Apr 062012

On a recent morning in Palermo, I found myself a guest at the historic Lanza Tomasi palazzo, where Nicoletta Polo, the Duchess of Palma, was planning a cooking lesson for American students who would arrive after breakfast. I first met Nicoletta some twenty years ago when she was living in New York City. Originally from Venice and an excellent cook, she versed me on the food of the Veneto for research on a book I was writing then, which includes some of her recipes. Today the Duchess lives in the ancestral palace that her husband, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, has restored.

Enter Palazzo Lanza Tomasi and the Duchess of Palma’s cooking school
Photo: Julia della Croce

This is no ordinary palace because the duke is no ordinary duke. He is the cousin and adopted son of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the childless 11th and last Prince of Lampedusa, who wrote Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), the celebrated book about the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy at the time of Garibaldi’s conquest and the beginnings of modern Italy. The duke, the author’s adored and charming heir, was the inspiration for Don Fabrizio’s nephew in the novel, the dashing young hero, Tancredi (played by Alain Delon in the 1963 film by Luchino Visconti). Published in 1957, The Leopard is considered to be Italy’s finest novel and the best historical novel of the 20th century.

The Lanza Tomasi palace facade overlooking the sea in Palermo. Photo: Angelo Modesto

Nor is the Duchess an ordinary duchess. She gives cooking classes in the palace kitchen, which begin as every proper Italian cooking lesson should–early in the morning at the market, to procure the best and freshest ingredients.

The Duchess buying fish with one of her students
Photo: Julia della Croce

The Capo market is the oldest in Palermo. Its stalls are laden with seafood strange and familiar, fresh from the morning catch and luminous in the morning light.

A plethora of local fish. Photo: Julia della Croce

Among the mysterious foods are  cucuzza squash, their long, curly tendrils reaching out as though asking to be made into Palermo’s signature tenerumi soup with “picchi-pacchi” sauce.

At the Capo market, artichokes next to tenerumi, the leaves and buds of the elongated “cucuzza,” squash, used in Palermo’s signature soup. Photo: Julia della Croce

The marketplace is a spectacle, noisy and alluring, the merchants calling out to you, trying to seduce you with their food. The street vendors who hawk their wares are the actors in this spectacle and the air is filled with their piercing cries.

Dried bean seller at Palermo’s Capo market. Photo: Julia della Croce

Here’s my favorite street vendor at the Capo market, the old salt fish seller.

Street vendor selling capers, preserved anchovies and salt fish. Photo: Julia della Croce

By the time you’re done shopping you can’t wait to return to the palace kitchen for a lesson in the local cooking. But first you’ll stop in the lush palace garden that overlooks the sea, shaded by palms, filled with flowers, and scented with jasmine, wisteria, and bougainvillea. Here, the Duchess will pick the herbs you’ll need.

The Duchess picking bay, basil, mint and parsley in the terrace garden.
Photo: Julia della Croce

Finally, even the cooking class is not ordinary. After a four-course Sicilian meal is prepared, the Duchess invites her students to eat lunch with her and her entire family, the heirs of the ancient Lampedusa line. You can chat with the Duke and Duchess and their family while ancestors’ portraits look on from the palace walls.

The dining room facing the sea. Here’s where the Duchess’s family gathers for lunch when there are enough guests. Photo: Benedetto Tarantino

If you know the Luchino Visconti film based on The Leopard, you can all but see Burt Lancaster as the lion-like Don Fabrizio at the head of the table, breaking the golden crust of the timballo, macaroni pie, its mists wafting delicious aromas. Now, it is the Duchess of Palma who presides at the table.

Last touches on the timballo di anelletti (molded macaroni) and pasta al pesto di pistacchi (pasta with pistachio pesto). Photo: Angelo Modesto

This day, macaroni with a pesto sauce made from the famous local Bronte pistachios was on the menu, followed by the swordfish bought during the  morning’s excursion, roasted and flavored with garlic and the garden mint.

Buying the famous local “Bronte” pistachios for the pistachio pesto at a shop near the palazzo.

For dessert, gelo di limone, lemon jelly made from the fruit of palace garden’s own lemon trees. A refreshing finish to a wonderful meal.

Chopping zuccata (candied pumpkin) in the palace kitchen. Photo: Alessandra Buccheri

After lunch, the Duchess brings you on a tour of the palace, which is full of reminders of the book–an ancient telescope on the terrace, portraits of ancestors, even popes and family members who became saints. The full-length portraits are, on the left, the Duchess’s Spanish mother-in-law and the baby, Giuseppe, the duke’s brother.  Now 87, he  joins the family table. The woman on the right is one of the duke’s aunts, his father’s sister.

One of the sitting rooms, lit with Murano chandeliers. Photo: Benedetto Tarantino

Gioacchino Tomasi  has reassembled his father’s library. “He didn’t have many books,” he says. “Just six thousand, but he knew them well. A bit like Montaigne.”

