The challenges improved with each day and even more so with the arrival of my middle daughter. Introducing Avery Veronica Ward.
She, like her sisters, exude characteristics of strength, kindness and unbounded curiosity that have led them all on their unique life paths. I adore her and her sisters in case you haven’t gathered. The night she arrived she was three hours late. The driver from the Catania airport was lost. When they arrived, he looked at me and using google translator expressed “you walk up here?”. “Si.” He shook his head.
Avery and I did not have much of an agenda for her time here, which have made for some spontaneous carefree days. We have spent much of these days just wandering along the corridors of old town shopping, stopping here and there for a spritzer and a bowl of pasta. We visited the Ancient Theatre of Taormina built in 3rd century BC
It was nice to share the trek home with someone every day. At the steepest part of the trek, she turned around and continued to walk, “walk backwards mom it’s not so hard if you do it this way”. When walking up backwards one is not fixated on the steep climb ahead, rather, you are reminded of the road you have already climbed. Life and hard roads feel more manageable with this perspective.
We were walking on the third day into town and I casually mentioned to her “I have not had my food moment in Sicily yet”. I had eaten a great deal of pasta, bruschetta, seafood, bread, cheese, cured meats..but nothing has moved me yet. It was possible the film of the days before interfered with this. As we walked, I googled “best pizza in Taormina”. All results concluded, Pizzeria Villa Zuccaro was the best.
We google mapped it. It was not anywhere near the main touristy road. This was a good sign. I let Avery take the reins in navigation. Her technological confidence was reassuring. The red dot seemed to indicate we had made it and yet there was nothing. Then we did what good foodies do and relied on our senses not our head. The aroma of the freshly fired pizza enraptured us and led us around the corner and up the stone steps to an open terrace. We found it. There were, surprisingly, few people. Even better. The waiter brought us the menu. I did a quick scan. I was captivated within seconds. Avery ordered an Aperol spritz and I ordered a glass of Sicilian white. It was difficult to decide but finally we agreed. To begin we ordered Coponatina Siciliana, Sicilian eggplant relish.
This is apparently a very typical Sicilian dish whose origins date back to the 18th century. Chunks of celery, peppers, briny olives, eggplant, zucchini and capers, spiked with vinegar and just enough kick of sweetness. We scooped up the mixture that stained our faces with hunks of bread.
Then came the pizza. We ordered two. One was the Pizza -le special. The ‘Zucca”.
Thin crust smeared with pumpkin cream, fresh mozzarella, caramelized onion, bacon, walnuts and ragusano cheese.
Then… are you ready for this? The “Contadina”- blanketed with savory tomato sauce and topped with aubergine chips, basil pesto, ragusano (saffron cheese) fondue, dried tomatoes, crispy parmesan and basil wafers.
We did not speak much to each other-just the shared grunts and sighs as we lifted each piece with careful adoration to our mouths.
Let’s talk a little about pizza and what it actually means to be deemed exceptional. Well truth be told, pizza is not at the top of my list of favorite Italian cuisines. I have discussed this in previous blogs but let’s revisit this. For me, as I suppose the assessments are largely subjective, exceptional pizza consists of a thin crust that is not too doughy, with a base of integrity to hold the delicate goodness of the toppings. And the toppings must be just the right combination of texture (crispy yet soft) and flavor (salty, savory, touch of sweetness).
And to be sure this pizzeria met all the markers of exceptional pizza. The waiter brought us some limoncello on the house and gestured to the chef who sat at the back table. We nodded in gratitude. Our stained faces said it all. I asked if they held classes. He nodded but then abruptly left and then returned. He indicated that the chef had invited us into kitchen. Well now… it was not the typical cooking class I was anticipating. This was a private moment with the chef, my daughter and the friendly staff that surrounded us. We all participated. The chef in fact was an award-winning chef and with pride he guided me to see his trophies. He didn’t speak much English but I am sure my adulation was evident. Back in the open kitchen he shared his dough recipe which I accepted with my head bowed in reverence. Then he handed each of us a ball of dough and together we stretched, pulled and patted until we had the perfect round base.
We layered it lightly with fresh tomato sauce and added the chunks of fresh mozzarella and basil leaves. And one by one we scooped up our creations with the long wooden paddles and slid it in the fire watching, in mere minutes, as it bubbled and spit into the masterpiece we anticipated.
There is something about food and cooking, in particular, that provides a conduit of connection between people despite the barriers of language. We had our moment and clearly, I may never be able to eat pizza the same again.