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Taking a Bite Out of Sicily

Being the second generation Italian American that I am when people ask me if I speak Italian I often joke, “I only know the food and the bad words.” This came in handy (the former, not the latter) on Noordam’s recent call to Palermo, Sicily when I took the “Taste of Sicily” shore excursion.

Now, I admit I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to Italian food. Whenever I think of eating at an Italian restaurant anywhere outside of Italy or New York I think about Henry Hill in “Goodfellas” talking about ordering Spaghetti with marinara sauce and getting “egg noodles and ketchup.” I knew right away however that I was in for a treat when I met our tour guide and she looked almost exactly like my grandmother. I knew very little about this tour except that there would be a cooking lesson and that meant there would also be some eating. We took off into the bustle of downtown Palermo and our guide told us about the city and pointed out some interesting sights along the way. After a brief stop at a beautiful Cathedral we made our way out of the metropolis and headed for the country—the ‘real Sicily’ that our guide had been taking about. As we headed for our destination she told us about the countryside and how all of the produce we would be using today is from the local area.

The Real Sicily

The real Sicily.

Just about 30 minutes outside of Palermo, in a truly bucolic setting we turned off the main road. The four kilometer drive through the wheat fields and cow pastures that were part of the estate we were visiting led us to believe that this would be very rustic. The eighteenth century farmhouse seemed to appear from nowhere but we are all so excited—the food couldn’t be far off!

Welcome to the past.

Welcome to the past

The beautiful courtyard

The beautiful courtyard.

As is typical for a house of this era there was a beautiful palm tree shaded courtyard and, much to our delight, the cooking class would be held there. The warm sweet smelling breeze was the perfect backdrop to learn about this wonderful rustic food. With the assistance of a chef, the lady of the house conducted the class in Italian. Our guide was good enough to translate. Sometimes it seemed that the translations were much shorter than the original Italian, but we got the information we needed. Fresh marinara sauce, eggplant parmigiana, panelle (a chickpea pancake), grilled veal and almond cookies were demonstrated with the assistance of a few brave guests. The talk at my table quickly turned to when we would be sampling these treats.

Class is in session

Class is in session.

Panelle.

Panelle.

After being ushered into the dining room we happily talked about our class and the guests all talked about how they could not wait to get home and try these recipes out on their friends and family. We all sat and anxiously awaited the meal we had seen being prepared. We all thought we would be enjoying only the dishes we had just seen being prepared. Boy, were we wrong. We poured some local wine and the procession of food began. The feast began with marinated olives and fresh homemade caponata accompanied by fresh baked (still warm) bread made from flour grown right on the property. Next came fresh foccacia, bruschetta, assorted appetizers like mini rice balls and the eggplant parmigiana we had seen prepared earlier.

Caponata.

Caponata.

Bruschetta.

Bruschetta.

During the short interval between courses our tour guide came over and told us to make sure we saved room for the pasta and then of course the sausage and potatoes. PASTA? SAUSAGE AND POTATOES? We were already beginning to fill up. After all, she posited, what is an Italian meal without pasta. Shortly after her prognostication out came some creamy risotto with zucchini and rigatoni with a sweet tomato sauce with eggplant and olives (very Sicilian!). I feel I must also pause for a moment and reflect on how incredibly perfectly the pasta was cooked. Where I come from ‘al dente’ is more or less a grand and generally unachievable goal. The pasta almost made me cry tears of joy. And I am not overstating it. Really.

Rigatoni with eggplant, cherry tomatoes and olives

Rigatoni with eggplant, cherry tomatoes and olives

Anyway, back to the gastronomic parade. After the starches we moved to the beautiful grilled veal skewers with a simple stuffing and rolled in breadcrumbs. Then there was the sausage and potatoes. The sausage reminded me of so many summer barbecues in my youth.

Veal Skewers, sausage and potatoes.

Veal skewers, sausage and potatoes.

And so we reached the end, or so we thought. After a modest time to digest, these little balls of almond flour love rolled in sugar appeared and they were happily accompanied by small cannoli. We all happily struggled to eat just a few more bites and a thought crossed my mind that might make my stepmother a tad upset. I thought to myself, “These almond cookies are better than Nancy’s.” Oh my. I hope she doesn’t find out. After the dessert plates were empty our tour guide told us that the obligatory espresso was waiting for us in the next room along with some items to buy.

-Canoli and almond cookies.

Canoli and almond cookies.

Almost everyone on the tour happily bought a cookbook (my gift to Nancy for my evil thoughts). I was really tempted to buy some of the wine we had just enjoyed. I knew it was local because it was being sold in previously used water bottles. When I saw it I immediately flashed on Lucille Ball in that big wooden vat. I passed. Needless to say the bus ride back to Noordam was quiet. Most of us enjoyed a post-meal nap. Upon returning to the ship I think we all wondered how even the fine dining cuisine of Noordam could compare to what we just experienced. Somehow, I knew, we might find a way to manage.

Anthony Garofalo, besides being an Italian food snob, is Noordam’s human resources manager.

3 Comments
  • Stepmom Nancy

    Love the article, but those cookies could not have been as good as mine! Different maybe, but NEVER as good as mine 🙂

  • Francesca Tate

    I am a budding chef, (and part Italian) and I love all cuisines, particularly Spanish and Eastern European (Turkish, Armenian, Moroccan, Israeli, Lebanese, etc.) So any of these excursions would be of great interest!

  • Janette Sanginario

    Love to win a trip on holland America. We went to Alaska and Panama Canal. Loved both trips with holland america

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