The first time I went to Italy, my mother made an unusual request. "So far I haven't placed any restrictions on you," she said to me over the phone, her voice sounding unusually tense, "but since you're going to Italy, I have to ask for one thing. Please don't go further south than Rome."
I was standing in a telephone booth somewhere in southern France, a week or so into my first backpacking trip around Europe, when she dropped this unexpected news on me.
"But why?" I protested, "why don't you want me to go to southern Italy?"
She sighed. "Because I've heard it can be dangerous, particularly to a seventeen-year-old American girl traveling alone."
I laughed out loud. "Dangerous, like what, the mafia?"
"No, not the mafia," she replied, "it's just that, well, the men there have a certain reputation. That's all I'm going to say - please don't go."
I argued feebly for a moment before giving in. It really wouldn't be that much of a burden to comply - after all, most of what I really wanted to see in Italy was in the north: Florence, Venice, the Lakes, the Riviera. But I still thought the request was nonsense; after all, I had just spent a year as an exchange student in Spain - which, I assumed, had just as many hot-blooded Mediterranean men as Italy - and had lived to tell the tale. How different could Italy be?
As I was about to discover, very. From the instant I set foot on Italian soil, I seemed to be emitting a man magnet. I'd never been one to attract an undue amount of attention from the opposite sex, and on this trip in particular I assumed the grimy backpacker look would send any potential hasslers running the other way, but I couldn't have been more mistaken. Young, old, suave, disheveled, English-speaking and not, they swarmed to me, stopping me on street corners, sidling up to me in museums, stalking me in supermarkets, softly murmuring "Ciao bella" and "Da dove vieni?". Despite the fact that I was on my feet all day, resting anywhere became a dicey prospect, as the instant I sat down some man would inevitably materialize out of nowhere (even in the middle of deserted countryside), plant himself uncomfortably close, and attempt to strike up a conversation. It didn't matter if we could barely communicate - understanding each other was obviously not crucial to their plans. In fact I didn't know what was crucial to their plans, but I usually nipped these encounters in the bud before I could find out. Venice, I recall, was particularly bad - I spent my entire three days there being hounded by one persistent man after another, who would follow me around pleading with me that all they wanted was to share a coffee and practice their English (and lest you think that all I had to do was pretend not to speak English, I tried... it still didn't work). At first I went to great pains to politely make up excuses for why I couldn't further our relationship (e.g. mysterious friends who were expecting me, a husband waiting back at the hotel, an imminent train to catch), but I soon realized nothing worked. By the time I crossed into Switzerland one month later, I had been hassled by more men than I dared to count - and I hadn't even made it as far south as Rome. Who knew what would have been in store for me down south?
But I had fallen in love with Italy, despite the annoyances, and more than anything I wanted to see the south, particularly Sicily. That's why three years later, when there was no one but me calling the shots, I flew into Rome, and took the first train south I could find. I traveled first to Naples, detoured for a couple of days to glamorous Capri, and then pushed southward, watching how the lush rolling hills gave way to rocky, arid landscapes, open-sided rock quarries and a punishing, relentless sun. The people who boarded the overnight train began to look poorer, more weatherbeaten, like the villages they came from, an impression that seemed to intensify the deeper down the boot we went. By the time we arrived in Sicily I had the feeling we had crossed over into another country altogether - the land, the language, even the people were different.
And this impression held as I traveled around Sicily, though in surprising ways. Although I had braced myself for the world-famous machismo, I couldn't seem to find it anywhere. Every man I met was polite and reserved; walking around - even stopping to consult my map, the surest lure I knew in the north - I failed to attract even an untoward glance. Black-clad grandmothers would occasionally turn and eye me suspiciously, but no one dared to initiate a conversation; unless of course, there was business to be done, in which case there was plenty of arm-waving and pats on the back. Mostly, though, I found myself wandering the streets of gritty, edgy cities full of young unemployed Sicilian males and not even garnering a whistle, much less bench companions. It was unexpectedly, wonderfully liberating.
Then one day at the end of my Sicilian travels, I visited the cliff-top town of Taormina on Sicily's east coast. Settled on a hill of the Monte Tauro (just north of Mount Etna), Taormina dominates two grand, sweeping bays and a breathtaking view over almost one hundred miles of Mediterranean sea. It was very different to most of the Sicily I had seen so far - it was clean and well kept; there were tourists, boutiques, lush greenery and fountains gracing a lovely clifftop promenade above the sea. The back streets of the town's small center were chock-full of interesting little shops, and it was while meandering these that I stopped to admire a window display of pastries. I was particularly fixated on the tower of cannolis with their pistachio-flecked innards spilling out of golden shells - I hadn't, after all, yet managed to try this most iconic of Sicilian delicacies - when I heard a voice at my shoulder.
