Monterosso Almo is not just a village but a place, a condition, almost out of time and space.
The first in the chain of the Hyblaean Mountains and the last of the thirteen municipalities in the fortunate province of Salvo Montalbano, pardon me… of Ragusa, or perhaps it would be better to say the County of Modica, a glorious piece of the Spanish crown in Sicily!
Seven hundred metres above sea level, a few sprinkles of snow in winter and delicious fresh mushrooms in autumn, to be enjoyed in the town’s warm, family-run restaurants.
Arriving at Monterosso from the SS194 Ragusa, the old national highway that connected Catania to Ragusa, is almost like going for a bike ride, crossing a mountain circuit of the Giro d’Italia, with hairpin bends, rocks, rich vegetation, cliffs, latomie (stone quarries) that slice through the hills, fresh springs where you can stop and draw water from the rocks above.
Monterosso is suddenly visible, clinging to a mountain. Certainly inhabited since ancient times, it also features important archaeological remains such as the Monte Casasia necropolis (7th century B.C.), included in the vast Canalazzo Forest Park, where we can enjoy beautiful excursions and cycle tourism.
The town has had alternating fortunes throughout its history. Its present structure dates back largely to the reconstruction carried out after the disastrous earthquake of 1693. In 1168 the town was already in existence and was a possession of the Norman Goffredo, son of Count Roger, under the name of Monte Jahalmo.
After passing under Count Enrico Rosso, it passed to the County of Modica, under Federico Chiaramonte and then under the Cabrera family. The palaces of the town’s ruling families illustrate the vocations and dynamics of the town: the imposing palatial house of the Cocuzza family, the elegant 18th-century palace of the Burgio family, the convents, the main square or U chianu with the spectacular church of San Giovanni Battista. And the small monastery church of Sant’Anna, known as “a bammina”.
The squares in Sicily have the same function as the Greek Agora and the Roman forum. People meet, chat, keep the bar in business, taste and order Sunday sweet treats after mass. This square is no exception, it is neat and well kept, like a good living room, with just the right amount of traffic; the little tables in the bars, the smell of coffee and freshly baked ricotta ravioli, and later the smell of the ragù degli arancini and scacce ragusane, a symphony to the rhythm of the bells that mark the peaceful rhythms of the village as they once did. Someone might recognise it, immortalised in Tornatore’s The Star Maker.
A little further down, along narrow streets of white stone, through small gardens of succulent plants in recycled barrels and grapes peeping out from ancient pergolas perched on balconies, we come to a sober little square. Here we find the Santuario dell’Addolorata, an ancient and precious treasure trove of art treasures, and the spectacular Matrice church with its neo-Gothic façade, a rarity at these latitudes, bordered by a churchyard reached by a flight of steps.
These two churches, which when seen from the valley seem to look down on and embrace the town, almost as if they were lovingly guarding it, mark the boundary of an ancient district that at Christmas becomes the stage for a beautiful living nativity scene that takes place inside a natural grotto. Despite the notoriety of the event and the crowds of tourists, the atmosphere is very atmospheric and always draws comparisons with that of the characteristic Cuozzu district of nearby Giarratana.
Bread is the speciality of the village, a hard loaf or u scacciuni to try while still warm with oil, oregano and cappuliatu, the sun-dried tomato. Bread is made in the shape of breasts for the feast of Sant’Agata, eyes for the feast of Santa Lucia or cannarozza (trachea) for the feast of San Biagio. The production of various grains is notable, including u ciciruocculu, chickling vetch, with which patacò with vegetables is prepared.
On the feast of the patron saint, it is customary to prepare u iaddu chinu, a cockerel stuffed with meat, rice and various spices.
There are also pastieri, small pastries made of minced lamb and kid meat seasoned with pepper, cheese and eggs, and ‘mpanate, made of thin sheets of flour dough, stuffed with spinach, sauce, ricotta cheese, meat, broccoli and sausage. On special occasions, don’t forget to try the cassate di ricotta (cheesecake) at Easter, the sweet and savoury crispelle for St Martin’s Day and finally the pagnuccata (fried dough balls in honey).