The Great Plotnik

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Happy Birthday in Gangivecchio

It's a good thing to celebrate a birthday with good friends in a place where there is no
Internet and no cellphone. Here in Gangivecchio, our connection with the outside world is by car, if we want to leave the premises of this 14th Century Benedictine Abbey, which has been in the Tornabene family for 150 years. We are to take a cooking class tomorrow morning from Joanna Tornabene, an accomplished cookbook writer and James Beard Award winner, who lives up here in the backside of Sicilian nowhere with her brother Paolo, who operates the inn where we will sleep and eat dinner tonight.

When Joanna Tornabene comes to Northern California she stays with Alice Waters.

It was such a trial to find this place this afternoon, winding around the hills and villages of middle Sicily, that none of us feels like moving, though there is supposed to be a village festa tonight with music and barbecued sheep.

These hill villages are medieval. They were built for horses, not cars. We got caught in one called Panteleria la Sottana, where we had to steer our rented Opel down twisty cobblestoned streets, through a street festival crammed with people, and around cars parked on both sides with sometimes no more than half an inch clearance between the rock wall on one side and somebody's parked Fiat on the other. The last time, when I was very sure our 500 euro deposit on the rentacar would now be forfeited, we were followed by a little sportscar with the fuming driver sitting on his horn and gesticulating angrily.

"Va al inferno!" It's the same in Italian as in Spanish.

It's my birthday. Normally I would be excited to hear from our kids, but not up here, not without a cell tower anywhere close. I feel a little bereft, because I know they are trying to reach us. We don't forget each other on our birthdays. 

But, hey. We broke open the delicious bottle of wine I bought in the Bologna Airport, a deep red Anghelus from Friuli, near Trieste. We opened the kilo of green olives from Agrigento we purchased at the Capriccio di Mare restaurant last night, and the fontina and bleu cheeses from the market outside of Castelveltrano, and we had the breadsticks we swiped from breakfast in the nothing-works hotel this morning, and we ate and drank it all up sitting in the little patio in back of Peter and Patsy's room in Paolo Tornabene's inn.

Then it was time for dinner.

The restaurant is down a stairway. Wood paneling, windows that open out onto the grounds of the old abbey, a bar stacked with cups and glasses that seem to not have been used for quite while. My guess is they are closed for the season but opened up when we asked for a reservation.

There were two tables set, one for the four of us and one near the kitchen for Paolo, Joanna, an old woman who had been friends with their mother and an old man with a limp whose name was Pepe. Pepe has worked for the Tornabenes for 43 years. He would serve us our food.

Dinner at Paolo and Joanna's Ristorante

Pepe brought over a  bottle of red wine and a basket of home made crusty bread and a plate of Joanna's hot pepper jam, with several slices of a rich, white cheese.

A few minutes later: Coddura Patedda. This is a Sicilian fried bread, topped with two thin slices of local coppa. Joanne then walked over to explain the bread is an old Sicilian specialty of Paolo's and that she had made the jam, and that the coppa came from the backside of the leg of the pig. Joanna's English is very good but she slapped her rear end to make sure we knew the source of the coppa.

The Coddura Patedda was really good, a cross between a flat bread and a wide cracker. The coppa was salty and perfect on top of the hot bread. No butter or oil, just the ham on top.

Pepe cleared the plates away and brought over the Primi: taglietelle with Sicilian ragu (carrots, ground meat, mushrooms), dotted with strings of an unnamed Sicilian cheese. This pasta dish was amazing. The tagliatelle were thinner and eggier and cut in shorter strips than the tagliatelle in Bologna and the sauce was fragrant and sweet with fresh porcinis. But these are not porcinis like we buy, even when we can get them fresh. I first thought I was tasting some kind of onion, because the stems of the mushrooms were so sweet and unique tasting. But they are simply regular old everyday fresh porcinis that the Sicilians probably take for granted like we take parsley.

Pepe cleared away and brought the Secondi: Involtini with fried potatoes. Joanne told us the involtini are made from a thin slice of pork, pounded thin, then formed into an oval and filled with breadcrumbs, ham, carrots and cheese, then braised a long time in a brown sauce. This meant we had started with bread, moved on to pasta and now were eating potatoes. The involtini were delicious, and the potatoes crispy and roasted with oil and rosemary, but, really, I shouldn't have eaten that whole plate of pasta. Only Peter cleared off his plate this time.

This Italian-style eating can get painful. But what can you do?

Then came dessert. It was called Dolci al cucchiaio, which means Sweet Spoon. It is a pudding made from pastry cream, biscuits, mixed fruit, amaretto, rum and cognac. It was really delicious, not too rich but sweet and melting in the mouth. 

This was a meal for the ages. We are apparently eating our way across Sicily. The next day it gets even better.


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