Older Italian women all look the same to me. They embody an archetype I call Grandma Plump. A look and role I find to be both comforting and reassuring. Three of them sat opposite me on the train from Salerno to Sicily and attempted to feed me the entire time. Well, not attempted, they succeeded, wildly.
When an Italian woman (or man for that matter) offers you food, you take it, eat it immediately and let them know through a series of moans and facial expressions that it’s the most heavenly thing you’ve ever tasted. Which takes little effort most of the time.
On Trenitalia and headed south, gorgeous coastline out the right-side windows, beautiful countryside out the left, I was amazed at the twisting roads and ancient vaulted bridges. But one of the more amazing things I’d experienced to this point in my life was about to happen.
Between feedings, there was plenty of time for reflection. Some Italian mainlanders used some downright ugly language to describe their neighbors to the south. Drifting in and out of these thoughts, I heard a loud noise.
It’s easy for me to geek out over anything involving trains. Never before had I heard of an entire train stopping at the tip of a port then backing onto a ferry but that’s exactly what happened. To those who regularly travel from Italy to Sicily, this is probably as mundane as getting on a subway is to New Yorkers but it was fascinating to me.
I kept walking around the deck of the ship asking, “Did you see that? The whole train got on the ferry!” but in my version of Italian, so I was more likely asking, “Did you know Che Guevara started CrossFit?” Both questions deserve the same blank look I was getting. At least they had beer. And when you mix Americans, Germans and Italians together in a line for beer, things go a bit differently than they do for coffee. Chaos ceases to reign and order is quickly restored. Cutting in line isn’t wise when Germans and Americans line up for beer.
Once the train was officially locked down, we set off for the 20-minute trip from Villa San Giovanni, Italy to Messina, Sicily. Thirty minutes. It’s a 4-mile gap, you’d think the Danyang-Kunshan or Pontchartrain bridge people would come knocking. But I was told time and time again, things like that just can’t get done with the current levels of corruption in the Italian government. It seems they traded in the Mafia for a mafia-style government but without the organization or code of conduct. The perfect topic of conversation as I entered the home of La Cosa Nostra.
The Italian government certainly wouldn’t spend any money to help Sicily anyway, considered the Mississippi of the country. You know in an instant that you’re in a different country, something Sicily perpetuates in various ways, especially verbally and politically. They despise the north – an unfair generalization I arrived at after conversations with several people I would never describe as “progressive.” But the proof is in the streets every day, particularly in the small towns. Men begin to gather near piazzas, parks and fountains in peculiar numbers.
Fifty-five-percent of the men and women of Sicily are underemployed or unemployed and you can tell it’s had its effect on the overall psyche; folks are just a little blah or outright cranky. Being raised in a family from this country, it was easy to negotiate the attitude with ample amounts of sarcasm blended with inexplicable optimism.
Once the train pulled off the boat, (a sentence I never thought I’d write), the notorious Grandma Plumps who tried to kill me with food were gone and a grad student from Milan named Ben took their place. As the train departed Messina and headed ol’ Catania way, I had no signal. But Mr. Perfect English Ben had a satellite adapter and let me use his WiFi. This helped greatly as I was now able to contact the AirBnB.
Before departing, Ben told me to meet him in the ancient corridors of downtown Catania around midnight, giving me time to find my lodging and put the bags away. The unmarked door to the “BnB” wasn’t helpful but then came Antonio from the ether to let me in. The tiny room would work well for my needs and the rooftop patio would make for amazing views of Catania and Mt. Etna the following morning.
After a short jaunt through more cobble-stoned narrows, Ben was exactly where he said he’d be, having a glass of wine and talking to strangers. The first words from his mouth, “Would you like to have some horse?” My thoughts raced, I’d never considered Sicily being a major stop in the heroin trade but it is. However, Ben was talking about the animal. Nor would I actually ever try heroin. But right now, neither was going to happen.
I know some horses. It goes back to the dog/pig discussion in Pulp Fiction. I would never eat a horse, save some sort of apocalyptic type of thing. I certainly wasn’t going to have a cup of it from a street vendor with perfectly good restaurants around. Not sure I could ever be drunk enough to try horse, the whole idea is repulsive. Then again, 55% unemployment likely makes certain things more edible.
