Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Sicilian Adventures: Lunch with the Duchess in the Glamorous Palazzo Lanza Tomasi in Palermo, Sicily

I hope that like me you are a longtime avid reader of ‘The Leopard’, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

Reading the book multiple times lead me to lunch at the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi, the last home of Prince Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of the celebrated Sicilian novel. And a meeting with his adopted son and his wife, Nicoletta, the Duchess.

Come with me for a private visit, lunch with the Duchess, and a private tour of the Palazzo with Gioacchino.

It’s chic, it’s unique, and it comes with a magical story. It was a surprising visit to Palermo, and Sicily recently. Consider Sicily for your travels in May/June/July this year. Sicily is magical. 

The Palazzo

The Palazzo Lanza Tomasi overlooks a broad swathe of the Bay of Palermo. It was built in the second half of the seventeeth century above Byzantine and Spanish military fortifications, and behind the 16th-century city walls. Like Sicily itself, the palazzo has layers of history and intrique and architectural discoveries.

Nicoletta’s husband, the Duke of Palma, Giocchino Lanza Tomasi, has unified the whole property and thoroughly restored the building, his ancestral home.

The furnishings of the grand ballroom and the writer’s library are mostly from the Lampedusa palace, the home of Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Giuseppe, was the Duke’s adoptive father. He lived in the Palazzo Lanza Tomasi in the ’40s and ’50s, writing his book by hand. He died before his dramatic and moving book, The Leopard, was published to world-side acclaim.

The Palazzo: Restored, Elegant and Redolent of History

While the Duchess and participants in her cooking class were preparing a lavish lunch of dazzling authentic, seasonal Sicilian dishes, I had a private tour.

I hope you have seen Visconti’s superb 1963 film, ‘The Leopard’. It stars Burt Lancaster, the noble prince, and the incredibly handsome Alain Delon as his nephew, and the gorgeous Claudia Cardinale, as his wife. You can see the trailer on YouTube.

With the film in my head, I walked through these palazzo rooms.

The film, with music by Nino Rota and costumes by Piero Tosi, is perhaps my all-time favorite film. Watch it for the noble Burt Lancaster. Watch it for the interior scenes, in summer, of billowing curtains in the ballroom. The film was recently restored. Watch it for scenes of Sicilian history and country towns and palazzi.

I spoke to Gioacchino, the adopted son of the Duke of Lampedusa about the film, and he said that surprisingly it was never considered a box office success, despite many awards, the sensual direction by Visconti.

It’s one of the greatest films—stylish, mysterious, majestic, powerful.

Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi, the Duchess of Palma di Montechiaro presents cooking classes followed by lunch several times a week during the spring/summer/fall seasons.

The concept is to go with her to the market, buy all ingredients, then return to her kitchen to cook…followed by enjoying all of the dishes, plus hors d’oeuvres and aperitifs and wines and beautiful fruit deserts and elegant post-prandial drinks and bites. It’s delightful.

Instead of cooking, I had a private tour of the palazzo with the Duke.

Sorry not to have recorded all dishes…it would have been a little disruptive to other guests. The multi-course lunch included bright and vibrant salads, a superb pasta dish, traditional crisps and bread, and a fantastic tuna ragout, along with fresh fruit deserts flavored with fresh jasmine flowers, and other Sicilian delights.

It’s all done with great élan and Nicoletta and Gioacchino are wonderful hosts.

I love meeting guests and hosts, and later walking around the historic neighborhood, now emerging like a phoenix from years of neglect.

Essential Reading: Books in my Library

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

The Last Leopard by David Gilmour
A Life of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It’s the fascinating story of the author, his family, Palermo, and Italy and Sicilian families, and how di Lampedusa was inspired to write ‘The Leopard’ which man believe is the best Italian novel. My copy is published by Eland, and I found it at John Sandoe Books, in London. www.johnsandoe.com.

Sicily published by Phaidon. An inspiring, colorful and insightful book on Sicilian cooking, food traditions, and seasonal dishes. Delicious. (Spagehtti with Bottarga, high recommended.)


Lunch with the Duchess:
I propose that you contact Nicoletta and find out when the next season is in swing. A small group gets together. On my visit there were about eight participants, including a lovely German couple, British newlyweds, and a lovely Italian family.

We started early in the morning with coffee, and headed over to the historic Capo market, where Nicoletta selects in-season tuna, fantastic bread loaves, basil, tomatoes, fruit, selections of Sicilian salted capers, nuts, and armfuls of vegetables and fresh herbs. Nicoletta introduced us to all of her sources. Guests bought jars of herbs and spices, and chatted to bakers and locals.

Laden with ingredients for lunch, we headed back to the palazzo and its small kitchen. Some participants started expertly chopping and mixing and peeling and zesting, mixing and slicing and juicing with enthusiastic and close instruction from Nicoletta.

I met up with Giocchino, for a private tour of the palazzo and the historic rooms that were the lair of The Leopard. The rooms, all restored with family heirlooms, include de Lampedusa’s original manuscripts and his library.

