You have to love the impish sense of humor that prompts a train station to fill its waiting room with sturdy wooden benches then labels them, “NON SEDERTI QUI (PLEASE DON’T SIT HERE).” As if any further taunting were needed, this train station — and, coincidentally Rich and I — stood at the base of a mountain that was 3054 feet high and famously difficult to ascend. Naturally the area was utterly devoid of taxis or buses. I could almost feel the mountain chuckling deep in its interior. Its sheer cliffs had defeated countless would-be invaders from the 14th century BC until the invention of artillery and aerial warfare. Had Rich and I met our match?
“I am not walking up the mountain,” I mentioned to Rich casually but emphatically, recalling last week’s adventure involving a grueling hike that ended with shimmying through a chain link fence.
“Don’t worry. We’ll find a ride,” he said, fiddling with his phone, which inexplicably refused to function.
Eventually we joined forces with the two other stranded passengers milling about the station. A cab was summoned, and we drove up to Enna, the highest and most central point of Sicily, affectionately known as its umbelico (belly button). Speaking of bellies, mine was growling to remind me I’d given it nothing but a cookie for lunch on the train. Sadly my hopes of immediate food acquisition were quickly dashed.
“Here we eat at eight o’clock, not before, never before,” said my hostess at the cozy B&B in the center of town. I groaned inwardly. It wasn’t even 5 pm yet. “Here are the best restaurants.” She gestured towards business cards in neat stacks on a table. I grabbed a handful, and Rich and I went out to explore the town.
We strolled about, enjoying the impressive baroque buildings, the charming old stone houses, the cobbled streets, and the general atmosphere of tidiness and friendliness. Wandering into the Church of St. Claire, I found a sign demanding SILENCE and a docent who spent the next twenty minutes chattering nonstop in Italian. I managed to grasp that this was a shrine to those who died in WWII as a result of bombing by the Allies. Our guys. It was a rather lowering feeling, and I had to resist the impulse to apologize.
Emerging into the twilight, Rich and I happened upon one of our hostess’s recommended restaurants, but it was a pizza place so we continued on in search of heartier fare. We hit another of the recommended places. Pizza again. We passed another and another, all pizza parlors. Eventually we found a charming, old-fashioned trattoria with dim lighting and white table cloths. I opened the menu.
“Nothing but pizza?!?” I exclaimed. “Where are we — in the Twilight Zone?”
An English-speaking waiter took pity and directed me to an eatery offering fish, meat, even (gasp!) vegetables, so in the end we dined well. The next morning at breakfast our hostess told me there was a food festival in the main square. I made a beeline for it.
“Are you kidding me?” I exclaimed on arrival. “A pizza competition? Really?”
Local chefs were busy pulling pies out of ovens, judges were nibbling, frowning importantly, and pronouncing opinions, and members of the crowd, presumably cronies and bigwigs, were happily receiving the leftover slices. Somehow Rich managed to sneak a hand in and snag one.
It was the best pizza I’d ever tasted. The slim, delicate crust was lightly brushed with olive oil and hint of local cheese topped with a sliver of prosciutto and fresh herbs. “Maybe this town is onto something,” I said.
I don’t need to tell you pizza is popular. Americans are the world champions, consuming a hefty 28.6 pounds per person per year, with the average Italian downing 17 pounds, about twice as much as other Europeans. By my calculation, Enna’s residents consume their own body weight in pizza every month.
I wondered why it was so extraordinarily popular here. Was it a natural outgrowth of Sicily’s long association with Naples, which created modern pizza in the 18th century? Or did the roots go back much, much further?
By 400 BC, Enna was the site of the most important sanctuary of the fertility goddess Ceres, who gave us agriculture (and hey, thanks for that, ma’am!) as well as the word “cereal.” Later generations came to know her as Demeter, mother of Persephone, who was abducted by Pluto. No, not Mickey Mouse’s dog, I mean the god of the underworld, aka Hades.
Ceres’ ancient temple no longer exists, but her story lives on in Enna’s Museum of Myth, the first entirely multi-media museum in Italy. According to legend, Persephone was carried off from Enna itself, or possibly from the shore of nearby Lake Pergusa. Enraged, Ceres went searching for her daughter in a chariot drawn by snakes. Inexplicably, this detail was left out of the museum’s presentation (possibly due to truth issues). Without Ceres around to oversee the earth’s fertility, the land was devastated; onscreen, the images shifted from waving wheat to scorched earth, interspersed with scenes of hell, which apparently looks like this.
Humans begged other gods for help, and eventually Pluto/Hades was persuaded to let Persephone return to the earth’s surface. But he craftily got her to eat six pomegranate seeds to fortify herself for the journey, condemning her to spend six months a year with him. And that’s why we have the seasons. I think it all made a bit more sense a few thousand years ago. My point is that Ceres was pretty hot stuff around Enna for a long time, which suggests one possible explanation for the obsession with grain-based foods. Or maybe it’s just that the residents know a good thing when they taste it.
The Museum of Myth, the Rock of Ceres, and the city’s castle occupy the highest, most impregnable part of the mountain. Looking out from the castle tower, you can understand how the original Sicani held it for 1000 years. When attacked, all you’d have to do is stand at the edge and drop rocks; when technology improved, you’d shoot arrows or pour a little boiling oil. Frankly, I don’t know how any invader even got that far. I would imagine that the few soldiers who didn’t die of cardiac arrest or pass out from the heat on the way up sensibly opted to slip away among the trees to wait quietly for events sort themselves out rather than do any serious storming.
Throughout its long history, Enna was usually lost through treachery rather than battle. The first to take the castle by force were the Romans, who snuck in through the sewers. You can imagine the pep talk. “Guys, we’re going in at night. It’ll be cooler and no one will see us, so none of those pesky arrows or boiling oil. On the downside…”
Enna may not be the easiest place to get to, but it’s worth the effort. If only so you can brag about visiting Sicily’s belly button — and of course, eat some of their legendary pizza.
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