This trip was a long time in the making.
In March of 2014, I married Katie Zaccardo. You can just hear the Italian roots in a name like Zaccardo, but you wouldn’t know how deep they run until you walked through Sicilian cemeteries and the rolling countryside of Campogrande. My father-in-law, Mike Zaccardo, is a full-blooded Sicilian Italian. He grew up in Albany, New York with grandparents chattering in the mother tongue, at dinner tables with biscotti, baked ricotta, pies and cannolis.
About six years ago, he started emailing back and forth with distant cousins from Sicily. The invitation was open and details finally aligned so that a trip was possible. Katie and I joined Mr. and Mrs. Z in Rome. After a tour of the Vatican (which is another post all on its own), we boarded a plane from Rome to Catania.
We rented a car and drove up the Sicilian coast to the city of Messina. First, the coastline, and all of the landscape really, is beautiful. We weren’t ready for Messina’s narrow streets and intense parking, but we finally found a spot and headed to our rendezvous point. We were meeting Gaetano Stilo at the Piazza Duomo in Messina.
We need to establish a few things up front:
- Every one of the cousins knew more English than we knew Italian.
- The trip was both disorienting, but also the best thing ever.
- We’ve never eaten so good in our lives.
Gaetano took us to a nice lookout spot over the Strait of Messina so we had a good view while waiting for Alessio. We didn’t know it then, but Alessio would be the foundation of our entire trip. As the most fluent speaker of English, he helped us communicate with everyone else.
So we followed them along the highway and eventually started heading away from the coast. As we made our way to Campogrande, we saw sheep and amazing countryside, as featured below:
The cousins were amazing hosts. We stayed on the second floor of their recently inherited house. This is the view from their back porch.
Time to switch from sequence of events to just general experience. Too much happened to document all hour by hour.
The most important category! Our hosts were gracious, and never more so than at the dinner table. We ate delicious meats: rabbit, wild boar, beef, lamb, pig, etc. We ate picorino and baked ricotta. Most of the dishes were freshly picked from the family’s farm or surrounding countryside (olives, porcini mushrooms, castagnas, blackberries, prickly pear, nuts, etc.).
Here’s how the dinner works. Antipastos come first. The table would slowly fill up with about eight or nine dishes, as seen below:
We’d all pick at different dishes until the second dish arrived. While we didn’t have it the first night, this would typically be a pasta dish. The third course is a meat. Lastly, desserts find their way on to the table.
Beyond food, Enzo also provided us with homemade wine. His father began a vineyard thirty years ago on the property. It’s small and serves the family’s needs in wine drinking. In fact, only in dry years do they ever really need to go out and buy wine in a supermarket. Otherwise, they’d just use their own supply kept in barrels in the garage. Enzo plans to expand his production with an added vineyard that he and Gaetano will work on in the years to come.
All in all, every ingredient tasted fresh, each food was well prepared and cooked, and we were more than happy to add a few centimeters to our waistlines, because the food was just that good.
(These were referred to as “bumbas”… because they were so full of butter and eggs that they considered them “bombs” in the stomach)
Campogrande and the Surrounding Area
The town in which we stayed is a part of the larger area of Tripi. On Saturday, our hosts led us through the surrounding hills and roads, providing a tour of the area. It was stunning.
First, the roads are winding and mountainous. We got a hint of local life when we heard Enzo honking his horn around every corner, just to make sure he didn’t hit another car as he rounded the bend.
Second, the place was full of history (both family and ancient). We visited a Greek necropolis that’s over 2000 years old. We saw a series of elevated ruins that were used in ancient times but also as recently as the Second World War. Enzo escorted us to the local cemetery. It overlooks the valley below and is home to most of Mr. Z’s ancestors. It was incredible to walk through a past that was both personal and meaningful.
The final tour of our day was a walk through the fields on the family property in Campogrande. Enzo and Alessio led us through winding olive branches and let us see the new vineyards, as well as the old. While we went, he picked ripe figs from the trees and gathered them for eating later. Here are a few pictures of where we went and what we saw:
The Language Barrier
Thanks to Alessio, we didn’t have too much issue communicating. However, it was probably the most intimidating thing about the journey. At one point, I compared it to a bridge… Alessio was basically our bridge. His ability to speak English helped us communicate from either side. But I also commented that Enzo and Gaetano had taken a few steps on to the bridge (because both had some English vocabulary they were using), while we really weren’t on the bridge at all.
It was hilarious all weekend to try and use hand gestures, Spanish, and loud, repeated phrases to make ourselves understood, and vice versa. Mr. Z tried to employ a Google Translate app that had us laughing hysterically. Basically, a loud, female voice would shout:
DO YOU HAVE THE OLIVES SOON?
Everyone would stare for a second and burst out laughing, because it wasn’t even translating the sentences at that point. Mrs. Z was equally funny as she sat over the Italian translation book and would occasionally shout out a random vocabulary word. Sometimes that would spark conversation, and sometimes every one would stare in confusion, or laugh.
Needless to say, if we return, we need to learn some more Italian.
Family Legacy and Reputation
One thing we noticed… family is family. It doesn’t matter if you’re separated by generations or by oceans. As soon as we landed in Sicily, we were family. My favorite example was watching Katie interact with Enzo. It was like she had a new uncle. She’d ask a question, he’d pause thoughtfully, and then he’d lead her out of the room and they’d start cracking the shells of walnuts and almonds. Once, she showed him a little splinter she’d gotten from a prickly pear. He whipped out the knife and offered to get it out, which had her laughing with shock.
And of course, Mr. Z was like the prodigal son coming home. The cousins laughed together, drank together, and walked back through the genealogical tree together. I just couldn’t get over how well taken care of we were. They cooked and cleaned and told us to just sit back. Really some of the best hosts I’ve ever stayed with.
On the last night, guests came to join us. More family, though the relations were a little more distant and murky. We all joked and laughed and ate desserts. In an attempt to give Mr. Z some Italian street cred, I stood up and told the story of how I asked for Katie’s hand in marriage (and how he said no). Everyone laughed through it, and I think Mr. Z’s Sicilian roots were confirmed by the story.