2 brief extracts from "From Albania to Sicily" by

Adam Yamey 




            At the beginning of the 20th century, the Arberesh in Piana degli Albanesi gave their support to struggle for independence of their oppressed 'brothers' in the Balkans. Our informants in the library told us that Ismail Qemal Bej Vlora (1844-1919) the founder of the modern Albanian State, which came into existence in 1912, paid a visit to Piana dei Greci in May 1903. We were shown a copy of a long out-of-print book about the Arberesh in Italy that described how the Albanian leader stayed in the home of the then mayor Cavaliere Giorgio Zalapi.. After returning to London, I discovered that, Ismail Qemal Bey wrote of his visit to Piana in his memoirs as follows: "The most important centre of the Albanians in Sicily is Piana dei Greci, on a height some twenty miles from Palermo. I was invited there, and was received just as if I had been in my own country, most of the notables of the other Albanian centres being assembled to meet me. It was a touching scene when almost the entire population of women and children, attired in Albanian national costumes, and accompanied by bands, ran towards us to touch our clothes as if we were a portion of the beloved native soil, and my com-panion [sic] Jaffre was moved to tears." We were made to feel as welcome in Piana as our celebrated predecessor.

  Cavaliere Vincenzo Zalapi, an ex-mayor of Piana who had distinguished himself alongside Piediscalzi (see above) in Garibaldi's revolution of 1860, was related to the Giorgio Zalapi who entertained Ismail Qemal Bey. On the 11th September 1888, the ex-mayor, Vincenzo, was visiting his country property somewhere near to Alcamo when a group of brigands arrived. They demanded of him where his children were. Soon, the children arrived and the ex-mayor realised that the malefactors wanted to kidnap them. The mayor told his wife in Arberesh, which the brigands could not understand, to take the children into his cottage nearby. Unfortunately, she could not shut the door, and a fight ensued. During this, his wife was injured and his son Gaetano was murdered.  This incident that occurred in rural Sicily attracted the attention of the Times newspaper faraway in London.

Jumping ahead through history again, we enquired about the name change from Piana dei Greci to Piana degli Albanesi, which had occurred under Mussolini. We were told that when a Sicilian poet demonstrated to him that the people in Piana were not Greeks but Albanians, this triggered him to authorise the change. This may have been part of the reason for the change but, as I have mentioned elsewhere, the name was changed during a period when 'Il Duce' was ordering name changes all over Sicily. 

In May 1924, 'Il Duce' visited first the lake at Piana dei Greci, and then the town's Municipio (i.e. town hall) where he was officially introduced to Piana's "amministrazione mafiosa" (i.e. Mafia administration). During this visit, Mussolini was insulted by the town's then mayor, a Mafia boss named Francesco Cuccia (aka 'Don Ciccio'). Don Ciccio had benefited politically from the Mafia's intimidation of the town's Socialists. They had won in the elections of 1921, but the Mafia had terrorised them into stepping down from office and to be replaced by the Don and his henchmen. Don Ciccio's insult is believed to have spurred Mussolini into beginning his aggressive campaign against the Mafia. The mayor's flamboyant and unpleasant behaviour did not go unnoticed by the international press. In a report on secret societies in Fascist Italy, the London Times reported: "Piana dei Greci south of Palermo had a mayor whom the obedient inhabitants elected on several occasions. He loved to be photographed, and photographed he was in the company of King Victor when he visited the town. He was also photographed in the company of Signor Mussolini. Who, by his own admission, was scandalised by the imperious brutality with which this worthy treated his fellow citizens. He is now in prison for life, having proved to be head of a group which had committed 12 murders amongst other crimes."





We ate two different pasta dishes during our first visit. I enjoyed a plate of home-made pasta in a rich, creamy, pistachio sauce and Lopa had hers with a sauce that contained tomatoes, aubergine and lightly salted ricotta - a version of a typical Sicilian sauce known as ‘la Norma’.  After my pasta, I still had enough room to enjoy a breaded veal steak served with the very best French fries that I have ever eaten. The meat, which melted in my mouth, was superb. Believe it or not, we were able to finish off the meal with a dessert which Signor Salemi described as the true or genuine cassata. Its ingredients included ricotta, nuts, chocolate, coffee, and sponge cake. It was a very far cry from the multicoloured ice-cream slices that are served under the name of ‘cassata’ in London’s restaurants. To be honest, I quite enjoy eating these even if they are not the real thing...

.... The Salemi family are not only wonderful chefs and restaurateurs, but also warm and friendly folk. When we said that we were going to visit the monument at Portella della Ginestra on the next day, Signora Salemi told us that her husband Vicenzo had been one of the many people present there on that terrible 1st of May 1947. He came over to our table and sat down to tell us what he remembered. …

...  Close to Federica Salemi’s poem, there was a slightly faded colour photograph showing a group of diners clustered around a table in the restaurant. In their midst there was a man dressed in typical Albanian (rather than Arberesh) costume: clothing of white felt trimmed with black. Vicenzo explained that this photograph had been taken in about 1982 when a delegation from Enver Hoxha’s Albania had visited Piana degli Albanesi briefly. He told us that when he offered his special guests a complimentary whiskey at the end of the meal they turned it down. In addition, they hardly talked to each other during the meal, and definitely kept to themselves avoiding any contact with the locals during their visit to the town; fraternization was clearly discouraged. Vicenzo said that he was sure that the entire delegation consisted of secret policemen, and that they were all watching each other. This would not have surprised me, especially having observed something similar when I visited Albania in 1984. When I went there, it was impossible to speak with any Albanians apart from our official guides provided by the state tourist agency Albturist. If any attempt was made to speak with ‘ordinary’ Albanians, someone always intervened to make sure that it did not happen.

I have seen films that were made when Arberesh delegations visited Hoxha’s Albania. These short movies, which look as though they might have been made by the Albanian authorities, show happy scenes of folk dancing and singing. While I watched them, I wondered how the naturally vivacious and freedom loving Arberesh, who were visiting Albania, had coped with the insane restrictions imposed by their Stalinist Albanian hosts.

We left the Salemi’s restaurant pleasantly replete and determined to return the next day in the evening.