Undiscovered Italy

New York Times

PANTELLERIA, SICILY — My first dinner on this remote island was like waking in a dream. I had fallen into bed in late afternoon after enduring four flights over 18 hours and was lured back among the living only by the seductive smells of good things getting better as they roasted: potatoes with rosemary and olive oil; grouper with sage, mint, parsley, basil and garlic. When I wandered dazedly to the table, a big bowl of penne with the potent local pesto of tomatoes and capers was also waiting, along with good, rough vino bianco.

The whole island seemed to be encapsulated in that one meal. The fish, oil and wine were local, the herbs grew wild, and the flavor combinations were centuries old. Everything was of the place, unique to a stony but fertile chunk of land just off the coast of North Africa where the wind blows so incessantly that grapevines hug the dry ground and lemon and almond trees are planted inside circular stone walls for protection.

Sitting down to eat it all was one of those rare experiences of being transported by travel. Maybe I’m just unlucky, but for the last few years it has felt as if my every destination from Provence to Hong Kong had been claimed and codified by some self-appointed American expert on foreign food. There is no Discovery Channel on the food dial. Ever since I had the misfortune in France to be seated in a cafe next to a couple toting the ”Eyewitness Guide to Paris,” who spent the entire lunch talking about Zabar’s, I avoid restaurant tips written in English. And I know there’s no such thing as an eating epiphany in trampled Tuscany these days.

As the world has shrunk, thanks to cheap flights and industrious cookbook writers, the chances of serendipity are as likely as finding a homemade muffin at Starbucks.

But Pantelleria was proof that not all the territory has been staked out, that there are a few corners left to discover if you leave yourself open to any opportunity. I’m lucky enough to live with a photographer who is sent to strange places and usually lets me tag along — I passed on Greenland but did get to Genoa well before it had been officially declared paradise by food writers. Even in the most unpromising spots, there is always eating to be done.

Until my consort got work on Pantelleria, I didn’t even know it existed, that there was more of Italy south of Sicily. (In fact, there are six other islands.) The few travel articles I dug up after booking the trip said not much more about the island than that capers and sweet wine grapes were the key crops and that couscous was the culinary hallmark because of the proximity to Tunisia.

In a week, I never found the couscous.

Instead, I found dish after dish that in one way or another was different from what I had eaten on many trips to Italy. The cooking of Pantelleria is built on indigenous ingredients (for instance, the ubiquitous insalata Pantaresca of potatoes, tomatoes, onions, olives and capers uses oil but no vinegar) combined in fascinating fashion. Fresh basil and dried oregano come together in it, almost making a new herb. As one part-time islander reminded me, ”When you eat something, you eat culture.” It could not be more true on Pantelleria, with its blend of Italian and Arab influences.

>From my first supper on, I slipped into a world no guidebook could ever describe, largely because it was the off-season and most restaurants were closed, but mostly because the islanders were so open. Those who seek out Pantelleria (including the likes of Giorgio Armani, who built a lavish home here, and Madonna, who rents) don’t come for resorts and hotels. They stay in dammusi, Arab-inspired houses with rock walls two feet thick and domed roofs designed to capture the rare rain in a cistern. Like the year-round residents, they make their own meals or hire cooks who can produce local dishes like frittatas fragrant with mint and linguine with shrimp and zucchini. Because the island is so small, less than 40 square miles, they don’t hesitate to invite familiar faces into their homes.

One Saturday was typical. We had stopped in the port town, also called Pantelleria, in late afternoon, when we ran into Gianfranco Rossetto and his wife, Francesca, whom we had met at a dinner that week and who insisted we immediately come with them to the Tikirriki bar for a quick prosecco or two.

Within minutes, glasses were lined up on the marble bar, bowls of caper tapenade, pesto Pantesco and roasted almonds were set out, and we were drinking the effervescent wine standing up, looking out on the harbor at sunset. There could be no better way to learn a local custom, especially from Mr. Rossetto, who joked that on Pantelleria, where wine is so vital, “water is for external use only.”

