It’s well past midnight and I’m splayed out on a warm roof watching for shooting stars, the merry-go-round beam from the lighthouse on the beach below keeping me awake. Slightly drunk from mature Nero d’Avola wine and a hefty after-dinner tumbler of black, bitter Amaro, I hear it crystal clear: Italian songs played on strings coming from over the hill. The moon was almost full; the silvery leaves on the venerable olive trees glittering in the dark like tiny paparazzi flash bulbs. The whitish souls of those buried in the timeworn limestone hills glowed in the moonlight, their collective history sighing an empathetic breeze through the durum wheat fields.
The isle of Favignana lays a short ferry ride away from the western coast of Sicily. The hydrofoil was full of day-trippers and old men returning to their wives, errands on the mainland completed. The ancient Greeks called Favignana ‘goat island’, which paints an accurate picture of the terrain: calcareous rock hills covered in low scrub with views of the green Tyrrhenian Sea from most any perch. As with all of Sicily, Favignana’s unique flavor has been influenced by history’s constant invaders; Normans, Arabs, Spaniards and Greeks have all left their marks.
But really, it’s all about the tuna.
Plentiful in the seas around Favignana, the poor tuna has been a hunted and exploited creature for more than 500 years. Indeed, the island’s 15th century owner, Giovanni di Karissima, was donned ‘Baron of Tuna.’
The antiquated fishing technique for tonnara is referred to as mattanza or massacre, which is exactly what it was. Murals in the tiny town depict thick, swarthy men holding nets penning dozens and dozens of tuna, the green waters a frothy red from their slaughter. One day every February, Favignana still makes a show of the mattanza to tourists, but their cannery is long closed, both fish and their stalkers sacrificed by another era.
Small food shops, with extremely fine selections of cured meats, goat and sheep’s milk cheeses, meaty green olives, local oils, thick crusty breads, and tomatoes still on their vines also offer a dizzying array of tuna: jarred, canned, dried, dust. I greedily loaded hunks of vacuum-sealed dried tuna roe, or bottarga into my basket, envisioning a late winter supper of spaghetti, rich with garlic and fiery red chilies fried in olive oil, topped with fluffy mountains of salty, finely shaved tuna bottarga.
The unsmiling shopkeeper, oddly not a fan of tourists, grudgingly held my purchases while I found lunch. Favignana boasts many fine restaurants, each specializing in seafood hauled in daily from its waters. Tables spilled out onto the main square, now roasting in the midday sun. We walked past an elderly woman in a crocheted navy blue dress sitting in a wooden chair in the shade of The Bank of Napoli, behind a creaky table piled high with fresh and salted capers. She was fast asleep, head thrown back, mouth wide open.
We escaped the heat under an enormous canopy lined with tables and set with linen and good stemware. I immediately ordered an extra-large Peroni beer and a huge bucket of ice, nibbling rosemary breadsticks while deciphering the Italian menu. Soon, platters of fish crudo arrived; thin slices of swordfish and tuna drizzled with green oil and flaked Sicilian salt as fine as the finest Japanese sashimi. Head-on shrimp grilled to pink perfection and flavored with nothing more than the ocean’s brine were peeled and eaten by hand. We sipped Grillo, a simple Sicilian white wine, while we filleted whole Orata, caught under the stars the night prior and presented to the chef at the early morning fish market. Grilled simply with fresh oregano, thyme and lemon, it’s white flesh spoke of the island’s seafaring history and its understanding of life’s exalted pleasures.
Two wheels are the most acceptable form of transport around the island. Riding a rented motorbike for the first time in years absolutely terrified me. I pleaded with the Gods of Favignana to just let me make it through the long, dark tunnel that bore through a mountain dividing the small island. Dirty, plastic flowers tied sporadically to the tunnel’s guardrail did little to soothe my fears. Once on the other side of the tunnel, I made a beeline for the bike shop, trading in the motorcycle for an electric bike, which hurt my ass but soothed my soul and curved my thighs, now thick from pasta and pastry.
We pedaled past coves, the gentle green waters dotted with the fine, bobbing behinds of snorkeling Italian men while their haggardly bikini-clad wives, black from too much sun, waded at the shoreline, occasionally yelling directives at their oblivious husbands.