Meeting Maria Grammatico, Sicily's renowned pastry chef, and exploring Erice

 Spectacular view of the Tyrrhenian coast of northwestern Sicily on the way to Erice.

What's the weather like in January? seems to be the most popular follow-up question after friends inquire if we enjoyed our vacation in Sicily. My response is that it was a mixed bag of atmospheric conditions. We experienced everything from radiant sunshine in Syracuse to snow in Taormina. Swirling mist and cascading rain were the prevailing elements while we visited the ancient village of Erice.

Perched on a remote mountain 750 meters (2,460 ft) above the port city of Trapani, Erice is reachable by switchback roads with treacherous drop-offs or by cable car. We chose the adrenaline inducing option. Somewhat giddy to be alive after the harrowing drive, it seemed that we had entered an alternate reality when we heard American Christmas carols echoing through the deserted streets. Where were we?

Sicilian pastries and cappuccino at Pasticceria Maria Grammatico

Desperate to get out of the driving rain, we dashed up Via Vittorio Emanuele to Maria Grammatico's world famous pasticceria. The subject of Mary Taylor Simeti's book, Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood, Maria and her younger sister were sent to the San Carlo orphanage in Erice to learn the art of pastry making from the nuns after her father died suddenly of a heart attack. Impoverished during the hard years following World War II, Maria's pregnant mother realized that she wouldn't be able to feed all of her six children. At the orphanage, Maria worked long hours in brutally harsh conditions. Maria left the convent in 1963 and used all of the lessons that the nuns had taught her to open her own pastry shop. Openly hostile, the nuns refused Maria access to the orphanage and wouldn't allow her to use any of the moulds used to form the different pastry shapes.

Philippe and Maria Grammatico

Philippe felt so inspired by Maria's story that he asked the cashier if it would be possible to meet Sicily's most famous pastry chef. After Maria emerged from the kitchen, we had a good time chatting in a mishmash of English and Italian, thanks to Stéphane's determination to learn this language, about her pastries and their availability in the United States. Philippe was particularly pleased to learn that one of the Italian stores in Boston's North End imports Maria's products.

Maria still uses the traditional methods she learned from the nuns to make her world-famous creations. Most impressive to me were the fruit-shaped marzipan. When Maria lived at the orphanage, the nuns shaped marzipan figures for the feast days, such as the Festa dei Morti, a festival originally popularized by the Spanish. This activity provided the nuns, who often led very secluded lives, with a welcome form of artistic expression. The results are astonishingly realistic!

Maria Grammatico's marzipan mandarines, abricots and lemons

Due to the inclement weather we spent very little time exploring Erice's winding streets and its more than 60 churches. My one regret is that we didn't purchase any ceramics before we left the mist-enshrouded town.

Related posts:
Planning a trip to Sicily? Here are some helpful recommendations to get you started!
Exploring Palermo, Sicily

Don't pass up the opportunity to buy some ceramics when you're in Erice!


  1. That is quite the story! What a shame that the nuns couldn't be more open about helping someone who had obviously been through trials. Which shop here in Boston sells her treats? They'd be something fun to add to the spread of semla I plan to make for Shrove Tuesday (they're a Swedish pastry with gobs of delicious marzipan and so much cream, yum!)

  2. I must say I am SO impressed with your photography skills. The pictures really bring the whole story to life. I'm also impressed with your families ability to holiday together!!!!

    I've loved reading all this. Love Denise.

  3. I see no answer to the query re the store in the North End. Has anyone figured out which one it is? If not, I guess I will have to explore. I also need to find the store with the huge jar of citron because many of Maria Grammatico's recipes call for citron, and I highly doubt it is the hideous stuff that one normally finds in the United States.

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