Day 14: Countryside, Sciacca, & Sit There & Pipe Down

Breakfast at 9:00 was another largely homemade affair, with freshly made cakes, pastries, breads, jams, and yogurt.  This B&B/agriturismo thing was right up our alley, as who doesn’t want sweets for breakfast and a dog to pet afterward?

Green countryside...

Green countryside…

This morning it was raining intermittently and difficult to tell if it would clear up anytime soon.  As such, we decided to take a drive of the area and found ourselves in the direction of Caltabellotta, over to Sambuca di Sicilia, and then to Lago Arancia.  Lago Arancia is a man-made reservoir that is an important stop for migrating storks and other assorted birds, and while we didn’t see any storks or assorted birds we saw some sheep that made up for it.  The drive was beautiful, as the hillsides were lush and green with vegetation, colorful wildflowers bloomed everywhere, and there were charming small towns, some randomly and haphazardly perched atop cliffs.  It would appear Erice isn’t the only game in town, only one of the most advertised.

...and hilltop towns.  Just lovely.

…and hilltop towns. Just lovely.

The weather was clearing by this point so we decided to check out the coastal town of Sciacca, which is known for majolica ceramics.  We arrived shortly after 13:00, which was a mixed blessing because all of the shops were closed for their midday siesta but this meant plenty of parking was available and Jim was able to navigate the narrow, steep streets with little traffic.  And Sicilian traffic, we’d come to learn, was best to be avoided.  Jim also feels it’s best to avoid shopping, too, so this worked out well on two fronts for him.

Piazza Scandaliato interlopers

Piazza Scandaliato interlopers

We parked near the main Piazza Scandaliato and decided our best introduction to Sciacca was to stop for a coffee at the nearby Gran Caffe Scandaglia’s terrace overlooking the harbor and the Mediterranean.  The sun was shining, the car was parked, coffee was flowing, and we were tickled pink.  Shortly thereafter we wandered around town, walking up and down streets and stopping in at a small park with beautiful sea views.  There was something I really liked about this place in spite of the fact it was a ghost town and it had grown quite warm (about 30C/86F).

The heat meant one thing:  gelato stop.  Because I like mint chip, we walked into every open gelateria looking for it but this is when I discovered something perplexing about Sicily:  they don’t make mint chip.  On Italy’s mainland it is a standard flavor, but Sicilians seem to have a mint aversion; we never found it the rest of the trip.  And don’t be fooled by the green one in the display – that’s pistachio.

I had to settle for an inferior cookie flavor, Jim got a coffee flavor, and before too long we had made quite a mess with the fast-melting gelato in near 90-degree temperatures.  That was our cue to leave, so we headed back to the B&B, making a brief stop first to check out the fancy Verdura Golf & Spa Resort.

Our swimming hole

Our swimming hole

After we got back, we changed into our swimsuits and lounged in and around the pool for a couple hours.  This was not only relaxing but also an effective means of removing the last bits of gelato from places we’d missed earlier.  The friendly B&B owner had come out, too, and we had a serious discussion about dinner options.  He told us to look no further; we will be going to a place in Caltabellotta he highly recommended.

A few hours later we found ourselves in the car, making our way in the pitch black up the very narrow, steep, and winding road up past Sant’Anna and into Caltabellotta to Trattoria La Ferla.  We arrived just before 21:00 and this turned out to be quite the dining experience.

For starters, we were the first ones there.  As we were walking in we passed the paunchy chef, who was standing in the kitchen doorway smoking, and awkwardly nodded a greeting.  We walked in the front door as Chef simultaneously plodded through the kitchen and we all met mere seconds later in the dining room.  Now, I don’t think Caltabellotta gets a lot of tourist traffic in general, and I’m pretty sure this restaurant doesn’t get a lot of English speakers, if any.  Therefore it should come as no surprise that much confusion ensued, beginning with where to sit.

Chef wildly waved his hands around the dining room, which we took to indicate as “sit anywhere and make yourselves at home.”  However, some of the tables were fully set for dinner and others weren’t, so we were unsure whether we were to sit at a set table or if those had been set because there was a reservation.  Timidly, we picked a table and headed for it.  Well, this was not to Chef’s liking and his hand gesticulations grew wilder and more animated, along with his clearly annoyed grunts interspersed with rapid-fire Italian that I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t want translated.  We tried to relate to him, furrowing our brows and indicating that yes, sitting at that table would be downright ludicrous, what rube would do that?, as we surreptitiously inched toward a different table.  This appeared to be an even worse and more half-witted table selection in Chef’s mind, and after a few more tries we all finally agreed upon where to sit in this empty dining room.  I felt like we were two kittens being handled by a gorilla.

