Sicily though the eyes and mouth of Jan Hazard

Recently, Jan Hazard—my traveling pal and former food editor of Ladies Home Journal—and I traveled to South Eastern Sicily on a Backroads’ cycling tour. On our flight over I crammed in my last few minutes of New York Times reading.  It is my habit to take a hiatus from the news while on vacation, for sanity’s sake.  However, a special section on artificial intelligence caught my eye.  I laughed reading about driver-less cars knowing that we would soon be self-propelling our bikes around the Valley (and the hills!) of the Giants.  Having been to the region several times before, I knew that what laid ahead would be a stark contrast between a world led by data I had just read about and today’s Sicily where people’s livelihoods mostly rely on skilled hands and centuries of tradition.  Yet, we were also about to discover that modern technology is slowly creeping into Sicily’s way of life.

During our week-long stay we saw families manually harvesting olives using long poles with electric fingers to shake the tree branches.  In the town of Caltagiorne, we witnessed artisans throwing pots using electric wheels, then meticulously hand-painting them before their first firing.  Along the way, we came across a shepherd guiding his flock along a small, rural road while having an animated conversation on his cell phone. These three random experiences—plus the numerous wind farms dotting the local landscape—were representative of what we repeatedly saw while pedaling through the countryside. Old ways plus a touch of the new.  I doubt, however, that any A.I. robots have yet to reach the shores of Sicily.

On our last evening, Jan and I reminisced about our cycling vacation. We discussed what resonated most with us during our stay as we leisurely sipped Aperol Spritz cocktails in one of Catania’s outdoor cafés. With Jan’s permission, allow me to share with you our conversation. 

Jan’s top Sicilian “favs”  

1. An olive oil tasting at Agriturismo Villa Zottopera—Here, the head of the Rosso Cosenza family, Giuseppe Rosso, revealed the secrets for producing an exceptional EVOO. He carefully outlined the essential five requirements: the right variety of olive, which for him was Tonda Iblea which he grows organically on his family farm; the right soil; good weather conditions;  harvesting in October when the olives are still green and not overly ripe; and finally, cold pressing within several hours of collecting the olives.

Giuseppe also taught us how to discern a top-quality EVOO. To properly evaluate olive oil, you first warm it up in your hands for at least 30 seconds.  Next, you look at the color which should be dark green with golden tones. Then, you smell the olive oil which should remind you of tomatoes, fresh herbs and artichoke. Finally, you sip it while drawing in some air, like a reverse whistle.  On the palate, the oil should be perfectly balanced between bitter and sweet with a touch of pepper.  The final piece of advice from our host: If the EVOO is cheap, avoid it! 

2.  Lunch at Villa Zottopera—Prepared by Giuseppe’s wife and their family cook, it included several versions of arancini (Sicilian rice balls): one filled with spinach and another using the more traditional meat ragù filling.  We also enjoyed vegetable-stuffed focacce as well as Pasta à la Norma, the iconic Sicilian dish made with rigatoni, sautéed eggplant and peppers, tomato, and Pecorino Romano cheese.

3. The omni-presence of Mount Edna—Mount Edna looms ominously over Catania and served as the Nexis for our cycling tour.  Jan remarked how the closeness of its presence—which we saw everyday—was made even more dramatic when you “realized that this was where the ice came from when the Arabs taught the locals how to make ice cream,” and by that Jan meant over a thousand years ago.  She also reminded me that in winter people ski on Mount Edna, something I had a hard time conceiving given that it was Europe’s largest active volcano

4.  Our Backroads’ Leaders—Jan was spot on when she said there was “never a negative note expressed during the trip by our tour leaders.” As Jan described the team, “Laura, Paolo and Benjamin greeted each guest with big smiles every morning.  They always said ‘yes’ to everything we requested. Plus, they provided super-fast service on the road when we had flat tires or needed our pedals changed.” Jan also commented on their humorous morning route briefings and Sicilian (not Italian!) word-of-the-day lesson which collectively, set the playful tone for each day of hard cycling.  Our first word, for example, was “Amuninni!” meaning “Let’s get going,” an expression which racked up a lot of mileage during our week together.

5.  A cannabis vending machine:  In Ortigia, Jan stumbled across a self-service dispenser of Cannabis.  She remarked, “It said you needed to provide proof of age, but I am not sure how you would do that.” More than likely, it involves swiping some form of identification, but we’ll need to confirm that with our Leaders!

6.  I Banchi: We asked Laura to suggest a restaurant from the list of dining options provided by Backroads for our evening out in Ragusa Ibla.  When I jokingly warned her that Jan and I were serious foodies, she thought carefully, then recommended I Banchi which was not listed. She explained that it was the less expensive offshoot of Il Duomo, the city’s 2-Michelin star restaurant.  Located in the 17th century stable of a Palazzo, we discovered that I Banchi was a non-stop service combo of bakery, salumeria, grocery store, pastry shop, pizzeria AND informal restaurant. The chef, Ciccio Sultano, experiments with local ingredients creating dishes distinctively his own creations.  We shared three courses which included: Octopus, potatoes and olives; Spaghetti “Turiddu” made with olives, capers, and fennel topped with Parmesan cheese and fried bread crumbs; and finally, Sicilian Black Pig served with fluffy, mashed potatoes, chocolate sauce and tiny cubes of candied apple. We treated ourselves to an organically-produced, white wine blend of Grillo and Viognier from Feudo di Santa Tresa.  As earlier that day Jan and I had over-indulged in gelato along the Mediterranean Sea at Blue Moon (four flavors each!), we skipped the tempting offerings of dessert.  I Banchi was, by far, the best meal we enjoyed on our Sicilian holiday.  Discreet, attentive service, a sleek, modern Italian décor, and as Jan kept recalling, “They even served food on warmed plates!”



Stay tune to read next week about my favorite experiences.  This will be followed by “The Flavors of Sicily” where the island’s historically rich, diverse and delicious cuisine will be showcased.