Foodie Favorite: Sicilia

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One of my favorite aspects of Sicily is the wonderful food. Sicily’s fruits and vegetables are famous throughout Europe.  In other parts of the continent, the produce from Sicily is always the most expensive.  This is because they have the best – and they save the best for themselves.

The same goes for fish – much of the world’s best tuna and swordfish come from these waters.  This is as fresh as it gets.

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The markets of Siracusa are a perfect example. We had so much fun just walking through, listening to the vendors sing-song their wares, tasting here and there, and picking out our lunch of cheese, olives salami, cherries . . . . Amazing.

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Buon Apetito!

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A Secret Discovered – 1500 Years Later

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Today we had a glimpse of life in Siracusa over 1500 years ago! It is a site that was recently discovered and not widely known – and according to historians, one of the most important in the world.  We were very fortunate that our cousin, Evelina, could arrange a visit, as well as two English-speaking professors to explain what we were seeing.

The pictures are from their website and book – as this was a holy site, so no photography allowed.

The Discovery

The story begins 25 years ago with a red-headed Baronessa who was also an architect. She decided to open a hotel in the old Jewish quarter of Siracusa (which is named Giudecca – pronounced Jew-decca).  The building had good lines but was not in good condition, so she knew opening a hotel would involve a lot of renovations.

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During the construction, the workers discovered a secret door leading to a single step. They dug a little more and found a second step.  They decided to keep going.

They set up a formal excavation, which involved creating a courtyard in the middle of the building so that dirt and stone could be lifted out with a pulley system. They kept digging and digging as the steps descended lower and lower.

Miqwe Excavation

Then – 20 meters below the ground (60 feet), they discovered a sealed off wall. They knew all of these steps must have led somewhere, so they tore down the wall.

Behind the wall, the area opened up to several rooms of extraordinarily well-preserved baths. There were three individual-sized deep pools in one room with steps leading into each one, with similar private pools in adjoining rooms.  These had been carved into the rock.  There were stone benches around the perimeter.  The entire room was flooded with spring water bubbling up from the ground.

The baroness wasn’t sure what they had found, so she took pictures and traveled to Rome to consult historians. They determined that this was the site of a miqwe – an ancient Jewish bath dating to the 5th century AD, an especially meaningful place for Jewish women.


Our Visit

The miqwe is only open by appointment. Evelina had arranged our visit – we were personally escorted by the Baronessa herself.  Evelina also asked two of her friends to be our guides.  One is a retired professor of medieval history.  The other is a professor of Jewish studies.  What they had to say was fascinating.

At the time, Siracusa was the capital of Sicily and had a large Jewish population – probably as the result being brought as slaves from Palestine in the 1st century.  By the 5th century, the Jews had prospered and inhabited a large portion of the Island of Ortigia.  Their tradition (still in practice today among more orthodox Jews) was to take part in a full-immersion bath on certain occasions – such as before holy days – similar to baptism.  It was a very spiritual experience.  The miqwe was even more important for women, who came to be cleansed each month following their period or after childbirth.

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After studying ancient documents of city plans, historians determined that this miqwe was once connected to the synagogue in the same neighborhood. They believe that, when the Jews were expelled from the Island of Ortigia in 1492, they sealed the holy baths.  The baths sat undiscovered for 1500 years.

The professors told us this was the most important and well-preserved ancient miqwe outside of Israel and the oldest miqwe in Europe.

And it would have remained unknown if not for the Baronessa’s diligence in seeing where the next step would lead.

By the way, the Baronessa did open her hotel, the Reisdence Hotel Alla Giudecca – it is stunning!

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The Siracusan Cousins

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We are in Siracusa visiting still more cousins of Frank. This group includes Toto, Evelina, Antonino, and Diego.  Evelina’s grandmother was Frank’s aunt (his mother’s sister).  So Evelina’s mother, Frank, and Enza were all first cousins.  We met up with the whole family, including Evelina’s mother, Tina, last year (picture above).  Sadly, Tina passed away earlier this year.

