Honor and Onions

By Vincent Schiavelli

Published on June 18, 2007

I turned over the big ceramic bowl and gently unmolded the dome-shaped casserole onto a large serving plate. Then, with both hands, I lifted the heavy platter and carried the dish—my Sicilian grandfather's tumala, a golden bombe of pasta baked in a shell of rice and cheese—out to my boisterous guests in the dining room. "'A tumala d'Andrea!" I announced dramatically in Sicilian—Andrea's tumala. A hush came over the room as I set the platter on the table, but when I sliced through the tumala's shell, revealing its interior of macaroni dressed with a sauce of tomatoes, peas, and ground meat, the room burst into cheers and wild applause. As we tasted the tumala, the room fell silent again. Then Giuseppe Lo Verde, the exuberant mayor of Polizzi Generosa—the town in north-central Sicily where my grandfather had once lived and cooked—lifted his glass and roared, "To Papa Andrea Coco, who finally returned to Polizzi to bring this dish home to us!"

My father died when I was 3, and Papa Andrea and my grandmother, Carolina, took us to live with them in their very loving, very Sicilian home in Brooklyn. Every afternoon, as I did my schoolwork at one end of the kitchen table, Papa Andrea would prepare dinner at the other. When my assignments were done, I would help him with simple tasks—peeling, mixing, stirring—and he would tell me about Sicily, and about his early days in America at the turn of the century. Over the years, I learned much about his life, and just as much about cooking.

The recipes he taught me in that small kitchen, it turned out, were part of the impressive legacy of the monzu, the famed master chefs of Sicily and Naples. At the beginning of the 19th century, noble Sicilian and Neapolitan families hired chefs from France as their personal cooks. These highly regarded chefs, called messieurs—or gentlemen—applied French culinary techniques to the regional ingredients of their new land, and created a new, subtle, and refined local cuisine. Over time, their secrets were passed, through a system of apprenticeship, to native-born Sicilians, and the French messieurs—monsieur in the singular—became the Sicilian monzu. Before coming to America, my grandfather had been monzu to a baron of the Rampolla family, a scion of one of Sicily's most powerful clans.

By the end of World War II, few families, even noble ones, could still afford to keep their private chefs, and the monzu's profession all but disappeared; its influence, however, is still detected in such full-flavored but refined Sicilian recipes as braciola 'i pisci spata, thinly sliced swordfish wrapped around wine-soaked raisins, herbs, and grated cheese. The legacy of the island's many conquerors—Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, Spanish, and French—is also apparent. Imported crops flourished in Sicily's fertile soils, and, aided by the island's rich natural resources, contributed to a particularly varied cuisine. The Arabic influence, possibly the most defining in modern-day Sicily, comes through in complex recipes combining sweet with savory, mixing nuts with fruits and meats, and using plenty of spices. Like its cooking, Polizzi Generosa's name reflects its past. The town, about fifty miles east of Palermo, in the Madonie Mountains, is said to have been named Polis Isis—the City of Isis, in honor of the Egyptian goddess Isis—by the Greek cult that worshiped her and lived there in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. About 1,700 years later, in 1234, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who was also king of Sicily, visited Polizzi, and was so moved by the city's generosity that he decreed it "La Generosa." That name is every bit as appropriate today.

I was in Polizzi, cooking dinner for its mayor, his wife, and a few of our friends, as a result of Papa Andrea's Sicilian Table, a cookbook I'd published in 1993. The mayor had seen the book on a visit to America and, with the help of my cousin Giuseppe Vilardi, a barber in Polizzi, had tracked me down in Los Angeles. "You wrote the cookbook!" he cried over the phone. "You wrote about our food and about our history! It is so important that you have written these recipes down, for many of them have been lost to us over the years. Come to Polizzi. It would be an honor for us to have you, and to present you with an award for your work in film." He suggested that I visit in mid-September, for the Feast of San Gandolfo, the five-day celebration of the city's patron saint. "You would be," he said rhapsodically, "the godfather of the feast!" Thoroughly flattered, and eager to return to the town, I agreed. "Chistu iornu e scrittu cu n'inchoustru chi nun si leva mai," I told him—this is now written in an ink that can never be erased. Amused by my quaint Sicilian, he let out a mighty torrent of laughter, which surely sealed the dates in heaven.

