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