We wake up on our first day in Palermo to glorious sunshine, the first sun we have seen on this trip. It is a deceptive sunshine, however. While it is warmer than Umbria, it is still not tropical.
We walk from our hotel, to pick up our rental car which will take us to Campobella di Mazara, where we will tour the Becchina olive estate, producer of Olio Verde. Our other goal today and over the next several days is to get a good look at Sicilian ceramics, perhaps finding a great new supplier or some interesting new designs. Our ultimate goal is to bring back some sample pieces for reaction from our customers. We are particularly interested in visiting a couple of establishments that produce their own works in and about Palermo. Most of the other shops simply resell designs manufactured in Caltagirone and other ceramics towns in Sicily.
One ceramicist that we have researched before our trip and whom we hope to visit is Tre Erre Ceramiche, and we are surprised and delighted to come across their beautiful shop on the way to Avis. We spend an hour with Francesco, who manages the store for his family, excited by their beautiful designs and high quality. Francesco speaks no English, but we are able to communicate passably. He is most helpful in describing the various patterns, shapes and materials. We purchase some sample pieces, which we are excited to show off upon our return to Washington.
Then it is off to Campobella di Mazara. We depart the rental car office at about 11:10 for our 11:00 meeting at the Becchina estate. The Avis folks have given us flawless and simple directions to get from the heart of downtown Palermo to the autostrada. We depart their office and immediately miss the first turn, setting in motion a chain of events that ensures we add yet another hour to our late arrival. Palermo traffic may not be the worst or most frenetic traffic in the world (we look forward to the opportunity to experience the world's most horrifying driving in Naples next week), but there are many things I would prefer spending my time doing than driving there. After successfully getting out of downtown Palermo I can understand why Sicilians are so religious.
We are greeted at the Becchina estate by Zeke Freeman. Zeke is an American with a background in the food and hospitality industry who has traveled and lived in Europe. Most recently he worked as a buyer for Dean and Deluca, a position that brought him in contact with some terrific producers and suppliers, including Gianfranco Becchina, who began producing Olio Verde, a specialty olive oil in Campobella di Mazara nearly two decades ago. Olio Verde is, as the name implies, a green, intensely flavorful olive oil that is produced from pressing olives at their earliest stages of maturity, typically harvested in October as opposed to the traditional November harvesting. Signor Becchina irrigates his olive trees, an investment that runs counter to many other producers, but which produces better fruit. The early harvest, also a unique practice, results in a smaller yield, but results in a more intense oil with a unique and unmistakable character.
Zeke shows us around the main house where we are to have lunch with him and Signor Becchina, who is in the kitchen preparing the meal. As we sit by a fire enjoying a glass of the local Corvo wine, Signor Becchina emerges from the kitchen to show us a beautiful fish he is going to prepare for lunch (our delay has meant we were unable to join him at the local fish market, one of the true disappointments of an otherwise wonderful day). The fish is an orata, or John Dorry, and it is plump and clear eyed. It promises to be a feast.
And a feast it is. In addition to the orata, Signor Becchina has broiled a half dozen scampi, which are arranged around the orata on a beautiful fish plate. We feast on the seafood and cauliflower and potatoes and more wine. A gracious and natural host, Signor Becchina will not allow us to leave until all the food is eaten. Throughout he engages us in conversation about our store, food, his favorite ceramics artisans in the area and anything else that anyone happens to think of. The conversation flows easily, and shifts effortlessly from Italian to English to French (the unofficial language for conversations between Signor Becchina and Zeke). Before returning to his native town, Signor Becchina was involved in the art business and is a lover of ceramic artwork, which is displayed throughout his beautiful home. He phones several local ceramic artisans, which are located in the nearby towns of Sciacca and Burgio, for us to visit on our next trip to the area. We are excited for these meetings and for another reason to return.
