|Mimmo, center, and his sons Ambrogio, left, and Ciccio, right.|
I noted recently that the most enjoyable part of coming to Italy is meeting Italian people and exchanging information about our cultural differences and similarities. It was with this in mind that I booked a tour to the little hillside village of Sant’Ambrogio on the island of Sicilia. The guide, Carmelina, promised a wine tasting and lunch, but what really attracted my attention were reviews from customers who described how much they enjoyed the pleasant and personable wine maker and restaurant owner, Mimmo Zito, along with his family and the tour guide.
We received more than our money’s worth. We took a little bus from Cefalù to Sant’Ambrogio, and Carmelina met us when we arrived and gave us a brief tour of the town before introducing us to Mimmo. She explained that the population of Sant’Ambrogio has declined from around 1000 to 250 since World War II, and unemployment is extremely high. Homes are being abandoned as residents move elsewhere in search of jobs. Carmelina explained that she feels compelled to help reverse this trend, and bringing customers to Sant’Ambrogio will help the town survive.
|Mimmo shows us the wine-making process.|
“I’ve decided the best way to help the Sicily I love is to promote it to people who want to live life as a Sicilian local,” she explains on a web site she promotes, The Times of Sicily. “I was born in Sicily and emigrated to Australia when I was 7 years old. Twenty eight years later, I returned to my homeland for a short visit and have been here ever since. It was in Sicily that I felt the sense of belonging I had never experienced growing up in Australia. Sicily was in me and now I am in Sicily enjoying its beauty, joys and difficulties. Sicily has little of the glamour of Tuscany, and Umbria but it has its own unique character born out of the hardship and brutality that characterized much of its history. I had an obsession to tell the world about its unpretentious beauty and relatively untainted village life. Not to turn it into yet another popular tourist destination but to provide an opportunity for keen travelers to taste the simple life of a Sicilian villager.”
That simple life is embodied in the cooking of Mimmo, a passionate professional chef who has recently opened his own restaurant, Osteria Bacchus. He has no printed menu, because he bases his daily offerings on the foods he finds fresh each morning in the outdoor markets. The restaurant also provides jobs for his sons, Francesco and Ambrogio, who are learning the trade from Mimmo, a professional chef with 40 years of experience. His sons are friends with some of the local fishermen, a fact that permits them to purchase directly from the boats.
“The fish in the markets may have been on ice for several days,” Mimmo said. “For me, if there is a storm and the boats can’t fish, there are no fish to buy, because I will only use the freshest foods.”
Mimmo is also an expert wine maker, and before dinner, he enthusiastically took us on a tour of the shop where he makes his several varieties of red and white wines. As we passed through the doorway, the powerful scent of fermenting grapes, yeast, sugars and wooden barrels assailed our nostrils with an odor so rich that we literally stopped in our tracks to breathe it all in. He spoke with pride and passion about the old-fashioned processes he uses to make about 2,000 bottles of wine per year, letting us taste several varieties of the finished products as well as some wine still in the process of fermenting.
I wish I had the palate and experience to describe them, but I am not a wine connoisseur. Mimmo, however, is an experienced and certified wine taster, having attended many training sessions to obtain his certification, so I trusted his judgment when he provided several varieties of his favorite wines during a multiple-course meal at Osteria Bacchus—and they all seemed great to me.
As for the meal, we received an almost never-ending supply of gourmet dishes. As promised, they were simple, pure and fresh. However, I was so involved in fascinating conversations with Mimmo and Carmelina that I didn’t take any notes and can’t do an adequate job of describing what I ate. I only recall that every bite was delicious. Meanwhile, I learned a lot about Mimmo and his family, Carmelina, Sant’Ambrogio, Sicilia, what Sicilians think of Americans and the Italian superstition of malocchio, “the evil eye.”
Italians do not tip at the end of meals, and I usually don’t either when I eat in Italy, but I made an exception in this case. The quality of the wine, food and companionship that Mimmo and Carmelina shared with us merited extra recognition.
|We were leaving after a great meal when Ambrogio caught up with us and gave us a bottle of his dad's home-made wine.|