The word “nestled” suggests many things. It could mean a small child held close in the warmth of a parent’s bosom. Or a precious object tucked away for its protection. In Sicily, many villages can be described as nestled in the mountains, or cradled under a bluff or along a saddle between gentle peaks with views over vast plains, locations chosen by its early peoples, the better to see enemies coming from far off.
Novara di Sicilia meets a couple of these meanings. It sits on the boundary between two mountain ranges, the massive Nebrodi to the west and the smaller coastal Peloritani. It is held in the embrace of a hill with, from near the top, an unobstructed view north to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Due north of Castiglione di Sicilia, along SS185, Novara overlooks a vast area that was, in Roman times, a center for agriculture. The Romans, on the verge of creating an empire, took Sicily from the Carthaginians in the First Punic War, more than 200 years before the birth of Christ. Sicily became the then-Republic’s first province, and the Romans used its lands and people, along with those of Sardinia and Corsica, to raise grain to feed a quarter-million people—Rome’s estimated population in the late second century B.C.
Novara was known as Novalia under the Romans, a latinized word with a general meaning of “lands reclaimed for improvement or agriculture.” When the Muslims took over Sicily from the Byzantines a thousand years later, the village was known as Nouah, or garden. Its ancient and medieval agricultural past is marked throughout the year by such events as Gioco del Maiorchino, where large wax-coated wheels of pecorino cheese are rolled down steep cobblestoned streets to see which one remains upright and travels the farthest. There are chestnut fests and events centered on shearing sheep and baking bread.
Twenty miles north along SS185 from Castiglione, Novara pops into view over the top of a heavily forested mountain. From this summit, a long plain slopes down toward the Tyrrhenian and ends at the seashore, 12 miles farther along, at Castroreale Terme. A pair of volcanic Aeolian Islands, lightly made out through the coastal haze of industrial Sicily, rise up dark from the cobalt blue, almost black, of the sea.
From the town, it is obvious that its placement was based on its townspeoples’ ability to spot the approach of seaborne invaders as well as on its proximity to the farming of the plain below.
I arrived mid-morning, when under cloudless skies villagers are about, shops were open, and the sun’s rays, hidden for the past few days by a milky gray cover over this corner of northeast Sicily, bounced off the rain-wet cobblestones of the main street, Via Corso Nazionale. Novara is no different from many small Sicilian villages in that the primary attractions for daytrippers are the churches. This village was well cared for: The unique cobblestone designs in the streets all over the historical center were well maintained, and the medieval buildings were scrubbed clean of the centuries of grime.
As I walked the streets throughout a day there, people passing would smile and nod in greeting at this obvious stranger, softly saying buongiorno or buonasera. Novara was only the second village where I spent time on this particular journey, and it was clear that the non-Italian-speaking traveler needed to learn basic phrases and carry a well-thumbed phrase book. The people in these villages certainly know Italian and will gladly respond to a traveler’s attempts at language, but they speak their own Sicilian dialects to one another.
I found friendly Novaresi sitting at tables in crowded bars along the Via Corso Nazionale. A pair of middle-aged men invited me to join them for coffee, shouting “Hey, signore,” as I looked about for a place to sit in the improving February sunshine, and then motioning to an empty chair at their table. Folks this open to strangers have yet to be overwhelmed by tourists and their noisy street-blocking diesel buses.
The affability of most Sicilians I’ve met in recent years runs counter to the belief many potential visitors cling to, including a handful of travel writers, that islanders are a secretive, somber lot. This likely was true in bygone years when the Mafia’s grip was rock solid, and people in isolated pockets of the island looked askance at strangers, trusting only immediate family members. But some 200 years ago, before the Mafia became a force, one German, traveling by foot from Palermo to Siracusa, wrote that “Sicilians are a very friendly, inquisitive people, who manage in a quarter of an hour to ask the stranger quite ingeniously about everything they want to know.”
I could make this same observation today. Visitors who take time to meet and get to know Sicilians beyond those in tourist T-shirt shops know this. My Italian is basic indeed, but even when I have been invited to dinner in a Sicilian home where no one speaks English, we all have managed, somehow, to communicate.
One of my goals in my multi-hour visit was to find that one restaurant that most of the local people would point to. I wanted non-mainstream traditional food found only there or in the rural parts of the province of Messina. Italian and Sicilian food, even if based on similar ingredients, tends to differ from north to south and from deep inland to the Mediterranean coast. Novara is far enough from the sea that meat and vegetable dishes dominate over fish.
Everyone I asked for a recommendation eagerly pointed to Ristorante La Pineta a few dozen feet from my last coffee stop. I found a menu full of traditional food with names I had not seen elsewhere. I asked the signora for her advice. Without hesitation she pointed to contadina sugo di salsiccia, or peasant sausage sauce. The pasta was maccheroni that was fatti in casa (homemade by hand), from semolina wheat. The dough is rolled in strips around a small diameter stick, each piece about three or four inches long. I knew that this kind of pasta is made fresh each day, but I asked the signora anyway, “Quando è stato fatto?” (When was this made?) “Oh, signore. Questa mattina. Ovviamente! Ogni giorno” (Oh, mister. This morning. Of course! Every day), she said, pushing her index finger into her cheek, indicating “delicious.” The sugo—“sauce”—was light tomato, not strong and spicy like in other places in the south of Italy, and peppered with chunks of delicious pork sausage. It was a memorable meal that was not strictly local to Novara, but one I regularly found in the mountain villages I visited in Sicily’s northeast province. The shape of the pasta might vary from place to place, but the sauce was definitely from the mountains, where pork dominates.
I took my time with this mezzogiorno (midday) meal. Spindly, crunchy green beans followed the pasta, then a salad of various greens and herbs that the signora told me were plucked from the hillsides—no flat-tasting, mundane iceberg lettuce for me—and then an apple torte with a lightly browned crust that seemed to float off the fork. And last: a double espresso, caffè doppio. The bill, I recall, was around twelve dollars for three courses, dessert, and coffee. Over on the east coast at over-the-top touristy Taormina, the kind of village I generally avoid, the final bill would have been twice that or more.
Excerpted from SICILIAN SPLENDORS: Discovering the Secret Places that Speak to the Heart by John Keahey. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.