The proprietor of the restaurant M——A——, known as “Ricotta,” likes to share with his intimate friends—for the most part fecund, avuncular family men who, between them, did upward of a thousand years in the high-security Section 2 of the city’s thistle-shaped Ucciardone jail, awaiting trial on accusations of various victimless crimes, usually involving government building contracts, accusations that, mirabile dictu, invariably came to nothing—the story of his first and last visit to Venice.  As I know nothing of the Sicilian dialect that he speaks—except how to inject the right note of lazy indignation in the retort “Ma qual’ Amercan’?” whenever the taxidriver ventures, “American?” the story is simultaneously translated into the soulless standard Italian of the mainland by several voices in the womanless crowd.

My friend Maglio explains that the Sicilian spoken by our hero is high Palermitan, which is far more different from the dialects of the countryside than, say, the sounds of Tuscany are from those of Umbria.  Thus, where Ricotta refers to himself as “io,” his social counterpart in Madonie, some 60 kilometers away, would say “ia”; in Salemi, 70 kilometers from the city center, he would say “ieu”; in Marsala, which is 30 kilometers from Salemi in the same province of Trapani, he would say “eu.”  In the province of Caltanisseta, 110 kilometers away, he would say “.”  In Catania, in the eastern part of the country 200 kilometers away from Palermo, he would say “.”

“I guess you could say they saw me coming,” Ricotta warms up to his subject, always with the same self-effacing rallentando.  “I tell you what happened.  I’d just got off at Piazzale Roma, and there’s this newspaper stand right in front.  So I start picking out postcards for my little ones, two hundred lire each, it said, views of Venice.  I get six—one was for my wife—and what does that make?  A thousand two, of course.  Now, I give the fellow a thousand five, and I say to him, ‘You all right with that, boy?’  And straight away he hears my voice he bolts from his hole, to check how many I’d taken.  Which is six.”

Here Ricotta pauses to catch his breath, and, in the silence of the crowd, one hears his asthmatic lungs creaking like some terribly clever hydraulic apparatus that the ancient Romans left behind.  “Then I say to him, if you’re going to be like this about it, give me back my change.  So the fellow turns to go back to his hole, but I’m already pretty bothered, so I pull out my knife”—Ricotta pulls out a folding knife the size of a small banana—“and I tell him, you’d better count well, you bucket of garbage, because I want my change to the last lira!  So he gives me the three hundred back, and then I go woosh! and just toss it into the canal.  It’s what I did, I swear on my mother’s grave that’s just what I did.  God knows I must’ve been angry by then, to have seen myself treated like some kind of criminal just because I talk as we do.  And by that garbage!”

It is not so much the dramatic sacrifice of 15 cents in American money for the honor of his people as the evident fact that this, indeed, is the old voyager’s only halfway vivid recollection of magical Venice, that elicits hoots of approbation and slaps on the shoulder from Ricotta’s listeners, who fall over one another to raise upturned fingers over the back of  his balding head: “Cuinnutu!”  Yes, here’s the old buck, the maverick warrior with more horns on him than a man can count, the ageless symbiosis of Minotaur and his slayer, the virile cornuto with masculinity all tangled up in disingenuousness, the mythic simpleton who’s been to Hades and wound the infernal lot of them round his gnarled left pinkie.  He may talk an even funnier Italian than the rest of them do, but he has never seen the inside of the Ucciardone thistle.  And as for the money, no need to worry about the owner of the best fish joint in Sette Cannoli, or “Seven Spigots,” as this part of town is called, because every jeweler in downtown Palermo knows old Ricotta’s got pillowcases of the stuff stashed away, and not in lire, either.

What’s in it for me, you may wonder?  The Palermitan answer is: protection.  For the fact is that, even after all these years spent in Italy, I’m still of a divided mind on the question of which picturesquely neglected corner of it will last the longest—and will protect me best—in the coming total eclipse of European civilization.  At first, I thought it could only be Rome, which had already fallen so many times that another tumble would hardly matter.  Then it was Venice, which the world had decided was sinking and hence, in all likelihood, would keep well away from.  Now, a part of me feels that, in these apocalyptic times, I will need to shroud my fugitive soul in the rustic logic of proud old Ricotta and his cornuto companions, because Venice—Palermo’s great antipode and coeval within the besieged microcosm of what is now left of the living Europe—yes, even Venice is now in peril.

