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The Hidden Kitchen

September 24, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

On a map of Sicily, Gangi is a mere speck in the remote Madonie Mountains. The drive from Mt. Etna goes through spectacular rock formations and along roads framed by stone walls sprouting blood-red poppies and delicate Queen Anne's lace. The heady scent of yellow broom flower invades the car at every turn.

Suddenly, you come upon a dome-shaped hill covered from top to bottom with houses. From there, the road leads to a place that isn't even a speck on the map: Gangivecchio, or Old Gangi. Here, in 1363, the Benedictines built an abbey huddled up against the mountain to protect it from the fierce north winds.

In 1978, Baronessa Wanda Tornabene, her daughter Giovanna and son Paolo opened a restaurant at Gangivecchio in the restored abbey that her late husband's family has owned for 141 years. Fourteen years later, after Sicily-based American writer Mary Taylor Simeti raved about Gangivecchio's prix fixe lunches for the New York Times travel section, American visitors to Sicily began seeking out the remote abbey.

And last year, mother and daughter published "La Cucina Siciliana di Gangivecchio: Recipes from Gangivecchio's Sicilian Kitchen" (Knopf, 1996), which won a James Beard cookbook award. The abbey had become a certified foodie phenomenon. When I was in Sicily in May, I decided to take a look.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 1, 1997 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
In the recipe for Basic Pastry Cream ("The Hidden Kitchen," Sept. 24), an incorrect amount of cornstarch was given. The correct amount is 2/3 cup.

You don't see the abbey at first, just a long lane lined with trees. Two dogs ran down it to greet us, followed, a few minutes later, by Giovanna Tornabene, a handsome 40-ish, outdoorsy woman in flannel shirt, rolled-up canvas pants and running shoes. "I've just been planting some flowers," she said casually, peeling off her garden gloves and lighting a cigarette.

She showed us Tenuta Gangivecchio, an old stable that her brother Paolo Tornabene, an architect, transformed into a guest house five years ago. Several of the simple, comfortable rooms have terraces overlooking the monastery's informal gardens. For taking in the view of the mountains dissolving in the blue distance, white molded plastic garden furniture and a few canvas sling chairs sit off to the side. It's all very far from the grandeur or the formality of, say, Badia a Coltibuono in Tuscany.

Before dinner, Giovanna took me for a walk around the grounds. "This fountain beside the spring goes back to 1700-something," she said, stopping to admire the carved heads spurting water. "The building seems to me sometimes so old and so indifferent. You have your fax, your telephone, but you're here for only a moment."

The baronessa called out from a window to the gardener--Gangivecchio raises nearly all its own produce--to bring her some more fava beans from the garden. Peppe Beviacqua, the gardener, is also the restaurant's waiter. "When he came to the estate 30 years ago, he was 30 years old but didn't know how to read, and my mother taught him. She also taught him to knead the bread dough too," Giovanna said with a smile. "He liked it when we opened the restaurant, because the work inside is much easier than what he used to do."

In the plain interior courtyard, a worker swept away straw to reveal the pattern of the ancient stones. At the very center was an extravagantly flowering red rose bush that Giovanna planted to honor her father, Enzo Tornabene, who died in 1984. The rosy pink plaster was weathered and crumbled away in places, and two enormous old fig trees offered the only shade for the family's aged donkey.

Dinner that night (for guests at the Tenuta or by special reservation) was served in the rustic dining room of the guest house. Gold tablecloths covered with green and yellow plaid paper draped the tables; pop music played on a boom box. The other guests were a couple from La Can~ada Flintridge exploring the woman's Sicilian roots and two Australian couples traveling together. Everything was cooked by Paolo except the antipasto and the dessert.

The baronessa, an ash-blond 70-year-old woman who managed to look aristocratic in a plaid flannel shirt and blue cotton pants, went from table to table greeting guests. Giovanna arrived in a quilted jacket, carrying a big flashlight. They sat down to eat along with the guests.

To start, there was Wanda Tornabene's recipe for cuddura patedda, squares of fried bread dough topped with reduced tomato sauce. Then a pasta, fettuccine with pumpkin, arugula, thyme and hot pepper.

The Tuscan friend I'd persuaded to accompany me with the promise of Sicilian home cooking was unimpressed; the pasta was overcooked and the sauce too modern for his taste. But he approved the second pasta, fusilli with halved baby artichokes, fava beans and wild fennel.

Two pastas at one meal? "In Sicily, we say that two pastas will save any situation, even a troubled marriage," Wanda said. "We have more pasta dishes than names for babies."

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