I’m sitting behind the milk-chocolate leather steering wheel of a 2017 Maserati Quattroporte on a hilly stone-and-grass road in the Sicilian mountain town of Erice. An 800-year-old wall sits directly in my path. I'm praying that my foot doesn’t slip off the brake pedal, because I’d prefer not to crash a $103,000 car. The engine rumbles and the tires slide forward as I put it in reverse. Moments ago, a portly local warned my co-pilot, Jared, that the road narrowed up ahead. Now, he’s caught up to us, one of the faces in the crowd that have come to watch this spectacle. Even though I’m reversing, the car keeps skating forward, unable to grip the slippery stone. Four of the 17 men I’m traveling with rush to the front of the car and begin to push, forcing it away from the looming medieval wall. “She’s got nerves of steel,” a British woman says, referring to me. Her husband nods in agreement. Jared, who’s now pushing, too, adds quietly, “She certainly does.” It isn’t until we negotiate our way back up the windy Via Vito Carvini, off the cobblestones and into the asphalt visitor’s parking lot, that I shift the car into park and breathe a sigh of relief. I’m on Sicily, the island off the coast of the famous “boot,” searching for the places and things more Italian than pizza. (I adore tomatoes, cheese and bread; I simply can’t get behind them in pizza form.)
In this fortified town, the foods that usurp pizza in both age and tradition include pasticcino di mandorle, a flaky Sicilian almond cookie; genovesi Ericine, a soft pastry filled with lemon custard and topped with powdered sugar; and arancine, fried rice balls stuffed with ragù or simply prosciutto and cheese. The sweets are light, airy treats. The crisp, smooth textures roll around my mouth more than any one flavor. The arancine are heavy, hearty and protein-filled. One is more than enough for me, its savory, warm juice delicately lining the back of my throat. "¡Dio Mio!" the aforementioned portly local shrieks (it’s a small town), as I place overflowing plates on the hood, roof, and trunk of my car. A dozen Italian men flinch and gasp audibly, thunderstruck. In that moment, I’m told in rushed, hushed Italian, that it’s slightly sacrilegious to do anything but drive and clean a Maserati. I crack a smile from behind my camera lens — this is the cultural context I’m looking for. Driving a fast car in a pretty place is always marvelous, but understanding what makes Italians tick, what they really care about, is my objective. And I’ve just struck gold. Even the town stray dog turned up to see what all the commotion was about. Thanks to the sirocco (a desert wind that blows up from Northern Africa) and a wildfire raging through Monti Sicani (the mountain range that hugs Sicily’s capital city), temperatures hit 103 degrees the following day as I wander around Palermo on foot. At 7 a.m., I witness a group of men in suits and brightly colored silk ties hashing out a business deal over ice cream. Yes, ice cream. It’s worshipped more than any other food, Sicilian or otherwise. Many even claim the dessert was invented on the Italian island. Licking their copa nostras (individual cups) at Pasticceria Recupero, a gelato haven, these men make me giggle in spite of myself. It is impossible to ignore what an odd, yet wonderful, place this is. And with good reason: in its 3,000-year history, Sicily has been conquered by everyone; the Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans; then Vandals, Normans, Moors, Spaniards, and, ultimately, the Italians. It’s been erected and razed, bombed and robbed. Norman palaces mix with Byzantine domes and Baroque churches with Arabian tiles and souk-like markets.
I ponder this cultural mélange over an inviting bowl of pasta c’anciova con aglio di Nubia (pasta with anchovies and garlic from Nubia) at Buatta Cucina Popolana. As I twirl the al dente linguini around my fork, I glance up. Outside, tourists hustle by, squares of pizza in hand. The tomato-laden garlic explodes in my mouth, the gently salted anchovies follow, perfectly balancing out the fresh-cut pasta. I laugh and ask for some mozzarella. My waiter declines, telling me it’s either cheese or fish — never both — on pasta. In this moment, I feel even more like a tourist than those pizza-toting foreigners — and also like my waiter has let me in on a Sicilian secret. Sitting alone, no phone on the table, no book to obscure my face, just the food in front of me and the locals around me, I breathe it all in. Sicilian culture isn’t some great mafia mystery or unattainable reality, it’s lifetimes of small, yet important, traditions, like when not to put cheese on pasta, that have spanned continents. They’ve melded together, through wars or conquistadors, on this island that’s roughly the same size as Vermont. Paying my bill, I step out into the fiery heat.
Sitting alone, no phone on the table, no book to obscure my face, just the food in front of me and the locals around me, I breathe it all in.
A quick wander through the Kalsa neighborhood, which has emerged as a type of underground artists’ haven, leads me to the Palazzo Ajutamicristo, a historic house with arched terraces and banana trees. I quietly encounter the owner, a baron, reading listlessly in the garden and sipping on an iced granita. We exchange a wave and a smile. On Sicily, the highest compliment one can receive is “bellisimo,” a multisyllabic singsongy praise, and the very word uttered by artisan Rosario Pampinella as he straps a bespoke multi-colored pom-pom bracelet onto my wrist. Inside his shop, it occurs to me that Sicilians find beauty in food, fashion, cars, architecture; in everything. It must be “bellisimo” to survive on this island. I ask this gray-haired, bespectacled man what he thinks is more Italian than pizza. He smirks and says simply, “Un Negroni.” Fighting for air as clouds of dust and ash from the fires coat the city, I stare over Porto Arenella and contemplate the success of my two-day mission. Zero pizza eaten, but plenty of culture, steeped in Italian and Sicilian history, digested and driven. Sipping on a Negroni, the Campari-based Italian cocktail at Tonnara Florio, I raise my glass and toast. Alexandra Cheney traveled to Sicily as a guest of Maserati.