Case Vecchie and the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School

peach crostata

My life seems to have, as they say in modern-speak (or whatever you want to call it), a “long tail.” Which means that what I do today, or did in the past, will continue to have meaning. Fortunately, that’s not true for everything (I can think of a few incidents in the past that are better left back there…), but something that’s stayed with me forever was getting to meet some of the great cookbook authors, cooks, and chefs from all over the place when I worked at Chez Panisse.

One such person was Anna Tasca Lanza, who not only had the noble title of marchese, but also was an acclaimed Sicilian cook. I’d met The Marchese when she came to Chez Panisse. Her philosophy of cooking — mostly farm-to-table, relying on local producers for most of what she cooked — is a natural way of life on this rugged island.

Sicilian countryside

And in spite of her lofty credentials and sophistication, she was a big proponent of country cooking and the Sicilian way of life, following the seasons, using what the local land produced, in her cooking.

white wine

She planted gardens with pistachio, lemon, citron, and mulberry trees. Peppers grow abundantly, as do cardoons, eggplant, zucchini (and their bright yellow flowers), and artichokes.

Sicilian lemons

Tomatoes, of course, figure heavily in Sicilian cooking. At Case Vecchie, which has been in the family for over 200 years, ripe tomatoes are put up in all sorts of ways. Opening the top of their salsa di pomodoro is like uncapping the taste of a Sicilian summer. And the remarkable tomato paste, estratto di pomodoro, is so fruity and sweet, they spread it on toast for breakfast in the summer.

tomato paste

In her book, The Heart of Sicily, Anna Tasca Lanza explains the lengthy process that begins with her and five assistants cooking 400 pounds of tomatoes –in two batches – in cauldrons over an open fire, each tomato being seeded by hand. After nearly an hour of constant stirring, to avoid burning, each batch is salted, covered, and left to stand overnight.

The next day, it’s strained, spread on cloth-covered tables, and left in the strong sun a few days until it’s thick and clay-like. As it’s concentrating, the tomato paste is scraped from 12 tables onto one, dried a little more before being kneaded with oiled hands and conserved. Whew! I’m exhausted just recounting it.

Anna passed away a couple of years ago, and Fabrizia Lanza, her daughter, stepped up to the plate and took over the gardens that her mother planted, as well as her cooking school.

eggplant

At Case Vecchie, the farm buildings where she lives with a substantial kitchen and rooms for guests, she continues to focus on local producers and products, creating a marvelous line of honey, grape syrups, and that heavenly estratto di pomodoro (tomato paste), that was so good, I had to squeeze two jars of it into my carry-on.

ceramic sicilian bowls

(Actually, I bought so much stuff, including some gorgeous Sicilian pottery, that they’re shipping a case back to me in Paris. Which is great because I would have flipped out if it had been confiscated by security at the airport.)

wine pump

One thing I couldn’t take home was the wine from Regaleali, their winery, which was a real shame, because it was only €1,04 per liter (about $1.25 per quart). But locals take advantage, and come with their own containers for a “fill up.”

filling wine bin

Sicily is a special, and complicated place, where the Tasca family has a long history. In the kitchens are a team of women, many are members of families that have been working with the family for generations. Although it wasn’t scheduled, I couldn’t help myself from jumping in and giving the the women a hand with the pastries. In fact, I was having such a good time cooking with them that I skipped a wine tasting to make rustic little fruit crostate with them (the ones shown at the top of the post), for the 25th anniversary party of the cooking school the following day. After all, everyone knows all the fun is in the kitchen. Right?

I did make it over to the lunch that took place after the wine tasting, which started with a delicious soup made with squash greens and pasta, and ended with stacks of breaded disks, known as latte fritto, or fried custard. So it wasn’t all work and no play. Or vice-versa.

fried milk

Fabrizia invited me, along with others, to take part in the festivities. And in the days leading up to the party, Fabrizia made meals for us, including a timbale of eggplant filled with pasta that was the essence of simplicity–just deep-fried eggplant slices fitted into an oiled pan dusted with breadcrumbs, then filled with pasta, before being sealed closed with more eggplant, and baked until the outside crisped up and caramelized.

frying eggplantmaking timbale
eggplant timbaleLunch in Sicily

Fabrizia told me they used a lot of breadcrumbs in Sicily, since their history was a cuisine of poverty and absolutely nothing was wasted. (Like the recycled whey the pecorino-makers use to make ricotta.)

