Sojourn in Sicily: A Day with the Duchess

Nicoletta picking parsley for pesto

Nicoletta picking parsley for pesto

By Anne Spiselman

“Respect” and “family” are basic concepts you need to understand to get on in Sicily, the duchess tells us at the start of the day. We’re on our way to Caffe Mirage, right outside Palermo’s Capo Market, and she’s explaining why she always goes to the same vendors—family in the wider sense. They take very good care of her because “she belongs to them,” an idea that influences all human interaction here.

The petite, dark-haired duchess is Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi, Duchess of Palma, and if the name sounds familiar, that’s because her husband, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, is the adoptive son of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of “The Leopard.” The couple bought back the family property, the 17th-century seafront Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, from numerous relatives and restored it, and a few years ago Nicoletta started giving cooking classes. The “we” on this occasion are Paul and Donna, a married couple from the Eastern U.S.; sisters Mary and Susan from St. Louis; Barb and Amanda, a couple from Australia, and Fred and myself. Some of us also are staying at the palazzo, part of which has been transformed into Butera 28 with close to a dozen vacation apartments for rent.

The date is April 9, 2014, and if you’ve been following this blog, you may realize that I’ve fast forwarded a year from previous posts: We liked Sicily so much in April 2013, we returned this year, and instead of starting at the beginning of the trip, I’m jumping to one of the highlights.

As we finish our espressos and head into the market, which has been around since the Middle Ages, Nicoletta says it’s her favorite of the city’s big three because it’s the “most Sicilian.” First stop is Pescheria Isgro, where she identifies some unfamiliar species for us and orders swordfish for the involtini di pesce spada (swordfish rolls) we’ll make later. While the fillets are being sliced thin for her, we head to the produce stand of Giuseppe, the fishmonger’s cousin, greet the dog Mia, and buy oranges, fennel, basil, and strawberries. Nicoletta also points out the long zucchini with leaves still attached and gives quickie instructions for preparing it with pasta and grated ricotta.

Other stops include a bakery for pane di Monreale (a nearby town famous for its Norman-era cathedral) baked in a wood-fired oven and the adjacent stand for black olives that will go into our orange and fennel salad. While we’re waiting for a group of school children to make their purchases of olives, dried herbs and spices, and smoked fish, Nicoletta says that if we went to a different merchant it would be “like a slap in the face.” She also draws our attention to the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which she adds is inlaid with marble inside. Beside the olives, we buy a bunch of bay leaves for the swordfish skewers.

Collecting our swordfish, we go back to the palazzo—the others ride in a van, but Fred and I are in a house car, because it has room for my wheelchair—and head for the beautiful gardens on the huge terrace. Most of the plants are potted, and Nicoletta gives us a brief tour, pausing for us to admire the jasmine and wisteria, eat kumquats straight from the tree, and say “hello” to resident turtles, Leonardo and Michelangelo. We pick mint, parsley, lemons, and a few other items, though Barb pops back up later on to get the nasturtiums to garnish dessert.

The kitchen is on the second floor and surprisingly small, though there are separate serving areas. Copper pots and racks of knives decorate the blue-and-white tile walls, glass jars of nuts, spices, and who knows what crowd the counters, a big hood tops the double industrial stove, and a central work table becomes the focal point of our activities.

After handing out recipe sheets, Nicoletta orchestrates the class and assigns tasks, and although the hands-on participation makes the next couple of hours seem chaotic, everything really is under control. It helps that a couple of staffers lend a hand with prep work, clean up after us along the way, and do some, if not most, of the actual cooking. We have time for instruction on how to properly use a mezzaluna (a curved chopping knife with handles on both ends that’s a staple in Sicilian households) to get the maximum result with the least effort, tips like how rubbing your hands on stainless steel removes the smell of garlic, and a variety of anecdotes, among them stories of life in New York when Gioacchino was head of the Italian Cultural Institute. We also have a couple of breaks for coffee and little cakes, wine and cheese.

