Palermo of the Gattopardo

Palermo of the Gattopardo

Manuela Darling-Gansser
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Simon Griffiths

As you walk the streets of old Palermo, every now and then you will see a large wooden door set into the high city walls. The door will have elaborate moulding, and above it, in an extravagant flourish of the stonemason’s art, a large coat of arms. Likely as not, behind this door will be the palazzo of one of the old noble Sicilian families. Sometimes the facade may be plain, sometimes quite imposing, but however impressive the exterior, it will be nothing compared to the baroque riches inside. In the past, the aristocracy of Sicily owned three-quarters of the arable land but preferred not to live in the country. Instead they congregated in Palermo, built their grand palazzi and seemed to compete with each other as to who could create the most lavish interiors.

This is the Palermo of the Gattopardo (the Leopard), which is so vividly described in the great book of that name by Giuseppe Tomasi, the Prince of Lampedusa. He grew up in that world, only to see it shattered when the Palazzo Lampedusa was destroyed by bombing in World War II. In the 1960s, The Leopard was made into a film by Lucchino Visconti (the son of a family who were Dukes of Milan) and it starred Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon. There is a famous scene in the movie, lasting about 40 minutes, of a ball for Palermo high society held in a spectacular mirrored ballroom. That room is in the Palazzo Gangi and is still occasionally used today for grand occasions.

Many of these grand palazzi have seen better days. Some are in ruins, some have been taken over by the State or the local government, but some are still owned and cared for by the descendants of the original families. I was able to visit one of these, the Palazzo Conte Federico, which is still used by the Conte, the Contessa and their two sons. The Conte comes from an ancient family who claim descent from a favourite illegitimate son of Frederick Barbarossa, a king of Sicily in the thirteenth century. Frederick, a great character in his day, liked to be called ‘Stupor Mundi’ (Wonder of the World).

We entered the Palazzo Conte Federico from a narrow street, passing through one of those large wooden doors. After climbing a broad flight of stairs, another wooden door on a small landing opened onto a different world inside.

The Conte himself showed us through the palazzo, opening big shutters as we progressed through the building. We passed through a series of state rooms that opened one into the other, through generous double doors. The floors were tiled, sometimes in elaborate painted patterns, sometimes in plain terracotta. The walls in the main rooms were lined in silk damask, of pale jade green, strong blue or old gold and many of the vaulted ceilings were elaborately gilded and frescoed. Suspended from their heights were chandeliers in Venetian glass that hung down low into the rooms. We realised that it was impossible to see through all the rooms, from one end of the house to the other, partly because it was such a long distance, and partly because the palazzo itself was shaped in a very shallow curve, following the footings of the old city wall.

Like many European aristocrats, Conte Federico needs to put his inheritance to work to pay for its upkeep, so the state rooms of the palazzo are available to hire for special occasions. But despite the grandeur, it is still a house that is used and very much cared for by the original family. In one room we noted the Contessa’s desk set up in a corner. Family photos decorated the walls, together with pictures of the Contessa in her youth as a swimming champion. Another grand room was named after Garibaldi, who was a family friend and whose portrait adorned the wall. There we noticed a large cabinet full of the Contessa’s swimming trophies and the Conte’s trophies from his years racing vintage cars. Set off this room was the Conte’s study, tiny by comparison, with just enough room for a desk and chair. Here the walls were lined with books and photos, many showing him with a ‘who’s who’ of the greats of Italian motor racing. Others showed him behind the wheel of his car in famous racing events such as Sicily’s Targa Florio. And in another nearby room, full of suits of armour and hanging banners, was a pile of tyres for his 1928 Fiat.

Elsewhere, in the oldest part of the house, we were shown through a medieval tower that housed a large dining area and the kitchen. The Conte explained that kitchens were originally built high off the ground to minimise damage if a fire broke out.

After two hours enjoying the splendours of the Palazzo Conte Federico we thanked the Conte and reluctantly said goodbye, but not before he had recommended his favourite fish restaurant (which we later visited) on the coast out beyond Mondello.

That evening we decided to continue exploring the Palermo of the Gattopardo and booked to go to the opera at the Palermo Opera House, the Teatro Massimo. Anyone who has seen The Godfather III movie will recognise the Teatro Massimo as the setting for the opera performance where the Godfather’s daughter is gunned down on the steps outside in a climactic final scene.