Three months later, I arrived in Polizzi Generosa, and, on my first night there, met with a local restaurateur named Santo Lipani, a friend I'd made over the years, and his good friend Francesco Ficile—who, in addition to owning Il Mulino, the local inn where I was staying, and a popular caffe in town, is also a city official. We met at Orto dei Cappuccini, Santo's rustic stone restaurant (housed in a 15th-century monastery), where I'd spent plenty of late nights. I was welcomed with powerful hugs and a billow of cigarette smoke at a table laden with crusty bread, locally cured olives, and a carafe of red wine from a nearby vineyard. Santo filled my glass, toasted my arrival, then slipped into the kitchen, leaving me in the company of Francesco, a taciturn but very likable fellow.

Soon, unmistakably local foods began to appear—funci 'i pioppi, delicate wild oyster mushrooms, topped with bread crumbs and olive oil and baked; deep red, deeply flavored prosciutto; a creamy, slightly salty cow's-milk cheese called cascavaddu (caciocavallo in Italian); grilled eggplant; roasted red peppers; and little Sicilian omelettes made with grated pecorino romano and bread crumbs and topped with a piquant tomato sauce.

All of a sudden, the restaurant's front door flew open and Pasqualina, my elderly cousin, appeared, looking younger than ever. She hurried towards us, followed by Pepe and Moffu, two of her five grown children. "Vicenzu," she cried, "Vicenzu, it's been so long." I hadn't seen Pasqualina, the widow of my great-grandfather's brother's great-grandson, since my last trip to Polizzi, in 1992. Tears of joy streamed down her cheeks as she held my face in her hands, looking meaningfully into my eyes. "Um, some peppers?" I gasped. "Oh, no," she said, releasing her grip. "We already ate. We came only to welcome you." At that, Santo emerged from the kitchen with a heap of small, battered, and fried rings that he called calamari 'i muntagna, mountain calamari. The closest thing to seafood that this region can produce, these are onions—wonderful onions. "Some pasta?" Santo asked. "Or a second course?" We settled on fruit—sugar-sweet figs, prickly pears, and fleshy grapes the size of plums. As I sat there with a full belly, laughing with friends and loving family, I felt at home. I knew I was in Polizzi.

"Vicenzu!" a short, corpulent man hollered from across the room. I was at Francesco's caffe the next morning for my appointment with the mayor. "I recognize that face!" said the mayor, a jolly man in his late thirties. "Have a seat." Over cappuccino and corneddu cu 'a crema (crescent-shaped, cream-filled pastries), he breathlessly reviewed our agenda: "Tonight, the awards ceremony; tomorrow, the procession of San Gandolfo; Saturday, we show your movies, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Ghost. Could you introduce them?" My head was spinning, but I assured him I would. Then, with a mighty handshake, he rose and disappeared. I finished my pastry and strolled over to cousin Giuseppe's barbershop for a shave and a haircut. We chatted for a while afterward, then I left, stopping in town to buy some prosciutto, olives, wine, and bread, before heading back to the inn. After a simple picnic and a long nap, I was refreshed.

That evening, the mayor took the stand in the small city hall and began an eloquent speech. "We honor Vincent Schiavelli today, not because he is an actor or because he has immortalized our city and its grand cuisine in a fine cookbook, but because he is ours." About 150 Polizziani, many of them my cousins, broke into thunderous applause. Then the mayor presented me with an engraved silver plaque. As we joined the crowd, I offered him my own most heartfelt gift: I would cook him a dinner of my grandfather's famous dishes. He accepted immediately, and we set the date for my last night in Polizzi.

The Feast of San Gandolfo officially begins with a religious procession from the Church of San Gandolfo, just outside Polizzi. A Franciscan friar chants and a drummer sounds a tattoo as the statue of Polizzi's patron saint makes its way from the church, up the winding road to Polizzi, in the back of a flatbed truck, followed by a caravan of cars. At the city's entrance, a crowd cheers. The cars and truck, which could never fit through the city's narrow streets, are abandoned, and the 400-pound statue is carried through the city by 12 strong young men, as their forefathers did, along a centuries-old route. The townspeople, thankful for another year of health and happiness, follow the marchers, or blow kisses as the statue passes. Then they celebrate for four days—eating, drinking, dancing, and parading.

