Nicoletta teaches Gerry something new.

Nicoletta teaches Gerry something new.

How often do you ask yourself if something is “really worth it?”  For me, basically a finance person from way back, that is a question I often ask.  As a woman, I have been conditioned to think that the emotional aspects of each experience are somehow less valuable than the quantitative aspects.  So then, how do you value spending the better part of a day with a duchess, in an 18-19th century palazzo, in Sicily, learning to cook Sicilian food, eating lunch with the Duke and Duchess at an elegant lunch service for 15 complete with family china and gorgeous silver?  MasterCard would say it’s priceless.  So do I!

We arrived in Palermo Sicily last night.  Our flight left Berlin at 10:30 am bound for Catania.  There we rented a cute, little Fiat Panda, and drove across Sicily to Palermo.  Our initial plan was to stop in Cefalú on the way …but we were too tired.

Driving in Palermo was an experience.  You must try it.  Especially if you think you’re a good driver!  A good driver is up to the challenge – so …I dare you!

We found our way to our home for the next few days, the palazzo of the Lanza Tomasi family in Palermo.  Here we have an enormous, two bedroom apartment with friends, Galina and Jon.  All my memories of living in Italy (back in the late 70s) did not include this kind of personal luxury.  And, this is not the luxury of tons of money or expensive surroundings, this is the luxury of space and location, of history and tradition. We are located in the historic center of Palermo, steps from the Mediterranean, and enveloped by history.

After a short decompression with Jon and Galina, we returned our rental car.  That involved another harrowing drive through Palermo rush hour traffic on a Friday evening and the near death experience for a Vespa rider who tried to pass us on the left as we made a left hand turn.  To our relief and his, all ended happily!

Once divested of the car, we returned to our palazzo (see how easily I have made myself at home?).  A quick freshen up and we four go out for dinner.  Our destination last night was an historic restaurant called la Antica Foccaciaria.  We wended our way through darkened alleys and dimly lit streets, peering into open doorways and following the sounds of laughter and gaiety.  Expecting two, but finding only one restaurant, we ate dinner in a small piazza in front of an old Romanesque church.  This is the Antica Focacciaria – founded in 1843.  Our dinner was a sampling of Palermo’s specialties:  Chick pea fritters, eggplant, focaccia (more like cake than the flatbread you’re imagining).  We had an exceptional swordfish, as well as pasta ch’i sarde, a fat spaghetti noodle with a “pesto” like sauce of sardines and pistachios. Following dinner, we took a walk through the neighborhood, finding the street that was the source of all the “noise” –  A crowded alley, packed with tables being served from either side, lots of people of all ages, enjoying their Friday night.  Music was blaring from the storefronts – it was indeed a happening!  Perhaps too much of one, for us old folks!

Pre-market dessert prep.  Infusing the watermelon "water" with jasmine flowers.

Pre-market dessert prep. Infusing the watermelon “water” with jasmine flowers.

This morning, it felt like we were up at dawn, though it was already 8:30 am when we met for our cooking class.  Our teacher, Nicoletta Polo Tomasi, the duchess of Palma de Montechiaro, is wonderful – witty and fun, and so knowledgeable about Sicily and its food, despite the fact that she herself is a transplant from Venice!  That seems to be the way.  The transplanted take a far greater and deeper interest in their adoptive homes than the natives…  What do you think?  Our group was 11 people strong, all guests in the palazzo.  A very interesting group that included Swedes, French, New Zealander, Australian and American!  If you add the household staff from the palazzo, you’d have to also count Italians, Philippinos and Romanian!  How much more international would you like?

The fishmonger cuts our swordfish wheels.

The fishmonger cuts our swordfish wheels.

We began the day picking jasmine, basil and mint from the duchess’s garden terrace.  Then we grated watermelon for the dessert, and scooped the flesh of well-baked eggplants to allow them to drain while we went to the market.  The market was everything you could wish for: noisy, colorful, crowded and filled with great stuff to look at.  We admired long, long, long zucchinis and dark purple eggplants, tasted prickly pears, and watched our swordfish lunch as it was cut from what was left of an enormous fish.  We bought bread.  We even took a moment out to visit a Sicilian Baroque church, hidden right in the market and providing an island of calm and quiet.

Lots to choose from - All fresh!

Lots to choose from – All fresh!

Vendors call across the market - enticing customers with freshness and disparaging rivals.

Vendors call across the market – enticing customers with freshness and disparaging rivals.

An island of tranquility in the bustling market - the Sicilian Baroque church of the Immaculata.

An island of tranquility in the bustling market – the Sicilian Baroque church of the Immaculata.

Back in the palazzo, we set to chopping, stirring, rolling and sipping (wine!).  Nicoletta is the perfect hostess and teacher, entertaining us as we worked with

Jon captures the Duchess mid-spiel.

Jon captures the Duchess mid-spiel.

jokes and stories.  Finally, joined by the Count, it is time to sit and enjoy the fruits of our labors, a spectacular meal.  Our pasta was made from a sauce of fresh Roma tomatoes, blanched almonds and basil; our swordfish was “stuffed” with pistachios, mint and pink peppercorns. Our potato salad was simple boiled potatoes with red onions and capers.  Our dessert:  watermelon “jello” with

Gorgeous dining room, set for our class lunch.

Gorgeous dining room, set for our class lunch.

jasmine flowers and chocolate chips.  For our starter, we had eggplant croquettes.  What a feast!  For all the senses!  Naturally, I was looking at the table setting, too.  I especially coveted the silver pheasants, but I could not ignore the beautiful china with the family coat of arms!  Yes, it was a priceless experience.  (And that’s before we had the tour of the entire palazzo, and the story of its reclamation from the ravages of American bombs in World War II).

The coveted pheasants!

The coveted pheasants!


Cruise ship arrives in the Palermo port.

Naturally, what was left of the day was devoted to digestion! By 7:00 pm we were ready to venture out to the littoral to take pictures in the dusk.  It was a beautiful evening and practically all of Palermo was taking a passeggiata. Once back at the apartment, we sat on our balcony and watched the evening’s activity in the street below us, as we sipped a crisp Sicilian white wine.  Later, we went out again – this time to the Piazza Garibaldi where we had pizza and eggplant caponata for dinner, accompanied by Nastro Azzuro a la spina!

Palermo Sunset

Palermo Sunset

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3 responses »

  1. […] Sicily: In Palermo Cooking with the Duchess […]

  2. Cynthia hinckley says:

    My idea of a perfect day. Just what I would like to do

  3. Susan Heacox Vrabec says:

    We loved Sicilia when we were there! We just got home from a week in the Piemonte!

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