It was the first phone call I placed. ‘Nino’, I said. ‘I’m coming to Sicily’.
‘Outstanding! ‘The finocchietto in the garden is almost ready’, he said. There was a long silence.
‘Nino?’, I asked. ‘Are you there?’ I heard him swallow.
‘And I know where I can locate some excellent strawberries. I also have a friend that is a baker’.
I’ve only known him for a few years but you could hear it in his voice, that he was already mentally loading up his car with his favourite foods. A flat of little red strawberries. Bags of sweet and nutty bread. A cardboard box that clanks over bumpy road, resembling the highest two keys on a piano. And so that was that. Lunch was planned.
All I had to do was find a way to get to Palermo, where my five-week bicycle trip would begin with a lunch with Nino, one of my favourite people, ever.
‘Breadcrumbs’, I heard him mutter as I hung up the phone.
We met at the open-air market in Ballarò, downtown Palermo, a city that somehow seems just one town over from Istanbul, in every way but geography. You almost expect to hear crackly calls to prayer from warbly speakers. And it takes a few seconds to understand what the vendors are barking: their words are truncated here. Somehow, though, when you really listen, it’s still Italian.
The Ballarò market is the kind of market that’s almost too difficult to shop in: not because nothing looks good.
But because everything does. Let your mind wander even for a second and you’ll have enough for your next six meals.
As we walked Nino’s eyes narrowed as he spied some sgombri, the Italian word for ‘mackerel’.
‘How much are they a kilo’, he asked me, grinning like a proud father.
I looked again.
‘Crafty aren’t they, the vendors’, he said, laughing. He was referring to the little tails on the 9’s, the foxy little numbers that masquerade as ‘0’s.
Back at the tiny four-story apartment I rented, his wife Angela starts to cut the finocchietto, a wild version of fennel that they grow in their city garden.
The clean, green, slightly licorice smell drifts down to the other three floors, until the whole house smells like an open field.
As the two of them unpack their bags and boxes of the stuff they brought from Marsala, I catch a sideways,slightly embarrassed glance from him. You see it a lot here in the south: Ask a Southern to go anywhere further than 20 minutes from home and they’re taking provisions.
It’s a trait that charms me completely.
He cleans some fresh sardines that smell like a cross between butter and cucumbers, mixed with a little seawater. What they didn’t smell like is fish.
Nino opens his Catarratto, a dry savoury wine he makes near Marsala. Although it’s one of the grapes that go into Marsala, his wines are more modern, more everyday.
A couple handfuls of pasta hit the water as Gina slips a Mina CD into the player. It’s 1959, and as you know,
Mina is love-lorn.
Angela starts to sway her hips while stirring the pot.
The finochietto hits the pan. The perfume increases 10 times. Raisins. Pine nuts. A little tomato paste. What’s surprising is that with all the smells, none of them speak ‘fish’.
A little raw oil and plates are passed around.
He opens a bottle of his Grillo, and again, the salty tastes emerge immediately. Sipidità, in Italian. If most wines are fruity, Nino’s wines are savoury, a concept that I always find intriguing.
We linger over the amber plates as he opens a third bottle, a dry moscato.
When the tiny oven ‘dings’, we plate the mackeral and another drizzle of raw oil. I take a sip of the moscato. Rather than matching the fish, it counterplays it, the same way, or rather the opposite, of how a salty cheese compliments a sweet wine. It’s fantastic.
After lunch he and I sit on the terrace and talk about wine, the south and how the rest of the world sees both.
A few hours later it’s an emotional goodbye, as good friends, 6-bottle and 5-hour lunches tend to produce.
A few hours later I’d wake up from a nap, long after dark, and I’d slowly begin to wash the dishes. It would be Mina again, just the two of us. I’d fill the tiny sink with soapy water and think about Nino and his wine. But most of all I’d think about my tiny, little 40-year old car back in Lecce and how I had left the back seat full of bottles of wine, olive oil and homemade pickles. Salami too. And that was just for a trip to the bank.