Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Well preserved Villa Romana and food-making enrich our days

One of the many mosaics on the floor of the an ancient Roman vacation resort in Sicily.

This scene and the one above show animals from Africa being loaded
onto a combination galley and sailing ship to be taken to Rome.
Girls working out in bikinis in the 4th century.
We had a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous when we toured an excep-tionally well-preserved Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina. These excavated remains of an AD 4th-century villa has 40 rooms which are carpeted with nearly 48,000 square feet of the most extensive, gorgeous and colorful ancient Roman mosaics in western Europe. Archeologists think it may have been a hunting lodge of the emperor Maximianus, co-emporer with Diocletian.

According to Fodors.com: “The entrance was through a triumphal arch that led into an atrium surrounded by a portico of columns, after which the thermae, or bathhouse, is reached. It’s colorfully decorated with mosaic nymphs, a Neptune and slaves massaging bathers. The peristyle leads to the main villa, where in the Salone del Circo you look down on recently restored mosaics illustrating scenes from the Circus Maximus in Rome. A theme running through many of the mosaics, especially the long hall flanking the whole of one side of the peristyle courtyard, is the capturing and shipping of wild animals, which may have been a major source of the master's wealth. Yet the most famous mosaic is the floor depicting 10 girls wearing the ancient equivalent of bikinis, going through what looks like a fairly rigorous set of training exercises.”

After touring the villa, we had lunch at an agriturismo, and the appetizers may have comprised the best primo piatto I have ever tasted. It consisted of fresh ricotta cheese drizzled with honey and sprinkled with almond chips, a delicate pecorino, fresh artichoke, arugula and eggplant sautéed in locally produced olive oil, large thin slices of prosciutto and sausage, a rectangular egg frittata and pickled olives. We also had toasted bread brushed with garlic, sprinkled with Parmigiano cheese and drizzled with olive oil. I have had all these delicacies before, but never were they so expertly prepared or contained such delicious fresh ingredients. Our guide Alfio described it as a “zero kilometer” meal, meaning the main ingredients were either from the agriturismo itself or from nearby farms.

We continued on to Ragusa Ibla, where we took a short orientation tour of the city and then went out for another sumptuous (but smaller) meal.
Ragusa Ibla, viewed from the piazza in front of the church of Santa Lucia.
Lucy and I hiked some 300 steps up the hill the next morning, where we paused to take in some breathtaking views of the city below while standing in front of the church of Santa Lucia.
Santa Lucia x 2.
Then we walked a few hundred meters to the church of Santa Maria della Scala and attended mass. We rested in the afternoon and watched a movie in our room in Italian.

A highlight of the tour, at least for me, came in the evening, when we were treated to a demonstration of how the local cheese, Ragusano, is made. We were given samples of the smooth, hot cheese as it came from the mixing container, and we ate it mixed with fresh tomato slices. Usually it is formed into bag-like shapes and hung to cure for at least a few months, allowing it to develop a more robust flavor. Even without this added process, its warmth and freshness, combined with the acidity of the tomatoes, made it irresistible.
Virginia mixes the milk and enzymes while her son
Ignazio pours in hot water.
The cheese byproducts—milk and whey—were then cooked in a large cauldron for perhaps another 45 minutes, with nearly constant stirring, before the cheese makers skimmed the solids off the top. This was ricotta, literally “re-cooked,” and we were given more samples to try, this time with bread. Incredibly good!

Eating fresh, warm Ragusano cheese with tomatoes.
Ricotta is meant to be served fresh; we were told it should be consumed with three or four days. We also learned that Italians do not consider it cheese. It is simply ricotta, though in America we call it ricotta cheese, but now I will know better. Ricotta is high in protein, calcium, omega-3 and omega-6 fats and minerals—especially phosphorus, zinc and selenium—but be careful not to overdo it, because ricotta is also packed with calories.

Virginia scoops the ricotta from the top.
After the ricotta demonstration, we had a chance to get dough on our hands while we helped the kitchen staff make pasta from scratch, with finely sieved 00 flour, eggs and water. The most amazing part of this was watching the experienced Italian women who could form perfect little shapes of cavati pasta with one hand in less than a second. All of this was followed by a huge dinner with so many courses that we couldn’t possibly eat everything.
Lucy adds an egg to her flour.
Luckily I had saved a small area for the dolce, which was cannoli, a Sicilian specialty, stuffed with chocolate, cinnamon, lemon juice and the ricotta we had seen cooked just a couple of hours earlier. I’m not sure my clothes will fit me by the end of the tour
We were amazed at the speed in which the two Italian cooks (left) could form the raw dough into pasta shapes.


  1. Thanks a lot, now I have a craving for pasta!


  2. Amazing sights, history, and delicious food - jealous!


Comments welcome.