While I pondered all of this, three friends joined Ben. Giuseppe, Lina and Marie, quite possibly three of the most laid back people I’d ever met. Ben knew them from undergrad and they hadn’t seen one another in a year or two, yet invited me to hang out with them. We had a bottle of wine from a local restaurant right there in a plaza. Lina even brought out a second bottle and a platter of food from another restaurant. The surrounding cafes and restaurants had outdoor seating that overlapped. I wondered how servers could tell what was what. They just could. It worked.
When you’re in Sicily, you’re family (if you’re with someone they recognize). It wasn’t quite the same experience away from Ben and his friends. It’s like hanging out in a very well-dressed biker bar, everyone assumes you’re a cop. Looking to narc on them for selling horse meat.[n]
[n] Several countries include “horse” on the daily menu but Mr. Ed aired in none of them.
The sleepy town of Lentini gets going around 8 AM. Shop keepers raise their cages, cars meander through the streets at 400mph (and park on the sidewalks in no particular pattern, as if the driver was having a heart attack and did the best they could), and men of all ages begin to gather in the squares and plazas, newspapers in hand, ready to bitch loudly about the government.
An idea struck, maybe I wouldn’t just visit the home of my maternal ancestors, maybe I’d do a bit of research.
We already had enough lore in the family to choke an elephant. An uncle killed in a poker game, extortion, bookmaking and rum-running, what else might I uncover? The Alianos are a salty lot and likely had more amazing stories to tell. I’d start with the library. I try not to rely too heavily on popular search engines when I need something but it’s easier than learning Italian sometimes. So I once again turned to technology which said, the only library in Lentini had interesting hours. 9-12:30 and 3:30-7, presumably for nap time.
The library also had no signage, no number on the ominous door or 1,000-year-old facade. In fact, it looked a lot more like a jail that closed in the 1700s than a library. It was now 10 AM and the “library” was closed. I’d wander around and see what else I could get into.
If you know nothing about small-town Sicily, there are a few important things to keep in mind. (1) Sicily’s top exports are skepticism and bipolar disorder. (2) Sicily is to Italy what the Deep South is to the U.S., they’re made fun of, they’re the rubes, the dregs, the uneducated, they talk funny, they’re more racist than the North and everything they do is simply “less than.” (3) Don’t f— with them.
[And, just as these misrepresentations of the Deep South are false in America, they’re also untrue in Italy. I’ve lived in Nashville, Austin, Chicago and New York – and all points in between. Racism and uneducated people exist in each and every state in the Union, I’ll argue this point all day long. The only major difference between the North and South in both the U.S. and Italy, the food is better in the South.]
These are my people. These are the personalities who surrounded me at the Sunday dinner table at Nana’s house, arms flailing as they overly expressed their opinions at top volume with stances based on myth. They argue just to argue, then love one another even more after a nice verbal donnybrook, one-by-one – forming an elite squad of intimidating eyebrows with crack culinary skills. It was just like home.
And, just like home, if you’re not immediately identified as a friend of the family, you’re belittled and made fun of at a relentless pace and volume. But once someone says, “Oh, that’s Bobby’s cousin from New Jersey,” you’re hugged, kissed and fed until you burst. Indeed, Sicilians are tribal to a fault.
God help you if a member of your family wronged a member of another, a Sicilian will forget their kids’ names before they forget a grudge.
It was with this knowledge I walked the streets of Lentini alone, smiling like an idiot at the locals as I inquired about the family name everywhere but the library. It so happened, it was time for a beer and I made my way to the large Piazza Umberto outside the Church of St. Alphius, a modest (for Italy) cathedral with a charming old gift shop.
After getting lost on a series of side streets that could and likely did confuse even the people who built them, a butcher shop stood, lonely on a corner. These “streets” were about as wide as the average person’s wingspan but, somehow, cars sped up and down them at alarming speeds. With no sidewalks and no ability to jump over a moving car, I was forced to occasionally duck into a doorway, like people do to avoid oncoming subway cars in movies.
The butcher shop was called Puglisi’s, my great-grand-mother maiden name. Mr. Puglisi, maybe, stood formidably in the doorway, arms crossed with a large cleaver in his hand, apron covered in blood. Seriously, the only thing more perfect would have been a menacing “Who the hell are you?” glare on his face, which would be used in its entirety to chomp on a sweaty cigar. All of which was also happening.
His lackey skulked just behind him, waiting to see how he could convolute the situation. Out came my phone and translation app and out went any chance of the butcher and I forming any kind of meaningful friendship. He scoffed, walked to the back of his shop and was never seen by my eyes again. I showed the lackey what was meant to be shown to, the presumed, Mr. Puglisi and the lackey shrugged and joined the boss man. One of my rules in life is to not piss off large men wielding cutlery so I said my goodbyes and scampered along.