There are books in Italian, French, English, German, Russian, and Spanish, which Prince Giuseppe Tomasi read over and over again. Photo: Benedetto Tarantino

Reading The Leopard you learn more than you could ever glean from travel guides about this pungent land that is both harsh and beautiful. While much has changed in the 151 years since Sicily became part of Italy, you will find that much hasn’t. There are still the “baroque towns and orange groves … undulating hills… [and] indigo smudges of sea;” the wind blowing steadily, “moving myrtles and broom, spreading a smell of thyme” as described by Tomasi.

A timeless Sicilian landscape. Photo: Julia della Croce

And there is still a great cuisine, arisen from ancient traditions, which you can learn about at the palace school and sample at this legendary table.

A cooking class with the Duchess. Photo: Alessandra Buccheri

Nicoletta Polo will be your guide to Palermo, arguably the most colorful city in Italy, to the palace and its generous kitchen. She gives hands-on classes with market tours (Cooking with the Duchess), and has tastefully restored apartments within the palazzo for paying guests (Butera 28).

Such an experience is not had every day.

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  23 Responses to “Feasting with Leopards: An Unordinary Cooking Lesson”

  1. […] Forktales – Ever wonder what it would be like to have a cooking lesson in Sicilia conducted in palazzo by a Duchess?  Well, Julia Della Croce article will mesmerize you with wonderful photos and descriptive prose. […]

  2. Julia, what a dream piece this is. You have amazing access to this woman and her home — something the rest of us can only fantasize about. And your photos are just gorgeous. I love their size. They deserve to be large. Brava.

  3. Dear Ms. Della Croce,

    What a truly spectacular article! Thanks so much for introducing me to the Duchess and the beautiful Lanza Tomasi palazzo. A class with her is the stuff of which a food lover’s dreams are made. And indeed, the palazzo could have been used as the set for The Leopard. And what a joy to see the market and all the sellers. You offer a wealth of information throughout your site. Thanks for an insider’s perspective. I have been devoted reader of your books ever sice I purchased Pasta Classica – well it must have been twenty years ago. You book Roma is another favorite and your newest book Italian Home Cooking is getting quite a workout in my home and has made a much appreciated gift for several friends and family members. Thank you for your generosity of spirit and for sharing your wealth of knowledge. – Sincerely, Adri Barr Crocetti

  4. Just returned from a 9 day stay in her apartment #13. We also were able to participate in her cooking lesson day.
    I agree with everything you have written!
    It was a great location, central! She also has great connections for your every travel need!! Highly recommend staying at Butera 28. Not as expensive as you might think either!

  5. […] I was doing a little “google-stalking” on my hosts, and came across this website, which tells the tale better than I can about where I am staying, and the cooking lessons given by the Duchess. If anyone is planning a trip to Italy..          http://juliadellacroce.com/forktales1/2012/04/06/feasting-with-leopards-an-unordinary-cooking-lesson… […]

  6. Hi Julia, my name is Alison, as I mentioned above, I came across your blog, and borrowed it, never thinking it would find its own way here…the internet never ceases to amaze!
    I am fortunate enough to be staying at the Butera with the Duchess for a month or two, and am enjoying it immensely. I hope it was OK to link your website to mine, I thought it was such a lovely article.
    Have a safe and happy Christmas!

  7. Julia, what a gorgeous post. Read The Leopard as a high school girl, a gift from my Sicilian father. Saw the Visconte film as a college girl;could it be those Sicilians weren’t half savage after all? Years later, spent time in Sicily with my husband and three boys. You have captured, as you always do, the heart and soul of a people, their history, their food.

  8. Oh how exciting…thank you for your little glimpse of the life in the cooking school! I may just have the opportunity to experience this myself later this year & so I eagerly absorb all this information. May I also please link this post for my friends to get a feel for what I am up to?
    Exciting….love Veronica xx

    • Happy that you found the post. I haven o doubt that you’ll love the Duchess’s unique cooking school in Palermo. Of course, you may link my post it to your blog. You may want to subscribe to my blog to get new posts automatically. I recently wrote a follow-up to An Unordinary Cooking Lesson, called A Sauce Fit for a Prince, that includes one of the Duchess’s recipes, and more about Palazzo Lanza Tomasi.

  9. Hi Julia;

    We just enjoyed the cooking class today with two other couples. It was an incredible experience! A once in a lifetime magical delight! It was a lunch with Sicilian Majesty! It was a first hand glimpse into a colorful and exotic history, passed on to unsuspecting guests. One that we will share often. All that in a one day cooking class in Palermo.



    thank you!

  11. […] Feasting with Leopards: An Unordinary Cooking Lesson in Sicily – Folktales […]

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