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At home in the heart of Sicily

  • New York Times News Service
  • Published Sunday, August 18, 2013, at 12 a.m.

As a writer I’ve always tended to seek out origins. My first book, about the search for the historical Jesus, was an attempt to get at the “real” story behind my Catholic upbringing. After living in Manhattan for several years, I wrote “The Island at the Center of the World,” a book about the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, the seed from which New York City grew.

Recently I began considering my family. Among its manifold curiosities is our last name. People always ask me about the derivation of “Shorto.” The story I’d heard as a child was that after my illiterate Sicilian great-grandparents settled in my hometown of Johnstown, Pa., they enrolled their children in school and said the name aloud: Sciotto. And the administrator wrote it as he or she heard it.

Anecdotes like that were good enough before, but once I began to take a serious interest in my roots they felt soft. I wanted a better sense of who we were and where we had come from. I’d grown up with some of the atmosphere of the Old Country - the primal aroma of frying meatballs, the smothering embraces of old relatives, whispers of Mafia shenanigans, funny traditions like taping a silver dollar to the bellybutton of a newborn. But really it was an American childhood. There was almost no information about how it all began, about the generation that had emigrated at the start of the 20th century. It wasn’t even clear where in Sicily the family hailed from.

Having done a good deal of historical research in my time, I knew that seeking out family roots must be a business filled with vagueness and generally lacking in eureka moments. I cautioned myself that tracking ancestors would be a crapshoot. So my initial objective was modest: to trace the path backward, from Pennsylvania to Sicily.

Maybe it was good to set the bar low, because it didn’t take long to get results. Some relatives said they thought our roots were in a town near Messina. My father’s cousin’s wife, who used to drive the oldest aunts to their doctors’ appointments, and thus served as listener, said she thought the ancestral home was called “San Pedro Something.” I didn’t think we were from Mexico, but took “San Pietro” as a possibility.

I did an Internet search of Sciottos in Sicily. A village called San Pier Niceto, 13 miles from Messina, was among those with the biggest number of hits. My father then suggested I call his cousin Anthony Verone, a retired doctor in New York City. Anthony, it turned out, remembered quite a few things his mother had told him about Antonino Sciotto, my great-grandfather. Once he’d left Sicily and established himself in Pennsylvania, he apparently became Johnstown’s first moonshiner; foreseeing the end of Prohibition, he had a scheme in place to start a legitimate distillery, a plan that was cut short by his early death. Did Anthony recall his mother’s mentioning the name of the Sicilian village our enterprising forebear had come from? He pronounced it straightaway: “San Pier Niceto.”

So I had confirmation: the hometown of my father’s grandfather. But Anthony told me one thing more. Not only Antonino Sciotto, but Anna Maria Previte, the woman he would marry, had come from San Pier Niceto. I’d known Previte as a name in the family but didn’t realize that both of these ancestors had emigrated from the same Sicilian village to Pennsylvania coal and steel country.

By now my interest was piqued. A more substantial plan began to take shape, one that involved airplanes.

I’d been to the Italian mainland many times, but never to Sicily. I had no intention of trying to do the whole island. The plan was that the contingent of our blended family that was able to join me would stay in one place, relax, eat good food and give ourselves some sense of the island’s dizzying history. I’d be exploring my family background, but, again, in a limited, roundabout way. As for San Pier Niceto, my idea was to just show up in town and poke around: simply to get a feel for the place my people had come from.

At the last minute, however, I sent an email to the town hall of San Pier Niceto explaining my interest. Moments later someone with the unlikely name of Mario Italiano friend-requested me on Facebook. In English that probably matched what my Italian sounds like (”Happy to meet, I'll give you my phone number - and my wife”), he pronounced himself at my service.

My favorite form of accommodation in Italy is agriturismo - working farms that double as countryside hotels - so I booked one in the province of Messina that had both a swimming pool (we were going in late July) and top reviews. I figured if it was in the same province as my destination it would be close enough. This was my first lesson on travel in Sicily: Mountains add dramatically to the length of a trip. We were staying only about 30 miles from San Pier Niceto but an hour and a half away.