Chef's doorway, from where you never knew what was coming next.

Chef’s doorway, from where you never knew what was coming next.

Chef then disappeared into the kitchen for a bit before emerging with what we thought would be menus, only it turns out La Ferla does not have menus, all the ordering is done verbally.  As in, they tell you what they have, you tell them okie-dokey.  Chef stood at our table half grunting/half grumbling something and we determined it was a request for drinks.  Ok, we got this, we know the Italian words we would need here.  We ordered a large bottle of water and, since Jim was driving, I only wanted a glass of wine instead of our usual shared ½ liter.  I tried explaining it to Chef by using words and mimes, but he was having none of my shenanigans and stubbornly plodded back into the kitchen, emitting a sigh that indicated he didn’t know how he found himself on this night alone with a couple of unversed hayseeds.  A few minutes later he came out with our water and, as anticipated, ½ liter of wine.

Next up was Part I of the ordering, the appetizer.  He asked if we wanted the antipasti, and we said sure, although I couldn’t stop myself from taking it one step too far to confirm there would be no fish involved.  It’s difficult to describe the look he gave, it was a mixture of disgust, perturbation, and utter bewilderment as to why I would think fish would be involved when here we were, far up in the hills of Sicily, over 20 kilometers from the sea.  No, there is no fish, he scowled as he lumbered back into the kitchen, mumbling the entire way.

We could hear Chef in the kitchen rummaging around and banging all sorts of pots and pans, opening and closing cupboard and oven doors, and chopping and dicing with what we envisioned was a very large meat cleaver.  A short while later he resurfaced, a little red-faced and sweaty, pushing a cart that was filled with small plates.  He clumsily started arranging/tossing the plates onto the table in front of us, and pretty soon there was almost no space left.  This antipasti was unlike any we’d seen before in Italy or Sicily.  There were sautéed mushrooms, salami, prosciutto, spicy salami, chunks of ham and pecorino cheese, a deep fried cheese, fritters, caponata, bruschetta… and that’s all I can remember.  It was delicious, every last bite, and very, very filling.  We began to worry what would happen if this was all we ordered for the evening, as you really didn’t need anything more, but were unwilling to chance saying no to Chef.  We would simply have to eat until we were told we could stop.

While we ate, a couple more groups of people walked in and they were all clearly area residents.  One group was large, with 4 men and 4 women and a pile of children, and a long table had already been set for them.  The men swaggered in and all sat down at one end of the table, the women sat at the other, and the kids spent the rest of the evening running around the restaurant and into the kitchen, which I’m sure delighted Chef to no end.  Another table was occupied by a solo man who looked like he could handle himself in a dark alley, and he sat facing us so we spent the next hour trying to avoid his gaze.  We felt as though we were in the movies and wouldn’t have batted an eye if Al Pacino waltzed through the door.

As we neared the end of our antipasti, another man burst through the door dressed in a waiter’s uniform.  This man had a slick Dean Martin vibe and he immediately breezed around the room, greeting all the men on the cheek with a kiss, tousling the tops of kids’ heads, and charming the pants off everyone in his path.  After he’d made the rounds, Chef came out and animated words were exchanged between him and the waiter, including a couple long, purposeful looks in our direction, before Chef disappeared into the kitchen again permanently.  It turns out he had just been filling in until Mr. Charmer could get back, which would explain why he had all the finesse and grace of Shrek as a waiter.  It was a shame, as he held great entertainment value and we felt he’d grown a soft spot for us.  Or not.

Eventually Mr. Charmer sailed over to our table to make sure everything was okay and find out what we’d like for the pasta and main courses.  Because we felt more comfortable by this point, partly because I’d been guzzling the ½ liter of wine and partly because Mr. Charmer wasn’t nearly as intimidating as Chef, we told him we would only start with pasta and see where that took us.  The two heaping plates that came out next were confirmation we would definitely not be able to order anything more, including dessert or coffee.  We were stuffed, I was tipsy, and it was time to pay the bill and skedaddle into the night.

Jim safely drove us back down the steep, narrow, winding roads to the B&B, where we recapped every moment of the experience before falling into bed.  This was definitely not one of those days you could plan in advance.

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