Busiate, a very cold night, and Vintage Marsala (Sicily Part 2)

Ok, so where was I, oh yeah, I was in a tiny airport (think smaller) in the middle of nowhere on a cold, wet and very windy Sunday with no car, no driving license and a greatly deflated spirit. But, I was told “someone local” might be willing to rent me a car, I had to investigate, I had no other options.

The rental car counters are spread out in a U-shape at Trapani Airport, with two sides facing each other and the ‘bottom’ of the U left open, facing the incoming/arriving passengers. For such a tiny airport, there sure are a lot of rental car companies represented here, which really speaks to the ‘island’ part of this equation. I scanned the names, Hertz, National, AutoEuropa, Budget, etc.; the only one that stood out was the name I’d never seen before, Auto4. I guessed that was my ‘local’ source as the person at the Hertz desk that had just refused to rent to me wasn’t offering any more advice beyond “someone local”. I made my way over to the bottom of the “U” part of the configuration, the Auto4 desk, the young girl at the computer terminal looked at me as I did – surely I was a mixture of bloody red meat with a nauseous green and pasty, sickly white face at this point. I think she sensed I was in trouble, and because I did too, I was hoping it wasn’t going to cost me half of my 10 day budget.

Thankfully, the young girl (maybe 19 yrs old) at the desk spoke some English; having been in Italy for just 3 days at this point, my Italian language skills were still coming back to me, having spent the past 3 days sweeping the heavy blankets of dust off of them since I really hadn’t used them in 2 years. I was able to explain, using a mixture of Italian and English, what was happening. She took a moment to digest what I’d said, but honestly, I think the reason she paused was more likely because she was pitying me – surely someone so ghastly white with green circles under their eyes was deserving of pity. Well, pity and some help, right? I showed her my passport, a wad of cash, a credit card, and then I held my breath. Her face suddenly relaxed, and a nice, easy smile washed over her. “We can help you”, she said. Part of me wanted to jump across the desk and hug her, and part of me wanted to just sob with relief. But before I could do either, she grabbed my documents and began typing away. One or two of the hundred or so knots in my stomach began to unravel.

The car I’d hired through AutoEurope was $15/day. The car Auto4 was willing to give me, was 3 times that amount. What did I care, in just a few minutes I’d be on my way to Marsala and begin finding my AirBnB place before the sun set. Hurrah! A win! Well, for the moment, anyway.

Trapani Airport rental cars aren’t nearly as easy to access as the planes (snark intended), they’re about four times as far away from the terminal, and none of it is covered. I mention this because the wind was still howling and driving a wintry mixture of cold, hard rain into my face and hands. But that wasn’t what was really on my mind at that point, I was just focused on finding my digs for the night. Or was that the next several nights? I still had that whole mess to figure out and deal with, since it looked like I’d be here for three nights, not one.

The rental car looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in ages, and upon opening the driver’s door to put my bag inside, I noticed plenty of scattered trash, etc., but again, I really didn’t care. The car started and after a minute I’d calmed my nerves enough to put the car in drive and go. But what was that dinging sound? Did I leave a car door partially open? I pulled over, checked all of the (3) doors, fastened all of the seat belts and even kicked the tires once or twice, but the “dinging” sound would not stop. No worries, I figured maybe it would stop on its own if I just drove it for a while. It never stopped, not in the 4 days I had the car. Just like the right-side mirror never worked. But, even though it had 144,000 km on it, it seemed to run OK, so at least there was that.

I mention the loud “dinging” sound because I was using a bluetooth speaker to help me find my way to the AirBnB place in Marsala center (center is code word for a thousand one-way streets, all too narrow to walk a dog, much less operate a car), but I never did hear any of those directions, not even one. Instead I had to keep the phone on and use the display to navigate, which, of course, meant my phone’s battery was going to die an even quicker death than it had been over the last 3 hours of my airport/rental car fiasco. Well, so long as I could save 10%, I knew I could at least text my AirBnB “host”, and let him know I was standing at his front door.

After an hour of looking for a place to park – that was at least somewhat close to where I’d be staying that night – I finally had some luck; as I pulled down the (very) narrow, one-way street, a car was leaving a parking spot not even 20 meters from the front door of the AirBnB place. Woohoo!

I parked the car, removed my bags, walked to the front door, and rang the bell. Nothing. I rang it a few more times, nothing. The wind and rain picked up at this point, as if to say “well, you found a parking spot, what more do you want?” I texted my “host”, noticing that the battery was close to 5% at this point, and crossed my fingers. After a few cold, wet minutes had passed, I got a reply, “sto arrivando”, “I’m coming”.

At this point I’d grabbed my bags (1 Osprey bag, 1 camera backpack) and found some shelter under an eave of the building. 45 minutes later, a fellow showed up, dangling some keys in his hand. Hallelujah!, this was nearly over and in an hour or two I’d be dry and (maybe?) warm enough to feel my hands again.

The man explained (not a single word of English) that he was the brother-in-law, and that my host couldn’t come over just now, but he’d let me in and show me the room. Fine, sounds great, I thought.