"Ciao, bella," it said, "do you speak English?" I whirled around and found a little man, at least a foot shorter than me, probably in his late-fifties, balding, plump, and sporting a business shirt and sneakers. He was grinning a little too widely for my taste. I shook my head. "Français? Deutsch? Español?"
Damn, I thought, he had all the bases covered. I sighed heavily. "English."
His eyes lit up. "Oh good, English is best for me! I am Vittorio." He bowed stiffly and reached out for my hand, starting to raise it to his lips. I snatched it away and took a step backward. Instantly I felt the old evasive maneuvers coming back.
"I'm terribly sorry, but I'm really in a hurry," I said.
"Oh, but I thought we could speak a bit. You see I would like to practice my English..."
I didn't even give him a chance to finish his thought before turning around and half-running down the street, calling, "sorry, I really have to go," over my shoulder. I didn't slow down until I was nearly on the other side of town. I guess Sicily has them too, I thought, shaking my head in despair, I knew it was too good to be true. I felt the uncomfortable realization that I would constantly have to be on my guard now. My heart slightly heavier, I resumed my window shopping, looking at leather purses and postcards and Taormina t-shirts.
A short while later I had stepped inside a pottery shop and was admiring a lavishly painted espresso set when I heard the dreaded voice at my shoulder. "Hello again."
I didn't have to turn around this time to see who it was. "You are admiring the Sicilian ceramics, no? They are very beautiful." Vittorio picked up a cup from the set I had been looking at. "Maybe I can buy you a little souvenir of Taormina? Something to take home?"
I shook my head vehemently. The last thing I wanted was be indebted to this strange, annoying man. "No, I wouldn't have space for it anyway," I said, slowly starting to back towards the door of the shop. He put the cup down and followed me.
"Well, then, maybe something you don't have to take with you? Come, I will invite you to lunch."
Again I shook my head. "I'm sorry, I've already eaten," I lied.
"Well then coffee," he said calmly, the smile never leaving his lips. "Come on, no obligation, just a little bit of coffee and a little bit of conversation."
My heart was racing - I honestly couldn't imagine a worse way to spend my afternoon than having to make small talk with this man half my height and three times my age. I started looking helplessly around at people passing us on the street, but no one seemed to take notice.
"I'm sorry, but I really can't do that. I have to catch my train in twenty minutes. I can't be late," I said finally, seeing my only way out. His smile faded, but I barely saw it as I was already halfway down the street.
I took great pains to avoid him for the rest of the afternoon. I tried some delicious Sicilian gelato, had an alfresco picnic under one of the town's sparkling public fountains, and admired the many gorgeous views of the impossibly blue sea, but never without looking over my shoulder first. Though Taormina was in many ways much less Sicilian than elsewhere on the island, I had to admit this was one of the most stunningly beautiful places I had ever visited, and I was sorry I had left it until the end. I was also sorry that I'd had my streak of hassle-free travel broken here, but I didn't dwell on that too much - after all, there was still cannoli to be eaten. By the end of the afternoon I realized I'd waited long enough to do exactly that, and navigated the town's narrow back streets to the pastry shop where I'd seen that mouthwatering window display earlier in the day. Luckily they were still open, Vittorio was nowhere to be seen, and the friendly woman behind the counter was happy to wrap up two cannolis for me in a sheet of greaseproof paper.
Clutching my little pastry parcel to my chest, I stepped back out into the bright sunshine to find a place to enjoy it.
"Oh hello!" a dreadedly familiar voice called out. My heart sank - Vittorio was running down the street toward me. "Oh, I'm glad you haven't left yet," he gushed. I rolled my eyes and cast a glance to my cannolis, quickly beginning to wilt in the late afternoon heat. "I have to catch my train now, but I would like to give you my address so that maybe we can meet someday if you ever make it to Milano."
My eyes widened as I looked at the address on the scrap of paper he was handing me. "What - Milano?" I sputtered. "You're from Milano?"
"Why yes, I'm just down here in Sicily for my holidays." He looked slightly confused as to why this should matter. "But I have been here a week and tomorrow I have to go back to work," he said sadly, and suddenly I noticed the large suitcase he was carrying. Before I could even respond, he was bowing in his awkward way, reaching out to kiss my hand, hauling up his suitcase and hurrying off in the direction of the train station.
I stood there for a minute, stunned, watching him recede into the distance. A tourist from the north, I should have guessed. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, I walked across the promenade to a bench with a nice view of the ocean below, carefully unwrapped my cannolis, took a bite, and marvelled at how good it felt just to be left completely, blissfully alone.
