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Sicily - Blessed Exaggerations


Sicily's highest mountain might erupt today, just as she did 600,000 years ago, and last July. Hiking among jagged black lava fields, we stare at Mt. Etna's ominous 11,000 foot peak. "Anita," I ask, "what happens if we're consumed by rivers of lava?"

"Our picnic will be ruined," she retorts, with perfect comic timing. "And since I'm carrying the food, I'll be really mad."

Anita Iaconangelo and Emanuele Lorusso, owners of Italian Connection, are leading us on a one week tour of Sicily. We'll walk some 46 miles through historic towns and serene countryside, enjoying delicious regional food. Anita and Emanuele are determined nothing will spoil our adventure, not even a temperamental volcano.

Italian Connection Owner Anita  Warren LiebWe cross Mt. Etna's apocalyptic landscape, into an ethereal forest where a circular lava table awaits our hiker's feast. Anita unpacks grilled eggplant, green olives, prosciutto, provolone, sweet tomatoes and crusty fresh bread. She pops the cork on a bottle labeled "Etna 1999-made from vines over 50 years old," toasting us, "Welcome to the Mt. Etna hoagie stand!"

Anita's American sense of humor is alive and well, though she moved to Italy ten years ago to found the Italian Connection to "share my passion for all things Italian by walking, exploring and dining around the country. I love the rhythm of life, the history, the festivals and the food. Italy's in my name and in my blood."

DAY ONE

From the balcony of the Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina, I watch Mt. Etna puffing her grey smoke into a blue sky. Cypress, pine, olive, and palm trees shelter birds singing frenetic high pitched songs. These birds are too happy, I think, as the city wakes to clanging church bells.

Anita leads us up a steep rocky country road, meandering through orange and lemon trees, orange calendula flowers, past clumps of prickly pear cactus. We huff and puff to keep up with her athletic pace. I'm the straggler, always stopping to catch my breath along spectacular views of the Ionian Sea.

After seven challenging miles, we're seriously hungry. Anita jokingly suggests we "eat the sweet purple prickly pears but get someone to peel the skin for you," but we're hoping for something more gourmet. Not to worry. Emanuele has arranged lunch at Casa Bianca, a private farmhouse. Goivanna Notobartolo and her family serve foccacia stuffed with potato, ham and wild greens; garlic and tomato bruscetta; mushroom risotto, penne in cauliflower sauce; wild asparagus omelette. We eat way too much, and Emanuele rolls his eyes and shakes his head in pity. Pace yourself, he gestures, more, much more is coming....

On cue, Goivanna presents roasted artichokes, spicy grilled pork sausages, veal stuffed with cheese. How many days has the family spent creating this amazing meal? Naturally, there's dessert: a stunning orange marmalade tart, quickly devoured. A second orange tart arrives; Goivanna acts as though we haven't eaten a bite.

"Incredible food," says John Crawford, one of the hikers in our group. "This is obscene." We laugh, but there are no leftovers.

DAY FOUR

After visiting Taormina's splendid 3rd century BC Greek Theatre, and two more challenging country hikes, we arrive in Ortygia, the ancient center of Syracuse. "Ortygia was an ideal site for settlement by the Greeks in 735 B.C," Anita tells us. "It was easily defended, with two sheltered harbors, plentiful sources of fresh water, rich farmlands. Plato and Archimedes attended plays at the Greek theatre here."

Market in Ortygia  Warren LiebWe explore Ortygia's outdoor food market, a cornucopia of fresh seafood, fruits, vegetables, and stylishly dressed shoppers. Clams are so fresh they spit water at us, piles of black gleaming mussels contrast with silvery eels wrapped around white octopus tentacles. Different varieties of olives are piled alongside mountains of purple artichokes, tomatoes, asparagus, eggplants, oranges, lemons.

"Buon giorno!" shouts one vendor. "Va Bene!" shouts another. Chic housewives sport suede skirts, high-heeled boots, silk scarves, leather jackets. I'm dowdy by comparison in my hiking boots and khaki pants.

One fruit seller pops a huge ripe strawberry into my mouth. "Perfect, yes?" he asks. Perfect, I nod. Wrap up several thousand I think.

Dinner is at Zsa Restaurant, a casual trattoria where teens gorge on pizza, families relish fresh pasta, fish, and roast pork. Seafood from the morning market is resplendent on my spaghetti: mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, in an aromatic broth of olive oil, garlic, parsley and onion. Remembering Emanuele's advice on self control, I vow not to eat it all. But I'm powerless in the presence of Sicilian food. There are no leftovers.

Gaberoni Shrimp  Warren LiebDAY SEVEN

After our week of splendid hikes and unforgettable meals, we understand Anita's philosophy of Sicily: "When you connect with the soul of Sicily, everything is exaggerated." Even the walls are exaggerated, millions of cut stacked stones zigzagging endlessly through miles of farmland. Who were these Sicilians who divided their island so artistically?

More exaggeration: madcap puppets at Il Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi fight to the death for hours, as delirious knights fly over paper moons in search of true love. At the Temple of Concord at Agrigento, a pompous guide named Claudio holds court, insisting we listen to hours of historic details. In the stone city of Erice, shop windows overflow with mawkish baskets of marzipan fruit, as though real Sicilian fruit is not better than gold.

We can no longer bear Sicily's perfection, the too blue Mediterranean, the too happy birds, the too sweet strawberries. We complain to Anita and Emanuele: everything is too wonderful.

"Don't worry, tomorrow will be terrible," Emanuele jokes. Anita shows us some ugliness, a bit of reality. Torn undershirts dry on rusty balconies, squalid concrete apartments remain unfinished with corruption, once proud villa walls are ravaged by sea air and graffiti.

