That Time I Spent $86 for Pizza and Learned the Sicilians Are “Masters of Food”

This essay was written September 11, 2007 during a four-month eating odyssey across Europe.

“Shit!” I cursed with a heaving breath as I ran down the dark, empty street parallel to the Calata Piliero in the Porto di Napoli.

I was halfway through three months of eating my way across Europe using my last shiny dimes saved during five years of an unfulfilling office job in New York City. This was the last ferry to Sicily. I was trying to run from the ticket office to the pier by ten o’clock. With each asphalt-slamming stride the thirty kilos strapped to my back and chest lofted up and crashed down, knocking the air out of my lungs. If someone was to jump from behind a cargo container or shadowed doorway at least I was running. I had eight minutes to catch the ferry and no accommodations in Naples.

It was the pizza’s fault.

The day before I had eaten a pizza Margherita at Naples’ temple to pizza, the paean-inspiring, L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele which has been on Via Cesare Sersale since 1930. It was so good I had returned to see how a second taste would measure up. It was six o’clock and I had, I thought, plenty of time until the 9:30 pm overnight ferry. I’d already bought my ticket.

When it comes to describing food, the word ‘perfect’ gets thrown around, but Da Michele’s pizza is perfect. It’s the idea of pizza, actualized. There are three varieties: sauce, sauce and cheese, and sauce with double cheese. Three white-clad pizzaiolos perform specialized motions over and over. The first stands behind a counter, stretching and saucing the dough, his motions hidden behind the cardboard-lined glass shelves. A second pizzaiolo gently drags the finished pizza onto a peel, and the third lifts it into the oven with a stylish shoulder shrug.

I watched considering Sant’Antonuono, the saint in the alcove above the oven, and the two poems in Neapolitan dialect hanging on the white-tiled walls. I was told that in Italy, anyone who regularly has anything to do with fire is protected by Sant’Antonio Abate—known as Sant’Antonuono in Naples—he has this distinction according to legend, on account of having traveled to hell to contend with the devil for the souls of sinners.

The only reason I could imagine these pizzaiolos needed protection was if they stole the devil’s own pizza recipe.

One poem by Gennaro Esposito warned:

“Chesta ricetta antica si chiamma MARGARITA ca quanno è fatta arte po ghi nant’à nu re. Perciò nun e cercate sti pizze complicate ca fanno male á sacca, e ó stommaco pati.”

Loosely translated, Da Michele was the pizza of kings, “So don’t go looking for complicated pizzas which will only hurt your wallet and stomach.”

I left reluctantly. I was to catch a bus to the ferry from the stop in front of the Stazione Centrale.

I passed a grown woman standing in the middle of a busy street, pissing herself, face contorted, lips trembling. Her look muddled pain and sorrow.

Naples is a dirty city. Still, something about it is enticing. An hour passed. There was no sign of bus “no. 1,” said to go the pier, and dusk was creeping over the building facades. A leering drunk glared at the two women waiting near me. I positioned myself between he and them. It started to feel as if Naples was erasing my memory of other times and places. There was a tug on my backpack strap. For a moment, I imagined the city was pulling me into a back alley amidst the red-horn talismans and white Campania hats. It occurred to me I could forget who I was. Not reinvent myself, just forget.

Naples was taking me for itself.

The bus finally arrived, but when I reached the ticket office at 9:22 pm, the bigliettaio said my ticket had been for a ferry an hour earlier. The next ferry, the night’s last, was about to depart. Adding the €55 cost of the second ticket to the tab at Da Michele meant my pizza cost €60, or US$86. I’d give you that right now for another one, fresh from the oven.

Panting and sopping with sweat at the ramp I thrust out my ticket. The gangway pulled up a minute later. I checked in and went to my berth. On the bottom bunk on the right, an Italian with a five-o’clock shadow lay on his back, dreadlocks hanging from under the kind of hat a 67-year-old American man wears while fly-fishing. The other three bunks were empty. I pressed open my backpack clips, which popped open explosively for the first time in two hours.

“Tired?” asked my smiling roommate.

I nodded, catching my breath. “Where’s the bar?”

I walked once around the ship’s purple-neon, black-lit deck. Inside a bright dining room, people were being served dinner. Through small portals, you could see the cooks sweating, preparing food in the galley next door. I sat on a bench watching the lights from the coast fade as the ship pulled away. Soon, only the yellow and red moonlight remained, a passageway of light reflected on the water through the night. I was exhausted from exploring the ruins of Pompeii under the merciless August sun, climbing Mount Vesuvius and trying to make the ferry—too tired to be lonely.

