The drive to Gangivecchio follows a narrow two-lane road that twists, harrowingly, through the Madonie Mountains, east of Palermo. As we climbed and the coastline became a memory, the air cooled and filled with the sweet scent of yellow flowering broom, pine trees, and wild herbs. I told Christina to keep her eyes open at each turn, because when the medieval town of Gangi appears, tumbling down a mountainside with Mount Etna smoking in the distance, it takes your breath away.
Left: Cauliflower for sale at the Mercato del Capo, in Palermo. Right: Giovanna Tornabene prepares lunch in her kitchen in Gangivecchio. Simon Watson
Gangivecchio, an estate built by Benedictine monks in the 14th century, lies just outside the village. Green and gold hills rise beyond its faded pink walls. In the courtyard, fig trees, potted cacti, and herbs compete for space. Pigeons roost in the abbey. There is no noise but the wind.
The property has been in Giovanna Tornabenes family for five generations, but it only became famous in 1992 after the restaurant that Giovanna and her mother, Wanda, had opened years earlier was written about in the New York Times. This led to an award-winning cookbook, La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio. Giovanna shuttered the restaurant after Wanda passed away in 2011, but she still offers cooking classes to guests of Tenuta Gangivecchio, the propertys inn. Id been fortunate enough to take one on a previous visit.
We arrived to find Giovanna selecting hazelnuts she had collected on the property. I asked if I could give Christina a tour before lunch. You know the rules, Giovanna said with a wave. She was referring to the menagerie she keeps separated in various areas of the property. I introduced Christina to the dogs, cats, and pigeons, shutting each gate firmly behind us.
We were heading back to the inn, giddy from the disheveled beauty of the place, when I noticed the front gate was open. Pedro and Dolores, two of Giovannas beloved dogs, were missing. Giddiness turned to nausea.
You saw me shut the gate, I said to Christina.
You shut the gate.
I shut the gate! I yelled.
Giovanna ran up, out of breath.
Pedro and Dolores are gone!
As we drove the mountain roads, windows rolled down, screaming the dogs names, I said goodbye to our leisurely lunch and plotted my suicide. It was the only honorable course of action. Christina was in tears when Giovanna honked at us to pull over.
Lets go back, she said firmly. I will not cry for them yet. The caponata is waiting.
The thing about Giovanna is, her dogs are her family, but she is also a professional. She would never let us go hungry. On the way to the kitchen, she grabbed a bottle of white wine. We need this, she said.
Left: Ai Lumi Tavernetta, in Trapani, which specializes in fish couscous. Right: White-chocolate-and-lemon torta caprese at Cioccolateria Lorenzo, in Palermo. Simon Watson
If anyones caponata can ease a tense situation, it is Giovannas. The dish is emblematic of Sicily, utilizing the islands abundant eggplant, capers, and olives, all mixed into an agrodolce, sweet and sour. As Giovanna cooked, she shared one of its origin stories, how first it was part of a sauce for capon (hence, caponata), but the peasants, unable to afford chicken, used meaty eggplant instead.
Christina tore up green figs wed picked from the trees outside and put them into a skillet with rendering pork belly. This is for pasta? she asked. Whats in the sauce?
Fat, Giovanna replied as the figs sizzled.
She rehydrated golden raisins and prunes for her Arabian chicken. Then we braised the chicken in cinnamon and butter until the kitchen smelled like a bakery.
To make room at the table, we moved aside plates of cheese and jars of hot-pepper jam. Giovanna served a small helping for herself and giant ones for me and Christina, insisting that we were young. We were so full by the time she brought out the limoncello that it felt like an act of mercy. The afternoon dwindled, coffee was poured, and reality set in againit had been hours and the dogs were still missing. We were about to start walking the grounds looking for them when I heard Christina scream, Pedro? Dolores?
The dogs were sitting on the steps outside the inn, waiting for Giovanna and looking at the two American girls like theyd gone crazy.
