"Maybe I am so drawn to Sicily because I am half-Sicilian and the island is hard-wired into my genes," writes Theresa Maggio in The Stone Boudoir. "Or maybe Sicily is a vortex that pulls some people in a center of the universe, like the Omphalos at Delphi, a navel stone that connected some inner world to the outer. . . ."Maggio, who quickly sheds her writerly self-consciousness to create a simple and charming narrative, needs no excuse for searching out her grandparents' family in Santa Margherita. Her unifying thread a desire to find the tiniest mountain towns, going mostly by the luck of the road and of the sounds of the village names around Mount Etna is more natural than the often forced tone of "finding my roots" books. Traveling mostly in winters, when fares were cheap, and working between trips, staying once as long as a year, she pieces together a family portrait of unshowy sweetness. Unshowy, because Maggio really is half-Sicilian, and her family members like Nella, the "niece of the daughter of my grandmother's first cousin" are at the same time funny, resilient, sentimental, nervous, superstitious and pious. "Anything that was good' in Nella's house was never used. The red ceramic teapot on the back of the stove never felt hot water," Maggio writes, "the glass cruets on the table never tasted oil or vinegar, and as far as I know I am the only one who has ever sat on the dining-room couch."Maggio finds the codes of village life are subtle, indeed. "The wash line tells a story in a semaphore code anyone can read. Without speaking or even being seen, a woman can say, Ha! I have my wash hung before you're even up.' Or she can hang boys' briefs, men's work clothes, and black shawls to say, I have three sons, two are out of diapers, my husband's got a job, and my widowed mother lives with us.' . . . And a woman can signal her lover it is safe to come up by leaving only her nightgown on the line."Still, not everything is funny. Sicilian plumbing is so full of holes (or, depending on who's talking, held hostage for bribes by a Mafia monopoly) that Nella sometimes goes as much as three weeks without fresh water. Her childhood home, a stone cottage, was destroyed in an earthquake in the winter of 1968, forcing her to live in a tent for a year and a metal barracks for the next 20, because reconstruction money was repeatedly drained off by corruption. Many of her neighbors prefer to live in the old cave dwellings rather than the quake-prone cinderblock complexes at the foot of the mountain.
Maggio discovers street food: octopus, spiny sea urchins cracked open on the spot and scooped out with crusty bread, raw oysters, steamed clams, mussels. She watches processions of relics and saints' day festivals and shares birthday dinners for hours. And she finds Sicily's heart ultimately by letting the country come to her as much as she seeks it out.
A companion wine Thanks in part to Mount Etna's rich volcanic contributions, the soil of Sicily is extremely fine for wine-growing, and the Nero d'Avola grape, though not yet well-known in the U.S., is apt to be the next Merlot, rich, cherry-fruity and with semi-sweet tones of coffee, smoky wood and chocolate, and with sufficient tannin to take a few years' aging. The Morgante Nero, which sells for only about $12, is just one example; you may also find Nero being blended with Merlot and Cabernet for smoother wines that will open a little earlier.
Eve Zibart is restaurant critic for the weekend section of The Washington Post and author of The Ethnic Food Lover's Companion.