This installment of Our Italians is brought to us today by two very special people. Our correspondents Jay and Michelle Cavallaro will be reporting from Sicily, where they are currently living and working on a photography book – Mungibeddu’s Table, a Taste of Etna, Sicily’s Wine, Food and Culture. Jay is Sicilian/American, originally from New York, and grew up in his Sicilian mother’s kitchen helping with her work as a cook. Michelle was born in San Francisco to a family of jazz musicians. While living in the farm-to-table mecca of Vermont for over 20 years, she developed a serious passion for gardening and cooking home-grown foods with her family and friends.
Their passion for Sicily and the innate ability to capture true moments of spirit and beauty through photography and words, make Jay and Michelle the perfect match with Casa Mia. Their first contribution to this blog is an interview for the “Our Italians” series.
“Every wine rests inside your heart.”
Today we meet Rosa D’Agostino, a native of Linguaglossa, Sicily. Rosa opened her enoteca featuring quality Sicilian wines and an abundance of special, locally sourced foods and gifts in 2002. A visit to her shop in this lovely, small village situated at the base of Mount Etna is a delight to the senses. You will find Rosa an incredibly welcoming and exuberant host who is proud to share a wealth of information on the history of local wines, producers, and Sicilian culture. Having grown up in the area, many of the best producers are Rosa’s good friends, and she has spent countless hours on their farms, witnessing the inside processes of winemaking from vineyard, to harvest, to bottling. With distinctive flavors infused by its volcanic, mineral rich soils, Mount Etna is quickly becoming one of the world’s most exciting wine regions, and Rosa’s enoteca offers some of the best selections from high quality, local producers. We spoke with Rosa about how she got into the world of Sicilian wines and what she enjoys most about her work and her beautiful region of Sicily.
Casa Mia (CM): Tell us a little about your background and how you decided to open Il Vino della Rosa Enoteca.
Rosa D’Agostino (RD): Since I was a very young child I was actually interested in law, which is what I studied in university. But I also became interested in the world of wine, and 13 years ago I decided to open my enoteca. I was studying wine and also English, because I wanted to be able to speak with people who were coming into the shop from all over the world. So then I didn’t have time to do all of this and continue pursuing law! My father wasn’t too happy about this in the beginning.
When I first opened my enoteca focusing on Sicilian wines, some people in the village thought, “This lady is a little crazy”. Everyone here has local wine in their homes already so why would the town need a wine store like this? But I knew that many people visiting the area were interested in Sicilian wines and typical Sicilian foods. People have wine shops where you can sit and drink wine and taste cheeses, but my idea was for people to come and buy something special to bring back to their homes or share with a friend.
Every wine rests inside your heart. How you feel about it depends on many things – the kind of day you are having, the person you share it with. Maybe if it’s a special day or a special person – then you will always remember this wine. So I wanted people to come to my shop and to have good conversations with them, but I wanted them to take these wines home and have a good experience with their friends and families.
CM: You focus on Etna wines but you also have wines from other parts of Sicily. Tell us about how the wines you offer have evolved.
RD: When I first opened the shop it was a different situation for Sicilian wines and specifically for Etna wines. At first Nero d’Avola was the most famous Sicilian wine so I had just a few Etna wines and mostly wines from Palermo. At that time there were just four well-known Sicilian producers – three from Palermo and one from Etna. Now there are over seventy five quality producers and people have so much more information about the region and a greater interest Etna wines. So now I carry many Etna wines but also wines from other areas – Palermo, Ragusa, Agrigento. And I have local Grappa and dessert wines like Passito from Pantelleria. The culture and interest in Sicilian and Etna wines has grown so much since I first opened.
CM: You sell both Sicilian wines and many different local products. Tell us about some of the typical Sicilian products you sell and how you choose them.
RD: In Sicily the tradition of local food is very strong. Now there are many cookbooks and ways people can find traditional Sicilian recipes online, but they need to have the correct ingredients. For example, people may want a particular salt and in Trapani they produce a very special natural, unrefined salt. In the Mount Etna area we produce a very high quality, organic, DOP olive oil, so I select this special oil. Zafferana is famous for their honeys. I work with a producer who moves his bees to all different areas where there are special flowers – like the wildflowers that bloom in the Nebrodi Mountains in May and June. People also want the special liquors that are made on local farms from very old, traditional recipes – no chemicals, all natural. There is the limoncello from near Catania and three different kinds of prickly pear liquor from near Enna. Bronte is famous for pistachios. I buy the pistachio pesto and cream so people can prepare recipes to enjoy it with pasta and meats. In Ragalna there is a little farm that produces a delicious mandorlino (almond) cake – not too sweet and very soft. It’s perfect to pair with a sweet wine. In Modica they produce special chocolate made with raw sugar from a very old recipe. Sometimes the chocolate is made with chili peppers, almonds, vanilla or cinnamon. You enjoy just the strong taste of the chocolate, no heavy sugar or milk.
I also have traditional Sicilian ceramics from Caltagirone, a town which is famous for this. The ceramics and the colors are an expression of Sicily – yellows, blues, greens, and the traditional animals and leaf of Palermo. The special schools of ceramics and painting from this village make it impossible to imitate their quality because the teachers from Caltagirone are very skilled. They use the old, traditional techniques and styles.
CM: You seem to have close relationships with the producers of everything you sell. You know the person and the story behind all the wines and local products. Why is this important to you?
I believe every wine has in it the personality of the individual who created that wine. For example if the producer is a sophisticated person, then they will produce a sophisticated wine. It’s very important to know the people who produce everything because their products are a kind of self-expression – even the honeys.
Every food and wine is also an expression of the place where it is created. And I think it’s important to enjoy all of these things in the place where they were made. You can drink and enjoy an Etna wine in another place, but it won’t be the same. When you are on holiday and you buy the wine or foods from that place, there is a particular atmosphere that becomes an important and special part of your experience.
If someone asks me about a wine, I tell them the story of the farm and the people who produce that wine. The customers are so interested in this history. It’s important that people know where the wine comes from and even visit the farm if they can. They will enjoy the wine even more this way.
CM: What do you like most about your work?
RD: I love my work because of all the different people I meet from all over the world – Malta, America, France, Germany, England, Canada, Switzerland. I stay in touch with them through email and I love when people come back to the shop every time they return to Linguaglossa. I meet so many kind people and I love to see them again year after year.
CM: Does it make you happy to share all of the Sicilian wines and traditional foods that comes from the place where you live?
RD: Sometimes I think I could go live somewhere else, but then I think about how free I feel and how deeply I know the place where I was born. I could go somewhere else, but I could never have the same feeling and connection as I do living here. I love living here and I love sharing these things from my culture with my customers.
All photographs by Jay Cavallaro