Contrary to a surprising number of comments, famiglia di Schiavo weren’t ever absolutely sold San Diego would be called home. As luck would have it a clause in our six month lease stated we could vacate early by paying a penalty fee. We might have stuck around longer, but for virtually the same expense, going to Castellammare del Golfo and Carrizalillo felt more exhilarating. Traveling to Mexico over two periods would’ve saved us more money, however, Sicily holds an allure that was too hard to resist.
We turn in our San Diego keys April 18th; afterward work in Los Angeles and San Francisco prior to departing April 29th for London, Rome, then Palermo — arriving Castellammare the night after Jeanette’s upcoming birthday. Norma, a friend and culinary genius assured us Outerlands on Judah in San Francisco would be her top suggestion for Jeanette’s birthday brunch before our lengthy evening flight.
Last week I was talking with someone, explaining we’ll head to Mexico after Sicily between work in San Francisco, Dallas and New York so we can detox. Somewhat puzzled she asked, “What in heaven’s name do you need to detox from after Sicily?” I started to list, “pasta, bread, cheese, sweets…” when she interrupted, completely understanding, “Oh yeah, all the things we shouldn’t eat.”
Last spring when local Castellammarese who hadn’t encountered us previously inquired what brought our family there, I bragged, “My grandparents left here for America one hundred years ago.” This year I can say one hundred and one years. Most who live in Castellammare realize they live in an idyllic environment. Bordered by an aquamarine Mediterranean — another side arid mountains formed by sand colored stone — farm produce delivered daily — crisp air — scruffy fishermen selling their morning catch portside seven days a week, all the while several town church bells jog any newcomer’s memory of forgotten centuries.
Two million adult Muslims take part in an annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Castellammare del Golfo has that strong a pull for us. My mother, Jean met LouLou once, six weeks after LouLou’s birth; Mom passed on two months later. Though my mother was born in Detroit, LouLou senses a closeness to her nona in Castellammare more so than anywhere else, including New York and San Diego where Jean lived. LouLou’s familiar steps throughout Castellammare, since her third birthday, places LouLou precisely where Jean walked when I treated my mother for her 70th birthday twenty-three years ago. Families do all sorts of leisurely activities together: some jet ski every spring break on Lake Havasu, others spend weeks summering on tiny Maine islands. Sicily is our tradition — heart-lifting upon arrival, a melancholy quandary leaving, wondering when to return.
I was shocked days ago asking LouLou what she most looked forward to eating there. Apparently she’s fond of the same flavors as Jeanette: homemade ricotta, Sicilian olive oil, Marsala sea salt, vine-ripened tomato, and Cacioppo bread. There’s little satisfaction for us to eat that exact combination anywhere in the United States; each of those stateside ingredients just don’t hold up to their Sicilian equivalent. I’m going straight for sautéed slivered red onions with capers and minced cayenne chili, the last second finished adding anchovies, served over pasta or on crostini, either way I don’t care. Vernaci Gelateria opened their store in March as usual. Pancho serves delicious in-house gelato through October before closing for winter. Pancho, Marisa, Ylenia, Giorgina, and Francesco Vernaci are a close-knit family operation, they keep locals and tourists content from noon to 3 am every day. Jeanette likes modica and coconut, LouLou’s partial to mint and licorice; I’m sticking with my latest favorite, mandola granita.
It would be crazy leaving Sicily’s culture directly hitting Mexico’s soil, however, ten days in the U.S. is generally enough time to neutralize our senses before becoming immersed elsewhere again. There are one hundred and seventy steps descending to Carrizalillo Cove, which really isn’t a big deal; it’s the sunny climb back up from the Pacific that winds us, following an afternoon swim among sea turtles.
While away from Mexico, Jeanette and I frequently crave a Puerto Escondido jugueria’s 32 ounce beet, carrot and ginger juice we each consume for breakfast. Depending what LouLou prefers that morning, she’ll alternate between fresh squeezed orange juice, Mexican hot chocolate, or atole, a warm thick rice drink, reminiscent of horchata. Our last Carrizalillo visit left us short on mango and pineapple, neither were in full swing; this trip we should have plenty on stock — super refreshing midday, accompanied with papaya and lime.
No matter where famiglia di Schiavo plants roots this coming August, my palate will miss the intermittent luxury enjoying authentic Sicilian pastries, or Oaxacan mole, although not enough to hinder me from starting life’s next volume.