Don Gjamo Zummo was a disturbed person. Religious faith was only a way to justify and cloak the behaviors and attitudes of a psychopath in sacredness. Cardinal Giannettino Doria must have guessed this when he received him.

In fact, after learning what the rules were to which he intended to submit the nuns of his newly established congregation of the “Living dead brides of Jesus”, he quickly dismissed him. Doria declared that there were already enough female monasteries in Palermo, and therefore denied Zummo the authorization to create another one.

Don Gjamo, however, didn’t lose heart. When he had conceived the idea of building a monastery for poor girls, who couldn’t be nuns because they lacked the necessary dowry, he had found the support of his brother Don Nicolò and of some members of the Compagnia della Carità (Charity Company) of which he was a member. But, shortly after, his brother had fallen ill and the confreres, perhaps terrified by Don Gjamo’s frantic attitude – or, more likely, by the prospect of having to shell out substantial sums – had pulled back. Nonetheless, he had insisted, and, faced with the refusal of the archbishop of Palermo, he decided to turn to his rival: the diocese of Monreale. Thanks to the collaboration of his friend Fortunio Arrighetti, governor of the city, he managed to persuade the local clergy and got an old abandoned hospital into use. The building was hastily adapted to its new destination, and in 1629 Don Gjamo locked up 15 girls between the ages of 15 and 28, under the strict control of a grim abbess. Today this story would make a horror. The unfortunates were locked up in bare rooms that were icy in winter and unbearably hot in summer, forced into silence if not to talk, a couple of hours a day, of “spiritual things”, and they could not see family members except behind thick grates, and only three times a year. Finally, the abbess had ordered that food should be prepared without salt, mixed with bitter herbs, or otherwise made inedible. Any mischief was punished with meticulous ferocity.

The new convent

After a few months of this mistreatment, the poor girls began to get sick and perish and Don Gjamo knocked on Bishop Doria’s doors again, explaining that the problem was the unhealthy place. Eventually, he obtained permission to move his community to Palermo. Now he had to find the place. He set his eyes on the small church of the brotherhood of San Vito, with the adjacent houses, in the Capo district and, after a grueling negotiation with the brothers, who did not want to sell, finally, he managed to get hold of it. In 1630 the convent of Santa Maria di Tutte le Grazie in San Vito was officially born and the “living dead” were transferred. The unexpected was that many of the young nuns, evidently tired of undergoing so much harassment, once in the city decided to flee. The scandal was enormous and mouth-watering jokes began to be made about the girls. Throughout the town, everybody talked of the former nuns who, now resurrected from the death that had been imposed on them, showed themselves around “in amusing entertainment”. In any case, the convent was done and the nuns who remained slowly began an everyday monastic life, especially after the death of their tormentor in 1643. The entrance of the Marquise of Gibellina, struck by a mystical crisis after the death of her husband, endowed the convent with a huge patrimony thanks to which it was possible to renovate and enlarge the complex (today it has been transformed into a barracks and houses the Provincial Command of the Carabinieri ).

The heritage of the Sisters of San Vito

Like the other women’s congregations in the city, the Sisters of St. Vitus also decided to rely on their cooking skills to support themselves. Their flagship recipe was not a dessert – as in most of the other monasteries in the city – but sfincione. In truth, the “sfincione di San Vito” has little to do with what is currently prepared in the city’s rotisseries and bakeries. It is in fact a sort of focaccia stuffed with meat, onion, and cheese, with a laborious preparation and sumptuous flavor. Today, if you ask for a sfincione, something else is proposed and it is not clear if one descends from the other or if they are two different preparations that only casually are homonymous. To taste the San Vito sfincione you just have to prepare it yourself. If, on the other hand, the popular version is fine – and there is no reason why it is not – today is the right day to buy it, since in Palermo the feast of the Immaculate Conception is also the feast of the sfincione. Fortunately, its preparation is not limited to this one day. On the contrary, sfincione is one of the most popular specialties of the city street food, also sold by street vendors who, aboard ramshackle lapini, drive around the old center preceded by a characteristic chant, spread by a croaking speaker: chi bellu ciauru … uora uora ‘ u spuinnavo … iu ‘u pitittu ci fazzu grapriri (what a nice smell… I just made it… I whet your appetite). Like the sound of the Pied Piper, the call draws customers around the rudimentary Plexiglas box in which the “sfincionelli” are placed. The recipe of this street version is more simple, without anchovies and caciocavallo cheese, but the taste doesn’t suffer this lack at all.

Sfincionello (ph. M. Mannarano)