Part One (Uno)
The people of Lentini, Sicily are eating well. They’ve got their crispelle, their arancini, briosce with granita and – of course, pizza and pasta. They’re not starving, in fact they’re eating like kings and queens. This hamlet, not to be confused with their very close neighbor, Carlentini, has a rich history of living off the land and sea dating back to before Caesar’s birth.
Indeed, this land and these people have seen hard times, like any other town but determination and perseverance are as much a part of a Sicilian’s make up as bone and sinew. Roughly the size of Massachusetts, Sicily is home to roughly 5 million people. Saharan winds make some Summer days a bit rough but Winters aren’t so bad – it’s the Mediterranean after all.
Sicily has four active volcanoes, giving the island as much fire in its belly as its people possess. Ahem. Never tell the average Sicilian – BUT, they’re the epitome of the hotheaded Italian. There is no such thing as an average Sicilian and they certainly don’t consider themselves Italian.
Nuccio – or Niko, as he’s known to his friends – was born and raised in Carlentini, Sicily. The date of his first appearance was February 2, 1961/2 – translations have been rough between us but are getting better. Too much phone use for corresponding in person – my fault as I wasn’t nearly as diligent about learning Italian before arriving as I thought I’d been. You can’t just learn a few phrases and a dozen words and get around magically. Something I knew but, you know… Testardo.
A word that sums Nuccio up well. Driving into Lentini from Catania where he picked me up on a Monday, the roads were bad. They were bad every day, it seems. Looked like the highway had been shelled by enemy invaders. So Nuccio had to drive partially on the shoulder, as not to destroy his old car, a 1990 Renault Quattro, the kind you’ve seen in every European film ever made. I suspect it’s even older than that.
The drive was interesting. I was convinced it was how I would shuffle off this mortal coil but we made it to Lentini alive. Italians are all over the road as it is, throw an old car with a huge American in it and you have mayhem. Nuccio had been practicing one English phrase more than others. If someone got too close to causing a wreck or if we came upon a truck going too slow, Nuccio would raise his arms to the heavens and yell, “You breakin’ m’balls!” And I would howl laughing each time. He probably said it five times from Catania to our destination, his restaurant.
San Luca’s is in the shadow of the San Luca Cathedral – though some in town might say vice versa, depending on how far removed they are from that old-time religion. Despite the pandemic, Nuccio has managed to maintain a reasonably brisk business. While giving me a private tour on Halloween evening, the same day I arrived, several people tried to walk in and get a table – probably knowing he’s always closed on Mondays – but seeing the lights on. Walking away disappointed wondering who the hell the American was who got to stay.
The surrounding neighborhood is dead at night. Dead, dead. Not a sign of life, save the car driving home here and there on the most cobbly of cobblestones – past the restaurant and up one of the narrow roads branching off just outside his dining patio. Right now, in daylight, people are coming and going on foot, by car, by scooter (what we used to call mopeds), letting you know that people do indeed live in these buildings.
After missing coffee with Nuccio Tuesday morning, kind of his fault, (we said we’d text one another, never said when – and he texted me at 9:22am after I’d just checked the phone – letting me know he was at the cafe). Bound to happen when you’re not fluent in one another’s native tongue. I arrived at San Luca’s around 6:30pm to find four-or-five people on the patio, no one inside but Niko, Carla, his wife, and Filadelfio, the new waiter. A nervous kid who tries very hard to take care of however many tables are filled.
We said ‘hello,’ all was forgiven from earlier in the day and I took a seat outside the patio at the picnic table nearest the cathedral and began making notes. I’d wanted to write about Nuccio since the COVID catastrophe and here I was finally getting to do it. When I sat down, it was just those people on the patio, all conversing in sign language. A few minutes later, there were people inside and the patio was full. Filadelfio was in over his head but making it work.
Pizzas flooded out of the kitchen, faces were happy.
Nuccio’s son, Elea – and Granddaughter, Kadisha, arrived and picked up five pizzas to take back to the house where Elea’s wife and three other children live. Nice folks, a quick meet and greet and some photos.
The mood picked up, the music was kicking in, conversations found their rhythm, forks scraped plates, laughter and food and wine played center stage. Even Filidelfio settled down a bit. Nuccio was happy, flipping dough in his natural habitat, the kitchen. The tiny cars went up the tiny streets, the weather was calm and introduced a bit of crispness.
Filidelfio asked me a couple dozen times if I would be eating and where I would be eating and what I would be eating. I answered “piu tardi” each time, attempting to convince him that I would enjoy my beverage on the terrace and order a little later. He didn’t seem to enjoy it. He finally sat a menu in front of me with defiance as Nuccio followed him out telling him it was taken care of. This was an order and it was taken seriously. The menu was snatched up and Filidelfio disappeared.
Maybe 30-minutes later, a pizza arrived. It was mine. All mine. Finally, a San Luca’s pizza at my table at San Luca’s. On my trip four years prior, I had to take one home because Nuccio had tried to kill me with pasta. It was incredible. The crust, perfection. The sauce, fresh, cheese was… whew, fresh local sausage – a variety of fresh local mushrooms and some sliced garlic – all drenched in olive oil when it came out of the oven. As much as I’d like to think of myself as a professional writer, this moment was so intimate, so personal, and so precious, words wouldn’t do it justice.
I can say only this: When the Chilean miners were rescued and hydrated, warmed up and settled down, I’m sure – after a day or two – they had their favorite home-cooked meal. This pizza was better than that.