Monday lunch might be a ho-um affair in most places but not in Palermo, Sicily, when you’re dining with Nicoletta Polo, Duchess of Palma, in the formal dining room of her 18th Century Palazzo by the sea.
Palazzo Lanza Tomasi Luncheon Menu
Casarecce with Zucchini, Basil and Toasted Pine Nuts
Chicken in Caper and Anchovy Sauce, Pantelleria Style
Roasted Potatoes with Fresh Garden Herbs
Strawberry and Orange Pudding
Regaleali Biano 2018
Regaleali Nero d’Avola 2017
Vecchio Florio Marsala Secco Superiore 2013
Walter and I, lodging for a few days at Butera 28 Apartments (also part of the palazzo), are delighted to accept an invitation to participate in the meal. All the dishes were prepared by the duchess and twenty-some students that morning. The clients, enrolled in A Day Cooking With the Duchess program, selected the fresh, seasonal ingredients at Il Capo Mercato in the historic city center.
“It’s a Monday so we’re having chicken instead of the usual fish which is fine by me,” explains Lionel, my tablemate to the left. Lionel is one of several British university language students interning with the duchess. The braised fowl, finished with anchovy and Pantelleria capers, was rich and briny.
To my right was Asia, a young Palermitana who works as the assistant to the duchess’s husband. He is Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, a world-renowned musicologist and the adopted son of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of the iconic Itaian novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).
We say “hello” and “good-bye” to the Count, about to depart to Vienna on business, on a terrace that looked like part of a botanical garden. He pointed out a Florida terrapin who had escaped the pond and was digging diligently in a nearby planter presumably to deposit some eggs.
Chatting with Nicoletta
Once-in-a-while during the meal, I wave to Walter some 20 feet away at the end of the table. He was one of the lucky guys sitting on either side of the Duchess. I’ll let him take over the story from here . . .
The Duchess wants to be called Nicoletta. I like that in a Duchess! Nicoletta explains, course-by-course what we are eating. She gives background color commentary on preparation and how and why the selection reflected the history and culture of Palermo. She did this all while keeping an eye on the table service.
Between all the duchess duties, we had a lovely conversation.
I asked if she has children. She beamed! Yes, a 27-year old son who now lives and works in Berlin.
I learn that she speaks a several languages: Russian (which she studied in college in Palermo and in Moscow), Spanish, French, English, German, Italian.
Why did she choose to study Russian in college?
Nicoletta laughs and says, “I originally wanted to study Arabic. I was interested in studying a language with a different alphabet and encompassing a civilization and culture that would be totally new to me. But the Arabic professor who I adored was leaving the university. He said that the next best teacher who understood language and how it shaped a culture taught Russian. So I went with Russian.”
Favorite Russian authors? “Dostoevsky and Pushkin.”
Her eyes lit up. “The condition would be I that would be free to leave after a year.”
“Granted,” I said.
“Kyoto,” she says immediately.
I compliment her on the staff she has assembled to support Butera 28, her apartment rental operation. Bright young people, multi-lingual, hardworking but fun as well.
“I wanted interns who would stay for nine months or a year and could speak English. I originally went with Australian students, but they tended to speak just English. Then I learned about two UK universities that have linguistic programs in Palermo. These students are studying and mastering Italian, French, or German. So I provide them room and board and a generous stipend so they don’t have to rely on their parents for financial support.”
Curious, level-headed, and one talented cook: Nicoletta is my kind of duchess.
♦♦ ♦♦ ♦♦ ♦♦
After lunch, Nicoletta strolled with us through many rooms of the Palazzo. In the library, we saw the original manuscript for her father-in-law’s iconic novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).
“Set in the 1860s, The Leopard tells the spellbinding story of a decadent, dying Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution.”
The film version, directed by Luchino Visconti, was awarded the Palme d’Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival. It stars Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, and Alain Delon.
Adam Begley wrote “Sicily, Through the Eyes of the Leopard” for the New York Times in 2008. Though the travel information is dated, the piece truly evokes the spirit of the island.