At her cooking school in Regaleali, Fabrizia Lanza (right) learns from Sister Lidia how to make zuccata, a traditional candied squash dessert.
Name: Fabrizia Lanza
Age: 49 Hometown: Palermo, Italy Occupaton: Formerly an art historian in northern Italy, Fabrizia returned to her native Palermo to run a cooking school started by her late mother, Anna Tasca Lanza. The school is housed in Regaleali, an estate in rural Sicily owned by Fabrizia’s family since 1830. Fabrizia has also made several documentary films about the festivals and disappearing food rituals on the island.
This story appeared in the January/February 2011 issue.
What I love about Palermo is what we call promisquità—the way everything is mixed together indiscriminately. You have beautiful palaces next to alleys filled with rubbish, vivid colors and terrible smells, incredible gardens and grimy buildings. I don’t like tidy cities. Palermo is a fascinating place because it’s very ugly and very beautiful at once.
Take Camastra, my grandparents’ villa, where I was married. It was built in 1555, and it has lavish fountains and gardens. Most of Palermo was destroyed in World War II, and so these rare villas are surrounded on all sides by unattractive apartment buildings.
We have many beautiful churches and monuments, but what’s most alive in Palermo is the food. Palermo has a big corridor of outdoor markets, all with different names, and all very old. I go to the Ballarò market. These little carts arrive with old men selling exquisite vegetables—one has five plants of special rosemary or a particular basil, another sells only onions and garlic. It’s an ancient micro-economy—it’s amazing that it still exists.
The most important religious event of the year, the Festino, is celebrated in July with a feast in the streets. The holiday honors Santa Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo, who is said to have saved the city from the Black Death plague in 1624. On that day, you eat babbaluci, which are wonderful little snails.
Cooks start off early in the morning peeling garlic and frying it in oil in huge pots. My house is right on top of the celebration, so the smell wakes me up. They start washing enormous bags of snails, and it’s like the sound of maracas. They pile them in huge dishes in the middle of the road—enough to feed 5,000— and pour seasoning on top: garlic, oil, parsley, salt, and pepper. Men queue up to fill paper cones with the snails and eat them in the street. They also make candy brittle in the street. Enormous men with two big knives twirl the brittle on a marble surface covered with oil so it won’t stick. This sort of technique is changing, because in the kitchens they have to use stainless steel equipment for health reasons, but the old recipes need marble, which helps cool down the ingredients in a certain way. You can’t pour syrup on a steel surface!
For the festival of Santa Lucia, in December, Palermitanos don’t eat anything with flour, but we boil wheat with sugar for a dish called cuccìa. The story goes that Saint Lucy saved the city from famine: A ship full of grain arrived mysteriously in the harbor, and the inhabitants were so hungry they didn’t have time to make flour. So they ate the grain whole.
I’m very interested in the old cuisine. We have something from all the people who have conquered us over the centuries. Some dishes are a little Arab, and French cuisine was in fashion at the beginning of the 19th century after Maria Carolina of Austria and Ferdinando di Borbone ran away from Napoleon and arrived in Palermo with their whole court. I like my cooking school to be a point of reference for traditional cooking in Sicily, from the ingredients—wild fruits and vegetables that are disappearing—to the way of preparing things. But it’s not a museum. We eat it. It’s alive.