Friday, March 26, 2010

3/23/10--Reveling in Ravidá

Hotel Villa Esperia in the beautiful seaside resort town of Mondello, near Palermo, is a couple of blocks from the Mediterranean Sea and a few blocks from the beautiful and stately home of Natalia Ravidá, her husband, Giuseppe and their endearing son, 9 year-old Alfredo. After a burst of expresso and an unsuccessful attempt at an Internet connection, Natalia and I embarked on the one-hour plus drive to Menfi in southwest, Sicily. Upon arrival, we drove over dirt roads through the farm observing welcoming signs of spring including a bright blue sky, blooming lemon flowers among the vineyards and the olive trees. Our first stop was a reserve of wild olive trees and fennel, followed by a grove of ancient trees, 200-500 or more years old. These trees were crafted from the nearby wild trees. Interestingly, these trees were not planted in rows, but spaced randomly and obviously not planted purposefully. With their twisted trunks, these trees exude authentic character. If they could only talk… According to local folklore, the twisting is a result of the spinning earth over the centuries.

After watching a team pruning the olive trees and picking some lemons, Natalia gave me a tour of the mill, including an explanation of their innovative storage system. Using a bag and box technology with smaller 1000-liter tanks, olive oil is stored in two-day lots. Not only is the olive oil stored by varietal, but by time of harvest. My olive oil mantra is “Fresh is Best.” Here is an outstanding example of maintaining the critical freshness of Extra Virgin olive oil.

Any visit to this famed olive oil estate would not be complete without tasting some olive oil. Having a close relationship with this oil for over ten years, the familiar lemon/citrus, grassy, tomato leaf aromas exploded on the nose—classic Ravidá. This oil always takes me back to my youth, strolling down a row of tomato vines. Natalia is developing a new product, a lemon flavored oil. I’ve never been a fan of flavored oils. After all, the oil by definition is no longer Extra Virgin. Plus, most flavored oils on the market use a poor quality olive oil. With this lemon-flavored oil, my conversion is possible, showing nice pepperiness in the back of the throat—a perfect condiment for those summer salads.

Another innovation at Ravidá is the 3 and 5 liter box and bag packaging. Similar to the new wine boxes, exposure to air is minimized preserving freshness for a year or more after opening—Fresh is Best!

Now comes pure pleasure—lunch with Natalia’s mother and father, Ninni and Nicolo, in their magnificent home dating to 1770. My daughter, who is an interior designer and adores old, old stuff, would never leave this home.

Now, when God invented lunch this is what he had in mind. Greeted with a glass of Sicilian white wine made from Greciano, we had a lovely get acquainted chat. Then, Ninni and Nicolo Ravidá, elegant and charming, escorted us to their regal dinning room with a large burning fireplace. Signora Ravidá began with a wonderful potato and mushroom soufflé-like dish. Natalia referred to it as Sicilian Shepherd’s pie—No comparison, this tasted much better. Cod fritters, sautéed chicory and a dessert of refreshing orange slices drizzled with an adult beverage finished out the yummy culinary parade. Of course, a local red wine (Syrah) accompanied the experience. Although Signor Ravidá has owned vineyards across Italy for decades, he’s never bottled under his own level. He has supplied some of the finest vino estates in Italy, including the famed Antinori in Tuscany.

Natalia has authored a marvelous cookbook entitled, Seasons of Sicily. The recipes are simple, authentic and great for entertaining. She and her mother conduct cooking classes at their home in Menfi.

Following lunch, Signor Ravidá and I hovered next to the fire for a brief interview. Two hours passed in a flash. After finishing the video portion of our visit, he rose slowly from his chair. With a little twinkle in his eye and a sheepish grin, he asked, “Would you like a little something?” Having never said no in my life, he emerged with two small glasses and a bottle of Pravis Dolomiti Bianca, an orange blossomed dessert wine from northern Italy.

Hearing Signor Ravidá's engaging stories behind the creation of one the greatest olive oils of the world is a memory that I will cherish forever. Video excerpts of this interview will be shown in the future on Crush and Press and

After interviewing Natalia, we raced back to Palermo to join Giuseppe for dinner at Bye, Bye Blues Ristorante in Palermo. Chef Patrizia Di Benedetto is the first major female chef in Palermo. She presents a modern twist of traditional Sicilian dishes and ingredients, based on her global travels. The affable chef once cooked with Roberto Donna, the famed Italian chef in Washington, DC. Simply divine describes her octopus carpaccio with oranges and perfectly cooked clams.

Following dinner, Natalia and Giuseppe gave me a tour of the old Palermo with its fabulous architecture, dating to the 17th century. Two days in Sicily is not enough. I shall return.

Exhausted, full and gleeful, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Photo: Natalia, Ninni and Nicolo Ravidá


Deika Elmi said...

What a great post. I've been to Menfi and there are some beautiful olive groves, and wineries in that area. We have friends who have a seaside cottage in Sciacca near by and every summer a friend of theirs from Menfi has a wonderful midsummer party. Thank you for your vivid descriptions of a beautiful area. :) Dea

Bill Sanders said...

Dea, I plan to return. I loved the place.