SARONNO, ITALY - There was a Sicilian festa in Saronno last weekend. For some reason I never seem to know when these special events are going to happen, although by the number of people who were in town that day, it was obvious I was in the minority. It was just by chance that I went into the center to pick up a few things from the soap store and found the Via Roma lined with colorful stands selling everything Sicilian from bread and olive oil to wine, arancine and oranges to brightly painted ceramics and Sicilian puppets.
At the beginning of Via Roma, up near the pink church of San Francesco, a bandstand had been set up and a group of young kids were singing their little hearts out. It’s moments like these, when I find myself unexpectedly caught up in the essence of this Italian life, that I am the happiest.
It was obvious that the delight I felt turning the corner and finding Sicily was being felt by everyone on the street. There is no denying it, there really is something special about Sicily, something in the intensity of the colors that flash hot and cold against the blue sea, the blue sky and the green trees. Yellow lemons, blush tinged blood oranges, pale green prickly pears called fichi d’India, deep purple eggplant, passionately red tomatoes and chili peppers all play their part in the Sicilian kaleidoscope of flavors and love. Sapore and Amore. And it was not lost on the Saronnese.
The crowd was at the bread stand. Stacked up on one side were the largest loaves of bread I had ever seen in my life. They were, without exaggeration, five feet long and two feet wide. I would have liked to have seen the oven they came out of. Next to the giants lay torpedo shaped regular size breads made with olives that had been schiacciato, or crushed, and stacked next to them were regular loaves of bread studded with whole green olives.
I ended up buying two large hunks of the big bread and half a loaf of the whole olive bread. How could I not? They were still warm from the oven. When I got home I saw that the girl who waited on me had ripped off the crustier pointed end of the olive bread, giving me only the tender middle. That was nice of her.
The arancine at the next stand caught my eye, but I resisted. Arancine and I go back a long way, back to the days when I was in Rome studying Italian and having a hard time adjusting to the rhythm of Roman life. The problem was by the time I got back to the center of Rome where I lived from the Via Nomentana where the language school was, the banks were closed. Dare I say it was before ATM’s were introduced to Italy? That wouldn’t happen for another ten years. As a result I was chronically short of money, which greatly affected my eating habits. Per fortuna there were a couple of bars in my neighborhood where I could pick up a panino or an arancine or two.
Arancine are rice balls that are stuffed with meat, flavored with saffron, coated with a light, crispy batter and deep fried. The recipe for arancine, along with the art of deep frying food and pastries, was brought to Sicily in the tenth century by the Arabs when the Kalbid ruled the island. Their Italian name comes from the word for orange - arancia, which are typical of western Sicily. The ones I saw yesterday were conical, which indicates they were made by people from eastern Sicily, specifically from the area around Catania.
Another stand was selling Sicilian sweets. Lots of cannoli and honey and nut filled pastries called mustazzola, fried pastries called pignuccata and those delicate rice finger cookies known as zippuli were being sold next to mounds of pale cream colored torrone studded with almonds.
It was all so beautiful to see. For one mad moment I wanted to be Dorothy and start singing somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high, there's a land that I heard of once in a lullaby. After a week of heavy cloud cover and unseasonably cold weather it was as if the skies had opened up and a little piece of heaven had come down to give us gray soaked Northerners a little reminder of what wonderfulness lies less than an hour (by plane) south of us. Sicily.
Photos: (1) Ceramic plate with symbol of Sicily, the Trinacria; (2) stand loaves of bread about half the size as those I found in Saronno; (3) Arrancini; (4) tray of cannoli.