When we returned to Palermo, we first headed to the Politeama neighborhood to dine at Fritti e Frutti, one of the places on my original eating itinerary, where we secured a table in the back garden. The small-plates menu begins with the frittifried thingsand we began with rag-stuffed arancini, the traditional deepfried rice balls sold on the streets of Palermo. As the lights strung in the tree above us twinkled, we drank an organic Moscato by Arianna Occhipinti, a young natural-wine producer from southern Sicily, and watched as the restaurant slowly filled with chic parents wearing tortoiseshell glasses. A little Brooklyn? my sister asked.
I sighed and recalled dining with Giovanna on a previous trip at a restaurant shed wanted to try. Almost excellent, she said. But shut your eyes.
Where are we? she asked.
I heard Rihanna playing.
When Im here, I want to feel that Im in Sicily, she had told me. With all of my senses.
I shut my eyes again, but at Fritti e Frutti I heard only soft conversation in Italian, scooters on the street, some traffic noises. I kept checking in on my senses as we tasted our way through the arancini, a bowl of steamed shellfish, a plate of salt cod. The manager smoothly refilled my glass of Moscato and complimented me on my choice. I felt very much that I was in Sicily.
On our last night, Christina and I again found ourselves under the watchful gaze of Disco Jesus, this time at a place Nicoletta had recommended, the rooftop bar of the La Rinascente department store. We drank perfect negronis while across the piazza the Vucciria filled up and music began playing. Palermos rooftops turned lavender as the wind came up off the sea and loosened dust from the buildings. My feeling of fraudulence had faded. I understood now that what makes Sicily irresistible is the juxtaposition of the decaying and the eternal, of what Nicoletta calls the horror and the beauty.
I looked down at the kids in Vucciria and raised an eyebrow at Christina. We should go for one, right? And so we went, arm in arm, for one final passeggiata.
The Details: What to Do in Sicily, Italy
Ai Lumi B&B This former palace in the heart of Trapani also serves some of the best food in town. Doubles from $111; ailumi.it.
Butera 28 Apartments: Beautifully designed accommodations in a restored palazzo in the up-and-coming Kalsa neighborhood. Palermo; doubles from $67; butera28.it.
Tenuta Gangivecchio: Deep in the Madonie Mountains, youll find this rustic inn on the ancient property of Gangivecchio, with nine rooms, great wine, and fine cooking. Palermo; doubles from $156; gangivecchio.org.
Bianconiglio: A restaurant dedicated to meat in a seafood town, with fillets, a variety of steak tartares, and braised rabbit medallions. San Vito Lo Capo; entres $16$67; ristorantebianconiglio.it .
Colicchia Pasticceria: World-famous granita in flavors like jasmine, almond, or lemon in Trapanis old town. 6/8 Via delle Arti; 39–0923–547–612.
Fritti e Frutti: This restaurant with a relaxing back garden serves a menu of small plates and modern takes on Sicilian classics like arancini. Palermo; entres $6$26; frittiefrutti.com.
La Cambusa: Youll find superb pasta con le sarde at this eatery on the Piazza Marina in Kalsa. Palermo; entres $9$16; lacambusa.it.
Salumeria Enoteca Peraino: An exquisite salumeria with local cheeses, prosciuttos, olives, and other classic Italian goods. San Vito Lo Capo; 39–0923–972–627.
Cooking with the Duchess: Take a market tour with Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi, then learn to prepare your meal at her kitchen in Butera 28. Palermo; butera28.it.
Mercato del Capo: Capo is the most atmospheric and impressive of the three major markets in Palermo. Buy whats in season and make snacks for your drive. Via Cappuccinelle.
Zingaro Nature Reserve: Sicilys first nature reserve runs the length of the coast between Scopello and San Vito Lo Capo. Either hike the full 7 miles, or start at either end and walk to one of the pristine beaches. riservazingaro.it.