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After a delicious trip abroad, a return to American reality

A man in an apron mixes drinks at a counter in front of shelves that hold liquor bottles.
A bartender making Aperol spritzes at Uzeta Bistro Siciliano in Catania, Sicily.
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)

How long does it take you to truly settle into relaxation during a significant, longer-than-a-long-weekend vacation?

I don’t usually reach some true point of rest — the falling away of work and daily-life stresses, an “Oh, you’re still there!” recognition of a source of inner calm I rarely take time to access — until about five days in. During a typical week off I barely uncoil, and then the break is finished. You might know the feeling.

This month, for the first time in my adult life, I took several weeks off. (A big thank-you to my colleagues Daniel Hernandez, Jenn Harris and Lucas Kwan Peterson for filling in with newsletter dispatches during my absence.) I turn 50 this weekend, and my partner’s 50th birthday arrived during the grim days of April 2020, so we decided to mark the occasions this year by splurging on travel abroad.

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We began the trip in Sicily to visit two close friends who live on opposite sides of the island. Jennifer V. Cole, a former editor at Southern Living and Travel & Leisure, now works with travelers to plan itineraries for Sicily; she lives in a town above Catania on the eastern coast. Lebanese-Syrian cookbook author Anissa Helou, whose books have helped change how I understand the world, stays part of the year in Trapani, a small crescent-shaped city on Sicily’s western side.

Berry semifreddo at La Cialoma in Marzamemi, Sicily
(Bill Addison / Los Angeles Times)
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On Day 5, when like clockwork I began to feel something approaching serenity, Jennifer drove us to the island’s southeastern tip. We stopped in the seaside town of Marzamemi, still quiet before high tourist season, for lunch with some mutual friends also visiting Sicily. We ate the famous local red shrimp raw with olive oil and fennel, and twirled spaghetti tangled with anchovies and raisins on our forks, while the Ionian Sea glimmered in the sun. Then we looped up and inward to Noto, one of the towns that rise out of the hills in this region.

We passed the limestone Noto Cathedral on our way down the block to Caffe Sicilia; Corrado Assenza’s pastries and gelato have been deservingly featured on Netflix’s “Chef’s Table.” I knee-jerk ordered blood orange granita. Jennifer nudged me toward the ricotta-pistachio gelato, a masterpiece of tang and subtlety. We sat there staring dreamily into the near distance, speaking up only to talk about our next stop and dinner plans. It was a storybook afternoon.

I’ll stop there, because reality intrudes. We weren’t so unplugged as to miss some of the most horrific events happening in the world while we were away: the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot in the head while on a reporting assignment; the racist attack in a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket that left 10 Black people dead; the hate crime at a Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods, Calif.

And this week: 19 children and two teachers killed by an 18-year-old gunman in Uvalde, Texas, with mounting questions about the muddled police response at the time of the rampage.

Unspeakable and commonplace; another senseless tragedy, another news cycle in the United States. We rage on social media. We write blustering condemnations. We donate to grieving families. The politicians who won’t budge on gun laws spew platitudes or stay silent until the latest wave of outrage ebbs. Will something change this time? I was certain there would be change when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened a decade ago.

If I returned wanting to write a little something about the privilege and pleasure of travel, well, the topic feels unimportant at just this moment. Maybe this is a strange thing to say, but I take solace when other food writers also halt posting pretty pictures on Instagram after another monstrous incident. We’ll all go back to it — it’s part of our jobs — but for a day or so it reminds me of friends sitting together not needing to speak because there’s nothing left to say (or, everything left to say, and we’re gathering energy).

I find so much value still in doing my job — in the service journalism aspect, in the craft of stringing together words, in documenting the complex, broken-open era we live in through the lens of dining. A lot of readers left comments and reached out for recommendations in Sicily; it’s a popular destination, and I singled out some personal highlights on my Instagram feed. I feel cognitive dissonance between mourning senselessly lost lives and dispensing restaurant advice. I tell myself: Welcome to the gift of living.

So I am back in Los Angeles, settling again into the work of being a restaurant critic, grieving for the world and helping people figure out where to eat. It’s all of a piece.

Have a question?

Email us.

— Looking for the best diners in Los Angeles? Stephanie Breijo, Jenn Harris and I name our 25 favorites.

— In this week’s “What to Eat Now” column, Jenn suggests the carrot tartare at n/soto and the chicken wings at Uncool Bar.

Samantha Masunaga checks in on five workers who left the restaurant industry during the pandemic.

— Stephanie reports on the new restaurant location of Carnitas El Momo, and other news of the week.

Pancakes on a plate topped with sliced banana, whipped cream, granola and berries.
The blueberry pancakes at Ocean Diner in Hermosa Beach.
(Jose A. Sandoval)


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