For the anniversary celebration of the cooking school, Fabrizia had planned an enormous lunch to showcase the products from local producers that she and the kitchen team prepare each season, dubbed by Fabrizia as “arm-to-table” cooking.

green almonds

Forget what you heard about excitable Italians. When the remarkably calm Fabrizia told me how many people were arriving, I didn’t believe her at first because there wasn’t a hint of stress in her voice or manner, nor in the kitchen. And out in the gardens, where a long, barren patch of land was slated to be one enormous dining table, it was hard to believe that anything was going to happen there.

But as the days passed, men arrived from town and started digging into the earth to build a canopy. Some shaded shelters were constructed from wood and swaths of linen, to protect people from the Sicilian sun. (Or rain, as we later experienced.) And little-by-little, in the kitchen, an entire meal started coming together.

wine in Sicily

The day of the event, the guests arrived, the list swelling from 150 to nearly 200 the day before the lunch.

panelle

The Sicilians love deep-fried foods and my dream is to spend an evening in Palermo, gorging on street food, like panelle (chick pea fritters, above – a cousin of panisses, from Provence…and one of the best things ever), and crispy, tiny frittelle, filled with rice.

rice fritters

But I wasn’t complaining about being out in the countryside, sipping rosé and nibbling on fried snacks with a throng of friendly Italians.

rosepouring wine
Case Vecchierose and Mary Simetti

There were also bins of green almonds, almonds picked before they are ripe, that you split open with a rock–or, if you’re more civilized than we are, a knife–then extract the slightly formed almond kernel inside, which is the color of ivory with a delicate crispness and a subtle nutty flavor.

IMG_3673

While after my experience(s) at the Italian airports didn’t lead me to believe that efficiency was at the top of anybody’s list, by the day of the luncheon, where there was once a long, barren path, there was now a massive table ready to seat a couple hundred people.

pre-dinner seating

At regular intervals that spanned the length of the table, were jars and bowls of things to nibble. Fortunately–or because they’re Italian–they were wise enough not to place anything out of reach. So there was easy access by all, to everything.

Party in Sicily

My favorite was the preserved cherry tomatoes, neatly packed in jars. After my eyes rolled back to the front of my head, I asked Fabrizia how they’re prepared and she said that each cherry tomato gets sorted by size, so they cook evenly, then each cherry tomato is hand-peeled.

preserved tomatoes

After that, they’re slow-roasted in the oven for six hours, each one (yes, once again, individually), is turned by hand midway during roasting. Then they are jarred with olive oil and herbs, and preserved.

After working our way through the condiment, and Regaleali wines, bowls of food started coming out in full-force, not in measly little portions, but in abbondanza!

Sicilian lunch

Instead of some top-heavy meaty meal, with mounds of meat or lamb, our early summer lunch was based on Sicilian plants: bowls of chickpeas, Arborio rice with fresh mint (which is from another part of Italy, but still, I fell for it hard – I never knew rice could be so good!), lentils, and capers from Pantelleria.

capers

The dry-farmed cherry tomatoes were so good, I’m pretty sure I can never eat any other cherry tomatoes again. And there were tiny, and beautiful little ceramic bowls of sea salt harvested in Trapani, to sprinkle about as we wished. The bowls, however, disappeared before I could add any to the box of goodies being shipped to me.

trapani salt

We had picked up a lot of pecorino from the cheese-maker a few days earlier, which we were welcome to drizzle with sticky-sweet Zibibbo grape syrup, made by reducing grape juice until it’s sap-like.

fresh cherries

Even though abbondanza is usually the watchword when it comes to la cucina Italiana, dessert was an over-the-top blow-out. Men came down the outskirts of the table, hefting wooden planks with bowls of fresh cherries.

Desserts

The fruit preceded the fruit crostate that I’d help make the day before, by pressing pasta frolla (short dough) into little tartlet pans (that had been buttered, and dusted with breadcrumbs, of course!), then smeared with a bit of sour cherry jam and baked with peaches that had been preserved from last year’s harvest.