I settled into my bunk. It was only when I was woken by the horrible snoring of two men on the other side of the berth that I realized I had dozed off. I thought they must be dying.

The air-conditioning was on full-tilt and the room was molar-knocking cold. Climbing under the crisp sheets did nothing. The next three hours I barely suppressed an Italian phrase I’d learned from my sister while on a pit stop visiting her where she was living in Rome, “Che cazzo fai?”

But when one is unarmed and traveling alone it is probably best not to shout at sleeping strangers, especially, “What the dick are you doing,” when there is little else you can say in Italian to extricate yourself from the outcomes of such an exclamation. During the endless hours that followed all the change fell out of my pockets.

We arrived in Palermo at a quarter past six. A crew member lightly rapped the door, awakening the two snoring thieves (of my sleep). In Italian, they loudly discussed getting coffee. In the sudden silence after their departure, a deep sleep fell upon me like a starving wolf but far too late. It was time to disembark.

“Oh my god!” my berth mate exclaimed.

Apparently, he had also been kept awake. I was about to say that the snoring sounded like someone incessantly sucking lard through a wide straw but his description rendered mine without jurisdiction.

“Like someone farting with his mouth, like this,” he quipped jauntily, ripping his point home with a loud, long fart, like a jovial Italian farting elf. “We get breakfast,” he said as I gathered my change.

It was dawn. The ramp from the boat to the pier led into pink light.

“You feel the heat?” he asked. “That is African wind,” he said, saying wind like wined, “it will be very hot today.”

I briefly considered the warnings about Sicily I’d received from other travelers.

“Naples and Sicily are filled with thieves, perverts, and pickpockets,” a Spanish college student said on a train as we’d approached Budapest.

What was I getting myself into? Who was this guy? Patting my back pocket as we approached the café in a sleepless daze, I realized the €35 I thought I’d had was gone.

“Shit, I must have left my money in the bed.”

“It’s okay, my treat,” he said immediately. “You want arancini with ragout or prosciutto?”

Arancini are Italian rice balls stuffed with cheese or meat, coated with breadcrumbs and fried. They’re said to have originated in Sicily where the word means, “little oranges,” which is kind of what they look like, but fried.

“Isn’t it a little early for arancini?”

“No,” he answered.

When a Sicilian named Emilio with dreadlocks and a harpoon gun tells you it’s not too early to eat a rice ball and that it’s his treat you choose prosciutto. In a few minutes, he returned with coffee and food. The rice was soft and wonderfully overcooked. Yellow, fluffy, warm.

“Good?”

“Excellent.”

“The Sicilians,” Emilio said, smiling proudly, “are Masters of Food.”

He made other declarations as we sipped espresso.

“Don’t take trains in Sicily.”

I’d read this.

“In Sicily, there is one track,” he continued. “When two trains approach each other one must move out of the way. Big problems. You must take bus.”

Then: “You must go to Syracuse. It is the most beautiful place in Sicily.”

And then he commented on my surname: “Bovino! Your nickname is Italian!”

“It’s not my nickname,” I said, “it’s my name.”

“Bovino, that’s a funny name. It’s a mafia name.”

After 30 years of being asked if I knew my name meant ‘cow,’ this was a refreshing assessment.

We left the café and I thanked him.

“It is nothing,” he said gesturing to follow along the still-shuttered Via Vittorio Emmanuelle. “I have not seen my parents in two months. I have been in Amalfi, working. I fish with my gun,” he said lifting the harpoon gun in its black case briefly for emphasis. “What I catch I eat,” then, laughing, “I must see my parents now.”

We stopped under the flashing green pharmacy sign on the corner of Via Roma.

“You must always walk on these two roads, no others,” he said, pausing. “So, I do not think I will ever see you again. Good luck. Good trip.”

He gave me the quintessential travel advice, “beware of pickpockets,” and turned his back.

I wondered if the euros he’d bought breakfast with had been those I’d left behind. In a way, I would not have minded.

Blinking repeatedly did nothing to widen my eyelids, but our meal was fortifying enough to seek out my hotel. Twenty minutes later, I stood under scaffolding in front of what should have been my hotel. The alley was empty save a man selling coffins. When I looked at him he pointed to the door in silence. Upstairs, it was too early to check in. But I dropped off my bags and accepted a double espresso from the Italian receptionist who spoke English with an Australian accent. I took a photocopied map from the table and left to explore.

I have not yet been to Cuba, but as I walked through Palermo’s empty streets, its aged buildings made me think it might remind me of Havana if I had. There were pockets of conscious people—food people, market people. Down the damp cobblestone paths of the Mercato della Vucciria men stood with swordfishes whose tails had been cut off. Their sharp rapiers pointed skyward— fish-rockets ready to launch.

