Photograph by Johanna Huber, SIME

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The Temple of Concordia lies in the archaeological area of Agrigento, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Photograph by Johanna Huber, SIME

Going Home: Sicily

From the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler

I’ve heard my grandfather’s stories about the Restivo family farm near the village of Castrofilippo all my life. “It’s right down the block from the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento,” he bragged.

Over a decade ago, I made my first trip to that village in southern Sicily to meet my relatives and to see the ancient Greek temples.

Located on the coast, Agrigento’s sand-colored Greek temples and ruins stand by knotted trunks of ancient olive trees. Thirteen miles northeast of the temples is Castrofilippo, known as il paese della cipolla, “the town of the onion.” The small village is surrounded by fruit orchards and groves kissed by the sun, and the countryside is ripe with fig and almond trees. My cousins grow succulent table grapes and are known for the quality and variety of their sweet white onions and garlics. I arrive representing my father and grandfather and great-grandfather Calogero (who left the island in the late 1800s to save our family farm, but never returned, to his mother’s disappointment). Some homes in the historic center were former stables; others are crumbling to the ground, abandoned by those who left Sicily for America. The village has a town square, a church, a cemetery, a statue of St. Pio, a bar, and a couple of pizzerias, but one of my aunts, Zia Carmela, forbids me to eat anything at a town restaurant.

My family’s Sicilian dinner feast—in honor of my arrival—looks like a set for a Fellini film. Dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins—Concetta, Maria, Carmela, Angela, Calogera, Angelo, Diego, Lillo, Lilla, Luca, Giuseppe, Andrea, Gioacchino, and others—shepherd me to the family table, which extends through every room of the house, even the bedroom. My aunts are dressed identically: black sweater, skirt, tights, and a knotted scarf wrapped around the head.

Zia Carmela is at the wood-burning stove, emptying her copper kettle of pasta into an enormous bowl, which she cradles in her arms. Sicilian-size portions of ziti with ragù are piled on each plate—especially mine. Vino rustico is poured. Carmela orchestrates the meal and is the last to sit down and eat. In her flowered apron she is authoritative, warm, and gentle.

Between bites of sausage, roasted potatoes flavored with rosemary, salad that tastes of the earth, and homemade bread, I get lost in a blur of conversation and gestures. Zia Lilla tells me how she balanced a terra-cotta jug on her head to carry water from the well to the kitchen in her village each day when she was a young girl, and that leads to more family stories.

After dinner, my cousin Lillo, a 29-year-old farmer, drives me to the Valley of the Temples to see the Greek ruins by moonlight. In his Alfa Romeo, we whirl along winding roads and speed past the Temple of Concordia, its elegant Doric columns illuminated by a sliver of the moon above the hills. Lillo calls me amore. He is irresistible and charming as Sicilian men are known to be. There’s a sense that we’ve known one another for years, despite the fact that we have just met.

The next day Lillo and his father, Zio Gioacchino, pick six varieties of heirloom grapes from the family vines. My favorites are regina, which means “queen,” and lacrima, which means “teardrop.” This farm, thousands of miles away from where I was born in New Jersey, renews my spirit and nourishes my soul. To me, this ancestral land is a blessing.

I leave the farm with onions and garlic, a bottle of Lillo’s Nero d’Avola wine, and homemade tomato sauce to bring to my grandfather in New Jersey, so that he can taste flavors of our ancestors. Whenever I am far from the farm and longing for it, I recall the words of a Sicilian man whom I met while traveling. When I told him how I returned to Sicily and began my quest in search of my roots, he smiled and said: “Ricordati che questa é sempre la tua terra. Remember that this is always your land.”

Renée Restivo is a food writer who runs a cooking school in the town of Noto, Sicily.
Read more essays from writers who return to their ancestral lands in Ireland, Angola, Krakow, and Taipei.