After picking up a torta Napoletana at the pasticceria nearby, we were off for dinner at the dammuso of Walter Pane and Antonella D’Orso, a diver and an architect from Naples who migrated to the island after becoming fascinated with its stark beauty and ancient history. (In their living room was an amphora Mr. Pane had discovered containing remnants of food from Roman times.) Some of the 10 other guests spoke English, others only Italian, but the food took care of communication: a salad with a superrich cheese soufflŽ. The dessert was what it always seemed to be on Pantelleria: elaborate pastries from a bakery and homemade ravioli dolce, filled with sweetened ricotta, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar.

As a first course, Ms. D’Orso had cooked penne in a buttery-tasting sauce with tomatoes, basil and lots of capers. When we all complimented her cooking, she just waved her pasta fork and pronounced, “Cappero is everything.”

And it certainly felt that way. Every inch of the island seemed to be planted with either caper bushes or grapevines, often both in alternating rows. The grapes, a variety from Alexandria called zibibbo, are made into a sweet moscato known as passito, which is so high in alcohol that unthinking drinkers have been known to down a big glass in the heat and immediately topple over. The capers, picked by hand and preserved in sea salt at a sprawling growers’ cooperative near the little village of Scauri, are used in just about every dish on the island: salsa, pizza, pasta, fish, caponata and especially the insalata Pantaresca.

But then every meal seemed to reflect the sun-baked island, where seafood is plentiful and wild herbs perfume the air. Hiking in the mountains, I was always catching wild fennel, rosemary, sage or lavender in my skirts. Sitting down to dinner, we were always given seafood — octopus and branzino, swordfish and red mullet. And we were also reminded that “if the fish is not completely fresh, you cook eggs.”

Eggs were about the only thing not on the menu the night we had the full Pantelleria treatment at a sea-view dammuso owned by Giorgio Montesi, a former industrialist and passionate cook, who has homes on the island and in Padua. His swordfish, both sliced into carpaccio with mint as an antipasto and baked with onions and mint as a main course, had been caught that very morning. And the rest of the meal was just as much a showcase of freshness and local flavors.

We started with the carpaccio as well as smoked swordfish and caper salsas — oily, tangy and peppery — from a tiny shop on a back street in town called La Nicchia, which also runs a restaurant in tourist season. Once we had overindulged, we were presented with huge steaming bowls of the local lentil soup, seasoned with harissa, the North African hot sauce, which is as common as salt on many tables in Pantelleria.

Afterward, we ate fat ravioli stuffed with ricotta and the inevitable mint, under a faintly sweet fresh tomato sauce, and then those huge knobs of swordfish. One of our partners in indulgence at the Tikirriki contributed slices of blood orange dressed with olive oil and salt: weird, wonderful and entirely appropriate to the island.

There was more before we reached the usual elaborate show of cannoli and other pastries for dessert: bottles of homemade passito were popped open, and a plate of three Sicilian cheeses was passed around. This was a real triumph: one of them, a creamy but firm cow’s milk tumma, is not even listed in Steven Jenkins’s definitive ”Cheese Primer.” I had seen it in every market on the island, marked with the indentations of the round basket in which it is shaped. It was as much a revelation as Mr. Montesi’s suggestion for caprino, a firm goat’s milk cheese: slice it in wedges and drizzle it with a syrup from La Nicchia made from zibibbo grapes. The combination was inspired and natural, all at once.

On our rare forays into restaurants, we had the same feeling of being on an uncharted island. At Il Dammuso, I ate my first linguine allo scoglio (from the rock), coated with peppery tomato sauce and mounded with superfresh clams, prawns, shrimp and mussels, which brought the essence of the sea to the table. At La Pergola, we had spaghetti con la conza, with shrimp, garlic and parsley under a crust of toasted almonds.

My only regret was that my Italian was so lame and halting that I could not transcribe recipes, especially one for a six-herb sauce served the night I landed on Pantelleria. To the cooks at the dammuso where we stayed, it was just fish and herbs. To me it was kitchen sorcery. For other dishes I had to come home and struggle to recreate flavors from powerful memory.

