For my whole life, when people asked me “What are you?” (back when it was PC to ask that question) I would answer, “Sicilian.” Not Italian. Sicilian.
Truth be told, my grandfather was from Basilicata in southern Italy, and my mother’s folks were mixture of Austrian, Irish, and God knows what else. For all intents and purposes, none of that mattered. The influence of the matrilineal line of my father’s family was so pervasive, so all encompassing, so organic, that being Sicilian was woven thread by thread into the very fabric of my life. Being Sicilian is a comfy blanket that I wear like a mantel over my shoulders. It gives me warmth, color and an excellent recipe box.
So, you can imagine how much I was looking forward to getting back to Sicily. Until I got there. As I began my first walk around old Palermo, I had a visceral, cell-deep reaction that screamed “What the hell are you doing here? Get out. Get out.” I was stunned. At my reaction and at myself.
You’re tired, I told myself. You’ve been on the go 24/7 for two weeks. Fatigue is muddling your thoughts and making your emotions flare. I had a week to go, so I’d better calm down, I thought. That’s when the Sicilian mantle spoke up from my shoulder. “Have something to eat,” it said. “You’ll feel better.”
I’m traveling with my friend Laura from Abruzzo. She has deep Sicilian roots and has been drooling in anticipation of eating a pane e panelle, a local favorite of flavorful chickpea polenta, formed into rounds and deep fried. Stack several into the wide open mouth of a sesame seed dotted hard roll, squeeze liberally with lemon, and you’re good to go. A working man’s mid-day feast.
We seek one out, landing at the ancient Focacceria San Francesco. In my taciturn and recalcitrant state, when Laura suggests I get one, I firmly decline. Instead, I’ll have something I recognize, and opt for the arancini. Big mistake there, and I deserve it. I’ve broken one of my hero’s cardinal rules of traveling: eat what the locals eat. Try something new. Be adventurous. I didn’t ask myself the important question: What Would Tony Do?
I immediately regret my decision, and the regret only grows when I see that everyone seated at the tables on the Piazza San Francesco is enthusiastically squeezing bright yellow lemon wedges on lemony yellow pancakes seated in crusty yellow rolls. I am yellow with envy. Or perhaps it’s jet lag.
Laura rescues me from the morose state of my regret. She smiles, walks away and returns with a pane e panelle just for me. The leaden arancini become weights in the bottom of the trash barrel, even the pigeons avoiding them in fear of ever flying again.
On the walk home, we pass by a liver-shaped hole cut into the marble facade of a 15th century church. To me, it looks like a womb cut out of stone. Laura explains what it means. It is the Buca della Salvezza, the “safety hole,” a place where courageous local women created a disturbance that devolved into a riot to aid the escape of insurrectionists from the church in the 19th Century. For years afterwards, in a kind of compensation, women would return to the hole to ask a favor of the church for their needy families.
Immediately, the reality and complexity of the region, and my reaction to it, become clear. The Buca della Salvezza sums up the many dichotomies of Sicily: the pagan religiosity, the political instability, the pervasive poverty, the in-your-face riches, rigid gender roles regularly challenged, the hopelessness and eternal joy that live side by side on every street and in every alley, in the timbers of burned out Baroque churches and renovated Renaissance palazzos.
Sicily is life. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It hit me smack dab in the face. Somehow, I am relieved. And all I can say is thank you.
Filed under: Focacceria San Francesco
, Pane e Panelle