Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Strange Sicilian dinner conversation

My friend Caroline has her heart set on trying a nice Sicilian farm dinner at an 'agriturismo' place close to our villa in Menfi. This is how it happens that her loving husband finds Villa Maddalena. Here the local Napoli family runs a guesthouse and a homely restaurant where they cook traditional Sicilian cuisine made with fresh ingredients from the surrounding farm lands and coastline.

Ingredients are sourced almost exclusively from the farm itself, where they grow a large selection of fruit and vegetables, olives and grapes. There is also a barnyard with chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits and pigs. Other produce are from the immediate area, such as capers from Pantelleria, a selection of Sicilian wines and bluefish from the local fisherman at Porto Palo close by.

The restored farm villa has been in the family for centuries and it is here where they serve their guests courses upon courses of Italian delicacies. On arrival we find the large empty room a bit spooky and dark and decide to walk through the garden and watch the sunset over the vineyards while Mrs Napoli sets up our table for dinner.

Mr Napoli is quick to open the wine as we finally sit down in anticipation. Between the six of us, none of us can manage a decent conversation in Italian and yet Mr Napoli happily chats away to our amusement. Mrs Napoli drops by to ask us some questions about the food and it becomes a guessing game. Is she asking whether we're ready to start or making enquiries about what we would like to eat, or perhaps, what we don't eat?

They don't seem the slightest bit put off by our dumb looking facial expressions, questioning gestures or giggles. After the first course - a large platter each full of delicious cheeses, cold meats, olives and artichokes, which we slowly consume with a fairly large quantity of wine - the Napolis proceed to introduce what we understand to be their daughter, though it could have also been the younger sister of Mrs Napoli or anyone else for that matter.

As they shove the lady onto a chair next to Caroline's husband (who looks a little Italian himself) the very one sided Napoli family conversation takes on a suggestive tone. Until this moment there has only bit a hint of weirdness to the experience: the large dark empty dining room, the seven open bottles of different wines on our table for six and the bubbly Italian conversation of which we don't understand very much at all.

By the time we finish more courses of simple Napoletana and seafood pastas, veal and fish, we have the whole family sitting down with us. Mr Napoli herself snuggles up next to Peter to the amusement of his girlfriend Susi, who suddenly poses the question whether she is Mrs Napoli after all. There is no way for us to safely judge who is married to who and what they are saying but so they continue chatting to each of us individually and as a group in a way that suggests they couldn't care less whether we understand them or not.

The more wine and grappa we drink, the more interesting the evening becomes and the more we laugh and giggle and talk - us in English and the Napolis in Italian, still with no hint of understanding between the two groups. Eventually the charm wears off and the guys become slightly uncomfortable with the uninvited Italian attention in the presence of their beautiful partners.

It is probably the strangest dinner I have ever had. Excellent food; that real Sicilian mama food that wins you over in one bite. I would go back for that. Yet, perhaps it would be possible to order a takeaway and avoid the forced Italian company and the festive dinner conversation without any understanding from the conversing parties.

We laugh a lot in the moonlight on the way home but there is also the very real sense of something eerie that we cannot quite pinpoint. Certainly not an evening we will forget anytime soon.

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