Ustica: Long-lived Island
While visiting Pino’s family in Palermo, we finally visited the island of Lampedusa this past summer, discovering another Mediterranean treasure. Bellissimo!
No time for our usual jaunt to Ustica – but hopefully, we’ll be back there next year.
We are hoping that the Alessandris are still well – and will we find Pasquale (he’d be over a hundred now).
I remember fondly our first meeting years ago:
Ustica: Long-lived Island September 2007
For me, Ustica is “the long-lived island”: not just for the age of this rocky outcrop 70 km off the coast of Palermo, tip of an extinct volcano jutting out of the acquamarine sea, but because long-lived Pasquale Palmisano born on Ustica 96 years ago embodies for me the ancient, long-lasting – eternal FEEL of this Sicilian island. I visited him recently on my fourth trip to the island. I found him still sitting under the gnarled ancient olive tree where I had left him last year. He was still weaving baskets of reed and cane with his gnarled hands. His wide-brimmed straw hat (which he wears trotting along on his donkey, transporting vegetables) was on the ground beside him. His blue eyes twinkled with an unextinguishable light as he shared memories of his childhood on the island. I never tire of hearing his stories. “Shoes?!” he grins, “we never had them on our feet til we reached 20. Mamma and Papa made us scarpe di pile (N. B. Sicilian dialect for “shoes of skin”) whenever a donkey died. They skinned the donkey, dried the skin and made as many shoes as they could from the old beast. But there were 11 of us… there were a lot of shoes needed… and a lot of mouths to fill!”
Pasquale, his brothers and his sisters all went to school until fourth grade and after that, their help was needed on the land. “All the land was cultivated in those days… right down to the sea.”
As Pasquale grew older, he took on extra jobs to help feed the family. “I transported melons – our island has always been famous for melons – and lentils, too, of course. I took the melons by boat – sailboat, no other kind then! – to the mainland. But first we had to get the melons from the fields to the port, loading them into the two grandi baskets on the flanks of the donkeys. I’ve been making these baskets since I was about 11. We always needed lots of baskets: baskets for all the crops the donkeys hauled in from the fields, baskets for picking lentils and then olives, baskets for the grape harvests, baskets for draining fresh ricotta, baskets for the cheese-making, baskets for sifting out the chaff from the wheat grains, baskets for the shopping Mamma carried on her head from town (not much: we ate mostly what we grew), baskets for the wash Mamma did at the cistern.”
As Pasquale whittled the reeds for the baskets, his nephew Pietro – who works in Milan and returns to Ustica for the summers – and grandson Pasquale (in Sicily, boys are named for grandfathers) picked melons in the field just behind us. Pietro stopped to chat: “My uncle comes from a long-lived race: average life-span is 90. Zio Pasquale’s mother died 3 months short of 100. When I leave in September, Zio Pasquale always says – ‘I might see you next summer’. I just laugh….” Pasquale smiled as he whittled. Those blue eyes twinkled with that irrepressible light. I could have stayed all day talking to Pasquale but the sun would soon be too hot to walk the road to the rocky cove where I like to swim. I thanked him, saying “ci vediamo la prossima estate” ( “see you next summer”). I meant it. He knew it… and smiled.
Young Pasquale walked across the road to the wall where Pasquale’s baskets hold the produce they sell to summer visitors: eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, onions, dried beans, lentils (the famous tiny lentils of Ustica cook quickly – and ah, what flavor!), capers, plums and peaches. He tells me to help myself and take some peaches. I take a large round one, bite into it and walk up the road with juice dripping down my wrist, heading to the nearby home of my hosts, elderly Signor and Signora Alessandri.
This visit was my third stay with them. During our August visits with Pino’s family in Palermo, we frequently take jaunts to Sicilian jewels and for the past couple years, the island of Ustica has been a favorite. We always rent a room with bath in the Alessandri home just outside the little village of Ustica (there is only one village on the island). Guido Alessandri has the weathered face of years on the land in the sun, translucent green eyes and a thick shock of white hair. He is still a very handsome man. Signora Alessandri too has lovely thick white hair – a stark contrast to the black dress she always wears. The only gleam of color, the gold chain with cross worn around her neck. Porta il lutto (she “wears the mourning”) for her middle-aged daughter who died in her sleep just a few years ago. “She just wanted to stop living”, her mother says simply and with resignation. Her daughter’s death came four years after she had lost a child to serious illness. A lovely woman – her photo is here and there in their house. Signora Alessandri talks wistfully about her deceased daughter and granddaughter.
On each visit to Ustica, Signora Alessandri and Signor Guido have shared with me many stories about their family and about life on Ustica during their youth. For years, they had to live apart as the rocky soil of Ustica offered an insufficient income for a family. Like many an islander (the population is 1200 now – and once was nearly triple that), Signor Guido went to work in Switzerland for a number of years, while the Signora lived on her own with their four children in Palermo. Many an island family has suffered this separation due to limited schooling on the islands. (When their children were small, they could go to school only up to 8th grade on Ustica. Now the island has a high school).
We talk in the evenings as we sit on the patio of their white stuccoed house, festooned with fuchsia bougainvillea, flaming red hibiscus, crawling white-flowered caper vines, looking out over the sea.
These are the colors of Ustica: pristine white and pastels of the stuccoed houses, black of the volcanic rock walls dividing the fields, red and purple bouganvillea and red, white, pink hibiscus bursting in flashes of color, here and there. White-flowered caper vines grow from crevices in the the black rock walls and crawl along the cliffs which drop to the acquamarine sea. Silver-green olive trees, pungent wild fennel and low-lying vineyards (low-to-the-ground pruning diffuse in southern Italy) grow alongside fields of melons, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in fields of reddish soil. Deep-green maritime pines and date palms shade family gardens and eucalyptus and multi-colored oleander grow along the roads. Prickly pears crawl along the rock walls and cling to the rocky cliffs which plunge to the sea: translucent blues (like Pasquale’s eyes) and emerald greens (like Signor Alessandri’s) intermingle in the gently lapping waves in the coastal coves below.