(Dear readers, I'm sorry to report that this will most likely the last post I'll be able to put up for a while, as I'll be taking time off from everything - including cooking and blogging - for the next month or so to work intensively on my PhD. Curse these real life obligations! Don't ask me how I'm going to survive, but assuming I do, you'll find me back here in mid to late May. Wish me luck!)
Yield: 20-24 cannolis
Source: adapted from La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio by Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene
Notes: Ever since trying cannoli that first time in Taormina, I've wanted to make my own, but somehow never got around to it until now. I was amazed at how easy they actually are, but you do need the tools of the trade, namely metal cannoli tubes, easily available from kitchen shops or online. I also took this opportunity to try my hand at making my own ricotta, which I hoped would better approximate the incredibly flavorful ricotta filling of those first Sicilian cannoli. While it may not have quite lived up to the memory, it was very good, and remarkably easy (I also loved the richness added by the heavy cream), and I won't hesitate to make it again whenever I need a superior quality ricotta. If you don't feel like making your own, however, Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene (whose wonderful book above I highly recommend as an introduction to Sicilian cuisine) suggest taking normal supermarket ricotta and draining it overnight in a cheesecloth-lined strainer to more approximate the thick, dense ricotta they use. As for the exact proportions of the filling ingredients, let taste be your guide - the Tornabenes only flavor their ricotta with sugar and a bit of vanilla, but I love the combination of chocolate, orange, citron and pistachio that seems to embody the quintessential flavors of Sicily in every bite.
For cannoli shells:
2 cups (280g) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (70g) sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup (80ml) lard, melted and cooled, or vegetable oil, plus more for frying
red wine vinegar, as needed
1 egg white
For rich homemade ricotta:
1 gallon (4 liters) whole milk
2 cups (500ml) heavy/double cream
4 cups (1 liter) buttermilk
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
3 cups (about 750g) thick, well-drained homemade ricotta (or 4 cups (1kg) commercial ricotta drained in a cheesecloth overnight)
1 cup (220g) sugar, more or less to taste
2 teaspoons vanilla
finely grated zest of 2 oranges
chopped dark chocolate, to taste
chopped candied citron, to taste
1/2 cup (50g) unsalted shelled pistachios, chopped
Special equipment: cheesecloth, candy thermometer, metal cannoli tubes
Begin making the ricotta one day in advance. Put all the ingredients in a large pot and put it on medium heat. Let it heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until it is hot and little bubbles form on the surface. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes. Then let it bubble for about 5 minutes without stirring. You'll see curds start to form. Let the temperture rise to 175F or 80C. Turn off the heat, and let the pot sit there, undisturbed, for 10 minutes. Using a skimmer or a large slotted spoon transfer the curds into a large strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth, gently scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any stuck-on ricotta. When the draining has slowed to an occasional drip, set the strainer over a bowl and refrigerate (fold the ends of the cheesecloth over the top of the ricotta so it doesn't dry out too much). Let it drain until all the whey runs off and the cheese is quite thick, about 24 hours.
For the cannoli shells, put the flour, sugar and salt into a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the eggs and melted lard or oil. Mix together, adding enough vinegar, little by little, until you have a very smooth, soft dough (I used about 1.5 tablespoons, I think). Knead the dough on a board for a few minutes and work into a ball. The dough should be soft and elastic. Let the dough rest, wrapped in plastic, at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours. It can be prepared a day in advance and kept wrapped in plastic at room temperature.
Roll the dough out into a thin, large circle (about 1/8 inch/2mm thick). You can also halve or quarter the dough, and roll each piece out into smaller circles. Cut the dough into perfect 4-inch (10cm) circles (find something round in your kitchen with this diameter to work as a guide). Using a rolling pin, make one or two passes over each circle to create more of an oval shape, trying to keep an even thickness throughout. Wrap each piece of dough around an oiled cannoli tube so that the longer sides overlap in the middle. Dab a bit of egg white where the dough overlaps and press to secure it well. Ready as many tubes as you have available.
Heat about 3 inches of lard or vegetable oil in a deep frying pan until hot but not smoking. A scrap of dough should start frying the instant it hits the oil. Fry two or three shells at a time, pressing them down if necessary to keep them submerged, until golden brown all over. This will happen quickly - possibly in less than a minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Knock one end of the tube to loosen it from the shell, then remove it from the shell while it is still hot. Allow the tubes to cool before using them for the next batch. The shells are best used within a couple of hours, but will keep in an airtight container for a few days. Fill them just before serving.
For the filling, mix together the drained ricotta with everything except the pistachios. Taste and adjust the level of sweetness - some people like it sweeter than others. Using a teaspoon or a pastry bag or even your fingers, fill the cooled shells with the mixture. Decorate the ends with chopped pistachios and serve at once.