Frontline World

Sicily - A Bridge Too Far? , April 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
The Strait
Il Postino
Nino Calarco
Anna Giordano
No Dolce Vita
It was obvious that both Leonardo and U Papa had plenty to say about Messina bridge plans. But as we reached the Palmisano household in central Palermo, there were more pressing issues at hand.

The family was hosting a Christmas party that night, complete with endless amounts of food and more cousins for me to meet. Maria, Leonardo's wife, wanted him to find out if I'd ever eaten the Sicilian dish arancine — rice balls filled with ground meat and peas in a tomato sauce with fresh cheese. Maria was planning to serve homemade arancine, but she wanted to make sure I wasn't a vegetarian anymore.

Before the guests arrived, the Palmisanos taught me how to make arancine. While learning the recipe, I also got a lesson in Sicilian history. As the largest island in the Mediterranean, Sicily has always been a coveted prize, and over the centuries, countless groups have conquered or occupied it -- including Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish -- a history that has led some authors to call Sicily the "cradle of invasion."

Get the recipe for arancine!
And it was appropriate that my history lesson was accompanied by my learning -- or trying to learn -- how to make arancine, because few dishes tell the story of Sicily as well as the humble arancine ("little oranges"). It's believed that Greeks brought the type of fresh cheese buried inside each ball, Arab invaders apparently introduced rice to the island, the ground meat sauce has a French influence, and the Spanish probably brought the tomato sauce that seasons it all.

My first bite convinced me that Sicilians have a rare talent for creating something good out of catastrophic events and invasions.

Making rice balls

The Palmisanos say it's important to make the arancine (rice balls) firm enough -- without squeezing too hard -- so they don't fall apart.
Each of the nearly 20 guests at the Christmas party later that night showed up with some kind of pastry, pasta or dolci (desserts, literally, "sweet things") in hand. By the time Maria and her aunt Concetta started carrying out the crisp, golden arancine, both the dining room and the kitchen were already overflowing with food. With each of us cradling a steaming arancine in our palms, the room fell completely silent. Then the opinions about the bridge started coming.

Leonardo's sister, Giuseppina Spadaro, quickly gave me a list of projects she thinks are more urgent than the bridge. She said that many towns in Sicily can't get a reliable water supply during the summer and that they should get their water before this "unnecessary" project is built.

U Papa -- just as I would have expected after our conversation coming back from the station -- sprung to its defense. The island is poor, he said. The bridge will bring jobs, tourists, money and attention to Sicily -- which with its 5 million inhabitants has some of the highest unemployment rates in all of Italy. (The unemployment rate in the Mezzogiorno is about 20 percent, more than double the national unemployment rate.)

"The bridge will finally bring change here. And change is what we've been waiting for," he said.

Soon the room was buzzing -- everyone seemed to have something to say at the same time.

Concetta Randazzo with Arancine

Concetta Randazzo, the aunt of Maria Palmisano, has earned her reputation as the best arancine cook in the family. She can fry them to a perfect crisp golden brown without their falling apart in the hot oil.
That's when someone mentioned Prime Minister Berlusconi. Few in Italy are indifferent about Berlusconi, a billionaire media mogul who owns most of the country's commercial television networks and countless newspapers published in Italy. He was first elected as prime minister in 1994, then resigned during multiple investigations into charges of corruption and conflict of interest. But in 2001, he was elected again. His fans love his outspoken personality and his conservative economic policies, which feature tax cuts for the rich and pension cuts for workers. His critics accuse him of corruption, pandering to the Bush administration and ignoring his campaign promises to help the poor in the Mezzogiorno.

I mentioned the title of an article I'd seen in The New Yorker: "All He Surveys: Silvio Berlusconi Liked Italy So Much He Bought the Country." What I'd said quickly spread around the room, but in its translation, most ended up thinking I had come up with the saying.

"How can you talk about Berlusconi when you have your Schwarzenegger?" Giuseppina's husband, Giovanni, asked me. "And what about Bush?"

"Berlusconi is Bush's dog," my 17-year-old cousin, Claudia, whispered in my ear.

We didn't talk politics at dinnertime for the next few days. Not until later that week, when, as we sat down to eat homemade pasta fagioli, Claudia's older brother, Giovanni, told U Papa what she had said about Berlusconi. I'd never heard U Papa so angry, and his ensuing lecture about what a talented, powerful politician Berlusconi has become continued well past the main dish, almost to the final course of oranges, tangerines, apples and walnuts.

I decided that interviewing the family wasn't the best idea -- at least during mealtimes.

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