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Sicily, Old & New

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Photo: David Cicconi

The most complete view of the new Sicily I got was from the garden at Casa Talía, a small bed-and-breakfast in Modica. Viviana Haddad grew up in Milan, and that's where she met her partner, Marco Giunta, a fellow designer and an architect. Ten years ago, she would never have considered living in Sicily, but like so many other well-educated younger Italians we met, she opted out of the moving sidewalk of modern big-city professionalism in favor of "slow living." She and Giunta acquired five small adjacent houses on a ridge high above the town center, in what was once Modica's ghetto, and created Casa Talía, bringing an urban design sensibility to the ancient stones. They have taken great care in choosing simple but beautiful materials—lace bedspreads, pressed-iron beds, glossy white stones in the walls, and bamboo ceilings. Thanks to high-speed wireless Internet (an essential part of slow living), Giunta now runs his design business from underneath their fig tree.

Seen from above, as we sat in the garden of Casa Talía, Modica looked dreamlike, with labyrinthine passageways swirling down the steep sides of a ravine, ending at the dry bed of the river that runs through the center of town. One night we watched fireworks in celebration of San Giorgio, for whom Modica's great Baroque cathedral is named. Shot from below, they burst not far above our eye level, safely distant in the space between the two sides of the ravine.

It was in Modica that I tasted one of strongest and most unyielding of all the flavors in Sicily—the cold-processed chocolate from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. The store, at the bottom of the stairs leading from Casa Talía to the town center, is well-known, but the longtime owner, Franco Ruta, has recently handed over control to his son, Pierpaolo. They still do their famous impanatiggi—pastry envelopes stuffed with eggplant or meat mixed with chocolate—but Pierpaulo is pushing the shop in new directions; salty chocolate is one of his ideas. The Rutas cook their chocolate at 113 degrees for 30 minutes, a temperature at which the sugar does not melt; commercial manufacturers boil chocolate for two days at 176 degrees. The latter method makes the chocolate easier to digest, but, according to Pierpaulo, it destroys most of the flavor (380 different flavors, he says—but who's counting?).

Pierpaulo is serious, committed, and political; he has a poetic expression and sad eyes. He is haunted by the history of European exploitation of South American growers of cacao. He approaches chocolate not as a confection, but rather as a bitter allegory of colonizer and colonized, cold-processed together with the Spanish Inquisition and the 16th-century Jewish diaspora in Modica.

"Chocolate is not about the first moment of taste, it is about the last moment," he said. "First the texture, then the sugar, then the bitter and finally the personality—that is the most interesting thing." Pierpaulo is a personality himself, and a new Sicilian if ever I met one. He gave me lots of different kinds of chocolate, and that's what I should be packing now, if I could tear myself away from our final morning in the Casa Talía garden. I also have a bottle of COS Cerasuolo and some of Corrado Assenza's honey. But before going, I want to experience one final flavor: Viviana's tomatoes.

By now I believe I have found an answer to my question of how Sicily, this oldest of cultures, can ever be new. It will always be new.

Viviana brings out her tomato jam, and I take a spoonful. I feel like I am eating the sun.

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