Dr. Dawg

Italian notes: memories of Sicily

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As promised—having made it alive to the airport from downtown Palermo during a major rainstorm with the car windows fogged up—here are some new pics (a couple courtesy of Ms. Mew), and a few reflections.

Driving in Sicily: Better get this one out of the way first, while I’m still living and re-living it. I wasted a lot of adrenaline and sweat before I realized that Sicilian drivers aren’t bad drivers, just different.

Rules of the road in Sicily are, for the most part, vague guidelines, a kind of state wish-list. Yes, folks stop at red lights, and apparently even having had one glass of wine can get you into serious trouble if you actually have an accident. But Sicilians double park, leaving only a lane or so for two-way traffic, they tailgate, they use their horns continually, they stray into on-coming lanes (motorcyclists are the worst offenders), and travelling at the speed limit or even well above it is an open invitation for the forms of road harassment noted, plus flashing lights in your mirror.

Instead of thinking of driving as governed by a set of strictly enforced laws, an activity to be undertaken by well-schooled, generally polite defensive drivers, imagine a crowd of people in a mall or on a street. Crowds may seem amorphous, but its members are governed by clear if more informal rules.

You can walk though a crowd and never actually touch anyone. People move in front of you, and you naturally give way, or vice-versa. You need to go somewhere, but you don’t push people out of your path or trip them. It’s almost unheard of to get into a fight. You just go where you’re going, like everyone else. And you all get there.

This is precisely how Sicilians drive. At first it seems that nearly everyone you encounter is playing chicken with you. But they’re not—they’re just heading wherever they’re headed, and they expect that you are too. For all the apparent craziness, you rarely see a dinged fender. In Palermo, carriage drivers take their horses down main roads—and turn across traffic! (Yes, Ms Mew and I did that well-worn tourist thing, for the stiff price of a hundred Euros plus “dieci per il cavallo.”)

I watched in awe and amazement as we were driven to a restaurant in Ragusa. The employee who picked us up chatted merrily with Ms. Mew, but all the while our trip seemed to be one near miss after another. The same with a drive up to Monreale just outside Palermo, one I simply didn’t feel like risking on our last full day in Sicily. Our driver never stopped talking as he manoeuvered through tight traffic and steep roads.

They weren’t being daredevils. They were simply going, like a person walking home after work on a crowded sidewalk.

I’m not saying that I relaxed all that much after this insight. They say that to drive in Italy you need a hundred eyes. But I did learn, over a few days, that there was method in the apparent madness of Sicilian guidatori, and, especially after parking, I found this comforting—to some degree, anyway.

The Mafia: Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the Capaci massacre (in which the anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone was killed) and of the assassination, a few months later, of another anti-mafia judge, Falcone’s close friend Paolo Borsellino. Demonstrations against the mafie (there are actually several mafias currently in operation) were held all over the country. The president of Italy was in Capaci for the commemoration, students spoke out, concerts were performed.

The Capaci bombing occurred on the very highway that we took yesterday to the airport, the latter now named after Falcone and Borsellino.

The mafia in Italy is very real. But it also learned a thing or two from the general revulsion that followed the 1992 killings. They are businessmen today, preferring bribes and influence-peddling to violence. They don’t shake down shopkeepers for pizzo (protection money) any more: small-time hoods do that.

Yet their presence is everywhere, as part of a more general corruption that seems to pervade the entire system. A restaurateur explained the facts of life. He got his own restaurant licence for a song, thanks to a relative who was owed a favour. When the mafia dons bring their families to his places, it is taken for granted that they will eat for free.

But the local carabinieri expected the same sort of treatment. When he protested, his kitchen was suddenly targeted for inspection. Some forest rangers demanded that he issue receipts far in excess of the food they had consumed, because they could claim back the larger sums on their expense accounts. It didn’t matter to them that the restaurateur would pay taxes on the inflated amount that exceeded what he actually took in.

There is no way out for him. He runs two restaurants, and sleeps maybe two or three hours a night, but the various powers that be all expect to wet their beaks. It’s just how things work.

Meanwhile a poster at the Palermo airport advertises a Mafia museum, and in Taormina and elsewhere tourists can buy a coppola with a picture of Marlon Brando as Il Padrino. When I expressed some pleasure to learn that a street in nearby Corleone had been named after Giovanni Falcone, Ms. Mew suggested that the local dons might actually be pleased as well—one could see it, I guess, as similar to having a trophy on the wall. As I noted earlier, Sicily is a place of considerable irony.

Food: Sicily does seafood to a turn. Unfortunately, I don’t much care for it, so I looked for meat wherever I could find it, sometimes settling on spaghetti alle vongole, one of the few shellfish dishes that I like.

I already described our most memorable meal in Sicily. But let me add that any visitor to Taormina should head down to the waterfront and visit Il Barcaiaolo, a family restaurant that I’d consider flying back for. This review simply doesn’t do the place justice.

I had the best charcoal-grilled lamb chops there that I have ever had in my life. Tender, succulent, a hint of lemon. The Platonic ideal of lamb. Lamb that would tempt a vegan. My mouth is watering as I type this.

As anywhere else, of course, there is good, bad and indifferent. Wild boar at I Buccanieri in Marsala is worthy of mention, and I had the opportunity here and there to sample several local delicacies: cassata numerous times (it’s simply scrumptious), torta setteveli, pasta alla Norma, aragosta in a spicy tomato sauce, even arrancini. Vino di Mandorla is an acquired taste, I think, but I enjoyed a few glasses of Passita di Pantelleria.

Undecided? Have something with pasta. The latter is never, ever overcooked, even at the Palermo airport.

Sicilians: The Sicilians we met were enormously friendly and helpful. One never gets simple directions when you ask for them: they are always exquisitely detailed and hence difficult to remember. (Our GPS saved us.)

They are great storytellers, and it was sometimes hard for us to take our leave. It was good to have a real Italian along, I suspect, and Ms. Mew can actually get by in Sicilian as well.

I did bear the brunt of Sicilian cursing at its finest, however, when I accidentally cut off a motorcyclist when re-entering a deeply curved highway from a lay-by. His hand-gestures indicated…considerable displeasure. He then drew alongside and wished me a virtually untranslateable “brutto cornuto fino alla settima generazione” (“may you be effing cuckolded to your seventh generation” is close, but lacks the flavour of the original). Perhaps luckily, I didn’t follow what he was saying, including invitations to step out of the car, but kept nodding: Ms. Mew, who understood everything, struggled to keep a straight face, trying hard to be taken as a second dumb tourist.

I’m going to miss the place, driving and all.

Photo Gallery:

The photo at the top was taken in Punta Secca, near the house of a book and TV detective hero, Commissario Salvo Montalbano. The following are a few more glimpses of the treasure-trove that is Sicily.

First, colour along the road to our bed and breakfast in Agrigento.


Some of the bel paese of Sicily on our way from Agrigento to Marsala.


Flowers by a stone wall in the countryside. I have no idea where I took this. Does it matter?


The piazza of Mazara del Vallo, the town where the Satiro is housed.


Cloud pouring off a promontory near San Vito del Capo.


An artisan replaces mosaic tiles with exquisite care in the North Transept of the Norman cathedral in Monreale. He takes a small piece of coloured stone, shapes it with an emery wheel and then settles it into mortar. Each tessera takes some time to make and place. The cathedral and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo are encrusted with mosaics from ceiling to floor. The time and skill involved are unimaginable.


The Norman cathedral of Monreale.


Relatively unadorned Norman architecture on the way out of the Cappella Palatina in Palermo.


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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on May 24, 2012 10:57 AM.

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