“There are places you leave. And places that never leave you.”
“Michela, guardi! (look)” said my new friend, Francesco, as we turned toward the street. I turned to see two fire trucks making their way down the main street in Pantelleria. To my amazement, the trucks stopped in front of me and out jumped the firemen. Front and center was my new friend, Angelo, who had come to say goodbye to me on my last day in Pantelleria. I was seeing the wonderful soul of Pantelleria-yet again.
I had come to this amazing island in search of caper berries (‘capperi‘). I have been on a mission to document the vastly different and amazing food and wine of the islands of Italy for my blog. Pantelleria, a tiny speck of an island located in the strait between Sicilia and Tunisia, is known as ‘Daughter of the “Wind’ for the constant winds that blow across her lava-strewn landscape. This island and its amazing people weave a magical spell over you the minute one sets foot on its stuninng shores with water so blue and clear that one thinks they can see Neptune swimming lazily along its coast. Given its location as a strategic rest stop along the shipping lanes of the Mediterranean, many an invader has seen its shores. And of all the invaders to come and go, the Arabs have left a strong and amazing influence on the island. Olive trees and grapevines are grown in walled gardens known as ‘giardini arabi’ that help to protect their fragile bits from the constant wind. The Arab-influenced homes, known as dammusi, have beautiful sloping roofs to catch the rare drop of rain. I so fell in love with this island that I visited last August and again in late October when normal commercial airline service has ceased for the season. (More on this later!) There are so many stories to tell of this magical place,of its people, its food, its beauty (I will get to them all!) but this morning as I was hunkering down to work, my cell phone rang and it was a friend that I had met in Pantelleria – just calling to say hello and wondering when I was returning. After a trying day at work yesterday, it reminded me just how gentle and warm the people of Pantelleria are and I found myself smiling over my happy memories of my trips to the island.
The tone was set early on as I searched for a hotel for my first trip. After some research, I settled on the Mediterraneo Hotel in the port town of Pantelleria so I could be close to the action as I was traveling solo. The staff was so incredibly helpful that by the time I arrived I felt as if I knew Giovanna as a friend. After a brief rest, I headed to the few local bars on the water’s edge to sit among the locals and catch my journal up on the day’s activities. I sat for hours, sipping a glass of the local wine, just watching the locals stroll by. I immediately loved this island – nary a heel in sight – Italy’s version of ‘slumming it’ and the people smiled and said ‘Ciao’ as they strolled by. (I have so often been ignored when traveling in Italy as these very social people have no idea what to make of a solo female traveler.) On my second day, I headed out in search of capers and quickly found the Cooperative Agricola Produttori Capperi – the island Cooperative in charge of all things capers and where I had first learned of the island through a Food Network special featuring Wolfgang Puck at this very spot. I found Dottore Rosario Cappadona who heads the Cooperative and once he understood what I had come for, quickly took me under his wing to show me the caper berry plants and give me a quick lesson in caper production. I left an hour later laden with bags of capers and pockets stuffed with information and local island recipes. That evening over another glass of wine at my now familiar table along the water’s edge, I sat writing in my journal. Soon, the waiter appeared with a small tray of pizza. I tried to tell him that I had not in fact ordered pizza but he insisted and pointed to a table a few spots away. I looked over to see a table of 3 waving me over. So over I went – sure enough, they didn’t want to see me sitting alone and asked me to join them for a drink. I enjoyed a wonderful hour with them and we agreed to try to meet later in the week for a coffee.
Later that evening, I found myself yet again at my table after a wonderful dinner at a local restaurant. However, I was still in search of the local island speciality – ravioli filled with the island’s creamy homemade ricotta known as ‘tumma’ and mint. Journal in hand, I continued to write. This time, I looked up to see the table next to me staring at me curiously. I soon was chatting with two locals, Angelo and Francesco. When they learned that I was in search of the ravioli, I was immediately extended an invitation to dinner at Angelo’s house the following evening where they would cook me a typical Pantescan dinner. Sure enough – I arrived to find an amazing dinner of ravioli, pantescan salad (both recipes are under the recipe page) , local wine and desserts. We became fast friends and both Angelo and Francesco made sure that I had company for the remainder of my stay.
On my final day, Francesco insisted we visit Montagna Grande, the highest point on the island. After a very hair-raising drive to the top, we returned and were headed down main street when Angelo arrived with the fire department. I still chuckle over the sight of the fire trucks coming to a halt in front of me as they all leaped out to say goodbye. That afternoon, I was incredibly sad to leave all my new found friends. I had seen the wonderful soul of this island and left with a suitcase laden with gifts and enough wonderful memories to fill my heart. There are many stories from this island that will be told in time on these pages but as I sit here on this chilly February morning, preparing for another day at the grind, my chat with my friend this morning reminded me just how important it is to take time to be nice to each other – a lesson that we all too quickly forget.