Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: The volcano and the palace

Published on Oct 15, 2022 12:43 AM IST

Hardly anyone I know has been to Sicily

Mount Etna towers over the San Domenico Palace
Mount Etna towers over the San Domenico Palace

Hardly anyone I know has been to Sicily. Most people I spoke to when I was planning our trip didn’t even know where it was.

So, I looked it up. It is an island south of the Italian mainland. If you treat Italy as a leg and a foot (which is what it looks like on a map), then Sicily is the ball that the foot is about to kick. It is just 200 km from Africa. Tunisia is far nearer to the island than either Milan, or even Rome.

So, are Sicilians really Italians? Well, yes and no. Italy itself is a relatively recent construct, created in the 19th century by Giuseppe Garibaldi, who united various disparate regions, each with its own dialect. But even by those standards, Sicily is significantly different.

There were centuries of history in Taormina, like the ancient Greek theatre
There were centuries of history in Taormina, like the ancient Greek theatre

Some of this has to do with ethnicity. Many centuries before Jesus Christ was born, Sicily was ruled by Greeks who fought battles with Carthaginians (from Carthage where Tunis now stands) till both were subjugated by the Romans. But the Vikings, the Vandals (a Germanic tribe, not Italian football fans), the Turks (called the Byzantines in that era), Muslims from North Africa, Jews and the Spanish all came to Sicily over the centuries. So, ethnically, Sicilians are far more diverse than most Italians and their DNA bears traces of the island’s complex history.

Our primary reference point is not so much the island as the Sicilian diaspora in America. Because Sicily was poor, between 4 to 5 million Sicilians emigrated to America, where they faced discrimination (in many segregated states, darker Sicilians were not considered ‘white’) and were often forced to turn to crime. This laid the foundation for the Sicilian Mafia in the US, which was, of course, immortalised by The Godfather, as a consequence of which the only Sicilian most non-Italians can name is Don Vito Corleone.

Near Etna, in the town of Zafferana, the pizza is a deep-fried giant Calzone
Near Etna, in the town of Zafferana, the pizza is a deep-fried giant Calzone

For Sicily, the Godfather connection has proved to be a curse and a blessing. Sicilians, quite justifiably, resent being thought of in terms of the Mafia. On the other hand, many of them make a good living out of The Godfather. Shops all over the island sell Godfather inspired tat and there are regular Godfather guided tours.

We didn’t go to Sicily because of Don Corleone. We went because my wife had always dreamt of visiting the island (no, I don’t know why, either) and was further inspired by a conversation she had with David Myers, the internationally famous ‘gypsy chef’ who runs the Adrift Kaya restaurant in Delhi. Not only did David recommend visiting Sicily, he was more specific. We should stay at the San Domenico Palace hotel in Taormina, a hotel so wonderful, he added “that everyone should stay there at least once.”

The bar from The Godfather. The film’s unit stayed in Taormina
The bar from The Godfather. The film’s unit stayed in Taormina

We took him at his word and began the complex task of plotting our journey. Air-India has suspended direct flights to Italy, and, in any case, relatively few airlines fly to Catania, which is the nearest airport to Taormina. Eventually, we ended up flying to Frankfurt on Lufthansa, clearing customs there (I don’t trust European airlines to transfer baggage), spending six hours on the ground, checking in again to fly to Catania, making a night halt there, and then, driving to Taormina the next day. The return was as exhausting, made hellish by the complete collapse of Lufthansa’s ground handling at all airports.(How bad must an airline be to take over an hour to deliver priority luggage even at a normally efficient airport like Delhi?)

But, you know what? It was more than worth it.

First of all, Sicily is stunningly beautiful. David was right about the San Domenico Palace, an old hotel that is now run to the highest standards by the Four Seasons. You can judge for yourself next month when the second series of the Emmy-winning show The White Lotus, which was filmed in the San Domenico Palace, starts streaming. I certainly can’t remember the last time I liked a hotel this much.

The sunrise in Sicily, which has a blue sea from which the hot, yellow sun, looking a little like a ball of lava itself, rises every morning
The sunrise in Sicily, which has a blue sea from which the hot, yellow sun, looking a little like a ball of lava itself, rises every morning

The San Domenico Palace overlooks Mount Etna, a still active volcano. So, one day we drove up, near its peak, only to discover that while it has the traditional lava-filled crater, eruptions can occur from any spot in the volcano. Molten lava can break through from the side of the mountain and create a new crater each time.

Jasper Reid, the Delhi-based food entrepreneur, saw we were in Sicily and wrote to say “I proposed to my wife on the front lawn of the San Domenico Palace while Etna was erupting 21 years ago. And the wonderful concierge had hidden a bottle of bubbly in the hedge!”

There had been no eruption since this June, I was assured. But for the most part, all eruptions were minor in nature and the lava barely made it down the mountain. But, yes, living next to an active volcano did add a certain frisson to the stay.

The church in Savoca village, where Michael married Apollonia in the movie
The church in Savoca village, where Michael married Apollonia in the movie

But there was much more to Sicily than the volcano. There was a blue sea from which the hot, yellow sun, looking a little like a ball of lava itself, rose outside our window every morning. There were centuries of history—a short walk from our hotel was the ancient Greek theatre and the San Domenico Palace itself is several centuries old.

And then there was the food. Sicily is the home of cannoli (as in “leave the gun, take the cannoli’ from the first Godfather movie); but there is also my personal favourite, the intensely flavoured vegetable dish called caponata. The pizza changes every two hundred miles or so. Near Etna, in the town of Zafferana, it was a deep-fried giant Calzone. In the town of Noto, a few hours away, it was a pastry sandwich.

And then, of course, there was the Godfather connection. We shunned the idea of a touristy Godfather tour but there was no escaping the movie because the unit had stayed in Taormina and found the shoot locations in the neighbouring villages.

In the town of Noto, the pizza is a pastry sandwich
In the town of Noto, the pizza is a pastry sandwich

Apparently, Francis Ford Coppola, the director, ruled out the idea of shooting in the town of Corleone, where the scenes in the book (during Michael’s Sicilian exile) are set, on the grounds that Corleone was too developed.

So, as we drove through the village of Savoca, we saw the church where Michael married Apollonia in the movie, the bar where he asked her father for her hand and more. All of the places involved in the filming were proud of the connection and had boards telling us how the Godfather was shot on their premises. (Yes, even the church!).

The San Domenico Palace is an old hotel that is now run to the highest standards by the Four Seasons
The San Domenico Palace is an old hotel that is now run to the highest standards by the Four Seasons

Sicilians are a warm people. We were constantly overwhelmed by their hospitality: like the small restaurant owners who sent out a free glass of wine if you said you liked the cooking or came out at the end of the meal with glasses and a bottle of grappa if they thought you were enjoying their food.

Of course, it helped that we were staying in a very good hotel where the hospitality was gracious and personalised (they surprised my wife on her birthday with a cake at breakfast, and then put balloons and more cake in the room when we were out), but even a small trattoria in the village of Monticello rustled up a cake and limoncello to wish her when we went for lunch. (I may have whispered to the waiter, when my wife was out of earshot that it was her birthday...)

I would go back in a heartbeat. Yes, Sicily is a part of Italy. But it is also different: warm, beautiful and full of history.

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, October 15, 2022

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    Why hide the papers? Why keep the conspiracy theories related to Netaji Subhas Bose’s death alive? And why deny India the truth about the death of one of its great freedom fighters?

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