For Donna Crivello, it was a joyous busman's holiday born of sadness.
The co-owner and inspiration behind Donna's restaurants in Mount Vernon, Cross Keys, Charles Village and Columbia watched her Mount Vernon restaurant burn in a spectacular five-alarm fire last December. But she and husband Peter Adams went ahead with a planned trip to Sicily in August.
Crivello's family is from Sicily, and she has returned there often. It is where she found the inspiration for, among other dishes, her signature Donna's Salad, a colorful array of roasted vegetables.
And it was where, she was sure, she would find the inspiration to begin again.
While her husband, who teaches at Baltimore City Community College, toured the ancient ruins of Palermo, Crivello trolled the shops and markets with a local chef, choosing the freshest ingredients from the fish sellers and others, and returned to his restaurant, where he and his mother taught her and three other "students" how to prepare the food they had purchased.
And then, of course, everyone sat down to eat the results.
How did your trip correspond to the fire that destroyed the Mount Vernon Donna's? Did the prospect of beginning anew at the restaurant change your goals for the trip?
My first trip to Sicily, over 20 years ago, did inspire my first Mount Vernon menu. So as I thought about rebuilding and re-creating the new Donna's, a trip back to Sicily — especially Palermo, near where my family is from — was my first vacation choice. I had to convince my husband to go back. He too loves Sicily, but he is more interested in the sights.
Most people travel to Italy for the ancient ruins — or the wine and food. It sounds like you went to Italy to go grocery shopping. Tell us what you were hoping to learn.
When I travel, I like to get out early in the morning — I usually don't have breakfast in a hotel — and a quick run or walk brings me to where the neighborhood people meet and have their coffee and do their early shopping, the bakeries and the small markets. And they gather around the trucks selling produce and freshly caught fish.
You chose Sicily because it is where your family is from. Did you see family while you were there? And what have you learned from them about food?
What I love about Sicilian food is that is a wonderful mix of so many other cuisines. Centuries ago, this island in the Mediterranean was home to ancient Greeks, Arabs, French and Spanish.
We once again visited Franco Crivello. His restaurant is Francu i piscaturi (in Sicilian dialect), or Franco's Pescaria, a charming local seafood restaurant right on the water about 15 miles east of Palermo in the little fishing village of Porticello. He might be a distant cousin, but if not, he welcomes us as if we were family.
The trattoria has an open patio, with lights strung over the slightly mismatched wooden tables, lovingly topped with handmade cloths and quickly covered with plates of wonderfully fresh octopus, swordfish, shrimp and handmade pasta.
On a previous visit, Franco brought me out to the fisherman who arrived late at night with fresh fish for him to inspect. The squirming octopus and fresh tuna would be on the next day's menu.
You decided not to let anyone know you were a professional cook and restaurant owner. Did that work, or could they all spot a pro in the kitchen? Did you master any new techniques?
Before the trip, I contacted a local chef in Palermo, Vincenzo Clemente of Cin Cin Ristorante. He leads an early-morning walking tour — with tasting — through one of the open markets. There are three markets in Palermo, and this one, the Capo, is his favorite and is mine now, too.
We met the vendors, had the "snacks" just like the morning shoppers do. Fried chickpea fritters and even beef spleen sandwiches, with a little glass of Marsala wine.
We shopped for food that we would use later in our cooking class in the kitchen of his restaurant a few blocks away. His mother assisted in the cooking and the teaching.
I decided that I would not reveal that I was a professional cook so that Vincenzo and his mother would be more open and feel free to share the basic information. Often the fundamentals — in this case, chopping, drying and frying eggplant for caponata — are some of the most important details in re-creating a recipe, and I didn't want them to assume I wasn't interested in basics.
How did you choose where to stay? And did you do anything fun and touristy? Or was this strictly a working vacation?
We had stayed downtown before, closer to museums and churches, where Peter, my husband, spends his days when I'm off at markets.
He thought that I needed a "treat," so we stayed at the Villa Igiea. The villa, formally a "health center" at the turn of the century, has a stunningly beautiful Italian "art nouveau" (or Liberty-style) decor and has equally spectacular views of Palermo Bay.
Imagine playing tennis with that view! It is a good excuse for a few balls to go into the Mediterranean!
We took day trips to beaches of Mondello and north to San Vito lo Capo and Segesta to see an ancient Greek temple.
Did you bring anything with you that a regular traveler might not need, but a "cooking" traveler would?
I often bring an extra small bag for food gifts and treats for myself, including sea salt and spices. And despite the weight, I love to buy more Sicilian cookbooks and food magazines.
Do you have to be a good cook to take this kind of trip?
An adventurous eater and cook would certainly have the best time here. I have taken cooking classes in other parts of Sicily, but I really loved the pairing of the market tour and class in Palermo.
