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A Cruise of Sicily, Malta and Tunisia aboard the Corinthian II

A Cruise of Sicily, Malta and Tunisia aboard the Corinthian II

Charles Scicolone (January 15, 2009)
Charles Scicolone
Farmers Bringing Grapes to the Calatrasi Winery in Sicily

A Voyage to Ancient Sites with the Addition of Food and Wine



A Cruise of Sicily, Malta and Tunisia Aboard the Corinthian II


   In September, Michele and I were guest speakers aboard the Corinthian II, an all-suite yacht accommodating a maximum of 114 people.  The ship was built in Italy in 1992 and completely refurbished and redecorated in 2005.  Our cabin was 225 square feet and like all the cabins was outside facing.


   The larger cabins of 300 or 400 square feet had private balconies, private butler service, and many other extras. Our cabin was lovely,

I could just imagine what these other cabins were like.


  There were a total of four guest lecturers on the ship: Carter Philips, Professor of Classics at Vanderbilt University; Robert Ulrich, Professor and current Chair of Classics at Dartmouth University; Michele Scicolone (my wife), a cookbook author and writer specializing in food, wine and travel; and me. The organizers really had all the bases covered.


   After boarding in Palermo, we took a tour of the ship, settled into our cabin, and went to the bar for a drink before dinner. This was to become our nightly ritual.  


   The first morning we all went to Monreale to see the Norman cathedral with its magnificent mosaics and elegant cloister (built by William II “The Good”).  I have been there a number of times in the last few years but am always overwhelmed when I enter the cathedral.


  We had lunch at Agriturismo Villa Mirto just outside of Palermo.

Michele spoke about the food and I about the wine.  It is difficult to remember all that we ate, but I know they included small rice balls known as arancine, chickpea fritters, several pastas, locally made salumi and cheese.  The wine, a Nero D’Avola, was made at Villa Mirto.  It was an excellent match with the food. 


Some days, the passengers had to make a choice, whether to see the sights with the professors or go to a winery with Michele and I.   This day the choice was between a visit to Palermo’s Archaeological Museum and the Cappella Palatina, the royal chapel built by Roger II between 1132 and 1143.  


I had not been to the Cappella Palatina since 1983 -- every time I tried to go it was closed.   I missed it once again since Michele and I were off to the Calatrasi winery about 25 km from Palermo in the Jato Valley.   We toured the winery and had a tasting.  Since it was the last week in September it was harvest time.   We watched the workers bring in grapes, weigh them, and test them for sugar content.  Finally, the grapes were put in a machine to separate the stems and leaves from the grapes.


                   Calatrasi is a very large modern winery that produces more than 28 different wines from both native Sicilian grapes such as Nero d’Avola, Catarratto, and Grillo, and foreign grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah. Calatrasi owns three estates in Sicily, one in Puglia, and one in Tunisia.


The next day, the ship sailed through the Strait of Messina, the narrow waterway of mythical Scylla and Charybdis that separates Sicily from the Italian mainland and docked at Naxos off the coast of the modern day resort town of Taormina. Clinging to the edge of Mount Tauro, Taormina looks out to the sea and the dramatic peak of Mount Etna.


The professors led their group to the Ancient Greek ruins in Taormina.  The town was an important one.  It had been founded in 403 BC and lasted well into the Roman period.  After a visit to the Greek theater, the passengers had time to explore and go shopping.


Our group of dedicated oenophiles was off to the Azienda Agricola Maria Gambino winery on the eastern slope of Mt. Etna, 800 meters above sea level.  The winery is in a lovely setting in the woods of the Etna National Park facing the sea.  We were able to look down on our ship far below.


Francesco Racifi, the son of the owners and a sommelier, gave us a great tour. He took us into the vineyard and explained how the grapes ripen, the climatic conditions, and the type of soil.  Mount Etna’s volcanic soil (ripiddu in Sicilian) is twice as rich in potassium as other soils and this gives the grapes good sugar content and a balanced acid-alcohol ratio.  The Nerello Mascalese grapes were still on the vine. Grapes ripen later on Mount Etna than in the rest of Sicily. He picked some grapes and showed us the seeds. They were almost brown in color indicating that the grapes were about ready to harvest.


It was one of the best and most honest tours I have ever been given at a winery. Honest in the sense that he explained things as they really were in a very practical manner and answered all questions directly and to the point.  Francesco invited me to come back next year and take part in the harvest and winemaking. 


After the tour, we had lunch on the terrace overlooking the sea.

There were grilled sausages, veal rollatini, and some of the excellent semolina bread Sicily is famous for. 