Near the entrance to the Mercato del Capo on Via Sant’Agostino, a man raced by on a Vespa. His black T-shirt bore white capital letters, “L.A. Drug Lord.” In Naples and Rome similar shirts attested to wearers’ working for the FBI and New York’s “CSI, Special Victims Unit.” If L.A. drug lords have infiltrated the streets of Sicily, at least the Feds and New York’s finest are on the case.

As morning wore on, the sun blazed. I chuckled at two mannequins in a shop window wearing boxing gloves—one had literally beaten the pants off the other. I knocked off tourist sights, stumbling upon the Porto Nuovo then doubling back to the Cattedrale di Palermo to escape the sun. Inside, dust mites floated through morning light. I watched with the fascination that sleeplessness brings to the elemental. Tourists filtered in. Palermo was no longer mine.

Outside, Germans took pictures, crowding the narrow sidewalks, forcing me to do creative walking. All these people visiting tourist attractions, shuffling and elbowing each for better camera angles—it was like some bizarre, secularized modern version of Darśana, the ancient Hindu practice.

Practitioners make pilgrimages to holy places hoping for an epiphany, jostling for a position to make “eye contact,” with statues of Hindu gods. It’s meant to be an act of reverence and devotion to the divine, but what epiphany would there be here? Experience of place? Most sights captured on digital cameras were barely glanced at without the camera lens giving purpose to these acts of seeing. What would become of these hundreds of digital pictures? Blogs, Flickr, Google Maps? Century-old churches and museum paintings don’t move. Why video?

And here I was, photographing food.

“Tourists are some strange species that leaves its head at home,” proclaimed graffiti in Madrid. What a strange congregation we were, these lapsed parts of the universe discovering itself.

After finding silence with dusty palm trees at the Palazzo di Normanni, I ignored Emilio’s advice to stay on Via Roma and Vittorio Emanuelle and doubled back down Via Abramo Lincoln to the waterfront. In the deserted courtyards and alleys, just blocks from the water were the quiet of white sheets and clothes flapping in a light breeze. No other sound. Many buildings had sunken roofs and crumbling plaster—like they’d been bombed.

New salt rings had formed on the dark blue T-shirt I’d worn during the adventure of the day before. I was thirsty. On the mainland, there seemed to be a free-flowing public tap to drink from on every other block. Not in Palermo. Halfway down a side street I happened upon a vendor selling lemon granita and bought one hoping to quench my thirst. It was more tart than sweet—delicious though not as revelatory as one I’d tasted in Positano after nearly melting while hiking the “Sentieri degli Dei,” with a pregnant Swede and her husband.

A few blocks later and the streets were as deserted as before. I turned a corner onto Via Cala and the Porta Carbone appeared, filled with moored sailboats, unmanned, masts swaying. A storefront with two doorless openings faced the water: Inside, seven men stood near a blue-tiled counter eating out of brown-paper.

Now, some people enjoy lining up, it’s a phenomenon that was the subject of Richard Schickel’s Times 2005 editorial, Avenue Queue. A Broadway employee was asked why tourists and the uninitiated attending shows in Times Square queued down the block when they already had tickets. He commented, “We can’t figure it out. It starts forming at about 12:30 pm [an hour and a half before the show starts]. I guess they just like standing in line. It’s not official. You can go right in if you like.”

When it comes to food and traveling there’s a different school of thought. If locals line for food, be a lemming.

One thick fellow with fat ruddy cheeks, thinning hair and stubby fingers happily chomped on a sandwich to the right of the counter.

“What are you eating?” I asked, pointing.

“Pani ca’ meusa.”

I nodded uncomprehendingly. The man behind the counter lifted a large, mesh spoonful of strange meat from what looked like a huge Italian wok, raining gray water.

“You try,” said my new friend. He spoke to the man with the water who handed me a sandwich. A generous portion of thinly sliced wet meat was stuffed between two halves of soft, fresh roll. I tried to pay.

“After, after,” said the counterperson.

The other patrons had squeezed lime halves over the meat. I took one from a bowl on the counter and did my best imitation, sprinkling grated caciocavallo too. My friend nodded approvingly. One piece of meat lolled out like a tongue with a white-lined hole where a vein might have been. I looked at it with distrust and took a big bite. My friend waited for a reaction. I was happy not to have to fake one.

