A couple of miles along, past terraced fields where hunched, motionless figures picked capers one by one, we cooled off with a half-crate of white peaches purchased on the side of the road from the back of a three-wheeled truck. If we had wanted a just-caught 50-pound swordfish, we could have had that, too. Arco dell'Elefante is a natural rock formation that looks like an elephant taking a big swig of the Mediterranean; enacting a Pantescan rite of passage, we went for a magical swim under its arcing trunk. And at the Lake of Venus's Mirror we dutifully stopped to remember Madonna, who—barefoot, pregnant, and caked in therapeutic mud—was viciously nailed by the paparazzi there three years ago.
The island has barely a stoplight, as we discovered, and no FedEx trucks hogging its wild fennel-fringed lanes. Despite celebs on heavy MTV rotation, Pantelleria has maintained the elemental aura of a last frontier, of an antique civilization shaped by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Normans, Genovese, Spanish, and Bourbons. Of the island's many occupiers, none left a more lasting trace than the Arabs, who launched their conquest in the eighth century, planted the first grapevines and olive trees, and stayed on for 200 years to tend them.
Continuing an ancient tradition of insularism, Pantelleria cultivates tentative relations with the outside world. Places offering Internet connections come and go, but mostly they go. In a café one afternoon we were entertained by a booker from a Milan modeling agency in bug shades who staged a public meltdown over not being able to pick up her e-mail. Two gas stations service the entire island, and many shops and restaurants don't take credit cards. At U Trattu—a populist trattoria with its own boccie court, the best mulberry cremolata, and waiters as round as Botero sculptures—we found that knowing Italian is sometimes not enough: locals speak a dialect that defeats even mainland Italians. A woman I became friendly with told me to write to her care of the garage where she gets her car fixed in the port town of Pantelleria, because she was more sure of receiving her mail there than at her rural dammuso.
With the countryside so easy to love, we never expected Pantelleria town to put up such a fight. Our first sortie was daunting, with each of us doing his best to pretend that he loved what he was seeing. As we approached the center, bombed-out bits of beachfront gave way to abandoned lots vibrating with gorgeous weeds. Stray dogs roamed the quays before a brooding Norman fort, one of the few buildings left standing after the Allies bombarded the town in World War II. Grocery shops were poky, dimly lit, and so overstocked that we had to turn sideways to get past the towers of bottled water. The terraces of the cafés seemedÉwellÉkind of tacky. We had chosen the verity of Pantelleria over the spit and polish of a place like Capri, deriding the latter as Italy Lite. But suddenly Capri was looking pretty good.
Awful is a word you hear a lot in connection with the port, but it took a couple of visits to understand that the term is meant with affection. For while it is fashionable to run the place down, posh people love it because they get to practice the nearly extinct social sport of slumming. Recognizing her from the party pages of Vogue Italia, I saw Silvana Meneghini, a well-born Sicilian decorator who lives and works in Pantelleria, Palermo, and London, happily queuing for the house specialty, "la bomba," a split brioche filled with an improbable quantity of gelato. Gambaccini is a regular at Panificio Carmelo Giuffrida, where the pizza con patate, scattered with rosemary needles, starts exiting the wood-burning oven at 7:30 a.m. Waiters at Caffè Aurora boasted that their bar was Armani's favorite for aperitivi.
It was amazing how our own relationship with the town evolved. Having started out slightly terrified, we became so drawn to the port's small and lazy life, to its glamorous lack of glamour, that one dose a day wasn't enough. We became unconditional fans of the raffish bar El Tikirriki, where flutes of Prosecco come with heaping bowls of roasted almonds, green olives as fat as lady apples, and a spicy, garlicky, oily tomato pulp, to be scooped up with stale shards of good semolina bread. My booty at a ceramics shop was a chic cachepot in the form of an earringed and turbaned blackamoor's head. At La Risacca, a proto-Pantescan restaurant with wide-angle views of the water, we had systematically ordered the ubiquitous island specialty, mint-and-ricotta-stuffed ravioli bathed in sage butter. One day a courtly pharmacist sold us a few of his own harvest of sponges. At the housewares store, somebody's sweet nonna guided my selection of a wicker cheese platter and dome. Accustomed to the Caribbean, we couldn't believe how nice everyone was. The antagonistic them-versus-us vibe you often feel on islands was absent.
In no time we settled into the sexy do-nothing routine Pantelleria is prized for. Not that there is much choice. After you've visited the Byzantine tombs, taken a sauna in a thermal cave, and scoped out the port, you've pretty much "done" it. The rhythm of our days was dictated by the sun. No matter how early we got up, it was never early enough to beat the heat, which made the "voluptuous torpor" of Sicily in Lampedusa's Leopard seem like a tropical breeze. After a quick coffee made in a dangerously cruddy aluminum pot and a meditative moment studying the wave patterns, we would drive into town for more coffee and cornetti, and to do the marketing for lunch.
Typically, lunch at the dammuso was a bowl of penne sauced with tomatoes, anchovies, garlic, black and green olives, parsley, peperoncini, and capers, quickly assembled after consulting U Pantiscu 'n Tavola, a tiny ingenuous cookbook of island dishes. This was followed by a few of the darling little ricotta cakes that are a Pantescan hallmark and that the pasticceria Da Giovanni does better than anyone. As with pasta, any untried shape is an excuse to invent a new cake.