I  have known Evelina the longest of all the cousins because she and her son, Antonino, visited us in Venice right before our wedding.

Evelina is a dentist and also a judge for the Miss Italia pageant. She works with the Miss Sicilia program and all the pageants leading up to Miss Italia.  So when she is not at the office, she is wearing formal attire and off to some big event (I took these pictures from her Facebook page).

Evelina’s husband, Toto, is a former city councilman, real estate businessman, and owner of the Andive Sporting Club that hosts sports tournaments, complete with playing fields, hotel rooms, and recreation facilities.  They have an apartment in town, but mainly live in a beautiful house (we went last year) set in a lemon grove next to Andive.  Their son, Antonino, is in dental school in Albania, and their other son, Diego, is graduating from high school and off to university – with a goal to be a dentist as well.


Just like in Canicatti, the Siracusan cousins have rolled out the red carpet – first by taking us to a local place with excellent aperitivo.


And then for pizza – but with a flair – at a Syrian restaurant that is run by Evelina’s good friend. It was very trendy with a fishtank in the floor!

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They had amazing and very gourmet appetizers and pizzas.  And everyone knew Evelina and Toto – we had dozens of people stop by to meet us.  (How fun to travel around with real VIPs!)

Evelina & Toto


Going Underground in Siracusa

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Siracusa has a beautiful piazza surrounding its duomo – some say the prettiest in Europe. It is a wonderful place to sit out with a gelato and watch the world go by.  At night, there are entertainers – musicians and even ballroom dancers.

But today, we decided to take a look at what is going on UNDERNEATH the piazza.

The Ipogeo di Piazza Duomo is a series of underground tunnels and water cisterns dating back centuries – carved into the rock.

We climbed down, down, down – avventura!


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The tunnels were used as an air raid shelter during the Allied (US and England) bombing of Siracusa in 1943. They had pictures showing what it looked like during this time.  How scary it must have been not knowing what was happening up above.

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The exhibit said that the citizens escaped into the tunnels as the first bombs starting dropping. When they came out a few days later, their first sight was that the harbor was now full of enemy (to them) ships.

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The tunnel let out at the Porto Grande – this time to the sight of very big yachts (check out the helicopter!). Enza tried to talk them into letting us take a look, but they said no.

Enza e Franco (yacht)

The port is lined with outside cafes, where you can sit under umbrellas and watch the boats go by with an aperitivo. By the way, in Sicily, an aperitivo isn’t necessarily alcoholic.  Our favorite non-alcoholic drink is crodino, which is a bitter orange drink.  It comes in little bottles, and they serve it just like a cocktail, complete with an orange slice.


Soon – another interesting site, as the Greenpeace ship from their TV show “Sea Shepherd” appeared.

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We watched them try their hand at Mediterranean Mooring (Frank and I can appreciate from our many times chartering in Europe – it is not always easy!).  They had a pilot boat lead them in and took a very long time – at least 45 minutes.

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I thought it was funny – the Greenpeace boat is a little dinged up, and the crew was a little raggedy, with t-shirts and tattoos (although, to their credit – they had been saving whales).  The giant yachts around them are spit-spot, with uniformed crews.  The Greenpeace boat had one tiny fender out as they backed in, while the big yachts were fully protected, all hands on deck.

You see a little bit of everything in Sicily!

On To Siracusa

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After a week in Canicatti, we are off to meet more cousins in Siracusa, about 2½ hours away. We have rented an apartment in Ortigia, which is on a small island that is 1 kilometer long and 500 meters wide, connected to the mainland by bridge.  It was first inhabited 2,500 years ago!  The streets are cobblestoned and very curvy and narrow to throw off invaders.

It is me, Frank, and Enza. We were a little nervous because we came here last year and had an awful time driving.  But our hosts met us off the island and had us follow them in right to an open garage.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t anywhere near our apartment – it turns out the garage that came with the apartment is closed on holidays (which includes every Sunday).  No worries – our hosts loaded up their car and drove us to the front door.  Wow!