What’s more, the last 12 miles of the drive to the farm were on a winding road into the heart of the Nebrodi Park, a protected area much of which is forest. It was night by the time we arrived, and we sighted foxes and porcupines in the headlights. The remoteness was reinforced the next night, when we were awakened by what sounded like people moving outside our windows. It turned out to be a colony of wild pigs, their primeval forms, silver in the moonlight, looking like things orcs might ride.

But remote was good. Even if it wasn’t focused, this trip had a purpose, which had little to do with standard-issue tourism. With such a base, we had the feeling of being in the real Sicily: far from coastal resorts, in the sparsely populated interior, among the cicadas and olive trees and baked earth.

Every agriturismo has a story. In this case, our host, Alfonso, represented the fifth generation of his family to farm here. Twenty years ago he added guest rooms, making his farm one of Sicily’s first agriturismos. He and his wife, Josie, assisted by a Ghanaian named Alex, do just about everything associated with the accommodation of guests.

We ate about half of our meals at the agriturismo. The food was good, simple but inventive, and almost all of it came from the farm. The baked ricotta tart served as a first course at dinner one night came from their cows’ milk. Blackberry and fig jam were made from the fruit that grew around the group of old stone buildings where we were housed. The evening after the wild pig experience, the secondo on the menu was … roasted wild pig. A man in the nearest town, who serves as the farm’s cheesemaker, occasionally traps one of the pigs, whereupon it ends up on the menu. As to the farm itself, villagers from the town harvest olives, cork and fruit and tend the animals, which free-range through the more than 1,200 acres of woods and brush.

During the week we kept mostly to the mountainous interior of Messina province and to the Tyrrhenian coast, immersing ourselves in what you might call my ancestral landscape. We had dinner one evening in the resort town of Taormina, including a terrific rendition of one of the island specialties, pasta with swordfish and fresh mint. We spent one day at Cefal, famed as the location of the film “Cinema Paradiso,” dividing our time between its fine sandy beach packed with Italian holidaymakers (middle-aged men with paunches jutting out over precipitously narrow Speedos) and its pretty old city of ancient clustered houses.

We also visited some of the hill towns in the region. San Marco d'Alunzio sits so dizzyingly high up that you feel in constant danger of plunging into the surrounding ravines. Yet it pulsed with Italian street life: kids on motor scooters, people sitting at outdoor cafe tables gesturing noisily over espressos. The expansive ruins of Tindari, near the coast, attest that it too once pulsed with life. It thrived for more than a millennium starting about 395 B.C. and at one time had a population of 5,000, but now exists only as a well-tended archaeological site.

San Fratello, the town nearest our agriturismo, is a cross between these two. Its still functioning center is a dusty and colorless place, but stretched across the hilltop above it is one of the many antiquities sites that are so common on this island that has been colonized or conquered by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards and others. The oldest part of the site is a rangy archaeological complex that was once a Greek temple devoted to the cult of Apollo. Rising above it is a ruined church dating to the Norman invasion in the 11th century; it later served as a Franciscan monastery.

The site isn’t on any map or guidebook that I know of. It surely isn’t the most spectacular historic site on the island; what made it terrific was its privacy. We pulled up at a little hut next to a locked gate; the man on duty inside nodded, unlocked the gate and gave us a free, personal guided tour. We had the whole place - mosaic floors, a couple of huge amphorae rooted into the soil, the ancient aqueduct, the church complete with its own saint entombed in the crypt - to ourselves.

We also spent time hiking the area around the agriturismo. We climbed past the fig and citrus trees clustered near the farm buildings, entered a cork forest, wound through an olive grove, then headed into the beech and oak forest, with bells from unseen goats sounding in the distance like a Balinese orchestra. We found a porcupine quill, collected slabs of cork and picked wild blackberries, and were stopped in our tracks by the thunder of a herd of free-ranging sheep we’d frightened. Back at the farm, hot and dusty, we plunged into the swimming pool and gazed into the staggering vaults of space across the summer-sweltering valley to the opposite slopes.

But of course the purpose of the trip was to see where my paternal great-grandparents had come from. San Pier Niceto ranges like a serpent along a mountain ridge. From its church towers you have views out to the sea and the ghostly hulks of the Aeolian islands. All of the narrow, stacked houses fall on one side or the other of the town’s main drag, Corso Italia. Mario Italiano, who had offered to assist me, had suggested a late-afternoon meeting. We showed up at his house, right on the main road, at 5. He stepped out of his front door as we pulled up.