The bread was soft and stuffed with inch-wide strips of pink, wet meat, which protruded—an Italian offal medusa. Juicy, spongy and marginally salty, with a light, lime tang—it wasn’t chewy at all. I wouldn’t learn until later that this calf’s spleen treat was Palermo’s signature sandwich of the last 50 years, but before you could say, ‘Baudelaire,’ or ‘how did Lonely Planet not include this place,’ it was gone.

“Again?” he asked.

This was my kind of town. I could’ve eaten more pani ca’ meusa, but what else awaited?

“No, no, thank you, let me buy your lunch,” I offered, asking the counterperson to throw in a bottle of water and an orange soda. My friend wouldn’t allow it.

“When I…New York,” he said pointing at himself then somewhere into the distance, his hand swinging at the wrist up and down.

Counting the espresso from the receptionist, it was the third time in three hours a stranger had bought or given me food or drink. Scary place, Sicily.

“New York,” said my friend, pounding his chest lightly, “honeymoon. But…now…divorce.” Then, after shrugging his shoulders, “Beautiful city. More beautiful in world.”

“This,” I said gesturing to the boats bobbing in the harbor under the dust-blue sky, “is beauty.”

He beamed. We shook hands, I thanked him, then exhausted, headed for the hotel. I would sit in the lobby armchair in air-conditioning if the room wasn’t ready.

I passed Bar Touring, marveling at the Chiccchiere di Carnevale, Torta Coriandoli, Sfinge, and cannoli. The glass-enclosed shelves were full of pastries that looked like they were made of marzipan, including Martorana versions of pani ca’ meusa. It was past noon. The streets were full. At every red light, scooters navigated to the front of stopped traffic, revving engines.

On the corner was a gelateria. I didn’t need to eat anything until I noticed customers leaving with gelato con brioche—Italian ice cream sandwiches with gelato slapped between sliced brioche. I bought a coffee gelato sandwich and happily ate in one of the chairs on the sidewalk then trudged to my hotel, checked in and collapsed, full on the bed.

At four o’clock I woke up hungry. After splashing water on my face, I found a T-shirt a little less dirty than others and headed out for food. Guidebooks singled out two places, Antica Focacceria di San Francesco and Pizzeria Italia. I’d been walking more than 11 miles a day for weeks to save money—I headed for the pizzeria on Via dell’Orologio. But an hour later I was horrified to discover that Palermo’s oldest pizzeria was closed for renovations until September 9th.

By the time I finally found the stone framed entrance to the Antica Focacceria I was hungry and delirious. My feet throbbed. I sat down to a meal that I had trouble focusing on because of the well-coiffed, suit-wearing dining companion next to me. It’s not often you eat a cannoli while sitting next to someone you’re certain is Mafioso.

It was dark. All I’d done all day was walk, eat and sleep. I’d eaten arancini with a man with a harpoon and had an Italian divorcée buy me a calf’s spleen sandwich then seen a marzipan version of it. I’d explored fish markets, ate focaccia with tomato and olive oil. But I couldn’t let go of the day so I set out again until droplets falling from the sky, I happened on Capricci di Sicilia on Via Instituto Pignatelli, a small restaurant tucked into the Piazza Sturco.

A large woman sat at a table near the door to the restaurant. From the way the waiters and patrons genuflected at her table, she seemed to be the owner. I caught her eye and motioned at the cloth-covered outdoor tables, seeking permission to sit. A waiter showed me to a table as a few drops fell from the sky. I felt safe from the prospect of rain and ordered two courses. As good as the swordfish crudo with lemon juice and olive oil was, I forgot it almost immediately after the next dish, Spaghetti con I Ricci.

It was my first experience with this combination. Light, sweet and salty, the sea urchin was tossed with al dente  spaghetti. I suddenly dropped the pretension of my French culinary training of balanced plates and outright missed American portions. Just as I started to become envious of the company being shared by couples, friends and families around me, the large woman sitting near the door came over and introduced herself as Enza Eterno. She sat down at my table asking me about my meal, advising me about other Sicilian dishes to try. I was distracted by the way she held the edge of my table, it reminded me of Elaine Kaufman of Elaine’s in New York City, holding court.

I walked the walk of a full person in the dark who just wants to be home.

Finally, back in my room I lay down and began to drift off, with Italian advertisement images of prosciutto-covered popsicle sticks in my head (“Godetevi il fresco Colleverde!”). Tomorrow I would take the train to a nearby town, the mode of transportation Emilio had advised against, and from there travel on to Syracusa.

As I considered the foods I’d eaten and seen since disembarking with him, I knew Emilio had been right. But even as the Sicilians were “Masters of Food,” the pizza of Naples had clearly mastered me.

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