And what an apartment! It is in a palazzo with a courtyard in the middle.  It is huge, with a big terrace with a view of the sea.  We all squealed with delight – once we caught our breath, since we are on the top floor with no elevator.

Siracusa Apt

And even more interesting – the apartment is owned by a very famous Sicilian, Enzo Maiorca, known all over the world for his free diving records. He once dove without oxygen to 100 meters (that is 300 feet!).  He is now in his 80s and swims every day.

His daughter, Patrizia, met us. This was her mother’s family’s home.  It is full of fascinating memorabilia and awards from her father’s storied career.  Patrizia herself was a record holder as well.

And to make the story even better – when we told Patrizia that we had come to Siracusa to visit Frank’s cousin, Evelina, it turns out that Evelina and Patrizia are good friends! Amazing, since I booked through TripAdvisor.  As Patrizia said, “Monde Piccolo” (Small World).

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Canicatti Family 2

We have loved our week in Canicatti, re-connecting with family and even meeting new relatives. The Buccheris have really rolled out the red carpet.  We have had lunches, dinners, gelatos, cafe, vino and wonderful stories and laughter.

Frank’s mother, Antoinetta, left Canicatti when she was 18 years old to sail first to Naples and then to America. On the first leg to Naples, she was accompanied by her big brother, Salvatore, Enza’s father.  He saw her off at the dock to America.  She did not speak English and had a new husband waiting for her in New York.  She was all alone.  She never saw her parents again.  How brave, adventurous, forlorn, and hopeful she must have been.

Frank’s father, Angelo, was from a little town near Canicatti, Castrofilippo. He went to America first.  He returned a couple of times – to marry Frank’s mother and to make arrangements for her passage.  Once things were settled, he left Sicily and never looked back.  Frank says his father did not talk about Sicily or ever return after that.  Even though we have tried, we have very little information on the Volpe side of the family.

But Antoinetta stayed in touch with everyone back home – writing letters, sending gifts, and eventually making her way back for visits. To the same people we have been visiting this week.

Canicatti Family 5

This has been an emotional journey. Sicily still holds some secrets – maybe to be uncovered prossimo volta (next time).


Coming Up: More cugini (cousins) in Siracusa – and Enza is coming with us – another avventura!


Let’s Dance (Balera)!

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Frank and I are staying at a hotel near Licata, on the Southern coast of Sicily near his family’s hometown. It is in the shadow of a castello (castle) called Falconara, but otherwise pretty remote.  We have our hotel complex, which is very nice, and a little pizzeria next door.  It is a sleepy little outpost.

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On Saturday night, we decided to venture next door to the pizzeria.  We had a table outside under the trees with a few other Sicilian families.

Eventually, we noticed more and more cars coming. But the restaurant was not filling up.  Soon the cars were parked on both sides of the road.  Hmmm . . . .

After we finished our pizza, we decided to check it out.  We explored a little until we turned a corner to find the Disco Club Hollywood!

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We paid the 6 Euro cover charge – and imagine our surprise when we walked in to find at least 200 Siciilians line dancing!  They had rolled back part of the roof and were dancing under the stars.  The dance floor was huge, with a DJ spinning tunes from the stage.


The DJ would call out a dance – salsa, foxtrot, waltz – and everyone would run to the floor with their partners. They were amazing – perfectly in sync, as they went in a circle around the floor doing the same steps at the same time.  Sometimes they would start with a line dance (that was very complicated) and then in the middle of the song, start a partner dance.  We just watched on the sidelines with our mouths open.  My favorite was the polka.

The last song of the night was “Que Sera Sera” –

“Whatever will be will be . . . the future’s not ours to see . . . Que Sera Sera.”

Everyone danced and sang it loudly (even though most of them probably didn’t understand the words).  It was one of those perfect moments that you stumble upon.  And despite all the meticulous trip planning, these spontaneous moments are the best.

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Una Macchina – or Due (A Car – or Two)

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So one of our adventures in Sicily has been with rental cars. I thought I would write about it to show that our trip is not all glamour and fun.