I would later learn that a generous portion of the older population in Sicily can’t read. I chalked the interaction up to that rather than a hatred of my face or remarkable interviewing skills, which my fragile ego just couldn’t handle.
Dodging fiats left and right, I made it back to a main road, or what would serve as a main road in Medieval times. The actual era, not the ridiculous dinner theater. Yet another beautiful little church capped a road I hiked and to my right, a patio with a beer sign. An illuminated beer sign. My favorite kind of beer sign.
I walked up the small steps and tried the handle, the door was locked. Just then, a bald man emerged from another doorway just feet away. He machine gunned some Sicilian Italian at me (there is a distinction) and I let him know through a series of international pantomime that I was an idiot. The kind who would travel to a country without learning the language. It’s okay, I’m used to it and so was he.
He herded me into his rustic-but-well-cared-for little restaurant and onto the patio. San Lucia’s is at the top of a lonely road from Piazza Umberto, in the shadow of Cathedral San Lucia. Nuccio is the proprietor and one of the nicest human beings on the planet. His energy is contagious as is his smile. The bespectacled face beams with pride in everything he does, especially when he prepares food, as I would later learn.
He demanded that I sit in the chair he’d pulled out for me then poured a crisp beer from Siracusa.
Between dealing with a computer repairman and cleaning up for opening, Nuccio managed to put on some Mark Knopfler, his favorite musician as we spoke in brief bursts about American Blues music. As Nuccio started the brick oven fire, filled bottles with olive oil, mixed dough, sliced bread and scooped olives, seemingly all at once, he found time to change artists on the music device, wherever it was. We now enjoyed Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Now we had something to talk about. After telling Nuccio I hail from Austin, Texas, he could barely contain himself. “Estevie Ray Vone! Ousteen!” Si, Nuccio, yes, the same city as SRV. Now the beer came more quickly and ended up being on the house. The restaurant wasn’t technically open, he’d made the concession just for me – but now it was time to get to business, he said apologetically. However, he insisted that I come back at 7 PM when I would be his guest for dinner.
It was close to 4 PM, I had enough time to drag my sweaty ass back to the BnB, nap, shower and change. After my short time in Barcelona, I’d come to relish nap time, something I’d previously considered only for the elderly. Bullshit, naps are outstanding.
Fresh as SuperFly, I strutted into the street of Lentini and hit up the local diner for a beer. This place is called Vanity Bar and holds the requisite Italian amount of sweet pastries and cakes. I have no idea how Italy isn’t leading the world in diabetes – they’re 151st. As of February 2020, Kiribati, the small Pacific island of approximately 100,000 people, is Number One. 25% of their adults have “the Sugars.”
The folks at Vanity Bar were warming up to me and the fact that I would often have two beers and no food. The “no food” part really didn’t sink in, so they’d make sure my table was full of snacks while I drank beer. And I mean badass snacks. I never did figure out the ordering system at Vanity Bar, but they were kind and patient with me. And just like everywhere else in Sicily, 15 waiters were on staff to serve two tables.
With an hour to go, I made my way back through the twisting, narrow roads to Piazza Umberto.
There, in the piazza, I found a young man opening up for business, which entailed setting up several tables and umbrellas just across the tiny street from his bar. He was very friendly and spoke a little English. Cristiano was his name and the bar was called Amici. I tried to help him set up a bit, not for altruistic reasons, you understand, it was thirsty time and my intention was merely expedience-based. He protested this and set me up with a whiskey and a beer.
After setting up and waiting on several couples who sat at his tables, basking in the afternoon sun, he came in and asked me what in the hell I was doing in Lentini. I told him I needed to see where my great-grandparents used to hang out, dodge German and American troops, eat gravel and nails and work 15 jobs when they were 9-years-old. He said, “Aliano?” I know some Alianos from Lentini.
With this, he dialed up the facemachine on his phone, bringing up two brothers named Aliano who lived up the road in Syracuse (Sicily), both the spitting image of my cousins in Omaha. It had to be a connection. I quickly shared this information with my genealogist-esque cousin and I’m sure she’s since spoken with Cristiano’s friends and possible relatives and reveled in the relationship and shared amazing stories about the old country but I haven’t heard anything.