Even an interpreter was not much help. The dialect on Pantelleria is so distinct that one of my consort’s assistants from Milan, Elena Perlino, acknowledged that she was struggling to process what she heard.

One morning, she and I set out to find a noted producer of wine and olive oil in the village of Kamma, only to learn he was away. As we turned back, we decided to take a look at the ”oven,” which we were told was where we should turn up the road to his place. It was a panificio, a bakery, called Terremoto, and we were soon whisked into the backroom to watch a woman transform long tubes of almond dough with a razor blade into elaborate leaf-shape cookies called mustazzoli. The sun was streaming in, and a grandmother with a toddler with neon red hair wandered in to watch as Ms. Perlino translated what she could about the ingredients (almonds, honey, sesame seeds) and the tradition (once only for Christmas, now made all year). We left clutching a finished product from the display case, superb dark chocolates packed with toasted local almonds.

It was one of those quick magic moments that make long plane rides worth suffering. And one more reminder that as indispensable as a food guidebook can be, you miss the side roads if you only follow the map.


From ”U Pantiscu ‘n Tavula” by Grazia Cucci (Accademia del Peperoncino Editore)
Time: About 1 1/2 hours
For the dough:

2 pounds all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes and chilled
1 large egg
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons whiskey
1 1/2 cups ice water, or as needed

For the filling:

1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese 1 large egg
2 tablespoons sugar
4 cups vegetable oil
Confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling
Ground cinnamon, for sprinkling.

1. To prepare dough, combine flour and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine. Sprinkle butter over flour mixture, and pulse 10 to 12 times, until butter is in 1/4-inch pieces.

2. Add egg, vinegar and whiskey. Pulse to incorporate. With motor running, add ice water to moisten mixture, about 1 to 1 1/2 cups. Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Lightly knead. Add ice water if needed, to make a smooth dough. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 15 minutes.

3. To prepare filling, mix ricotta, egg and sugar well in a medium bowl, and set aside.

4. Divide chilled dough into quarters. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one quarter to about 1/8 inch thick. Using a cookie or muffin cutter, cut dough into 4-inch disks. Spoon about 2 teaspoons of ricotta mixture onto half of each round, about 1/2 inch from edge. Fold round in half, and seal firmly with tines of a fork. Repeat until all dough and filling has been used.

5. In a deep saucepan, heat vegetable oil to 360 degrees. Deep-fry the ravioli in batches until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon before serving.

Yield: 24 ravioli (8 to 12 servings).

Time: 45 minutes

4 medium potatoes (Eastern or Yukon Gold are best)
1 small Vidalia or other sweet onion
12 large leaves basil, rinsed and dried
12 Italian black olives, pitted and slivered
1/3 cup salt-packed capers, rinsed and soaked at least 20 minutes
8 plum or other tomatoes, quartered lengthwise
Olive oil to taste, 1/4 cup, or less
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon or more dried Mediterranean oregano.

1. Scrub the potatoes. Boil them just until they are easily pierced with a fork. Drain them in a colander, and let cool. Peel, then halve, and thinly slice them crosswise. Transfer to a large salad bowl.

2. Peel and halve onion. Cut lengthwise into thirds, then crosswise into very fine slices. Add to potatoes. Stack basil leaves, and slice crosswise into very thin strips. Add to bowl with olives. Drain capers well, and add to bowl. Add tomatoes, then just enough oil to coat all ingredients. Toss to mix thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and toss again. Just before serving, dust oregano over top. Serve immediately or chill.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Time: 15 minutes, plus overnight soaking

1/2 cup salt-packed capers
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
6 sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil
8 green olives
2 anchovies
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, or more
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper flakes, or to taste
Lemon juice to taste.

1. Place capers in bowl, add vinegar and cold water to cover. Soak overnight, then rinse and drain very well.

2. Put tomatoes, olives and anchovies in small sieve, and rinse under warm running water. Dry with paper towels. Chop and place in blender. Add capers, olive oil and hot pepper flakes. Process until blended but not smooth. Add lemon juice to taste. Adjust seasoning. Serve on bread or over pasta. Yield: about 3/4 cup.