Casa Alessandri is just a few minutes walk outside of the one small village on the island. The ochre-stuccoed church sits at the highest point on a small piazza, like a guard. The single main street of Ustica winds from the church down to the port, lined on both sides with a couple cafés, a gelateria, small shops, a few restaurants, a grocer, and a baker. Narrow backstreets run parallel and one or two hotels are tucked there in the midst of the village houses. Elderly women sit in front of the houses, with baskets on laps, cleaning lentils or shelling speckled borlottti beans which they sell to visitors. Above them, colorful murals painted by various artists in the 1970’s splash brilliant colors on stuccoed walls: a mural echo of the myriad colors of Ustica’s waters and brilliant vegetation.
Ristorante Da Umberto is just off the main village street, set back on a small piazza, awning shading the outdoor tables. Owner Umberto is small, wiry but strong, with snapping black eyes, buzzing about, he reminds me of a field mouse.
His hard-working family has created a small empire on the island: he and his wife Giovanna run the restaurant with the help of a daughter-in-law, one son runs a pizzeria, another has apartments for rent. The family organizes boat trips around the island, with stops in coves for swims and a wonderful seafood meal served on board. They can arrange excursions anywhere on the island. We eat at Ristorante Da Umberto quite often while on the island. The menu includes not only a wide-variety of seafood pastas and seafood second courses but also specialties typical of Ustica and/or typical of the culinary prowess of Signora Giovanna! Polpette (“meatballs”) of fish, breadcrumbs, herbs, and pinenuts and her excellent polpette of breadcrumbs, local cheeses and the island wild fennel are my menu favorites. On this visit, Signora Giovanna shared a few of her recipes with me. (See Giovanna’s recipes for Zucca Gialla Agliata – “Garliced Squash” – at the end of this article).
Not far from Ristorante da Umberto, one single road leads out of the town, winding along the coast and orange minibuses take visitors to the coves for swimming in water which could be taken for the Caribbean. Ustica was the first Marine Reserve – Area Marina Protetta (“Protected Marine Area”) – established in Italy in 1986 expressly to preserve the integrity of the seabeds and the astounding natural beauty of the territory.
Some visitors hop off the orange bus at the same spot daily, others try one spot in the morning and choose another cove for late afternoon swims: Cala Sidoti, Acquario, Il Faro, il Bancone. Masks and snorkels are in nearly every beach bag. One day while at Cala Sidoti, I eavesdropped on a group of children swimming in the coves with masks and snorkels. They were taking a course with a naturalist working for the Riserva Marina. They surfaced periodically as the instructor taught the children about the algae, fishes, marine life they were seeing below. Deep-sea diving courses are also taught at various points off the island.
Early morning walks on the island lead to fortified huts and an extensive streetch of Bronze Age walls (about 1300 BC). Inhabited continuously from the 3rd century BC, the tombs of the Roman necropolis and remains of Roman farms trace the history of the earliest settlements.
The Benedictines concluded centuries of monastic life on the island in the 14th century and the island then became the haunt of pirates. In the 18th century, the Bourbons colonized the island, bringing in slaves from Tunis to build fortified towers, constructed as a defense system along the Bourbon coastal routes. The same Tunisian slaves also built some of the ancient stone houses on the upper edge of the village. Ustica soon became the perfect place for political exiles – from the Bourbon reign to fascism. Enemies of the Bourbon Crown, patriots of the late 19th century Italian Risorgimento, opposers of Italy’s colonial wars and shirkers of military service, Libyan deportees and antifascists were all exiled here.
The island of Ustica now invites another kind of exile: a glorious self-imposed one on this rocky outcrop rising out of the acquamarine waters of the Mediterranean sea.
Zucca Gialla Agliata (Garliced Orange Squash) – about 8 servings
Of Signora Giovanna, Ristorante da Umberto, Ustica – province of Palermo
Use enough orange squash to slice into about 24 slices, approximately 4- 5″ wide and approximately 1/2 – 3/4 inch thick (note: as is typical of any good cook, Giovanna has never used a recipe so her instructions to me were very “approximate” – do experiment, therefore!)
Heat olive oil* – add garlic clove or two and lightly fry til golden. Remove garlic cloves from oil.
Raise heat to “sizzling”. Be sure that there is at least 1/2 in. olive oil in the pan and that oil is “spitting”, though not smoking. Flip over, browning squash slices on both sides. Remove from heat and drain. Prepare agrodolce (“sweet/sour”) mixture: mix about 1 c. wine vinegar with 1 tsp sugar. (Giovanna points out that sugar/vinegar proportions will depend on personal taste.)
Leave just a bit of olive oil and return squash to pan. Add shredded carrot, shredded garden fennel and wild fennel seeds (if not available, use dill), salt and pepper as desired. Pour agrodolce mixture over all and simmer uncovered until liquid evaporates. Then serve.
*Hint: when frying, use part sunflower seed oil to reduce smoking tendency of olive oil.
Read about why we love Ustica
Read more on Ustica – and on Pasquale
Read about – and see – the wondrous Sicilian island of Lampedusa
Read about why many are heading to Lampedusa
Read more on our Sicily adventures (and a recipe)
Read about Sicilian street food
Read about another Sicilian treat with Arab roots