First of all – we are kind of rental car wimps because we need an “automatico grande” (big automatic). Frank knows how to drive a stick shift, but I don’t.  So that eliminates 97% of the available cars right away.  Plus we need a bigger car – also hard to find – because we have so much stuff.  (In our defense, we ARE usually driving around with family members, who bring jugs of wine, basil plants, and a platter or two of pasta with them!).

Europcar: Catania

So – we arrived at Catania Airport in a flurry to find about 80 people in line at the Europcar counter.  Europcar is the biggest outfit here – the American companies are teeny with maybe 2 automaticos that are booked far in advance.

When they saw we had a “premium” car, the representative would not even take my Visa – she only would take American Express. I probably should have been suspicious of this, but I was just happy I had one.  Then, we had to sign a paper promising never to leave the car unguarded (even in a parking lot) while in the Province of Catania and that our insurance (which we upgraded to the highest level) would not cover losses – including car theft – in Catania.  We were relieved we were not staying in Catania!

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So off we went – me, Frank, Enza, and all our stuff. We got to the first round-about and a warning light came on.  We weren’t sure what the problem was but thought we would stop at a gas station to double-check everything.  But the GPS took us on one-after-the-other farm roads – sometimes even dirt roads winding up into the mountains.  There were no gas stations.  It was so dusty that Frank tried to clean the windshield, and we discovered we had no windshield wipers (I think someone stole them).

We got to our hotel – whew – but the warning light had turned into a written warning of low tire pressure. We consulted the front desk, who suggested a nearby gas station.  We went in, and the attendant gave us more air in all the tires.  Then – 5 miles down the road – the light came on again.  It looked like we had a leak.

Europcar: Agrigento

We consulted with the family and decided to go to the Europcar outpost in Agrigento – about 35 miles away. This was an adventure in itself.  It is a big place.  We were using two GPSs – the car and iPad.  Once we got to the town center, the iPad just gave up and started displaying a continuous circle.  The car GPS held in there, but only after sending us around the same block 5 times (with Enza in the backseat murmuring, “Maria, Maria”).

We finally found the place and the Europcar people said, “No problem” – we have another auttomatica. But we would have to sign a whole new contract.  Frank asked them to coordinate with the Catania Airport so we would know if there was a price difference to what we’d already paid, whether insurance transferred, etc.  They said no – that these were all separate franchises.  There was some debate about what to do with everyone saying what they thought and motioning wildly in the Italian way, but eventually Frank sent Enza and I to sit down while he discussed the issue with the rental car agent – words were exchanged (in Italian) – and Frank prevailed.  They called Catania – of course, we don’t really have proof of this and still had to sign their paperwork anyway.

But we happily moved all of our stuff to the new car – an Opel (which is a downgrade apparently because they said we would get a 200 Euro refund). Proud of ourselves, we set off.


And about 5 miles down the road, a light went off warning to add “AdBlue.”  We had no idea what this was.  Then about 5 miles later, another warning – “The engine will be prevented from restarting in 800 kilometers.”  Yikes.  We quickly calculated where we might be in 800 kilometers and knew we at least had a couple of days to figure it out.  Out of the frying pan and into the fire!

Thank Goodness I Travel With A Rocket Scientist!

Frank tried calling the Agrigento office back – but no one has answered. He consulted our front desk again, who sent us to a local auto parts store in Licata.  We found the place and discussed the problem with them.

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It was only 18 Euro, so we ended up buying our our own AdBlue (which apparently is to cool down the catalytic converter).  They even helped us add it – there is a spot right next to the diesel fill.   You have to be resourceful in Sicily!

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Our only worry now is that we are going to return the wrong car to the Catania Airport. We are hoping they believe our story that we gave away their Audi in Agrigento in return for an Opel.  Otherwise, we may have just bought an Audi – but at least I will get a lot of American Express points!




Registro di Nascita (Registry of Birth)

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Frank has had a goal of obtaining is mother’s birth records, but wasn’t exactly sure where to go. We knew one place to start was the municipal office in Canicatti, where his mother was born.  But we weren’t sure how to find this place – Canicatti is bigger than you would think, and a Google search was not helpful.