Mario turned out to be an exuberant 59-year-old accountant who serves as unofficial town historian. He welcomed us into his neat little house. His wife, Maria, crushed some ice, whisked sugar and fresh lemon into it, and we all sat down to refreshments at the dining table while “Say Yes to the Dress” played on the TV in the background and Mario gushed about the town, its history and traditions.

Mario presented me with a folder. He’d done a good bit of research, including finding the birth certificates of both of my great-grandparents. Then he led us on a remarkable procession through the town. People joined along the way, so that eventually we included his daughter, Grazia; his son Salvatore; a nephew, also Salvatore; his son Alberto; Alberto’s girlfriend; and others. As we walked along Corso Italia, Mario literally stopped before every person we passed and explained what we were doing. He began each encounter by pointing to my 3 1/2-year-old son, Anthony, and saying, “Questo Antonio Sciotto!” as if expecting the town’s inhabitants to gaze in astonishment at a fabled long-lost son.

We met at least two Sciottos during our little parade. One woman told me her mother was named Sarah Sciotto. My father has an aunt named Sarah Shorto. Since first names are heavily recycled in Sicilian families, we agreed that we were probably related. An old man named Francesco Sciotto, who was sitting on a bench along the town’s central piazza, told me of his relatives who had emigrated to America. Sciottos, I learned, were also spread out around the region. One branch had spawned lawyers; two nearby towns had recently had Sciottos as mayors. It seemed that long ago there had been a dynasty of sorts called Lo Sciotto, which was affiliated with the town of Pace del Mela, 6 miles from San Pier Niceto, where there is a Palazzo Lo Sciotto.

My ancestral town turned out to be a sweet, somnolent, pleasant place. Its roots are deep: Traditions and architectural remains date to the Middle Ages, and its earliest settlement might have been in the third century B.C. But the more recent story is one of steady depopulation, starting in the late 1800s. It had around 8,000 residents at one time; now the population is 3,000. Most who left emigrated to three places: Venezuela, Canada and the United States. Of those who went to America, it seems Pennsylvania and New Jersey were the most common destinations.

As darkness fell, Mario abruptly guided us into a doorway, and the next thing we knew we were in a family kitchen. His wife, Maria, had gone ahead of us and prepared a dinner at her mother’s house. It was loose, informal, exactly the style of my extended family’s dinners at home. People came and went. Joking taunts were shouted across the table. Plates of pasta were handed around: macaroni alla Norma, with tomato sauce and roasted eggplant.

Salvatore, Mario’s nephew, told us he lives in Switzerland most of the year, where he works in bars and has been known to sing Red Hot Chili Peppers covers in a band. Maria’s mother hovered in the background the way my grandmother used to at family meals. For the secondo Maria produced breaded veal cutlets, which I was astonished to find were almost exactly like my mother’s. It began to dawn on me that my family culture - the loudness, the physicality, the jokes, the food, the immediate familiarity toward others - was maybe not so much Italian as specifically Sicilian. And the origins were here, right here. It all felt bewilderingly and unexpectedly familiar.

Then we hit the street again. Mario had one final thing to show me. At the far edge of town he stopped in front of a centuries-old stone house, which had long been abandoned, and which looked out onto a patch of farmland and toward the sea beyond. It hadn’t been hard to find, he said, for the address was right there on the birth certificate. This building was where my great-grandfather was born. It was the home of Antonino Sciotto, who, after emigrating to Pennsylvania to work in the coal mines, became Tony Shorto and gave rise to the world into which I was born.

We stopped at a little bar on the way back and ordered gelati, which we ate outside in the piazza where locals hold their political debates. It was after 10, and the dark Sicilian night felt luxuriant.

In front of his house again, Mario Italiano told me I had to come back. “When you do, you'll know everybody in town!” I exchanged two kisses with him and thanked him as profusely as I could in my bumbling Italian.

My historical training had caused me to restrict my expectations about what this investigation might yield. But I had gotten two things from it: a gut feeling for the forces that had shaped me, and an actual physical place in which to ground that feeling. I had started my exploration as an almost academic exercise, a mere intellectual puzzle. This generous man, and his love for his town, had made it something more.

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