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Villas of Sicily

At the Antica Focacceria, a chef stands over an ancient cast-iron stove near the entrance, stirring veal stew to ladle onto buns for take-out sandwiches. One cook or another has done so since the days when Piazza San Francesco d'Assisi was a carriage depot for workers from the island's rural interior. In the 20th century, the Antica Focacceria broadened its clientele to include the Palermitan middle classes and, if not its titled gentry, then at least such important personages as Murder, Inc. founder Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who ate at the same table here every day for years. Lately the restaurant has reinvented itself as a center for Slow Food, the Italian-incubated movement to combat fast-food culture, nonsustainable farming, and the juggernaut of globalized economies. "Seven new words or phrases a day and you've got the language," Zanca said. "Have another dessert."

Among the delicacies on the tray proffered by a waiter was gelo di melone, made from watermelon pulp flavored with jasmine water. Traditionally served on the feast of Santa Rosalia, this super-refined gelatin appears regularly on the Antica Focacceria menu in summer and would be the envy of any pastry chef in New York.

I did have a second dessert, and not for the last time. One night at the Don Arcangelo all'Olmo, where the delicious meals are prepared by Marina di San Giuliano, Giovannella di San Giuliano's sister-in-law, the trays of cannoli brought by a guest from a bakery in Messina were set to compete against a platter baked at home. As a dutiful guest I gorged on both and claimed diplomatic neutrality.

One constantly eats well in Sicily, it hardly needs saying, and drinks well, too, a variety of fine new wineries having worked hard to dispel the clichés about rotgut table reds. The blended whites from the Relais Santa Anastasia in particular stand out, as does the Chardonnay from Planeta, a favorite of Wine Spectator types, although hardly anything compares in memory with a table wine served at that lunch one afternoon in the Palazzo Biscari.

It was not the wine itself that mattered, of course, but the setting. The palace, which I mentioned at the outset, is Catania's largest private palazzo. I saw it just once, at lunch on a rainy afternoon, and yet it has provided me with the most durable image of all. The palace itself is a mixture of grandeur and desuetude, the great balconies of its piano nobile designed to command a panorama of the seaport but cut off from that prospect by 19th-century authorities who built an elevated railway track that spites the view. In one wing of the palace are the apartments of Giovanna Moncada and her yachtsman son, Lorenzo. Deep inside these chambers, and reached along a series of connecting salons, is a room that is among the most renowned in Sicily.

The Gallery of the Birds is decorated with inset mirrors and boiseries painted a Venetian green. Its white-and-yellow floors, now faded and crackled, are paved with 18th-century terra-cotta tiles patinated by centuries of wear. What lends the gallery its lasting fame is the birdlife populating every surface. This improbable aviary was commissioned by IgnazioPaternò Castello from anonymous local artisans who were allegedly given a copy of George Louis Leclerc de Buffon's then recently published Natural History to imitate.

The task was carried out with brio and naïveté. Swallows clutch fruit baskets in their claws. Eagles teeter on the branches of mulberry trees. Quizzical owls are hung with painted ribbons that record their names in Latin. When Goethe was a visitor to the palace in 1787, the brackets that ornament the gallery's mirrored niches would have been adorned with yet more birds, three-dimensional porcelain ones from the fashionable manufactory at Meissen. Those china creatures were sold or stolen or otherwise broken up during the Allied invasion. Somehow, the pathos of loss enhances the overall grandeur of the room.

Lunch in the gallery was classic Sicilian fare: a first course of spaghetti wrapped in fine strips of sautéed eggplant, the main course a variant of a fish dish often associated with the coastal city of Messina—although served by a white-gloved retainer. If little that I encountered in Sicily remains as memorable as that meal of involtini di pesce spada, the reason is no mystery.

A gastroporn cliché it may be, but food remains an abiding Italian metaphor, often the best way to absorb the complex turnings of the country's varied traditions. What the eye or the intellect cannot digest, the stomach can usually manage, or so I felt as I cut into a dish of pounded swordfish rolls whose stuffing combined many elements from Sicily's stratified history.

To note that parsley, garlic, pine nuts, green olives, capers, pecorino, and sea salt all go into making the dish is also involuntarily to draw imaginary vectors to the Arab and Roman and African and pre-Christian worlds. To observe that some cooks, like Giovanna Moncada's, add to the stuffing minced raisins plumped in Malvasia delle Lipari liqueur is to invoke the Sicily of Diodorus Siculus, who described that potent island concoction in the first century b.c.

The involtini di pesce spada prepared by Moncada's cook were delicately flavored. With them we drank a frank young white from grapes grown in Etna's volcanic soil. Rain falling outside in gunmetal sheets cast the room into a kind of burnished twilight. That the conversation seems unmemorable in retrospect hardly matters. The lunch was, to poach a phrase from Alexandre Dumas's Sicilian memoir Le Speronare, "one of those indescribable hours that one can summon up in memory by closing one's eyes." It was the sort of occasion that even so self-assured a writer as Dumas did not believe could be properly captured with a pen. As it happens, neither do I.

GUY TREBAY is a staff reporter for the New York Times.


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