As my dinner for the mayor approached, I made my way from one family-run food shop to another, imagining my grandfather a hundred years ago, having the same exchanges with the grandparents and great-grandparents of the present-day store owners. "Have you ever seen such a loin?" the rosy-cheeked butcher asked me as he held a deep-pink cut of pork in the air. "Our pigs eat chestnuts and acorns, in an open field," he said. "That gives their meat a flavor that's wild, sweet, and delicate." I couldn't resist. I left his well-lit store and headed down the street and into the dark, cool cheese shop. The proprietress greeted me. "Bon iornu," I answered, and, continuing in Sicilian, I told her, "I've come for some pecorino." She sliced off a taste from a large, thick wheel of cheese. My mouth was filled with intense, earthy flavors. "This is the most wonderful, creamy pecorino I have ever tasted!" I exclaimed. "It is ours," the small woman said proudly, then recounted how her husband and sons tend sheep and make the cheese in the nearby countryside. I could have hung around for hours, but I had to get to the produce market and the pastry shop, where the owner, knowing of my dinner, refused payment. "Let the pastries," he said, "be my humble offering for this very special banquet."

Santo had lent me his restaurant for the evening, and I arrived there, late in the morning, laden with groceries. I settled into his ancient kitchen and started on the tumala, a dish that requires some preparation. While the rice soaked in the egg-and-cheese mixture, I took a break to join Santo for a lunch of green salad, his sublime ziti chi sosizza e finucchieddi—pasta with sausage and fennel—and a glass of wine. I returned to my tumala, and my thoughts drifted to Papa Andrea, who surely must have made tumala for important dinners in the baron's house a century ago. The sense of continuity pleased me, and I glided through the cooking, chopping garlic, peeling onions, shelling peas, as if led by another pair of hands. The mayor and his wife, three friends, and Francesco and his wife arrived half an hour early—each with an unexpected friend or child (or several), now making about twenty of us in all. I pulled Santo into the kitchen. "How can this be? How will I feed everybody?" I asked desperately. "It will be fine, Vicenzu," he calmly replied. "Please, take this glass of wine."

I pulled a tray of my grandfather's funci chini—mushrooms stuffed with bread crumbs and cheese, and bathed in marsala—from the oven, put them on a platter, and walked into the dining room. My guests hungrily popped them whole into their mouths. "Ooh!" cried Signora Lo Verde, the mayor's wife, "Are these in your book?" Cascavaddu came next, then a delicious dish of broccoli in a tomato-anchovy sauce that Santo had whipped up. I almost didn't bring out the cippudeddi auruduci, or sweet and sour onions, that my grandfather often made back in Brooklyn, thinking that the honey, vinegar, and black pepper combination might prove too exotic for the Polizziani. To my surprise, however, my guests devoured every morsel. Between bites, the mayor announced, "Let's translate your book into Italian! We must!"_

After the antipasti, I presented my grandfather's version of pasta cu vracculu arriminatu, a pasta with cauliflower that's still quite popular in Polizzi, and his impressive tumala. Though nothing could top that domed spectacle of rice and pasta, the pork loin that followed, crusted with black pepper and chopped onions and surrounded by golden potatoes, was a quiet wonder. After a green salad with shaved fennel, I brought out pastries and u sfuagghiu, a Polizziano cheesecake made with fresh ewe's-milk cheese, cocoa, and chopped candied fruits. We drank and laughed and told naughty Sicilian jokes well into the night. I raised my glass to the mayor and thanked him for welcoming me—and Papa Andrea—home to Polizzi. The tears welled up in my eyes, then everybody else became weepy. Soon, though, we were overcome once again with laughter.

A few weeks after I returned to Los Angeles, the phone rang. It was Santo, reporting that my grandfather's sweet and sour onions had become a permanent part of his repertoire at the restaurant. "My customers can't get enough of them!" he exclaimed. The onions, it seems, have become all the rage—once again—in Polizzi Generosa.

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