The room was advertised as “primo piano” or, first floor. Nope, it was four flights, of very narrow, very slick steps on the outside of the building. Fine, I can deal with that. Once inside the room, he explains a few housekeeping details, shows me the bathroom, hands me the keys, and he’s out the door. Before I could even unpack some dry clothing my “host” showed up, Giuseppe, a guy with a naturally warm and friendly smile, the kind that my miserable spirit desperately needed at this point. Again, not using a single word of English, Giuseppe explains a few more details, says to “text him with anything I need”, hands me some towels and he’s away.

Hah, Ha! I did it, I found a place to park, found the AirBnB building, saw that I had a bed and a bathroom, made sure the lights worked – and then I silently began to let out the world’s longest sigh of relief. But I did mention it was cold right? And I mentioned this building, in the very center of the center of the old part of the city was centuries old and made of stone, right? I looked for a thermostat, tried my best to make some sense of it, and made my way over to a window to see the last few seconds of sunlight drift away from the sky. At this point I was too tired to shower, or eat, so I just hopped in bed, grabbed a book, and waited for the heat to kick on.

When I woke up in the morning, I cursed a few times. I’d had a fitful night of sleep, trying constantly to stay warm. I tested the air outside of the thin (this is Sicily, after all) blankets and found it to be as bad as I’d imagined. I quickly made my way from the bed, across the icy-cold tile floor, to the bathroom and shut the door, hoping my body heat and the heat of the shower I was about to take would warm this tiny space up in just a few minutes. But it never happened, there was no hot water, just as there was no heat. I texted Giuseppe and within a minute or so he replied he’d be right over. But it was too late, I had to get outside, I had to get moving and had to get warm.

As I made my way to the door (on the 4th floor), I met Giuseppe. He quickly went about testing the water’s temperature, etc. and found I wasn’t crazy…there was no heat and no hot water. He disappeared for a few minutes, came back and turned the hot water on again. It took a minute, but it was beginning to come out warm, not quite hot yet, but warm. I explained I was famished and cold and was going for a long walk now that the wind and rain were gone. He explained he had forgotten to flip 2 switches, one for the heat, the other for the hot water, and then he held his hands just above his shoulders, palms open facing up, as if to say, oops, forgot, sorry. But it was Giuseppe, a guy I’d known a combined total of about 4 minutes at this point, but a guy with the most sincere and warm smile you could hope for and I said “va bene”, thanked him for the help and made my way to the nearest café for a cappuccino and a brioche.

Over the course of the next several days, I completed my two (Donnafugata and Caurso e Minini) planned winery visits/appointments, happened upon a third (Carlo Pellegrino, totally unplanned, but ended up being my favorite and the only one with “sparkle”, which is why I was in Sicily – and Italy – to begin with), as well. In addition, I also got to visit several restaurants, all in the center, or centro (pronounced chain-tro), a great(!) Enoteca (Garibaldi), and generally just get a feel for this place that had gone from one (planned) night and two winery visits to three nights, more winery visits and lots of cafés and places to eat.

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Busiate con Gamberi, pistacchi e pomodorino, €13 at Osteria il Gallo e l’innomorata in Marsala, Sicily

After the dish of busiate (fantastic, by the way), I had a cannolo with pistacchio filling, and, having sent 1/3 of my unfinished bottle of wine – 2013 Tripudium, from Pellegrino – back to the kitchen/chef, they brought me a complimentary glass of 35yr old Marsala wine (riserva, superiore) from Intorcia. An excellent pairing and a great way to end the night.

The next day, at lunch with a friend that I’ve known for a few years (from meeting her at Vin Italy), we had a crazy good, very typical dish (below) at Juparanà on the outskirts of the centro, just a 10 minute walk back to my AirBnB place. Two pastas (both house made), one with eggplant, the other topped with bottarga (roe from the Tuna). Outstanding, and so good, I had it two days in a row for lunch.

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Of course, what would a lunch be without dessert and a caffè? (below), again, at  Juparanà (note, a LOT of almonds are grown in Sicily, in a addition to a lot of eggplant, oranges, pistachio, etc.)

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The above was so good, I had to get this the next day (below) while there for lunch.

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I walked from my AirBnB place about 15 minutes to Carlo Pellegrino’s winery and (very new, very modern and beautiful) tasting room that overlooks the sea. Here I found a treasure trove of aged, vintage Marsala wines (most were dry) going back 3 and 4 decades, all very reasonably priced, circa €35/750ml.

Pictured is Maria Chiara Bellina, the 6th generation of Pellegrino; the 1981 vintage is pictured, and the wine to the left side of the frame is the only Marsala (fortified) wine made from red/black grapes (Nero d’Avola), their ‘Rubino’, a very nice complement to chocolate or by itself (just €9,50/375ml).

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A wall of aged, vintage Marsala wine, Oh My!!

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Ok, now that I’ve filled my belly, tasted a lot of really great wines, I head back to my AirBnB place to begin to think about rescheduling a week’s worth of lodging and winery appointments spread across the entire island of Sicily.

Coming up, my 4 days on Etna and a quick, but exciting visit to the wine region of Vittoria and the centuries old town of Ragusa Ibla, with a stop for 2 days in Ortigia.

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