Buy a house in Sicily for one euro?
We'd seen the news stories about dying towns in southern Italy selling houses for almost nothing in return for the new owners fixing them up. My wife, Katy, and I dreamed of packing up our three kids and moving to that fabled island with crystal blue seas.
Its reputation as birthplace of the Mafia must be overblown, right? Friends in northern Italy warned us about the south. "Attenzione!" — and they'd gently pull down their lower eyelid as a warning gesture that everyone is furbo, a sneaky wiseguy.
But our friend Serafino, from Messina, scoffed and told us Sicily is the best part of Italy. I revealed to him my dream of renting Italian scooters and spending a month zooming around the island.
"Are you crazy?" he replied. "The Vespas would be stolen the first day!"
We booked our flights when we learned that our 16-year-old son Otto's youth orchestra was going on a dream tour to southern Italy. We could be groupies at the Sicilian shows. Instead of Vespas, we opted for planes, trains and daredevil bus drivers on winding roads with too-small guardrails that would do nothing to stop us from plunging into the Ionian Sea.
But rather than reserving a hotel, should we just buy a one-euro house? Then we remembered the mountains of indecipherable documents from when we merely rented a home in Modena. So instead of buying and renovating a boondoggle, we rented a villa in the town of Taormina and imagined it was our own. We wanted to feel what it was like to live there and cook at home — even if the kids would prefer gelato three meals a day.
Taormina's garden of Eden
We climbed four flights of steps to our villa with a multicolored garden. This wasn't the arid landscape of a spaghetti western set with prickly pears as the only greenery. Taormina — now the setting for Season 2 of HBO's "The White Lotus" — is lush with lemon trees, bitter orange, African violets in three shades of purple, and star jasmine with an aroma that made me swoon. The caretaker, Roberto, told us to pick the parsley, basil, rosemary, oregano and wild fennel from the garden. He apologized that the figs weren't ripe and the almonds needed a few more weeks.
Enthralled by the garden, we hadn't even noticed the view of the azure sea merging with the sky. "That's Calabria over there," said Roberto, pointing to where the toe of the big boot stands ready to kick Sicily out of Italy. Mount Etna is to the south, and a Greek amphitheater from 300 B.C. is perched on the edge of the cliff.
The kids ran through the garden, and 11-year-old Astri screamed that she had seen a black snake. We asked the gardener if it was poisonous. "Oh, yes, vipers are poisonous. If you don't touch it, though, you probably won't get bitten." We told the kids not to pet the snakes.
Later on the main drag in Taormina, we noticed Gelatomania, with more than 50 flavors of gelato — but Sicily is more famous for granita. While Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor spent their days at Wunderbar in Taormina drinking and arguing, Bam Bar is where Francis Ford Coppola, Richard Dreyfuss and other VIPs drowned their sorrows in granita.
Granita is a silky smooth shaved-ice delight infused with everything from peaches to melon, pistachios to almonds. To avoid overheating first thing in the morning, the classic Italian breakfast of a cornetto (croissant) and cappuccino is replaced with a frozen granita and eggy brioche. The kids badgered us to go to Bam Bar every morning. Astri ordered granita with Nutella, of course.
Creator and destroyer
According to Sicilians we met, the very existence of granita and gelato can be credited to Mount Etna, the nearly 11,000-foot active volcano.
"Arabs brought the idea for granita north across the Mediterranean, but the Sicilians perfected it," the owner of Bam Bar told me. The Greeks gathered snow and ice from Etna and stored it in caves for summer treats.
Etna looms over everything, as if ready to destroy this paradise, just as Vesuvius did with Pompeii and Herculaneum. Roberto told me that sometimes Etna used to rain down fire, or if they were lucky, just breccia, fine rubble that sits like cement on roofs but is a natural fertilizer. Etna kills but also gives life, which makes Taormina a verdant garden.
Anything blooms here, especially pistachios. We found pistachio honey, pistachio granita, pistachios in cheese, pistachios in balogna, pistachio pesto, and pistachios on cannoli and pizza. Even the local butcher has special involtini, beef rolls stuffed with pistachios and soft cheese. When I didn't have enough euros, the butcher insisted I pay next time. He just wanted to make sure I tasted his handiwork.
Our last evening in Taormina, Otto played with the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies at the Greek theater as the sun set and the pillars onstage framed Mount Etna. As the musicians packed up after the concert, the trombonists struck up some standards and Otto's 18-year-old brother, Eilif, jumped onstage to accompany them on piano for an impromptu jazz session. I asked the piano mover if he needed them to stop, but he wouldn't hear of it: "Why would I stop a party?"
An Italian chaperone asked Astri, "Do you play? Are you a musician like your brothers?" Astri was a bit disgusted. "No ... I play hockey."
The train to Palermo weaved along the coast of the pristine Tyrrhenian Sea. After three hours, it inched to an unexpected stop in a field. Sciopero! Strike! The conductor explained some rail workers demanded better pay and walked out for a "hiccup" strike.
After an hour to show the power of the workers, the train squeaked forward into Palermo, the Sicilian capital. We walked around the labyrinth of the city center, looking for dinner. The delicious was mixed in with the odd: skewers of grilled lamb intestines; "horse balls" (actually meatballs made from horsemeat); and "holy cannoli" made by the cloistered nuns of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Do you like to eat your spleen with or without cheese? A line formed down the block for a steaming cauldron of snails.
Instead of these intriguing if not kid-friendly options, our favorite meal was also the cheapest: user-friendly sfincione, a sort of Sicilian pizza with caramelized onions that fed the whole family for six euros. We ate on the street with revelers in the Vucciria market, which dates to the 12th century.
All our worries about danger in Sicily were clearly overblown — the only real hazard was dodging the classic Piaggio Ape cars, essentially three-wheeled Vespas that no one was trying to steal. The people hanging out in Palermo alleys were having their evening aperitivo, sitting on doorsteps and chatting with friends after the day's heat dissipated. The maze of narrow streets was one long festa and everyone was invited.
But for a month after our trip, I dreamed I was still in Taormina. Maybe navigating the bureaucracy to buy a house there would be worth it after all.
Eric Dregni is the author of "Never Trust a Thin Cook" and "The Impossible Road Trip."