Italy trip feeds passion for food, wine

By Phil Masturzo, Akron Beacon Journal
TCA Food

I have been writing the Phil Your Glass column for the Akron Beacon Journal's Pulse section for nearly two years. One of the questions I get asked most is, "Where did you get your passion for wine?" I can explain ... .

I couldn't be more energized than at this very moment, as I have just returned from two fabulous weeks in Italy. I spent the last week with good friend Sal Ferrante in Palermo, Sicily. I met Ferrante back in 1992 while on an assignment for the York Daily Record food page.

Ferrante owned an Italian restaurant called Bel Paese, which means "Beautiful Place." He closed his popular restaurant in York, Pa., last year and moved back to the beautiful island in the Mediterranean. Ferrante was born in Castelvetrano, Sicily, which is known for its great olives. The man oozes passion for Italian wine and cuisine like no other. Sicilian hospitality is in his DNA. He lives in a two-bedroom house and has three kitchens. Family and food are a top priority.

During my visit, Ferrante organized a day trip to Tasca Winery's Regaleali Estate, about an hour from Palermo. But with Ferrante at the wheel, the trip stretches into three hours. It's not that he's a bad driver. The guy has a recent diploma from the Maserati driving school in Parma, Italy, for cry eye.

Not long after breakfast, and 10 minutes into the drive, we stop for espresso. A few pastries later, we hit the road, weaving in and out of the morning Palermo traffic. Thank God for the diploma! As we head to our tour and lunch appointment at Tasca, the conversation quickly turns to the dinner menu for the evening. You see, Italians are always thinking two meals ahead.

Ferrante doesn't need a map. He drives around the 9,927-square-mile island like I drive around Cuyahoga Falls. He knows every inch of Italy's largest island. "Looka these trees," he says in his Sicilian accent. "That's where pine nuts come from." Ten minutes later, the car comes to a screeching halt next to a field of red tomatoes, sunning themselves in the brilliant Sicilian light. My friend picks us a couple samples to taste, part of his Sicilian hospitality, then we head down the road to the factory that turns those red jewels into sauce. Temptation wins. Three bushels later, we are back on the road to Tasca.

Not for long though. The car suddenly swerves to hug the left side of the road as if we blew a left front tire. Ferrante reaches out the window with his left hand to grab a sample of wild fennel. In Sicilian countryside, they don't paint lines on the road. They're all lined with the yellow aromatic herb used in Italian sausage and specialty cookies. "Justa smell this," he says as we continue toward our destination.

Surely we are getting close, I thought to myself. But Ferrante's mind is running a 100 kilometers an hour, just like the car on the windy, hilly roads.

"I needa stop at this pasta place," he says. "I buy the broken pasta for my chickens," he explains. I guess they like it al dente.

The signs for Tasca Vineyards start to dot the hilly roadside. Workers are busy harvesting in the vineyards. The car comes to yet another stop. "I want you to try these grapes," says Ferrante, offering more of that Sicilian hospitality. They are catarratto, he proudly says. "Sunshine in your mouth."

A few minutes later, we arrive at Tasca Vineyards. Perfectly manicured vines as far as the eye can see. Spectacular gardens that make it totally sustainable. They grew the grain to make the pasta we ate for lunch. The ricotta cheese was made from milk from their sheep. The olive oil was their own. That was quite a place. It was a place even Ferrante could enjoy.

Over the years, I have absorbed some of Ferrante's passion. How could I not? I think he summed it up best when he said: "We don't eat to survive. We eat to enjoy."

In my next life, I want to come back as a cow. They have four stomachs, you know.

More room for pasta, wine and pastry.

Visit the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) at