A Day With The Duchess
Palermo, Sicily–Anyone who has grown up with visions of princesses and castles and binge watched “Downton Abbey” will be intrigued by spending a day with a Duchess.
In this case, the Duchess is Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi. The Duchess and her husband have restored the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, where Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote “The Leopard”, a kind of “Gone with the Wind” epic chronicling the changing social order in Sicily in the late 19th century as Italian unification took place. The original manuscript of this masterpiece, which is said to be the key to understanding Sicily, is displayed in a formal drawing room.
Today, Nicoletta as she prefers to be called, oversees a dozen apartments carved out of the palazzo to offset expenses and gives cooking classes and market tours. “It was a start up,” she cheerfully says of her relatively new career as an inn keeper and cooking teacher. The petite Venetian was previously a translator and interpreter and an organizer of music festivals. She lived in New York a number of years and speaks perfect English. Charming hostess that she is, Nicoletta was waiting outside the massive wooden door of the palazzo to greet us even though it was close to midnight when we arrived. She led us into the courtyard and up to the spacious third floor one-bedroom apartment which would be our home for a few days. The apartments are somewhat basic by luxury hotel standards but who cares when the ceilings are high and the floors Majolica tiles.
The Duchess starts early having the class make dessert first at 8:30 a.m. Today it was the Sicilian almond milk biancomangiare decorated with pistachios, shaved chocolate, candied pumpkin, and jasmine petals. Then it was off to the Il Capo market to buy the ingredients for lunch. She explained that she ”belongs” to a specific fishmonger and vegetable vendor and out of respect does not buy from other stalls as it would be a “slash to the face.” Their mutual admiration has been developed over the years and they save the best for her. We bought silvery sardines and watched as the fishmonger expertly fileted them, with both hands and in short order, leaving the tails intact. Then onto tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, and olives and herbs and Monreale bread named for the UNESCO World Heritage Site mosaic studded cathedral said to be the finest example of Norman architecture and one of Sicily’s main tourist attractions.
Our first stop after returning to the palazzo was the terrace garden where we picked herbs, lemons, and jasmine. Then we went into the blue and white tiled kitchen, donned aprons, and started cooking with the other guests who had come from Australia, Ireland, Scotland, and California. We stuffed the sardines with bread crumbs, toasted pine nuts, lemon zest, and currants reflecting the influence of Arab conquerors, rolled them up, and baked them; roasted peppers for a salad with olives, capers, and fresh herbs; made a blender tomato sauce for pasta that would be topped with bread crumbs rather than Parmesan, and caponata for bruschetta.
Then Nicoletta led us into her regal dining room where the table was set with silver and heirloom china emblazoned with the family crest. Though we had cooked our own lunch, we were served by a white gloved staff. Her husband, the Duke, president of the Association of Historic Houses of Sicily, joined us for lunch. Nicoletta recounted the history of the palazzo and her family as well as the saga of “The Leopard.” Her husband was the model for the dashing Tancredi character in the Visconti film played by French heart throb Alain Delon, nephew of the Sicilian prince, portrayed by Burt Lancaster, who believed the role “the best work I’ve done as a movie actor.”
Duke Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi inherited part of the palazzo from his cousin and adoptive father, “The Leopard” author. Then in the late 1960s he bought the remaining part and embarked on a 10-year restoration. Nicoletta started her cooking classes in 2010.
After lunch, the Duke and Duchess led our group on a tour of their own living quarters, so palatial that they have lost count of the rooms. But suffice it to say there is a ballroom, where if you close your eyes you can hear a Viennese waltz and the rustle of skirts; and two libraries stocked with classics and first editions. The palazzo is designated as a historic house of Sicily. She notes that it has been restored all with private money but that the government dictates that they maintain it “but there is no tax reduction!” About 70 percent of Palermo was bombed by the Allies during World War II and restoration work is still taking place, much of it financed by old families reinventing themselves.
Spending the day with the Duchess gave us a rare insight into the culture, cuisine, and history of Sicily as well as what it takes to keep up a palace in modern times.
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is co-owner of Flavor Forays, a culinary travel company.