Words and lead picture by Jo-Ann Santora McLean
Thirty nine year old Paolo Gallo uses his hands like a maestro conducting an orchestra. His opera is Sicily… its history rolling off his fingertips, its geology and archaeology played in the wave of a wrist. And, as his movements reach crescendo, the food and wine of the region, he holds the audience in his mobile theater, a Mercedes van, in the palm of his hand.
A principal of Sunny Sicily, a tour and driver service, Paolo connects with people as ambassador, publicist, promoter, exemplifying a new generation of Sicilians… educated entrepreneurs whose families have been in Sicily for centuries and who are drawing on the past to establish the basis for a renewed Sicilian culture and economy.
The largest island in the Mediterranean and Italy’s largest region, Sicily is a rugged place of hills and mountains where vineyards produce world class wines, pistachios and almonds grow on the side of the tallest active volcano in Europe, and ubiquitous olive groves yield delicate “olio d' oliva”.
It is a landscape where orange and tangerine, grapefruit and lemon groves confront prickly pear cactus farms and blood oranges are squeezed into flavorsome juice. A place where the Mediterranean spawns swordfish, sardines, anchovies, tuna and sea urchin, and where all these ingredients are mixed and matched with local artichokes or hand-made pasta into simple, tasty dishes. And yet, despite these concentrated agrarian and marine resources, which have been and remain the mainstay of the Sicilian economy, parts of the region are impoverished; unemployment lingers upward of 30%, the highest in Italy.
Historic and current political attitudes simply do not support major economic growth programs for Sicily. “Many people here feel hopeless,” Paolo says “they are discontent, with no incentive to do a good job. There is corruption and the public pays for it with a tax rate of 50%.” For Paolo and many other budding entrepreneurs, the situation is frustrating. Yet, having attended college in Milan and perfected his English at Central Connecticut State in the U.S., Paolo started Sunny Sicily, taking a chance on the underserved tourism industry, “the brightest hope for the future economy of Sicily,” he says.
Paolo’s desire to introduce visitors and to teach them about his homeland is genuine. He promotes Sicily as a destination like no other, ushering his guests around the island like he is showing them the world for the first time. And in many ways he is!
Sicily is special even for Italy. As he drives, Paolo, a Political Science major, speaks authoritatively for the countryside, revealing the economic and cultural relationships of agriculture, history and cuisine. He details the island’s occupation by Greek, Roman, Norman and Arab rulers and explains the complex evidence of antiquity in ruins, amphitheaters, temples, cathedrals, medieval towns and fishing villages.
His manner is soft, kind and jovial, but his blue-grey eyes reflect the solemnity of his words, the intensity in his heart. Paolo is sharing his soul, Sicily, all it was and is … and all it might be again. “In the past we have lost the brightest and the best educated,” Paolo laments, “forced to leave because there were no jobs…An upside down world!”… A world that Paolo’s generation may just be up to the task of righting.
Sunny Sicily has many offerings, but, Paolo has perfected a particular option in tourism; one that not only puts the visitor in touch with the past, but allows for integration with the present by incorporating personal encounters with the local population. By arranging traditional Sicilian cooking classes with local chefs his guests can learn about the Sicilian culture through its cuisine and the Sicilian experience through its citizens.
In her native Modica, Katia Amore, who holds a Ph.D. from Warwick University, England in Social Science, conducts authentic Sicilian cooking classes in a renovated family townhouse that she tranformed into a cooking school.
Arancini, rice balls stuffed with beef, a Sicilian staple since 10th century Muslim rule, and Modica’s traditional chocolate with cinnamon, an Aztec influence via 16th century Spanish expansion, are on the lunch menu. Katia openly reveals her own family history, their position in the 19th century as artists within the local aristocracy? Her pride is heartfelt as she shares their photos in the same balconied room where her guests dine. Discussion focuses, however, on how she and Paolo wish to introduce Sicily to a greater audience and on how limited the world view of outsiders remains. "Sicily is the biggest island in the Med and also the biggest Italian region. Many people are surprised when they find out the wealth of culture and history it has to offer. After all, Goethe wrote "To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything." After our chat I was not surprised when I found out she was also the editor of ITALY Magazine!
In Palermo local chef, tall and glabrous, Vincenzo Clemente meets visitors at the Capo market to shop for raw materials for lunch. Born in Sicily, Clemente moved to the United States at age nine returning some 15 years later after earning a B.A. in Business at LSU. Vincenzo sticks a finger in a tin containing raw, baby sardines, “Taste, taste!” he insists. One of the group does, the rest pull back but, when, later, after creating Spaghetti con le Sarde and Panelle (fried local specialty since the Middle Ages), at his Cin Cin restaurant, all eat heartily. Vincenzo a true entrepreneur engages the group in serious conversation of opening “Panelle Stands” in the U.S. “These will replace the French Fry,” he promises.
Pietro D’Agostino, a Michelin star chef and co-owner of La Capinera, a family restaurant in Taormina Mare, has also opened a cooking school, Pietro D’Agostino Cooking Lab in Taormina. Concerned with health and fitness, he teaches light fish dishes including Rolled Swordfish Filets with prawn, raisins, pine nuts and breadcrumbs… traditional Sicilian food “to eat healthy and keep the weight off.” There appears to be a new vision in Sicily, an idea whose time has come to a generation who revere their homeland and who want to stay put and invest in Sicily’s future. Paolo, Katia, Vincenzo, Pietro and many other young entrepreneurs, all proud sons and daughters of the synthesized heritage that constitutes the Sicilian gene pool, culture, and cuisine individually and in chorus have taken on the mission of showing the world that Sicily is ready for company.
For further details:
Vincenzo Clemente, Cin Cin Ristorante, Tel (+39)091 6124095, www.ristorantecincin.com