The Modica Chocolate Man

May 08, 2021 439

BY: Gerald R. Gioglio

On a visit to Sicily my wife and I traveled to the province of Ragusa to explore the island’s Baroque architecture. Our home base, strategically located near the Mediterranean Sea on the southeast coast of the island was the seaside village of Sampieri, where we enjoyed excellent food and hospitality, local beaches and small shops.

Beyond the Baroque treasures of Ragusa, we took in several key tourist sites like Syracusa and Taormina.  We also visited Menfi, the ancestral home of my immigrant Grandparents. Of course, we had to visit Modica, not only for the stunning architecture, but also to sample its famous chocolate confections and pastries. Chocolate said to be produced using an ancient Aztec recipe.

Traveling to Modica on SS194 to SS115 we were shocked to find ourselves having to cross the imposing Modica Viaduct that towers over and leads into the city.   The viaduct, completed in 1968 stands about 400 feet tall, and is about one-third of a mile long. One of Italy’s highest bridges, the massive and imposing span found my anxious wife crouching low, refusing to peer down at the town far below.  That left me focusing on the road immediately ahead, white-knuckling my way across the span while cooing expressions of comfort and reassurance. Words like the often effective if less than persuasive, “Everything is okay, we’re almost there.”

After clearing the bridge and winding our way down, we stopped at an outdoor market before heading further into "Modica Bassa,” the lower section of town.  We took long, lazy walks throughout this World Heritage Site, entering the Duomo di San Pietro and other churches, savoring the interiors and saying a couple of quick prayers.   We even climbed almost three hundred steps to "Modica Alta" the upper part of the city to admire the majestic Chiesa di San Giorgio while taking in incredible views of the city. 

Eventually we made it to the busy Corso Umberto with its abundant array of chocolate vendors and eager shoppers. One store attracted our attention because of the young man in a spotless work apron standing proudly in the doorway. The shop’s sign indicated it was both a confectionery and a coffee shop, potentially satisfying the need for both chocolate and espresso.

I imagined this was the young fellow’s own little business as he seemed keen to turn window shoppers into actual customers. Approaching the shop, we found him to be a very gregarious and friendly young man.  He was nonstop chatter and all salesmanship pointing out the extensive chocolate options-- bars, wrapped candies, syrups, cocoa, everything you might imagine. It was all chocolate all the time.

We had a rather successful conversation in pidgin Italian and broken English, sampled his wares, bought some confections and ordered a couple of cappuccinos. Eventually he asked about our reasons for being in Sicily. I whipped out my phone and showed him my Ancestry website listing some Menfi ancestors we hoped to investigate.  I also showed him a picture of my grandson and I posing with a tray of meatballs—a recipe our Sicilian grandmother passed down after arriving to America from “the old country.” 

When we first entered the shop, I noticed his laptop computer was playing the great American singer Billie Holiday. Given the young fellow’s age, and where we were, I thought this was a bit unusual. We were also big Billie Holiday fans, so this had to be investigated. Once again, patiently using my limited Italian and his best English we learned of his deep interest in American music, especially Jazz and Rock ‘n Roll.

Eventually I asked him about American Blues music. Smiling broadly and shaking his head up and down he admitted he liked Blues music very much.  Joking around I shared the old phrase Blues lovers often use in America, “The Blues is the roots, the rest is the fruits.”   

“Roots?”  he asked curiously. This time I was unable to explain; so, like any true Millennial the young man Googled it on his laptop.  Suddenly, up popped several images of roots.   I watched his eyes light up as he recognized the meaning of that English word. He realized from the “roots” of the Blues came “the fruits” of American Rock n’ Roll, Pop, Doo Wop and more.  They all sprouted from that same musical genre.   We shared a couple of good laughs, finished our coffee and headed out for some pizza.           

Later, coming down the other side of the street I spotted him once again in the doorway of his little shop.  He waved when he saw us and yelled, "The Blues is the roots!"   Then, in classic American “Call and Response” style I screamed the reply, "The rest is the fruits!" Once again, we all broke out laughing; our joy echoing across the active, noisy Corso Umberto and symbolically across the Atlantic Ocean.  

It was a moment of true international communication and great fun; the chocolate and the music bringing a Sicilian native and a second-generation Sicilian-American together. I have to say, beyond admiring the beauty and splendor of the Baroque architecture and untangling some genealogical mysteries, the interaction with this young man was one the most satisfying experiences of our visit to the “old country.”

 

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