A sprinkling of Bronte pistachios on top added some contrast and crunch, and the tartlets were gone in a flash.

Italian pastries for dessert

Although I really wanted to make it through the cannoli made with sheeps’ milk ricotta, after scraping the little biancomangiare (almond custard) clean from the small metal cups they were set in, the skies did what they had been threatening to do all morning, and sent us down the hill, into the barn to escape the rain for coffee and mulberry gelato.

Perfetto.

Italian men


– Many of the recipes cooked at the school and on the estate can be found in The Heart of Sicily by Anna Tasca Lanza, and Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza.

– You can obtain some of the products from Case Vecchie the at Naturi in Tasca

55 comments

  • You really know how to make a girl dream! Looks like you had an exceptional time…and I’m sure your taste buds have been on the ride of their lives :) Beautiful photos that really make me want to make a trip there myself! Those caper berries look amazing!!

  • Hi David, thank you for another amazing story/post. Just wanted to let you know that estratto di pomodoro (tomato paste) link does not seem to work.

    Thanks – internet here is really spotty. But it’s fixed : ) – dl

  • Wow that sure looks like heaven and I’m craving those cannoli’s now. I’ll make sure to visit when I finally get to Sicily.

  • So sad they only ship to European addresses. ;-( I’m dying for some of that tomato paste!

    Great post!

  • What an amazing experience – thank you for sharing! It sounds like a classic of Italian cinema brought to life.

  • A veritable feast for the eyes! The food, the wine, the countryside, and (yes I’m a heathen) the gorgeous Italian men! Truly, such a trip through Sicily. And I’m in love with the Sicilian ceramic bowls as well. Thank you!

    I’m still curious about the grape sugar/syrup. Are they the same thing? Can you get these in the States?

    Fabulous David! You are an artist with a camera.

  • David once again – thank you for taking me back to Sicily again –

    Colette

  • oh yes i’ve had that wine, it’s lovely. lucky lucky you it sounds like utter bliss. and not too surprising that italians are super efficient when it comes to food – priorities!

    you’ll have people all over the world now trying to make that tomato paste in their backyards! thanks for a great post.

  • hi david, what a lovely post. Those pistachios must be amazing. A friend recently came back from Sicily, but she ate all of her stash of pistachios before she landed home so I never got to try them. Are they very different from California pistachios?
    Is that Mary Taylor Simeti in one of the photos?
    Regards

  • loved the story,dreamlike!

  • What a BEAUTIFUL post to read on an (almost) summer day. Sicily is a place I would one day like to visit. Pasta encased in fried eggplant, wine, preserved cherry tomatoes, peach crostata, I would welcome every last nibble and bite. I did not know green almonds were edible, I will have to try them someday. Thank you for sharing what must have been a wonderful visit!

  • David– Would you share more information about the pottery featured in this post. What town is the potter located that you purchased from? Great post. I want to go…..

    • I bought the bowls from the little shop at the cooking school. I don’t know where they get them from (I didn’t ask) but they were lovely & I wish I had some of those blue splattered ones in my (new) collection : )

  • FABULOUS post!
    Thank you

  • Those cherry tomatoes do look divine! No wonder you liked them the best! Also, I can’t wait for cherries to be affordable (summer) to make some good old pies!

  • This is my dream dinner / vacation / trip / life.

    Want to try the latte frito and those preserved cherry tomatoes :)

  • Wow! Just Wow! Such a fabulous post with amazing photos – my heart is fluttering… Any chance of the eggplant timbale recipe?

  • Agreeing here with Laney…..please…the eggplant timbale recipe.

  • Hello David, I’m glad you liked your stay in my country so much! Sicily really is an amazing and complicated place, so much more than Rome (where I live most of the year) – aaahh I miss the food too! My aunt on my mother’s side always sends me packages of olive oil, lemons, passata di pomodoro and estratto, among other delicious things, but it’s not the same as eating them in their “natural environment” with your family!
    As always, it was a good reading with gorgeous pictures too, keep it up!! :)

  • Just as others before me, this looks like a dream! I’m determined to visit Sicily one day that’s for certain.

