Since the 1980s Sicily has devoted increasing political energy and financial resources to preserving the natural habitat of the island and to controlling real estate and industrial development in many areas. The island has a rich soil and provides a climate that supports a wide variety of plants and animals, many of which contribute to the excellence of Sicilian cuisine. The umbrella pine, for example, supplies the pine nuts that are used in making pesto sauce.
In November 1989 the Madonie National Park was created. It lies west of the Nebrodi National Park, which is Sicily’s largest park. Madonie covers 39,972 acres —62.46 square miles—and contains six mountains that are over 4,900 feet. Pizzo Carbonara, the highest of the six mountains, is second only to Mt. Etna.
Besides being a natural preserve, Madonie is home to lots of small villages and towns, small places that invite you to visit and then gently persuade you that you don’t want to leave. You can’t even imagine why you would want to be anywhere else.
The bus from the train station in Cefalù winds through the beautiful hills of the park and in about 30 or 40 minutes rolls into Castelbuono, a town of about 9,300 people. You have entered another time zone, one filled with a quaint but comforting ambiance—and with a charm that was not unlike the arm of a good friend around your shoulders.
Castelbuono, Castiddubbuonu in Sicilian, grew up around the castle for which it is named. Count Francesco I of Ventimiglia began construction of the castle in 1316 over the ruins of an ancient Byzantine town called Ypsigro.
The castle is a huge but simple arrangement of enormous cubes that echoes Arab architecture. Square towers are Norman and one round tower is Swabian. The castle is a typical Sicilian coming together of several cultures to create something that is unique to the island.
It is a castle of overpowering strength and during the Middle Ages was used for defense. In 1500 the “good castle” became a residence for the Ventimiglia family. The first floor of the castle housed the servants, the second floor was reserved for the nobility of the family and the third floor was for members of the court and for guests.
The palace chapel, the Cappella Palatina, is located on the second floor. It was completed in 1683 by Giuseppe Serpotta and his brother Giacomo, two of Sicily’s most famous sculptors. The Serpotta brothers worked in stucco, a mixture of fine plaster and other substances, to create a chapel filled with putti and friezes of figures commemorating the Ventimiglia family. Giacomo had developed a method of polishing the stucco figures so that they resembled marble or other fine stone.
The Serpotta brothers are most well known for the beauty of several churches in Palermo, the most outstanding being the Chiesa San Francesco d’Assisi just off the Via Paternostro in the Kalsa neighborhood of Palermo and directly across the piazza from the Antico Focacceria San Francesco, a restaurant founded in 1834 and a favorite with tourists.
Today the castle houses the Museo Civico of Castelbuono. Laura Barreca, director of the museum and an art historian who teaches at the Academies of Fine Arts in Bari and Palermo, says that she exhibits contemporary and ancient art in the gallery so as to educate visitors in the contemporary language of art. It is obvious to me, as it certainly is to Laura Barreca, that contemporary art can be better understood if the links to art of previous centuries can be shown and explained.
To this end she also programs classical and contemporary music along with theater, photography and painting. The museum’s education department has designed innovative programs to involve Castelbuono children in learning about the arts. The gallery is considered one of the most innovative of Sicily’s art galleries.
The castle, perched like a strong-armed knight in armor of stone on top of San Pietro hill, is not the only extravaganza in Castelbuono. The castle stands guard over the picturesque town and over another aspect of Sicilian culture—the mouth- watering excellence of Sicilian food. The food of this seductive little town is the stuff of culinary greatness.
In the center of town, on the Via delle Confraternite, a tiny side street, is a restaurant whose facade is not particularly noticeable. The restaurant was founded in 1984 and is called Nangalarruni, which is the Sicilian word for the small folk music instrument that we usually call a Jew’s harp or a maranzzanu. The restaurant is listed in the Michelin Guide.
Giuseppe Carollo, the amiable owner of the restaurant, says his kitchen produces food that “amazes, pampers and excites.” It does exactly that. But Carollo, one of Sicily’s most adventurous and innovative restaurateurs, doesn’t stop there. The old wooden shelves of the restaurant house an extensive selection of exceptional wines and he is more than willing (and able) to help his diners choose the perfect wine.
In addition to the a la carte menu he offers several pre fixe menus including a vegetarian menu. Many dishes lean heavily on local Madonie ingredients. Mushrooms, especially the fungi di bosco, are a specialty as is the unique tobacco- smoked black pork loin. Another pork filet entree is crusted with manna, the slightly sweet solidified sap of a local ash tree, and pistachios and almonds. Flavors at Nangalarruni are decidedly not something you will find on other parts of the island. Like the musical instrument for which the restaurant is named, Carollo’s dinners have a unique twangy quality.
When it comes to panettone and other pastries and gelati Fiasconaro on the Via Margherita is as amazing and exciting as Nangalarruni. Mario Fiasconaro opened his shop in 1953. All panettone is made with natural leavening with the slow leavening process taking 36 hours. Nicola Fiasconaro, son of Mario, is now in charge of production and says that the Fiasconaro high-quality pastry dough is unique and unequaled anywhere.