So we asked Enza to help. She said, “OK!”

The Municipal Office was in the old part of town, with extra narrow viales (streets) and lots of cars and people darting in and out. It took us awhile of driving around and Enza hopping out of the car (while it was still moving) to look around and ask people on the street for help.


We finally found the right place, but alas, it was only open in the mornings so chuiso (closed). But you don’t stop Enza, who is a retired pre-school teacher and knows or has taught every child in town.  You don’t say no to her.  She banged on the door until someone came and talked our way in with tears in her eyes for these cousins who had come all the way from America.  “Va bene” (ok) they said and opened the door.

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They pointed us to an office on the top floor with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with tall hard-backed books labeled “Nascita” and a year. These were the birth records for all of Canicatti, even today.  Each person gets a page with a handwritten entry.  For some reason, I loved this – each baby counts the same, whether 100 years ago or today.

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Frank and Enza talked to the man who is in charge of records and explained that they were looking for any records of Antoinetta Buccheri, Frank’s mother.

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The man was very helpful and said he would research it, and we could pick up anything he found.  We left with our fingers crossed.

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A Surprise

Tonight, Enza, Salvio, and Cettina (the gang who joined us in Taormina) came to our hotel for dinner and brought the records. A single sheet memorializing the birth of Frank’s mother and another sheet recording her marriage to Frank’s father.

I was struck by the matrimoniale (marriage) record because it looks exactly like the record for me and Frank, since we eloped in Italy. It gave me goosebumps to think that we were now part of this chain of history.


But the most amazing was the birth record. The name listed was MARIANTONIO BUCCHERI. Frank’s face fell – after all that, it was the wrong person.


But no – Enza insisted – everyone in Canicatti knew that Frank’s mother’s real name was Mariantonio – she just went by Antoinetta for short – or maybe it got shorted for her when she emigrated to America.

All these years, and Frank never knew his mother’s given birth name. This could be the key to unlocking even more family history.

This is why we are here in Sicily – there is still so much to be learned.


Discovering New Family

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We discovered some new Buccheris tonight! Buccheri is Frank’s mother’s maiden name – although in Sicily, women do not take their husband’s names so there is no such thing as a “maiden” name.

A Relaxing Evening at the Hotel (so we think . . .)

It was our first evening at Falconara – after our long journey from Taormina in our new rental car. We were exhausted and looking forward to a quiet dinner at the hotel.

We invited Enza over to our patio for aperitivo beforehand – by this time around 8:30 pm. While having our wine, Enza got a call and jumped up saying, “Hurry, Hurry!” (in Italian).  Apparently the family had gathered for dinner nearby.  We were shocked.  We aren’t sure if this had been explained to us and we just missed it in translation or if this was a completely new plan.

So we hurried to the car and drove to meet the family at a restaurant called “Sombrero.” At this point, I was hoping that Sombrero was a Mexican outpost with a good margarita.  I asked Enza, and she looked at me like I was crazy and so, no, it was Italian – why would a Mexican restaurant be in Italy?  So it is a mystery why they chose this name – with the hat on the sign and everything!

To The Beach!

But it didn’t matter – we were not going to stay at Sombrero anyway. That turned out to just be the meeting spot.  Soon – the family pulled up and stopped the car in the middle of the road and jumped out and gave us kisses.  Then told us to jump back in the car and follow them.  We were going a bit off the grid.

They led us through dark streets into a kind of sketchy part of town, down a very narrow alley that opened up into a fully lit and very hip restaurant on the beach. Wow.

We sat down and enjoyed plate after plate of fresh seafood – even a whole octopus that, when standing on end was at least a foot tall. And they carved it table-side.


Meeting New Family

The most amazing part was that as we were sitting there, the family started smiling and talking fast – it turned out another relative happened to be eating there, too. So we all went over for a reunion.


It turns out this Buccheri’s grandmother and Frank’s mother were sisters. Incredible – like God had put this whole crazy night in motion so they could meet.  A very small world.

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We finally got back to the hotel at about 1:30 am. The adventure is just starting in Sicilia!