Can you share a recipe with us from your travel?
When will Donna's in Mount Vernon open again? And how different will the menu be as a result of this trip.
We are working on that right now, and we are looking forward to opening in the spring. On Dec. 1, we will be giving a "food preview" at a private party on the fifth floor of the Park Plaza on the night of the lighting of the Washington Monument.
Does food inspire all your travel plans? And do you have a destination for your next trip?
There is always much debate about where we should go. We love ruins, art and great food.
I'd really like to stick to the Mediterranean. While I could keep going back to Italy again and again, we are thinking about returning to Istanbul and southwestern Turkey, where we have experienced another fabulous cuisine.
Swordfish alla Franco Crivello
Franco and sons made this simple but wonderful dish, served with a big piece of lemon. I have added an anchovy-caper vinaigrette. Serve with grilled vegetables: zucchini, onions, peppers, tomatoes, and polenta.
1-2 pounds swordfish steaks, 1-inch thickness (about 6 ounces per person)
For bread-crumb mixture:
1-plus cup fine bread crumbs
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoons dried oregano
2/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons capers (rinsed)
2-3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
Dry the swordfish with a paper towel. Coat the sides with the bread-crumb mixture. Set into a hot, non-stick pan, coated with a little oil. Sear on both sides. Turn down the heat and cook for about 3 more minutes until just firm. Do not overcook. Finish cooking in the oven at 400 degrees for 5 minutes if needed.
Serve on some greens or grilled vegetables with the caper-anchovy vinaigrette. (To make vinaigrette, mix ingredients in blender or food processor.)
If you go
We prefer flying out of Philadelphia. It's a short flight from Baltimore, but I recommend that you drive. My husband thought that the flight would be easier than the driving this time, but when torrents of rain and lightning closed BWI, I quickly called a limo service. The driver made it through the rain and got us to Philadelphia with enough time to have a glass of wine at Vino Volo before our nonstop flight to Roma! We took US Airways nonstop to Rome, where we spent a week, then a one-hour Alitalia flight to Palermo.
When to go
Since the Italians are vacationing in the summer, you'll find crowded beaches and sights. We have visited in late May and early June, just before the tourist season. It is warm enough to swim and with lots of space on the beaches, restaurants and attractions. We went in August. But really, any time is a good time to go to Palermo.
The Villa Igiea Hilton, Salita Belmonte 43, 90142; Palermo; 39-091-631-2141; hotelvillaigiea.com. The villa was a "health center" at the turn of the last century. Photos of dignitaries who vacationed there line the walls. The design, especially an interior dining room, is a truly wonderful example of Italian "art nouveau" decor. My treat from my husband was a room with a terrace and spectacular view of the bay of Palermo.
Centrale Palace Hotel, Via Vittorio Emanuele, 327, 90134; Palermo; 39-091-336-666; email@example.com. Previously we stayed in downtown Palermo at Centrale Palace Hotel. This elegant hotel is in the historic center, close to the Cathedral of Palermo and markets.
Donna Franca Florio, Salita Belmonte 43, 90142; Palermo; 39-091-631-2141; hotelvillaigiea.com. If you stay at the Villa Igiea, I recommend the restaurant there, Donna Franca Florio. The surrounding neighborhood doesn't offer much in the way of night dining, which we discovered after I insisted we venture out. We returned to the hotel and had one of best meals. We ate on the terrace, with a view of the bay. It was a beautifully presented dinner, and an innovative approach to the traditional Sicilian specialties. And it was a bit of a splurge.
Ristorante Cin Cin, Via Manin, 22, 90139; Palermo; 39-091-612-4095; ristorantecincin.com. This is the restaurant where I took the cooking lesson. We returned the next night for dinner, and it was very reasonably priced with a nice wine list. It is a charming restaurant, owned by chef Vincenzo Clemente and his mother. He also does tours of Sicily.
Cooking lessons, Via Villa Heloise, 42, 90143; Palermo; 39-091-347-160; divinasicilia.com. For the cooking lessons, we met Vincenzo at the Capo Mercato at midmorning at one of three open markets, with produce, seafood, and little shops and cafes along the way. Then we participated in a hands-on class in the kitchen of his restaurant. There were just four of us. His mother, who cooks with him, also gave instruction. We dined on the meal we created, with wine, and it cost 150 euros.
Cappella Palatina, Piazza Indipendenza, 90129 Palermo; 39-091-626-2833; federicosecondo.org/en/palatine-chapel.html. Built by Roger II from 1130 to 1140, the chapel is adorned with extraordinary Norman-Byzantine mosaics. Together with the palace, the chapel is the greatest attraction of Palermo and the only must-see sight for visitors with limited time. Cost: about 6 euros.