He could be right. Several small bakeries near Milan produce very fine panettone but having tasted both I believe the Fiasconaro panettone is better. The beauty of Castelbuono casts a magical spell over the whole experience of eating Fiasconaro panettone on the Piazza Margherita—and maybe that’s why their pastries seem to be the best.
Just across from Fiasconaro is the Cin Cin Bar, which has a reputation for the best and most interesting gelati in Castelbuono. The brothers Rosario and Vincenzo Naselli use local products to make small batches of gelati of some very unique flavors.
The A Rua Fera ristorante and pizzeria on the Via Roma, a street that is slightly difficult to find but not far from Nangalarruni, is more basic than Nangalarruni, but it is excellent. Pastas are inventive and pizzas are well prepared. The restaurant has a rustic charm with stone wall and arches, wooden beams and a beautiful garden if you want to have dinner outdoors.
The Palazzaccio Ristorante on the Corso Unmberto I is another star in the Castelbuono food constellation. The decor is white, inviting and modern but with an interesting contrast of old stone and brick arches. But it is the cuisine of chef Sandro Cicero that shines brightest. He too depends heavily on local ingredients and earns the restaurant’s listing in the Michelin Guide with his clever and delicious pairings of flavors. Giuseppe, the host, is a typically gracious and very friendly Sicilian guide to favorite dishes and appropriate wine pairings.
Castelbuono is a town that lends itself to relaxation—even meditation—and to people watching. The town’s beauty is subdued and quiet. The patron saint of Castelbuono is Saint Anne, who is the patroness of unmarried women and horseback riders. It seems a little logical then that Castelbuono should honor Saint Anne every year with a foot race.
The Giro di Castelbuono is a road running competition started in 1912. It is held every year on July 26, the day of Saint Anne, and attracts runners from all over the world, many of them stars in other competitions. The course through and around the town covers about 10 kilometers and begins and ends at the Piazza Margherita in the center of the town, practically at the doorstep of the Fiascanaro pasticceria.
During the Giro Castelbuono puts aside its quiet, reserved demeanor and jumps headlong into a few hours of cheering and screaming for the runners. The town puts its bucolic sensibilities in storage and the soft green Madonie hills surrounding the town echo the noisy enthusiasm of the crowds.
I always have questions about what a small Sicilian town like Castelbuono does to entertain its young people. What do teens do in a town like this? The Giro at the end of July is one thing. In August, however, Castelbuono pulls out all the stops with the Ypsigrock Festival of rock, indie and alternative music. Young people pack into Castelbuono for the four-day festival that is held in the Piazza Castello in front of the castle.
The 2017 line-up includes Aldous Harding, a singer from New Zealand; Beach House, an American pop band; Beak, a trio that is krautrock inspired; Cabbage, a five-piece neo post-punk group from Manchester; Cigarettes After Sex, a four- member American group whose songs have a hazy, romantic twist that is sometimes political; and lots of other bands and singers. The Ventimiglia castle will reverberate with sounds its late-Renaissance court could never have imagined.
And then Castelbuono will settle back into its usual bucolic quiet. The runners will have moved on and the musicians will be heading to other festivals. On the Via Santa Anna, just up the street from the Don Jon Ristorante—a good place to have lunch and watch people—is a sidewalk shop that sells manna. The proprietor is one of the area’s local manna experts and will help you learn about manna with a small brochure in four languages.
Manna is a special food product of the Castelbuono area. It is the solidified sap of the fraxinus ornus and fraxinus angustifolia trees, narrow-leafed ash trees. The sap is gathered from the trees in the heat of July and August. It drips from incisions in the tree’s limbs and trunk and dries into white stalactites. It has a sweet taste that is a little like the flavor of maple syrup.
Production of manna is supported by the Slow Food Movement in Sicily, an organization interested in keeping Sicily’s unique food products available. Manna was once a principal source of income around Castelbuono. It is used in the preparation of some foods—the crusted pork filet served at Nangalarruni, for example.
Manna is also known to have laxative qualities and is used to treat constipation. While none of these claims have been scientifically proven, manna is also used to treat indigestion and is thought to help smooth and heal sensitive dermatitis.
Early in the 20th century the Ventimiglia family found it very difficult to finance the upkeep of the castle. The citizens of Castelbuono launched a fund raiser and eventually collected the funds required to buy the castle. Today the castle is the core of the town’s history and culture. The chapel in the castle contains the sacred skull of Saint Anne and the museum exhibits art related to the cult of the saint.
Castelbuono is a fairy tale kind of place. A little paradise. It has an imposing castle at one end of the town and beautiful views of the entire town from the hills at the other end of the town. It is a town with a quiet magic and with a Sicilian cuisine that is unique to the Madonie park that surrounds it. Lizards sun themselves on ancient stones and tourists ward off the heat of summer days with dishes of cooling gelati. There is a beautiful serenity in the winding streets of Castelbuono, a serenity that is difficult to find in the chaos of 21st-century human society.