Cristiano told me the Mayor’s Office would be open Monday and would likely have information on families that lived in Lentini for the past centuries. I thanked him and paid up, it was time to go see Nuccio…
“Jonathan” greeted me at San Lucia’s Cafe, he’d apparently been prepped for my arrival. I felt like a famous food critic as he sat me at the best table on the patio and took away the menu. ‘Nuccio weel decide” I was told.
The music was back to modern Italian tunes mixed with the oldies, I was nearly the only person in the entire establishment, save what looked to be an after-work crowd inside. Not sure where they could have worked, they were perhaps celebrating having jobs.
Jonathan started me off with a delectable Italian red table wine and the obligatory gratuitous bowls of chips, crackers, olives and nuts that appear to come with anything you’re doing or eating in Sicily. A man randomly handed me a dish of chips while I used an ATM. (That didn’t happen)
A few moments later, the antipast(o) arrived. Four glorious triangles of pita, each boasting its own creation. This particular configuration was titled, “The Poker” and consisted of a Prosciutto, sliced mozzarella and artichoke display with balsamic drizzle. Next door was the traditional Bruschetta, olive oil, garlic, the ripest little cherry tomatoes you ever did see, basil and shredded Parmesan.
Counter-clockwise to the right, fresh albacore covered in God-knows what, heaven sauce? It was a thick , seasoned garlic cream topped with two perfect black olives. lastly, and I had to force myself, I’m not a squash fan of ANY kind, least of all eggplant. But, try to avoid cilantro (my least favorite herb) in Austin, Texas and try to avoid eggplant in Sicily. I hope Nuccio never sees this but, let’s just say there’s a napkin under the patio somewhere with eggplant in it. I tried.
If you’re among the uninitiated, as I was then, the traditional Sicilian meal comes in Eight (8) courses. I was on the first one and didn’t see any reason to eat more. Nor did I expect seven (7) more dishes…
But here came Primo, a bowl of fresh, handmade pumpkin and pork(?) ravioli that could easily feed three people, each folded half circle was covered in rich lobster cream – each morsel shouted, “You’re never going to finish this.” Prepared to die trying, I gave it six or seven advances before Jonathan reappeared with Arancini, Sicilian rice balls (mountains) stuffed with meat ragu. How did Nuccio have time to do all of this, I just saw him at 4 PM?
How to best describe Nuccio’s arancini? Take the flavor of the most wonderful fried St. Louis ravioli you’ve ever had then scoff at it and make it sit in the corner. Destroy its spirit and make it hate itself for not being as good as its cousin. Let it live out the rest of its miserable life working a soulless job without even trying to fulfill its dream of writing music.
I couldn’t finish the arancini just as I hadn’t yet finished the pasta. People began to crowd the deck, it was close to 8 PM, when the average Sicilian goes out for a glass of wine while they think about having dinner at 10. It was getting harder to hide the uneaten food under plates and napkins, like I was an eight-year-old. And here came Jonathan’s happy ass with more wine and Segundo, a plate of sausage and peppers I’d kick your favorite mule for. I would. I’d even do the jail time with a smile.
I now had an embarrassing amount of food on my wee table. Jonathan was cool enough to sneak some plates away just to make room for a salad. Not just a salad, glorious fresh vegetables I wouldn’t normally have voluntarily. Why now? A salad? What the hell am I supposed to do with this? I just ate four full meals. When in Lentini… I guess.
I needed to breathe, eating shouldn’t make you sweat unless you’re in a chili cook-off in southwest Texas in August where people think eating whole habaneros is fun. It was now easy to see that Nuccio wanted me to simply ‘try’ these dishes, so why give me three-pounds of each? Because he’s Sicilian, that’s why. They’ll NEVER be accused of not having enough, even in a recession. I was breathing smokey air, sipping wine and casually attempting to loosen my belt on a patio full of families.
Here comes Jonathan. What kind of pizza did I want? What? Are you an insane person? You know I’m the same guy you’ve already brought, what, four plates of food to, right? Five? I’m dizzy, I don’t know. I can’t do it, Jonathan, no offense to Nuccio, I just can’t do it. Five minutes later, Jonathan came back with a boxed pizza and dessert. A pistachio cannoli and slice of cake with an espresso. Dear Lord.
In all likelihood you don’t know me well but – there’s always room for a pistachio cannoli.
Sipping on my second espresso after attempting to eat the whole cannoli, Nuccio appeared from the kitchen to seat dear friends of his. I was introduced and moved tables to be closer to them. Michael and I hit it off immediately. A childhood friend of Nuccio’s, he pointed at the house he grew up in, some 50-yards from the patio, Michael works for Renault in Germany. His English is impeccable, better than mine. Don’t you hate it when someone’s ESL is better than your EFL?
