As in most countries, the farther South you go the more different the culture. Italy is no exception. The South here is trapped in a time, or era, that existed 50 years ago. And they are proud of it.
I have had the wonderful opportunity to spend a lot of time in Sicily-the area of Catania. This was when I first arrived in Italy and had no idea of my intolerances to foods so I ate everything I wanted and it was yummy!
The first thing you'll notice about Sicily is everything smells real. Everything has a genuine smell, taste and feel to it.
I remember sitting on the balcony of my house and to one side seeing Mt. Etna exploding her lava everywhere (we had to use umbrellas to keep the ash off us) and on the other side I saw the Mediterranean Sea. Can't beat that.
Everything revolves around eating there. It was the topic of the day, every day, all day. The men would go out and do whatever it is that men do there and the women would hang around the house preparing whatever meal was next and cleaning.
Fave beans are big down there and they take a lot of work. You have to shuck them, then peel off the outer layer to get a tiny fava. But they are little treasures that one should never pass up. My favourite way to eat them is raw. Very few make it into
the "ready to cook" pile. :-)
They are cooked in tomato sauce with a clove of garlic and then tossed with some pasta, topped with parmesan or pecorino and some fresh hot peppers and there you have a great "primo" (or first course).
In the mornings you'd hear the vendors who travel around the city in their little trucks called "Piaggio Ape" which are three-wheeled enclosed scooters with a small deck in back. Imagine a three-wheeled Smart car with abed in back: alla Chevy El Camino
style. The old guys scream from their trucks with their cigarettes hanging from their mouths "verdurra fresca, melanzane, pomodorini, frutta di ogni tipo". Some of the more sophisticated ones had microphones and speakers. The vendors sold everything from
fresh fruit and veggies to fish, whatever. The wives would bag the produce and the husband would handle the money. We'd run downstairs, choose whatever was the freshest and that would decide our meals for the day.
In these very small towns everything was grown in someone's back yard. No pesticides, always organic and always fresh. I have never bought a lemon in Sicily. I mean I have never purchased a lemon in Sicily. I don't think anyone has. There are lemon
and orange trees growing wild. It's self serve. Also prickly pears, they grow wild and you'd grab one, peel it and eat it spitting the seeds out along the way. Fond memories.
Eggplant are abundant. La pasta alla norma was another of my favorites. I still eat it now, but in Sicily it just tastes different. Fried eggplant, fresh tomato sauce and ricotta salata dress tortiglioni
pasta. Just amazing. I'll put that recipe on here soon. The problem is you'll be missing out on the Sicilian air and environment that compliments the dish.
One of the first things my American aunt asked me about Italy was if the stores and businesses really close in the afternoon. Yes, it's true and in the South it is worse. In Milan it still happens and is frustrating but in Sicily you can't complain.
In the mornings everything opens around 10 or so (even if the sign says "we open at 10" don't believe it, they open when they want to). They close from 2 pm reopening around 5 or 6 pm depending on some strange factor that I was never allowed to know, and
then remain open until about 10 or 11 pm. There was no rhyme or reason to their hours and if I asked what time they'd be open the next day they'd shrug their shoulders and say "boh! when I get here". And then
they'd look at me like I was sprouting antennae and turning green. "What a weirdo, asking what time I open tomorrow!" Silly me.
A friend of mine went to get his hair cut and there were two people sitting in the "waiting area" and one man getting his hair cut. My friend asked "how long will it take to get my hair cut?". The response: "as long as it takes". Nice.
But as usual, there are great things about Italy. There are "sagre" which are little festivals dedicated to some sort of local food. Where I was, in Stazzo, there was the Sagra del Tonno (Festival of Tuna). All the Tuna caught in the area that day was
taken to the main Piazza, cleaned then cooked on the grill alongside grilled onions and thrown inside a fresh made rustic roll. I remember the smell now. We'd line up and buy three a piece and then get back in line. Everyone does it that way. Everyone in
line is eating while waiting to buy more. They put a limit on each purchase because everyone would buy a million then the next guy wouldn't get any. Your order was made not by the guy asking you how many you wanted but with you asking "how many can
I have?"! We had quotas to meet not limits. :-)
In the early evening, when there was still some light, they'd carry the statue of "La Madonna" through the town and send her out to sea. Then there would be the festival in the Piazza where kids ran around free, no worries of being kidnapped, no drugs being
sold. Street vendors sold everything from fresh roasted nuts and beans (try some fresh roasted garbanzo beans-to die for) to cotton candy where the vendors smoked while serving you, no one washed their hands -and no one cared. Then in the night sky you'd
see a half hour of legal fireworks set up by the city then hours of other-mostly illegal ones-but even the cops stood there and enjoyed the shows. Families would pitch tents on the beach and the next morning they were off to eat a granita.
The easy life of Southern Italy. This is when politics doesn't matter. This is life in Sicily. This is one of the reasons I stay.