  • Killing me softly……… :)

    We had, at our large store, Italian Week last week and I loaded my little car with everything I just KNEW I couldn’t live without, hoping to find a few days to take off to Italy by the time we’d polished off everything and now comes David —-> tantalizing the tastebuds ‘à travers’ the screen, blinding the hungry eyes with those photos to die for and telling us that NO, we haven’t had the ultimate cherry toms yet….. MILLE GRAZIE DAVIDE

  • Let me just say….

    1) Holy crap…

    2) You’re a very, very lucky man…

    3) Don’t judge me when I say I would do something totally immoral to get those green and white pottery bowls…really…just let me know.

  • The chickpea pancakes are a speciality here in Monaco called Socca, absolutely mouthwatering ! They are super thin, crisp and lightly salted, and washed down with a glass of vin de Provence! Yum,

  • I just loved reading this. I especially loved the before and after pictures of the empty path versus path all decked out with such a gorgeously set and amazingly long table. Just beautiful…makes it easy to imagine walking into the frame and being there to enjoy all the wonderful food, scenery and meeting some friendly Italian people.

  • I remember making ‘stratto’ with my grandmother in the summer; and something else you don’t mention, I wonder if you tried it, mostarda, made by cooking grape most with ash from an almond tree, until it becomes like a jelly, which is poured in tins and covered with slivered almonds. So delicious. I remember making panelle too, to be eaten with bread (pane e panelle fan le figlie belle: bread and panelle make women [daughters] beautiful). So many memories…

  • Oh, my. goodness. Regaleali Rosso has long been one of my favorite everyday wines, and fortunately it’s almost always in stock at our local wine store. I want to move there — and the cooking school is going to the top of my bucket list.

  • Reading your blog is like taking a mini vacation. I especially love to read your travel posts before I go to bed so I can dream about the delicious destinations!!

  • Such an amazing place and experience! Now I want to go to Sicily too! lol

  • I stayed there years ago, when Anna Tasca was alive. Her husband, Vences, was the most elegant man I’ve ever met. I ate dinner with him every night, all delicious (fava bean soup and persimmon tart were standouts, as I recall) and every course accompanied by their wonderful Regaleali wine. That year they had a limited production dessert wine (I still think about it) in honor of their parents’ “jubilee.” Clearly these people know how to do anniversaries.

  • For cheesepuff:That wine is still being made, though it is not currently a dessert wine, more of a crisp white. I had some at Case Vecchio, and they gifted me a bottle, which I in turn gifted to a very lovely couple who helped me in my travels a couple of days later. I may need to seek some out and enjoy it again! http://tascadalmerita.it/en/wines/nozze-d-oro_8

  • Your new book is the Cookbook of the Month on Chowhound.

  • Everything – amazing, especially that shot of the long table under shade, wow. Along with everyone else, it would be fun to remake some of these – I’m intrigued by the rice fritters – they are so smooth and uniform, they must be made with ground rice or maybe rice flour dough rolled into a tube then cut and breaded? Anyhoo…will be playing for the next few days!

    Also, will need to brush up on my botulism info as that sundried tomato paste sounds incredible and surely I can make a version with my garden’s output! I never thought you could leave tomatoes out overnight, or! in the SUN all day, so this is interesting. I know the sun’s uv rays kill bacteria so maybe that’s it, but the overnight thing is news. A great post, thanks!

  • The picture of the archway brings back such memories..
    What an incredible experience you had!
    What a place. What people.
    Extraordinary.

  • This is incredibly beautiful… not just the photographs or the story or the people or even the food – but the labor. The work. The collaboration. Perhaps I’m overly sentimental about these things, but there is something so overwhelmingly beautiful about the practice of truly honoring one’s craft and to see it manifest in such glory, to such a scale… I wish to have the opportunity to someday figure out my own calling and take it up with such respect and zest.

    Cheers David – and a special nod to Fabrizia.

  • David, what are you doing to me! First I say, I really must visit France, even though you tantalize me so much I don’t know what cities to choose. Now this. I have already begun checking out Case Vecchio for vacation next year, and will be calling to makemy reservation with them. My husband is salivating over the lush countryside for running. Thank you so much for sharing.