Michael and I ordered drink-drinks and shared stories for about an hour and a half, more than enough time for the rest of his dinner party, wife included, to convey their displeasure. They asked me to join them but I had to explain, with Michael’s help, that I had eaten five meals, had one in a box and had been there for three hours. Now half in the bag and completely, miserably but wonderfully full, I’d better meander back to my apartment.
The four gorgeous Italians hugged me and air kissed my temples and off I went, for the real challenge. Saying goodbye to Nuccio. It would prove to be along the lines of getting off the phone with my mother. Nuccio was now busy with a full restaurant, his wife and Jonathan were cranking out platters and beverages and Nuccio was doing ten things at once in the small prep area. I’d prepared a note for Nuccio in case I wasn’t going to see him again.
I’m quite certain it made little to no sense to him but once he came up for air, Jonathan helped me translate. I would be leaving the next day and very much appreciated his hospitality. What I think Nuccio said in reply via Jonathan was that he wanted to meet me the next morning at the Census Office then drive me to the train station. He’s a hell of a man, not only feeding me but wanting me to learn more about my family’s past in Lentini.
We hugged it out and I tipped Jonathan a hell of a lot, he’d earned every cent, then proceeded to get lost in the narrow streets of Lentini for a half hour on the way back to the apartment. You can walk the entire length of Lentini in 15, so I wan’t doing great. The pizza, what Nuccio refers to as the “007,” was otherworldly. Rich sauce, the perfect amount of mozzarella , sausage and eggs. I don’t see any reason you shouldn’t plan a trip to this hard-to-find town in the middle of southeast Sicily just to eat at San Luca’s.
I slept like a king, packed my bags and left for coffee, brioche and gelato, hoping to make it to the Census Office as they opened at 9:30 AM. The train back to Catania left at 11:20, so this was going to be tight. In typical Sicilian fashion, the office opened around 9:45, then the four people behind the desk talked among themselves for about ten minutes before looking my direction, despite my well-intentioned throat clearing. No one else was on my side of the counter. None of them spoke English (nor would I expect them to) and Nuccio wasn’t there.
After some tap dancing and scribbling on paper, one lady caught my drift and opened an ancient book containing the last names of my great-grandparents. There she was, Agata Puglisi, my great-great grandmother who would go on to marry Filadelfo Aliano. She was born in a house in Lentini in 1850, this was her birth record, the original. I took a picture and was assured by the woman in the office that this address was just around the corner and about five-minute’s walk due south.
I thanked her profusely and “ran” toward where the house was supposed to be.
There it was, exactly what you are imagining a 200-300-year-old decaying row house in Sicily would look like. It was great to be able to get a shot of what may or may not be my great-great-grandmother’s house, but now I had less than an hour to huff it two miles to the train station.
Half the population’s out of work and no one drives a cab. I looked everywhere.
After making it to the train station in time to find out the train was delayed by 40-minutes, I had an espresso with three cab drivers who hang out at the train station only when they’re not needed. The one millionth example of why it’s good to study the language of the country you plan to visit.
Here comes Nuccio. He apologized for not meeting me at the Census Office, explaining he didn’t get to bed until 3 AM. No sweat, it was just great to see him. He bought us espressos and we chatted awkwardly in a butchered symphony of language until the train arrived. I got a nice hug and a lovely sendoff from my newest friend. Nuccio and I still message one another on a monthly basis, sometimes weekly.
I didn’t care that he was late or didn’t give me a ride, I appreciated the hell out of him showing up at all. It struck me that conviction determines a huge percentage of our success and his determination to see me off made an impression on me. I sincerely hope I can be that for someone else one day.
The train would take me all the way to Palermo where I would wander around, eat, drink and spend one evening. A last-minute $30 flight to Athens awaited and I would indirectly take place in an airport patio cigarette smoking competition for the remainder of my Friday afternoon. The Palermo airport is a piece of cake and the gift shop sells cheap beer. But waiting to board the plane, Sicily would once again prove that no one near the Mediterranean knows how to line up for anything.
I sat on the plane, my window seat showing the island of Sicily getting smaller and smaller in the dusk lighting, reminiscing about what I’d experienced the previous four days. The cool train ferry, Catania’s exciting nightlife and incredible food (sans horse), Lentini’s haunting ancestral streets and Nuccio’s kindness and talents. I felt truly lucky to be alive.