We had some time before the evening’s performance, so we wandered through the nearby narrow streets and squares drinking aperitivi and nibbling on street food such as panelle and croque. We discovered that this neighborhood was where the local inhabitants came for a less grand form of entertainment. Instead of the opera, you can see puppet shows telling the legends of Sicilian history.

Inside the Teatro Massimo all is crimson and gold. Tier upon tier of private boxes, each with its own small sitting room, rise up on all sides of the auditorium. The corridors are tiled in pale marble, the attendants dressed in long navy-blue coats with crimson collars. As we looked around, it seemed as if the performance of Don Pasquale on the stage was reflected in the theatre of Palermo society.

The following day we returned to the Teatro Massimo to indulge a different appetite. Behind the opera house is the famous Pasticceria Amato, a modest shopfront with a large kitchen where everything is made by hand in the traditional way. Cannoli as thin as cigarettes are a house specialty and they are stored in replicas of pretty nineteenth-century boxes, lined with silver paper, where they stay fresh for forty-eight hours. Other delights are brioches filled with house-made ice cream (a typical Sicilian alternative to the wafer cone), tiny pastries filled with ricotta and dusted with pistachio nuts, and boxes of exotic marzipan fruits. The proprietors, Pina and Franco Boscanno, both work there, he in the kitchen and she behind the counter. The Pasticceria Amato is a beautiful survivor of old Palermo.

Although its golden age was from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, Palermo had a renaissance in the second half of the nineteenth century. A new grand avenue, the Viale della Liberta, was built west of the city and some of the old Sicilian families and the ‘new rich’ built palazzi there, many in beautiful gardens with a range of exotic trees and shrubs. Palermo became one of the fashionable cities of Europe and visitors such as the future King Edward VII, the Kaiser of Germany and the Dowager Empress of Russia arrived there on their yachts. Today much of this grandeur has disappeared, replaced by anonymous tower blocks built in the 1970s when it seemed as if anyone could build anything they liked, anywhere. As Sicilians say, ‘Come era bella una volta,’ (once upon a time it was really beautiful).

Dining in these grand houses would have been a fairly elaborate experience. It was fashionable to have French chefs known as Monzù, a Sicilian corruption of ‘Monsieur’. The Monzù prepared what we would call international cuisine; the local food of the poor was considered entirely unsuitable. Occasionally a traditional dish, such as timballo, would be re-created and refined to be served at the best tables. Here is the description of a timballo from The Leopard:

The burnished gold of the crusts, the fragrance of sugar and cinnamon they exuded, were but preludes to the delights released from the interior when the knife broke the crust; first came a spice-laden haze, then chicken livers, hard-boiled eggs, sliced ham, chicken and truffles in masses of piping-hot, glistening macaroni to which the meat juice gave an exquisite hue of suede.

Clearly the Prince of Lampedusa was what they call in Sicily ‘una bella forchetta’, literally ‘a good fork’ but meaning someone who likes his food!

With the decline of the noble houses, the Monzù often left to establish Palermo’s first good restaurants. They began to use more local ingredients and recipes, albeit with some refinement. In this way the cooking of the noble houses joined with ‘cucina povera’ to produce the dishes that you find today.

The recipes I have selected for this chapter are what I imagine the Monzù might serve, not so much in the grand houses – which would be too elaborate for the way we live today – but in their own restaurants.

Fritella is a marvellous mixed vegetable dish, which is good on its own as a light meal or served as an accompaniment to fish or meat. Insalata pantesca is a salad made with potatoes, capers, olives, onions and tomatoes; it looks colourful and tastes like a hot spring day.

Sarde beccafico takes the humble sardine to a new level of refinement by stuffing it with Moorish-influenced ingredients and rolling it up to form little parcels. Involtini con carciofiare veal rolls stuffed with artichokes.

The final recipe is for one of Sicily’s most famous dishes, cassata. The local version is a ricotta-based cake, not an ice cream, and it is always elaborately decorated with marzipan icing and covered in frills and fancies. In Palermo if you want to say that a woman is really beautiful you say she is ‘bella come una cassata’ – as beautiful as a cassata.

Recipes in this Chapter

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