It's too late. We've fallen in love with Sicilian men talking endlessly on street corners, Sicilian lovers courting in shadowy doorways, Sicilian teenagers cavorting through moonlit back alleys. We envy their lives, their passion for friendship and freedom and food.

Heaven in artichokes  Warren LiebThen the terrible tomorrow does come. We must leave this crazy island and return to our American lives, where we will grow fat on cheese- burgers and be alone with our computer chat groups. We will dream of clams so fresh they spit, purple artichokes, fist-sized lemons.

"Just remember, ricotta is best in spring," Anita teaches us. "Sicilian cows eat wildflowers and clover then, and their milk makes the sweetest ricotta. Remember, the best cannoli of your life is Sicilian. Remember."

Emanuele tosses his wild white hair, rolling his sapphire eyes, as if to say "Yes, of course it's all true, but Anita we must stop talking about Italian food now...."

And I see the message in my journal from Emanuele's brother Antonio, whom I met at one of our picnics, a day intoxicated with wine and cannoli: "Taken with your way of being," Antonio has inscribed, " the memory of you is indelible in my mind. I'll remember you until the end of the world."

So there's no hope for me now, nothing left except to plot my way back to the Sicilians and their blessed exaggerations.

Note: Cannoli is a sweet cream filled pastry.

When You Go:

Italian Connection offers unique walking and culinary tours throughout Italy year round.

Contact Office Manager: Marie Marko
11 Fairway Drive, Suite 210
Edmonton, Alberta
T6J 2W, Canada.
Telephone: 1-800-462-7911
Email: info@italian-connection.com
Website: www.italian-connection.com

Market in Ortygia  Warren LiebWe explore Ortygia's outdoor food market, a cornucopia of fresh seafood, fruits, vegetables, and stylishly dressed shoppers. Clams are so fresh they spit water at us, piles of black gleaming mussels contrast with silvery eels wrapped around white octopus tentacles. Different varieties of olives are piled alongside mountains of purple artichokes, tomatoes, asparagus, eggplants, oranges, lemons.

"Buon giorno!" shouts one vendor. "Va Bene!" shouts another. Chic housewives sport suede skirts, high-heeled boots, silk scarves, leather jackets. I'm dowdy by comparison in my hiking boots and khaki pants.

One fruit seller pops a huge ripe strawberry into my mouth. "Perfect, yes?" he asks. Perfect, I nod. Wrap up several thousand I think.

Dinner is at Zsa Restaurant, a casual trattoria where teens gorge on pizza, families relish fresh pasta, fish, and roast pork. Seafood from the morning market is resplendent on my spaghetti: mussels, clams, calamari, shrimp, in an aromatic broth of olive oil, garlic, parsley and onion. Remembering Emanuele's advice on self control, I vow not to eat it all. But I'm powerless in the presence of Sicilian food. There are no leftovers.

Gaberoni Shrimp  Warren LiebDAY SEVEN

After our week of splendid hikes and unforgettable meals, we understand Anita's philosophy of Sicily: "When you connect with the soul of Sicily, everything is exaggerated." Even the walls are exaggerated, millions of cut stacked stones zigzagging endlessly through miles of farmland. Who were these Sicilians who divided their island so artistically?

More exaggeration: madcap puppets at Il Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi fight to the death for hours, as delirious knights fly over paper moons in search of true love. At the Temple of Concord at Agrigento, a pompous guide named Claudio holds court, insisting we listen to hours of historic details. In the stone city of Erice, shop windows overflow with mawkish baskets of marzipan fruit, as though real Sicilian fruit is not better than gold.

We can no longer bear Sicily's perfection, the too blue Mediterranean, the too happy birds, the too sweet strawberries. We complain to Anita and Emanuele: everything is too wonderful.

"Don't worry, tomorrow will be terrible," Emanuele jokes. Anita shows us some ugliness, a bit of reality. Torn undershirts dry on rusty balconies, squalid concrete apartments remain unfinished with corruption, once proud villa walls are ravaged by sea air and graffiti.

It's too late. We've fallen in love with Sicilian men talking endlessly on street corners, Sicilian lovers courting in shadowy doorways, Sicilian teenagers cavorting through moonlit back alleys. We envy their lives, their passion for friendship and freedom and food.

Heaven in artichokes  Warren LiebThen the terrible tomorrow does come. We must leave this crazy island and return to our American lives, where we will grow fat on cheese- burgers and be alone with our computer chat groups. We will dream of clams so fresh they spit, purple artichokes, fist-sized lemons.

"Just remember, ricotta is best in spring," Anita teaches us. "Sicilian cows eat wildflowers and clover then, and their milk makes the sweetest ricotta. Remember, the best cannoli of your life is Sicilian. Remember."

Emanuele tosses his wild white hair, rolling his sapphire eyes, as if to say "Yes, of course it's all true, but Anita we must stop talking about Italian food now...."

And I see the message in my journal from Emanuele's brother Antonio, whom I met at one of our picnics, a day intoxicated with wine and cannoli: "Taken with your way of being," Antonio has inscribed, " the memory of you is indelible in my mind. I'll remember you until the end of the world."

So there's no hope for me now, nothing left except to plot my way back to the Sicilians and their blessed exaggerations.

Note: Cannoli is a sweet cream filled pastry.

When You Go:

Italian Connection offers unique walking and culinary tours throughout Italy year round.

Contact Office Manager: Marie Marko
11 Fairway Drive, Suite 210
Edmonton, Alberta
T6J 2W, Canada.
Telephone: 1-800-462-7911
Email: info@italian-connection.com
Website: www.italian-connection.com