Our little FIAT Panda was firmly lodged between a church and an apartment building, with no conceivable way to turn around. Even the nonna watching from her balcony could only shake her head in disbelief. After inching back down the tortuous trail, we eventually righted our course and found our hotel in Modica Alta.
Yes, Modica has two city centers; a high one, and a low one (Modica Bassa, appropriately). And therein lies the problem: relying on a two-dimensional map to solve a three dimensional navigation problem. I come from the Florida, the flattest state in the Union, where our only mountain is Space Mountain at Disney. We don’t have these types of geographical dilemmas, so I was ill-prepared for the challenge.
Our friend Angela grew up in Modica and couldn’t have possibly imagined that her town’s layout could so easily confound a seasoned American traveler like me (ha!). She had connected with us on Facebook and kindly offered to be our guide during our brief visit to her hometown. She handled everything from restaurant selections, to gelato advice, to museum suggestions, to introducing us to the wonderful family who runs the historical hotel, Palazzo Failla, where we stayed during our visit.
How to describe Palazzo Failla? I wasn’t exactly sure, so asked the owner, Signor Failla himself. He looked around the lobby space, took a deep breath, as said with modest pride, “This place? This is my home.”
He meant it literally, and frankly it didn’t surprise me. The way it’s decorated, the way it’s cared for, the family members working at the front desk…it does, indeed, feel like you’ve walked into someone’s home. Especially on the upper floors, where common areas display portraits and keepsakes. Dark wood furnishings and plush, comfortable fabrics give it a cozy feel. And it’s actually easy to find if you know how to read a map (unlike me).
As homey as the ten guestrooms are, this is indeed a full-service four-star hotel, with all the amenities including a Michelin-rated restaurant called, “La Gazza Ladra;” a must for any serious foodie. With our nine-month old in tow, we didn’t feel comfortable having dinner there (while their wine selection is top-notch, Demetra informed me that their “milk list” is sorely lacking). However, we were lucky enough to have breakfast in their dining room, which like the rest of the property, is intimate and detailed. The breakfast was delicious, only adding further to my disappointment that we didn’t join them for dinner.
The fact that La Gazza Ladra stands out in Modica is really saying something, as this town might have the highest concentration of great places to eat in all of Sicily. The next day we met Angela and some of her friends at a very casual, but delicious osteria along the main street called, “Osteria dei Sapori Perduti.” Simple food, but classic Sicilian recipes like: i cavatieddi ‘mpastizzati ccô chjuriètti, saûsizza e ricotta (I’ll tell you what’s in it if you don’t ask me to pronounce it—cavatelli pasta with onions, sausage and ricotta cheese). Incredibly, all their pasta dishes were only € 6.30 and their second courses were from €6.30 – 8.80, and a liter of wine was €6.00. This made me feel slightly less guilty when one of Angela’s friends picked up the check for the whole table. (Grazie ancora, Giuseppe e Elvira!)
In the near future, I’m going to write another article on just the food of Modica, including that famous (Mexican?) chocolate!
It’s a Dog’s Life
This is the story of a dog–but not just any dog. At first glance, Italo Barocco might have looked like your average stray; a little dirty, his posture a bit slouched, but with those pleading eyes that pull at your heartstrings. You might give him a whistle as you pass, or if you’re more bold, a pat on the head. And for Italo, that would have been enough. He craved human companionship above all.
A resident of the neighboring town of Scicli, he belonged to everybody in town. And nobody. In the mornings he’d follow the older folks to church, and quietly sit through Mass until the priest dismissed the congregation. Later, he’d meet up with a few tourists that were sight-seeing for the day, and he’d be their private tour guide, leading them around from one baroque masterpiece to the next. Then in the afternoon, he’d arrive at the local primary school and accompany the children to their homes. He went to every soccer game and participated in every religious festival.
Then in 2009, there was a terrible tragedy in Scicli. A pack of wild dogs attacked and killed a young boy while playing with his friends. The local council panicked, and quickly approved a law to dispose of all stray animals within the city limits. Italo was brought in to be euthanized along with the rest of them.
The town folks were conflicted; at once grieving for the little boy, while at the same time distraught over the fate of their beloved mascot. The mayor of Scicli stepped in and solved the problem. He adopted Italo and brought him to live at his house.
Italo died in 2011, but his legacy lives on thanks to film director Alessia Scarso, herself a Modica native. Later this year her film, “Italo Barocco” will be released throughout Italy, with hopes of an international release next year. (Any film promoters out there?) Initial screenings of the film have won her (and Italo) rave reviews, including this one from the Taormina Film Festival. It’s a story for the whole family, and one that I personal look forward to watching.
This little Baroque corner of the island was the last stop on the Sicily segment of my summer blog tour. Both my (Sicilian) wife Jessica and I agreed that it’s our favorite area. There’s much to enjoy all over the island (and the country), but if pressed to pick one spot that offers the best of everything, I think it would have to be here. Food, history, art, architecture, natural beauty, and warm people. Yes, these things are found all over Italy, but the Southeast corner of Sicily seems to really bring it all together nicely.
Our time in Modica was largely arranged by our friend, Angela. A very friendly, intelligent, energetic woman, who, like too many young Italians today, is over-qualified and underpaid at her job, and dreams of the bella vita in the United States. Isn’t that ironic? So many Americans wish they could come live in Italy, and so many young Italians would like nothing more than to leave their country for the Land of Opportunity. Such is the color of other people’s lawns. (Here is the trailer of the film Emergency Exit)
By the way, Angela is a very qualified attorney, so any of my American friends who have connections in the law field, please send me an email and I’ll pass it on to Angela. Grazie!