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A Taste of the Old Country

Writer LESLIE A. WESTBROOK savors Sicilian culture and cuisine while digging up some family roots.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

The largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily offers a historical feast as well as spectacular vistas and a vibrant culinary scene.

There’s a sign on the grand piano in the living room at Gino and Connie Milano’s home and guesthouse, Villa Isabella, in Sicily, that reads: “Come as strangers, leave as friends.” I had come as an old friend of Connie’s, yet did not know her husband of 18 years, Gino. Hopefully, after two relaxing weeks as a paying guest at their country house on the sunny island, I remain a friend.

“Food is more important than sex here,” Gino laughed one day over one of the many delicious Sicilian meals I shared with the couple, and sometimes their friends and family. That was a good thing: I traveled alone to the land of my mother’s grandparents, a destination I’d longed to visit for many years, so my focus was food and some sightseeing, combined with much needed rest and restoration.

And Gino was right. Many memorable experiences during my two-week visit to Villa Isabella, set in the navel of my ancestral island, were about food. The delights ran the gamut: picking and devouring cherries from the tree in their garden, the sweet juices running down my arm; savoring delicious and filling homemade lunches ranging from seafood purchased that morning at the local fish market to chicken Milanese or roast pork, all prepared by Connie with love (sometimes with flourishes from Gino, including a mouthwatering gnocchi and even bananas flambé!), to trattorias and ristorantes discovered on daytrips. There was always plenty of local vino to wash down meals, not to mention amazing gelato and great pastries to savor at island cafés.

Known in Ventura County for their now-shuttered Camarillo restaurant Cucina Isabella, and the still very open Sicily by Gino, in Downtown Ventura, which they recently returned to run, the hardworking couple had prematurely “retired” when I stayed at their idyllic home last summer. The home is nestled between Lake Pergusa—famous as a Formula One racetrack in the 1980s, as well as the home of Hades, Persephone, and Demeter during ancient times—and Gino’s hometown of Enna, which boasts 28 churches as well as a point marking the island’s exact center.

Six years ago, the couple purchased the six-bedroom, three-bath, two-story house built in 1990. They began to refurbish it, with a mind to turning it into a B&B, adding a sparkling swimming pool, outdoor kitchen with wood-burning pizza oven and deep fryer, an industrial kitchen, and more. The exterior of the house and the gardens are still a work in progress, while the warm and welcoming interiors, traditional in style, are spotlessly maintained.

A stay at Villa Isabella can be full of surprises. Or not. Mornings began with the warm Sicilian sun pouring into my bedroom and a cacophony of birdsong. One day, you might simply laze around, reading a book poolside or napping between meals. Another day you might find yourself tagging along, as I did, with the Milanos to the local farmers market or an obscure shoe repair shop. Or to visit one of Gino’s siblings or check out a local festival, such as the “Festa di Madonna,” which celebrates a Madonna statue lost at sea that “miraculously” resurfaced. The July celebration was definitely a highlight of my stay. After the procession, where I was almost crushed as the hefty gold-laden Madonna was carried into the crowd, I was allowed “behind the scenes” in the Cathedral thanks to Gino’s sister and brother-in-law, a security guard at the event. In the streets that evening, watching a fireworks display and chatting with an English couple, I felt as though I’d walked into a scene from Cinema Paradisio.

Friends and family drop by unexpectedly. My first night, one of Gino’s sisters arrived with their 86-year-old mother. Not speaking a word of English to my extremely limited Italian, Gaetana merely cupped my chin in her hand and, smiling, exclaimed, “Bella! Bella!” Which made me feel not just beautiful, but also welcome. Neighbors Lucia and Carmelo often stopped in to help in the garden—one night armed with homemade arincini (deep fried rice) balls stuffed with peas and beef, and Pasta Fritta alla Siciliana (fried ravioli filled with sweet ricotta) for dessert.

Given their druthers, the Milanos would prefer to stay home. But they are most obliging hosts. Our weekly trips to farmers market in Enna for fruits and vegetables were delightful. I returned to the U.S. with the sweetest dried cherry tomatoes, salty capers, and dried pecorino peppers from the market, but devoured marinated mushrooms and olives on the spot. Another day, we trekked to Cefalù for time by the sea and to research my heritage in nearby Campo Felice. Gino helped me track down a distant relative as well as weave through the historical records in the town hall to find my great-great-grandparents’ matrimonial records.

Connie also guided me through Enna, providing a nonstop walking-talking tour of the baroque cathedral, ruins, and the Belvedere with its vast views, speaking all the while with a thick, Glasgow accent (she’s a native of Scotland, but a U.S. citizen and longtime Santa Barbara/Ventura resident) punctuated with a healthy serving of her favorite four-letter words—when deemed appropriate.

Gino’s sister, Lina (who speaks English), and brother-in-law, Tonino (the festa security guard), were available for daytrips and airport runs, and showed me Palermo, Taormina, and Catania. While everyone is welcome to book a stay at Villa Isabella, it is sort of a catch-as-catch-can deal: email the Milanos to make sure they’ll be in residence and not hosting a wedding party for the couple who came for a night and stayed for three weeks, or some other shindig.

“Sicily is not Italy,” Gino told me one day.

I would have to agree. It’s a unique place, just like the Sicilians who live here. It’s an island that gets under your skin. As my grandfather, Johnny Blandino, used to say to me, “It’s in the blood.” When Lina and her husband dropped me at the airport she said, “You cry when you arrive in Sicily and you cry when you leave.”

And I did.

Sicily resides both in my memory, as sweet as the realistic looking fruit marzipan I brought home to my mother, and in the blood coursing through my veins. I hope to return one day, as there is so much more to explore.

VILLA ISABELLA
Rates: 65-95 Euros/night, including full breakfast.
Detailed info: online at villaisabellaenna.it/.
Reservations: email Connie Milano atconniemilano@gmail.com.

Bright blue beachside chaises line the coastline of the Tyrrhenian Sea in Cefalù, on the northern coast of Sicily, Italy. Photo by Leslie A. Westbrook

Vecchia Marina, a popular seafood restaurant known for Sicilian specialties like handmade pasta with fresh prawns and pistachio. Photo by Leslie A. Westbrook

Villa Isabella. Photo by Leslie A. Westbrook

Local restaurateurs Connie and Gino Milano split their time between Ventura and Enna, where they run their home, Villa Isabella, as a part-time B&B. Photo by Leslie A. Westbrook

05-01-2015

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