Then comes dessert. Suzy has been eagerly anticipating our visit to Sicily, reading about their wondrous desserts, and our first exposure is no disappointment. We are served a generous platter of cannoli and other pastries and another plate of various cookies. We all agree that the ricotta used in the cannolis is incomparable. We finish off the meal with a small glass of mandarino, an orange version of the digestive limoncello, made from mandarin oranges grown a few hundred yards from where we are seated.
We say our thanks yous and good byes to Signor Becchina, a truly wonderful host, and take a walking tour of the estate. Zeke shows us the frantoio, where freshly harvested olives are crushed and turned into Olio Verde and other Becchina olive oil products. The equipment is ultramodern and high tech, although the process still respects the age old processes that have yielded the best oils for ages, especially the cold pressing of the olives. We are expecting to receive our shipment of the new Olio Verde from the 2003 pressing shortly and eagerly anticipate its arrival.
Zeke then takes us on a tour of several residences scattered throughout the estate (and later to a stately palazzo in town and a luxurious beachfront property) that comprise the agroturismo that the estate has recently begun to promote. Zeke and Gabriella Becchina, Signor Becchina's daughter, are in charge of developing and promoting the tourism side of the estate and they have already put together some unique and appealing properties. Currently in addition to rooms in the grand main house where we ate lunch there is a guest house comprised of two apartments available for rent. Here, guests can experience the rhythms and simplicity of the agricultural life, while enjoying first class accommodations and attentive service. Plans are underway to convert a stable area into a dozen or so units with access to a pool and common room area. Plans are ambitious, but if the quality of the completed units is any indication, this estate and its agroturismo offerings are sure to be successful. We hope to have Zeke and Gabriella give a presentation at Bella Italia later this year, where they can showcase the Becchina Olio Verde and give our customers some more insight into travel opportunities is southern Sicily.
After touring the estate, Zeke takes us to the Palazzo Pignatelli, an enormous palazzo in the middle of town. The palazzo, which dates back to Norman times over a millennium ago, has been acquired over the past several years by Signor Becchina apartment by apartment, unit by unit, a la properties in Monopoly. While a few units have already been renovated and are available for rent, Zeke envisions its rehabilitation and the ambitious development plans, which include commercial and residential elements, as a lifetime of work.
Finally, we head south to see the Becchina's beachfront house. Designed and built in the 1970's, it has a timeless classicism that makes it incredibly inviting. It is situated on a good swimming beach and abuts the national park that houses the Greek temples at Selinute. After touring the beach house, we head to Selinute for a quick visit, but unfortunately the park has been closed for hours. Inexplicably, a large fence has been erected along the access road to deny access or even a glimpse of the acropolis to those who have not paid their admission fee. We pull off the road and climb a wall for a glimpse, but can only see the top half, from the capitals upward. Perhaps we can get a full viewing another day.
For most people, this would be a full day, but we haven't eaten dinner yet. So it is back to Palermo (about an hour's drive) in a torrential thunderstorm, through Adriatic sized pools of standing water on the autostrade to Cucina Popov (via Isidora la Lumia, 32, tel. 091-586460; closed Saturday lunch and Sunday), a restaurant recommended to us by Gabriella for its pasta a la sarde (pasta with sardines), a local delicacy. Unfortunately, the restaurant is full up and cannot seat us, so we walk to Ristorante Lo Scudiero (via Filippo Turat, 7, tel. 091-581628). Although we arrive without a reservation and completely drenched from the rain (and speaking English and being dressed like Americans), the proprietors of this slightly upscale restaurant seat us and treat us to a memorable dinner. We eat more delicious fresh seafood and drink good local wine. We then head back to our hotel, thoroughly sated and ready to attack tomorrow's busy schedule, which will take us from Palermo, east along the northern coast in search of new ceramics and Sicilian novelties (such as marionettes) and then on a long drive inland over the mountains to Caltagirone, one of the premier ceramics towns in Sicily.
It promises to be long day. We just hope it is as enjoyable as today has been.
Ciao a presto!
Suzy and Bill