At 60 km from Catania in the Hyblaean Mountains, on the most northwesterly slopes of Monte Lauro, Vizzini rises on the spot of ancient Bidis, a Roman city mentioned by Pliny and Cicero. In the Middle Ages the population lived around a now non-existant castle, as a fiefdom of various lords, and was long under the influence of the Arab domination. The writer Giovanni Verga used Vizzini as the setting for his “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Mastro Don Gesualdo”. My grandfather tells me he is a distant cousin to Giovanni Verga.
This is the town my grandfather Pietro Verga was from.
When I went to visit Vizzini in 1969 I fell in love with its antiquity. The streets were narrow and winding and were paved with wide bricks made of the ever abundant lava rock from the nearby Mount Etna. Chickens and live stock roamed in the streets and men still used mules to carry their heavy loads to and from the fields. Women were balancing baskets of laundry and dry goods on their heads, all dressed in black. I felt like I had stepped back in time. I saw people drying tomatoes outside their balcony window, now these were real “sun-dried” tomatoes.
We arrived in Vizzini by bus from Catania with my brother Richard, Aunt Angie and Uncle Benny. My aunt and uncle met us in Sicily. They were spending the summer there and had a rare opportunity to take their nephews on a wirl wind tour of the country they loved so much. My Uncle Benny was so proud of his home town of Riposto, which was a small fishing village on the Ionian Sea not that far from Vizzini. He and my grandfather would argue constantly during our holiday get togethers about who’s town was more beautilful, my uncle’s, who’s picturesque village was by the sea or my grandfather’s, who’s town was perched on a mountain with beautiful mountain ranges surrounding it. My uncle had my undivided attention while we were in Vizzini and I could see him campaign for his town over my grandfathers. He would say, “see the chickens in the street?” I would save the quips he made about my grandfather’s town and be sure my grandfather would hear about it when I got home. That would make great fodder at the next family get together.
I recall that Christmas Eve we were all together in the basement of my family’s home and had just finished eating. I didn’t want to ruin anyones dinner, after all, it was Christmas. As my grandfather pushed back from the table exposing his full belly, I made the comment, “You know grandpa, Uncle Benny’s town was really nice. And I didn’t see any chickens there”.
That is all it took. I gave my Uncle Benny an opening. He immediately started with,”you see, your own grandson liked my town better”. Well, the fireworks started. I know, how can I do that to my grandfather. You have to understand, there is nothing more entertaining than watching two Italian men arguing over anything. Their hands become an instrument of expression, flailing in all directions. And the rat-tat-tat of the Sicilian dialect is melodic. Then my grandfather looked at me with fire in his eyes, “Stupido! Watsa da matta wit you? You craazy!” I could see the glee in my Uncle Benny’s eyes as he looked at me and winked, and then turned to my grandfather, pushing him on the shoulder, saying, “you see, you see!” My grandfather would throw his hands up in the air with a twist of the wrist which motioned, “get out of here”.
At that point my aunts would just shake their heads and say, “stop it already! You two are acting like school children. You both came here to America to get away from that place. There was nothing there! If it was so beautiful and wonderful what did you come to America for!”
It was right out of the scene of West Side Story when Bernardo and Anita were bantering each other on the rooftop to the song “I want to be in America”. But my aunts were right. Well, at least half way. America was their country. And both my grandfather and my uncle loved this country. But Italy will always be their home.
When I first saw my grandmother make this dish I thought something was wrong. How come the sauce isn’t red? “Pasta con ricotta”, she said. “You wanta some? Here, mangia!”. She placed another plate on the table next to my grandfather’s. My grandfather was amused with my reaction. As my grandmother lifted the linguini out of the bowl and on my plate my grandfather said, “Mmm, delicious! You like”.
Whenever I finished dinner with my family I would head upstairs to my grandparent’s apartment to see what grandma was cooking. Nine out of ten times I joined them. The full flight of steps that led up to their door were wooden and creaky, but the door was never locked. As I opened the door the round kitchen table was just on the other side of it. As soon as I entered I could usually tell what she was preparing by the aroma. Except that day.
I watched as my grandfather gathered the linguini between his fork and spoon, using the spoon as a pivot to twirl the pasta on his fork. I could only guess how much he was enjoying it. So I dug in. It was different, but I liked it. “You see!, I told you you like”, my grandfather said. “You wanna some ginger ale?” My grandmother always had a bottle of Hammer ginger ale on the table. My grandfather would reach over and uncork his bottle of red wine and once my grandmother filled my glass with ginger ale he would add a splash of wine to it. Just to add color to it, as he would say. I had a new favorite dish my grandmother made…pasta con ricotta.
This is one of the more simple dishes to prepare. Not many ingredients and ready in 10-15 minutes. Here’s how to prepare it:
Pasta Con Ricotta
- 15 oz. Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese
- 1 cup pasta water
- 1/2 Teaspoon salt, more to taste
- 1 cup Pecorino Romano grated cheese
- 1 lb. Linguini or Fettuccine Pasta
- 2 Tablespoons finely chopped parsley or more to taste
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
Mix ricotta cheese , 1 cup of Pecorino Romano, 1/2 tsp of salt, freshly ground black pepper and fresh chopped parsley. Blend well. Put aside.
Bring 5 qt. water to a rapid boil. Add 1 tablespoon of salt to pasta water.
Add pasta and stir and return to rapid boil. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally. Pasta should be done in about 9 minutes for firm. Before you drain the pasta, reserve a cup of the water and pour it into the ricotta mixture. Mix well.
Drain the pasta. Pour the cheese mixture into the pasta pot and put it back on the stove on a very low flame. Add the pasta to the pot and mix well to blend. Heat just till the ricotta mixture is heated through.
Add Parsley, some more grated cheese and serve.