    I must tell you my family adores your Ginger Ice Cream it is often requested. I am now the family ice cream maker, all thanks to you. YUM!!

  • PS: It is midnight in the Caribbean and I can’t stop reading your blog.

  • It is refreshing to hear someone talk about my husband’s land of origin in such wonderful terms, and the photos are incredible (love the one of the endless table!). Sicily is a complex, yet beautiful land full of incredible people. Thank you for letting that truly shine through in your post.

    • Sicily is a lovely, and complicated, place. It really is a whole other place, not necessarily Italian, but Sicilian. I love the earthiness of it all, and the food of course. But it’s not the place for everyone. I was fortunate to have such a great experience with Fabrizia.

  • Looks like heaven on earth!

  • Ah, Sicily is so naturally pretty! Delicious food, I would only add Comissario Montalbano among the guests and life would be perfect.

  • Hi David!
    I really love your blog, your recipes and the way you write!
    I was wondering if maybe “crostati” is sicilian dialect for “crostate”? In Italy when they’re this small we usually call them “crostatine”
    I’m from Naples so I don’t know much sicilian “slang” :D

  • “a delicious soup made with squash greens and pasta”
    Squash greens? Interesting! Will you say any more about this? A quick internet search returned…. nothing.

    • They have these very long squash in Sicily called cucuzze (you can see a picture in a previous Sicily post) – there’s a recipe for a soup, Minestra di Tennerumi e Cucuzze in The Heart of Sicily, mentioned at the end of the post, by Anna Tasca Lanza. It’s a pretty simple bouillon-based soup, with squash greens and pasta. According to Anna, you can’t get the same squash outside of Sicily but says something about using zucchini, although she wasn’t sure if zucchini vines and leaves are edible, which is what they use in the soup in Sicily from the cucuzze squash.

  • Wonderful post! Where did you buy the ceramica? Actually you can grow Cucuzza yourself using seeds from Franchi Sementi. Seeds are available here.

    http://www.seedsofitaly.com/

    http://www.growitalian.com/cucuzzi-zuchetta-serpent-of-sicily/

  • Wow, what a marvelous feast! I love that ripe cherries are given the (well-deserved) status of a party dessert! Thanks for sharing!

  • @amy All parts of the plants from the cucurbitaceae family (squash, zucchini etc) are edible – leaves, fruits, flowers. I do not think there is much difference in the taste of the vines but because the squash plants will branch and continue to produce tender tops, they would probably be better to use than zucchini which grows usually (there are exceptions) as a bush.

  • I would love it if you could share the mulberry gelato recipe. Mulberries grow wild all around where I live, but I don’t know how to use them, other than eating them fresh. I tried making pie and it did not turn out well.

  • that place looks and sounds divine.

  • David, why do you think Anthony Bourdain keeps screwing up Sicily on his shows? It seems like amazing experiences on the island are not hard to find.

    • I only watched part of his episode in Sicily, and wasn’t sure why he didn’t like Sicily. He’s a seasoned traveler and has been to many places, but Sicily is a pretty specific place with certain customs that may not have been to his liking. This was my second visit to Sicily and both times I’ve stayed on farms with working kitchens, which I love, so perhaps that had something to do with it.

  • I read Rachel’s beautiful post about this experience, and now I read yours, and it is so beautiful to see how the place and the people and the food has been striking for all yet in so very different ways. I am putting Case Vecchie in my list of places to visit in August when I will finally land in Sicily – for the first time. I am beyond excited, especially after reading and seeing all this. Thank you!

  • Last summer I spent 6 weeks working in Sicily and was lucky enough to have a day at the Tasca Lanza school with Fabrizia. The place really is as amazing as you make it sound. The produce being grown all around and the traditional cooking and preserving techniques were wonderful to see. Would love to visit again one day!

  • Thank you for sharing the pictures and foods of Sicily with us. I would have loved for your host to share a recipe.

  • wow, just… wow. I adore Sicily, those tomatoes….I have interrupted my husband as he works beside me seven times throughout this post to point out things of delicious note. That eggplant spaghetti pie? Bless their use of breadcrumbs. & moreover, what a beautiful, thoughtful celebration of the cooking school, the land, of life. Oh, I cannot wait to return to Sicily. x