It’s all very atmospheric, with views out over the bay, and bright Sicilian light bouncing around the rooms. Highly recommended.

Later we all enjoyed lunch, and lingered on in the study, chatting and especially getting lists of recommendations for restaurants, churches, chapels, UNESCO sites and historic buildings. Sicily is pure discovery.


Staying at the Palazzo at Butera 28 in Palermo: 
Nicoletta also offers apartments for rent within the palazzo.

I propose booking early and scoring the apartment with a tiny balcony on the roof, overlooking the bay. Otherwise, the apartments, well-priced, can be considered a simple and very inexpensive self-service base for walking to breath-taking Baroque churches and oratories and chapels nearby.

The best benefit of staying in the Butera 28 apartments: Nicoletta’s invaluable insight for restaurants, churches and cathedrals, and discoveries in the neighborhood.

Staying in her apartments, you’re a resident with a kitchen, preparing breakfast with local fruit, shopping at the market, acquiring milk and coffee and bread, so an authentic experience is on hand.

She proposed to me booking for a concert at the Massimo Vittorio Emanuele Theatre, the third largest theater in Europe. It was built in 1875. It’s the dramatic neoclassical theater that’s featured in the final blood-curdling scenes of ‘The Godfather’ trilogy, with Michael Corleone witnessing the death of his daughter (Sofia Coppola) , and then he is shot.

The Massimo is a must-visit.

Other essential Palermo visits include an afternoon’s drive to Monreale to experience the Cathedral and its exquisite mosaics, dating with the 1100s. If you’re fortunate, a wedding may be taking place.

Otherwise, visit Palazzo dei Normanni and the Cappella Palatina and ask Nicoletta about Baroque newly-restored oratories and chapels and all UNESCO sites. Of course visit the Chinese Palace, an eccentric and delightful fantasy from 1790.

Palermo has dropped its tragic past, and it is having a great moment. I loved it.

Sicily and Palermo and the Baroque towns of the south-east, are on the map of stylish Northern Italian designers and architects.

From Palermo I headed to Catania and Syracusa and to the Baroque towns of the Noto Valley (Noto…a report to follow).

Best time to visit Palermo and Sicily: 
Spring and early summer, when the weather is warm, the peaches and tomatoes are ripe, the brief tuna season is in full swing, and tourists have not yet arrived.

In the summer, it’s very hot. It’s not far from north Africa, after all.

Winter is not ideal as Palermo between November and March can be cool.

I loved Sicily—and every region is fascinating.

The view of Mt. Etna is one of the great images of Sicily.

I can’t wait to return to discover more.

www.butera28.it and send an email to Nicoletta. She responds quickly.

All photographs were shot by Diane Dorrans Saeks in Palermo, Sicily, Italy.

Books in my Library, photographed December 30 2016 by Diane Dorrans Saeks.


Cynthia Lambert said...

What a marvelous getaway. You must have been pinching yourself. Surely a luncheon to remember. Thank you for sharing it with us.

La Contessa said...

IT is on MY BUCKET LIST..........and I love the idea of staying there on the grounds!I MUST get THE ITALIAN in VACATION MODE............
Millie Grazie!

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


I've read THE LEOPARD many times...it is one of the great great works of fiction (though bed on the Count of Lampedusa's family and life...).
It is important to know that for decades Palermo was broken...still suffering second world war damage (yes...from 60 or more years ago...) and various corruption groups and horrors were there.
I am confident now...everything is being restored and it is wonderful to walk into a baroque oratory..and you are there alone...no tourists...it is fantastic...my dream...to experience something great and creative and new to you...to see with Buddha eyes...for the first time.
The food in Sicily is fantastic...fresh fish, beauifu lvegetables (organic soil...)...and great simplicity. I did not see a sign of 'red sauce' but rather very fresh and bright and vibrant dishes. I hope you go there...DIANE

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

la contessa-

Yes...it was a wonderful experience...
Nicoletta has amazing energy and lots of spirit...and she is quite brisk and keeps her cooking class moving along..
i enjoyed visiting the market with her---the vegetables and fruit and all the herbs and preserves are inspiring...several guests including myself bought capers and herbs and other ingredients that are legal to bring home...and make beautiful reminders of this Sicilian trip.
PALERMO...the historic churches, Norman chapels and cathedrals and oratories and the Massimo...magnificent...MONREALE cathedral one of the greats of Europe.
Highly recommend going there this spring//
many friends there told me that July/August are very hot and 'many tourists'...and other seasons, fall/ October/ Sept are lovely.
I did not go to Taormina...many told me is it crowded...but do recommend ORTIGIA and SYRACUSE AND NEXT WEEK you will see my report on the Noto valley..
and as well...int he west there are other regions...and MT ETNA is glorious...and there are farm visits and olive oil companies and...so many places to discover.
i started in PALERMO...did a lot of research, read everything...and then Nicoletta was so helpful.
note that her 'apartments' are simple...and very self-service (not palatial...). but a good base...welllocated and strategic.
all best and keep me posted--DIANE

Brillante said...

Oh Diane! I am so in love with Sicily and your article brought back many memories. Time to go again soon.