When I visited Sicily three years ago, my family was in the process of building Nelson Agriturismo. The agritourism sits on a large piece of land with a cluster of olive trees, a little zoo and a river running through it. There is an elegant and spacious dinning room, bungalows for overnight stays and a separate kiosk that is stocked with beer and liquor. In this small farm town, it is one of the few places for entertainment. They tell me that the business was the idea of my deceased uncle.
One evening when he was alone in the boschetto, the groves, working the land someone shot him in the back. No one saw anything, no heard anything, and today no one speaks of the incident.
The Boschetto is the heart of Maniace’s pear and peach farmland. My grandparents and my aunt have a home in this area. My aunt’s farmland is a ways down the strict street that barely fits two cars in passing.
My deceased Uncle owned a warehouse that once belonged to the English Duke. The warehouse is over a hundred years old, and is used by my family to store and package peaches, pears and beans that they ship throughout Italy.
I am told that the encompassing terrain of Maniace was once the Duke’s property and that everyone here one time or another worked for him. The contadini (farmers) labored under a feudal system that only began to change after World War II.
Named after Duke Nelson and situated right across from his former estate, Il Castello Nelson (Neslon’s Castle), Nelson Agriturismo is in a prime location. There have been some inner-family disputes over the agriturismo: “So and So” no longer salutes “So and So,” and “So and So” heard that “So and So” was saying bad things about “So and So”— and on and on the drama grows.
I cannot grasp the exact reason, depth and start of the argument — even in a month visit. Sicily is a complex island. The people’s rules of reasoning, ignitions of jealousy and often foolish pride, of which I assume, thrives from centuries of hardships and foreign invasions, are seemingly intrinsic to the culture. Despite the feud over the restaurant, I still visit it. What people do here in order to survive are not for an outsider to judge.
Today I had a special date with the chef of Nelson Agriturismo, Angelo Pappalardo. He prepared for me one of my favorite dishes that he said originated in Bronte, Penne a Pistacchio. The town of Bronte is one of the few places in the world that can grow the delicate nut. The pistacchio trees take root in the lava rock that lay in the perimeters of the town. Every two years the tree is harvested.
Its slender shell, dark violet skin and emerald green nut is preferred over the Californian and Iranian species which are rounder but less meaty. It is precious. And for those reasons, I am told, not every pistacchio that carries the mark of Bronte actually comes from the town.
It is physically impossible. “You see the trees. There is no way that Bronte can produce that many pistacchio’s to satisfy the North, the South,” my aunt and cousin Francesca said.
They recounted several incidents where proprietors mixed the nuts with those from the Middle East.
Being that Bronte is right next door to Maniace, I have passed the pistacchio farms at least 100 times and have often wondered myself how the rare terrain can produce all the pistacchio products that are sold throughout Italy and the world.
We did agree that the dish Pappalardo prepared was made with 100 percent “pistacchio di Bronte.” He used fresh pistacchi and when the nut is whole, the eye can distinguish the difference.
Pistacchio di Bronte.
Prepared before hand, fried onions and prosciutto cotto blended in a food processor were placed in an olive oil coated pot. He stirred that for a bit and then ladled in vegetable stock. A generous amount of finely chopped pistacchio nuts were stirred in while he continuously added the stock until it turned into a creamy paste.
The onion and prosciutto mixture cooking.
Finely chopped pistacchi.
While that cooled in a separate container, he boiled the penne pasta and explained the history of the dish. Lo Chef, as he is called by the other workers, has worked in Sardegna and Switzerland where he learned how to cook. He explained that the recipe is versatile and could even be made with rice; instead all the ingredients would cook together.
After 15 minutes passed, he scooped the sauce into pans sitting over a high flame. He stressed that no olive oil is used in the next preparations.
The panna and vegetable stock.
Panna (cooking cream) and vegetable stock were added and heated to form a creamy pesto. Then the cooked pasta was tossed in the pan, finely coating each penne.
My favorite dish, made especially for me.
I asked for cheese. “No cheese,” he reprimanded me.
Italians have stringent codes about which ingredients and foods can or cannot mix together. Guidelines and prohibitions are almost non-existent in the States. Food can intermingle freely, however the dinner chooses, and optimum taste and common food sense may sometimes be ignored.
For example, I cannot stand to see people put cheese on fish. Why even eat the fish, when all you taste is cheese? It smothers the natural flavor. Plus it just does not go. Think about it. It just does not go. Milk on fish. No. “Absolutely no cheese on fish either. Absolutely not,” Lo Chef reaffirmed the culinary rule.