities in the larger cities.
It was a warm, friendly evening, and our hosts seemed genuinely touched that we were interested in their town and their way of life.
We left, walking out into the still-warm evening light to pick our spot for dinner. It was getting late, but as we wandered the hilly streets, hearing the conversation and the laughter as we passed each place where food was being enjoyed, we felt lucky to be here. And concerns about our safety were never an issue. The good commander would see to that.
Senior Contributing Editor Richard Bruce Turen was named a Superstar Generalist in Conde Nast Traveler's most recent list of Top Travel Specialists. He is the owner of luxury vacation firm Churchill & Turen and also owns and edits TravelTruth.com. Contact him at [email protected].