I was very impressed with the wines, especially theTifeo Etna Bianco made from Carricante and Catarrato grapes.  This wine had citrus aromas with a hint of apple on the palate; it was fresh and dry with good acidity and an aftertaste of apples.  The Carricante grape is native to this area and makes the best white wine in Sicily.


The Tifeo Etna Rosso is made from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes, also native to the area around Mount Etna. The wine is light in color but had good red fruit aromas and flavors with a very pleasant aftertaste.


We all really liked the Alicante (not native to Mount Etna) one of a hand full of grapes that has “red” juice. It had aromas of roses and raspberries. There was a hint of raspberry on the palate, little tannin, and it is an easy wine to drink. The Gambino wines are not imported into New York but might be found in other parts of the country.  Their website is


Our next stop was Siracusa, situated at a beautiful bay on Sicily’s southern coast.  It was colonized by the Greeks in the 8th century BC and became one of the richest and powerful city-states of the ancient world.


The entire group was off to visit the spectacular 15,000 seat Greek theater, one of the most impressive to survive from antiquity, the elliptical Roman amphitheater, and the “ear” of Dionysius.   


Since we had been there a number of times and it looked like rain, Michele and I decided to have lunch with friends that live in the old part of town on the Island of Ortygia. Stephen is British and Lucia is half British and half Sicilian. Their store, “Paraphernalia – Old Times” is on the Via Cavour, 18-20. They also do tours of Sicily.


After lunch the professors and their group left for the Baroque town of Noto. The Caffe Sicilia there is renowned for the best gelato and torrone in Sicily.


Our group stayed in Syracuse and enjoyed a very unique experience in the company of Baron Beneventano. The baron owns a palazzo in the Piazza Duomo, the main square in Syracuse.  The palazzo dates back to the in the Middle Ages but took its present form between 1779 and 1788.  We toured the palazzo and admired the antiques, pictures of the Baron’s famous ancestors, and stuffed wild animals. He told us that many famous people visited his palazzo over the centuries, and many important political discussions, decisions, and correspondences had taken place there.


The formal dining room is very large with windows and small balconies overlooking the square and the Duomo.  The Baron sat down on a sofa and asked all the ladies to sit around him.  Then he began to tell stories about his ancestors and their famous visitors.  I had heard these same stories the last time I visited but he is a great story teller. The one I will always remember was about Lady Hamilton and how she posed naked while the servants walked around her holding candles so everyone could see her white alabaster-like skin.

We then went down to the wine cellar and tasting room. The first time I was there some of our group stayed to the early hours of the morning talking with the baron and drinking scotch. I can only imagine the stories he was telling that night.


There was a picture on the wall of his grandfather in New York in 1909 at his place of business, the M.Beneventano Import Co.   He was importing Moscato di Siracusa to the United States.  We began the tasting with an off dry Moscato di Siracusa which went very well with the salumi and cheese he served with it.  The sweet Moscato di Siracusa had a great balance between sweetness and acidity. The Baron’s wines are not imported into the United States and a number of people in the group brought bottles of the Moscato to take home. For dessert he served a late harvest 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon that was delightful but he only makes a quantity, enough for him and guests. The visit to the Baron was the talk of the ship for the next two days. 


Our next port was Malta, made famous by the Knights of Malta, also called The Order of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem.  Malta has seen more conquerors and would-be conquerors than Sicily so it has a very diverse ethnic and racial population. The main influences on the food are Arabic, Sicilian, American and British. 


The next day we arrived in Tunisia where everything was closed since it was the last day of Ramadan and everyone was out celebrating.  We could not go to the ruins of Carthage so instead we went to see a Roman aqueduct.  We went to the spring that was the source of the water; saw the large pipe that went underground and then the large bridge-like structure that carried the water to Carthage. We were also able to see the water going under ground again and the many large pipes that supplied the water to the ancient city.


The ship than docked at Porto Empedocle, the port for Agrigento. The professors and the group were off to the Valley of the Temples and the Archaeological Museum but we stayed in Porto Empedocle, sat in a café had cappucino and ciambelle( doughnuts) and watched a small part of the Sicilian world go  by.

The cruise officially ended in Palermo but some passengers stayed on for another day and went to Rome.  We had a great time and met some interesting people.  The staff and crew could not have been nicer.  We left the ship in Palermo for our flight to Rome and then back to New York.  


We are teaching a hands on Pizza Class “Pizza, Pizza, Pizza”

at Cooking by the Book on January 22, 2009. 212-966-9799











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