Duke and duchess from Palermo bring a taste of Sicily to Pittsburgh

Sicilian aristocrats were literally stirring things up in Pittsburgh during a recent visit.

Miki Fato’s kitchen in Shadyside was alive with sounds of chopping, dicing and lilting Italian spoken by 20 women. Dr. Fato was hosting the luncheon, but the guest of honor was doing the cooking with some help from the guests. Nicoletta Polo Lanza Tomasi, the Duchess of Palma di Montechiaro, came to Pittsburgh with her husband, Gioacchino, the duke, at the invitation of Donne Italiane Pittsburgh.

The organization, known as Do It!, was created in 2010 for women of Italian heritage, citizenship or birth. It was member Ceci Sommers’ idea to reach out to the couple. She loves the book “Il Gattopardo” (“The Leopard”), written by the duke’s father, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, about the unification of Italy in the 1860s and how aristocratic families adjusted to the social change. The book was made into a movie, “The Leopard,” in 1963, starring Burt Lancaster as the Prince of Salina, who does what is necessary to protect his family and property. 

One way the duchess helps with the upkeep of the property the duke inherited is by offering cooking instruction. Usually you have to fly to Palermo, Sicily, to see the duchess in the kitchen conducting classes at the couple’s seaside villa, Lanza Tomasi Palazzo. 

“It’s not just cooking. She is really a food anthropologist and knows all the history and roots of the ingredients in Italian dishes,” said Ms. Sommers.  

Guests can sign up for a one-day lesson or stay at the palazzo in apartments, which are available to rent. The duchess always begins by taking her students to the market for fresh produce and fish. She grows her own herbs, and guests go with her to the garden to pick them.

In Pittsburgh, the lesson was a bit different, but the spirit was the same. She brought some almond paste from Sicily and also explained that the absolute best pistachios come from Bronte, Sicily. She put together the ingredients for a pistachio pesto.

“In Italian cooking, the ingredients are simple, but they must be perfect,” she said. “I want to be clear I am not a professional chef.”

The duchess is fluent in several languages and worked as a translator. Venetian by birth, she once worked for the Venice Biennale. She is an excellent cook and explained how she came to start “Cooking With the Duchess.”

“When we lived in New York City, I was complaining to my good friend about the expense and upkeep of the palazzo, and it was her idea for me to start the cooking classes. She came up with the name ‘Cooking With the Duchess.’”

She added: “We don’t use our titles very much. In Sicily there are many aristocratic families, so it is not unheard of to have a duke, a baron or a prince at your table or in your office.”

The couple spent nearly a week in Pittsburgh at the home of  Sharon Semenza and Bill Robinson. Because it was their first visit, the members of Do It! took them to see Aretha Franklin at Heinz Hall, Fallingwater and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Ms. Semenza had taken the cooking class with the duchess in Sicily a few years ago, so she was the one who contacted them and extended the invitation to visit Pittsburgh.  

The duchess told Ms. Sommers that Fallingwater was the most beautiful house in the world and that she had always wanted to be an architect. She is a bit of an architect when it comes to designing a meal.

“Cooking is as much about presentation as it is eating,” she said.

The meal she taught everyone to make began with sun-dried cherry tomatoes, almond and pistachio crostini, and pistachio pesto, and eventually included fusilli with zucchini, tomatoes and toasted pine nuts. The main course was swordfish involtini and potato salad with capers pantelleria style. 

The following night, a potluck dinner was held at the home of Do It! treasurer Patricia Pesenti and her husband, Jerome. After the buffet-style dinner, the duke gave a talk with slides about his father’s book and explained why it was a scandal when it was published in 1958.

“People thought the book was against unification.” he said. “Allied bombings had destroyed most of the country. There was extreme poverty, and the Marshall Plan was enacted.”

The movie, made in 1963, won a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. “It cost $10 million to make,” he said.

On the couple’s last night in town, they were treated to a dinner at the Pittsburgh Golf Club. 

“Pittsburgh is a lovely city,” said the duchess. “Very green, very airy. New York is so vertical. Pittsburgh is horizontal and very pleasant.”

For more information on staying at the palazzo or going to a daylong cooking class, which ends with dinner with the duke and duchess and a tour of their 18th-century home, go to www.butera28.it/butera28.php.

Patricia Sheridan: psheridan@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2613 or on Twitter at @pasheridan.


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