We start first on dessert, an orange and lemon jelly—but not jelly in the American sense, Nicoletta explains. It’s more like a dense molded jello, made from incredibly flavorful juices (the citrus in Sicily is wonderful) and sugar with old-fashioned sheets of gelatin melted in. At the same time as the fruit is being chopped and juiced, the zest is being removed from other oranges for the fish. Soon Fred is enlisted to prepare the batter for the panelle, deep-fried chickpea-flour fritters that will be the passed appetizer, and Paul is handed a small olive pitter to ready the olives for the salad. When the panelle batter is thick enough (several people have taken turns stirring), it’s poured into a tube and chilled; later it will pushed slowly through the cylinder and cut into circles 2 mm thick, then cut into shapes with cookie cutters and deep fried (right before serving).

Next Nicoletta whips up a dressing for the strawberries that will garnish the dessert. It’s not on our recipe sheet but consists of blood orange juice, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, slightly crushed peppercorns, and lots of star anise. Then it’s on to quartering and coring the fennel for the salad and plopping it cold water (with coarse salt added) to get crisp. While we’re waiting, we make the pistachio pesto for the fusilli—and get a mini lesson in the differences between American and Italian cookbooks. Essentially, American measurements and instructions are precise, while the rule in Italy is q.b., “quanto basta,” which means “as required” or “to taste.” As if to prove the point, after sorting the pistachios to remove any bits of shell and putting them in the food processor with parsley for color and a little Parmesan for creaminess, she turns on the machine and pours in olive and peanut oils until the sauce reaches the “right” consistency. We all get to taste it, too.

Once the pasta water is boiling, we finish the salad, thinly slicing the fennel (some are better at this than others) and oranges with the rind still on (that’s how good Sicilian oranges are!), quartering the orange slices and tossing them with the fennel, then arranging both on two huge platters and carefully placing the olives and freshly picked thyme on top. The dressing—orange juice whisked with extra vigrin olive oil and seasoned with black pepper and dried oregano–will be poured over ten minutes before serving.

Turning our attention to the involtini, we prepare the stuffing of finely chopped purple onions and breadcrumbs sauteed in olive oil and enhanced by anchovies, dried currants, pinenuts, parsley and mint, orange and lemon juice and zest. One of the most useful of many tips is to add a spoonful of water to the onions to keep them from burning. While they’re cooking—and the delicious aromas are filling the kitchen– Nicoletta tells us more stories, including one about her mother-in-law not recognizing a kitchen when she saw it, because she’d never been in one. She also throws in some brown pistachios, not on the recipe.

Stuffing the small, thin pieces of swordfish proves to be a challenge, because the tendency is to want to overstuff. The secret, it turns out, is to tuck in the ends completely, When they’re ready, they’re threaded on skewers, alternating with pieces of onion and fresh bay leaves, then lined up in a baking dish and sprinkled with olive oil, breadcrumbs, and salt before going into the oven.

At this point, we cut the chilled panelle dough and retire to the formal dining room for lunch about 1:30 p.m. At a spacious table, set with china bearing the family crest, and under the watchful eyes of ancestors (one of whom is in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”), we relax over a four-course meal that’s one of the best of the trip. The highlights for me are the perfectly al dente pasta with lush pistachio pesto, the delightfully refreshing fennel and orange salad, and the gorgeous dessert, a disk of flavorful, quivering jelly ringed by strawberries in the delicious sauce, finished with a nasturtium flower. The Vecchio Florio Marsala Secco Superiore 20 sets off the jelly nicely (Marsala is not all that far from Palermo), while the earlier courses are served with Leone d’Almerita 2013 and Regaleali Nero d’Avola, both Sicilian, of course.

After lunch, Nicoletta continues her account of several centuries of family history and gives us a tour of the palazzo with its fine furnishings (some of them salvaged from the ravages of World War II, including Giuseppe’s library), world-class art (by Picasso and others), and grand accouterments, such as the walnut-and-cherry ballrom floor and the marble staircase made of stone salvaged from the demolition for the construction of the Massimo Opera House. Much of the story is sad, full of strife and loss, and as we move from room to room, I can see her becoming weary, as the weight of it all settles on her. It has been a long day—but one that I will never forget.

Cooking classes are given by request for groups of 4-12. Contact info@cookingwiththeduchess.com for more information.