The other day, the Italian parliament approved the infamous Moses Project, which involves stealing billions in state funds under the Berlusconian pretext of constructing inflatable dykes to control the Adriatic tide, a scheme that is certain to subvert the unique ecology of the Venice lagoon.  That same week, a new directive from Brussels specifically forbade the selling of germoglio artichokes cultivated on the island of Sant’Erasmo, beloved of the locals under the name castraure.  Well, did a single Venetian pull out his bone-handled silver fruit knife and swear vengeance on the tomb of his beloved maternal great-aunt from Sovizzo, near Montecchio, in the province of Verona?  Did a single stallholder at the Rialto market shout “Judas!” as he threw a fistful of euros in the face of a passing politico?  No, the gentlemen of the north among whom I’ve been living are too refined for violence, which explains why the town is full of lawyers.  Only a thick terrone, a country bumpkin from the southern boondocks jabbering in his dialect, and naturally maleducato, would make a scene, which explains why so many healthy young men prefer selling postcards with views of Venice to growing vegetables in the Veneto.

The reliance on dialect, all but absolute throughout Sicily, is both the yardstick and the backbone of the social organism to which I look for protection as an individual.  And, speaking of the backbone, the cut of beef called “lombata” in standard Italian is “lombo” in Bologna, “roast-beef” in Milan, and “sotto filetto” in Turin; in Palermo, it’s “trinca.”  The “fesa” is called by that name only in Verona and Turin, while in Bologna and Florence, it becomes “scannello,” “schenello” in Genova, “rosa” in Milan; in Naples, it’s “natica,” and in Palermo, it’s “sfasciatura.”  The term “pancia” is only used by butchers in Verona, while in Florence they say “falda,” in Milan, “biancostato” or “bamborino,” in Turin, “spezzato”; in Naples, “pancettone,” and in Palermo, “panza.”  The part called “reale” is known as “polso” in Florence, “matama” in Genova, and “fracosta” in Rome; in Naples, it is called “locena,” and in Palermo, it is “spineddu.”

A recent survey conducted by the government census agency Istat, entitled “I cittadini e il tempo libero,” has shown that 92.3 percent of all Italians are able to speak both the standard language and their local dialect.  A mere 44.1 percent speak standard Italian at home, though 72 percent use it when speaking to strangers, “a vast improvement on the 1950’s when only 33 percent did.”  Women are more reluctant then men to speak in dialect, either at home or in the presence of strangers.  Nonetheless, a clear majority of the population, 52 percent, are capable of “fully expressing themselves” by means of “local language” alone.

Viewed topographically, the picture is pellucidly clear.  Exclusive or predominant use of standard Italian is typical of the central provinces, with 63.2 percent, and those of the northwest, with 59.4, while in the south three out of four inhabitants “eschew the language of Dante” whenever they can help it.  Florence and Tuscany score the highest, 83 percent, while Venice and the Veneto region—encouraging for one who has just signed a long lease on a palazzo at Ca’ Rezzonico—rain acerbic disdain on all comers with the mainland low of 42.6 percent, lower even than the Alto Adige and Friuli.  But then there’s Ricotta, who can only count in Italian up to 100,000 lire for freshly made linguine with rock lobster.

So, in the cynical idiom of the duke of Mantua, this one or that one?  Shall I stick it out, in the long term, with the well-educated, cool, and headstrong Venezia, or shall I view her as a mere holiday escapade, a shipboard romance, an afternoon in a swing in the sprawling garden of a Palladian villa in the Brenta?  For I confess to have a great fear of being cuckolded by her long ere we marry—why else did the doges wed the sea every summer?—and it may be wisest to regard her with the same caution that her own fishermen reserve for her deceptively placid lagoon.  Or shall I stake my all on a life with sultry Sicilia, hanging out in open-air cafés with her fathers, brothers, and sons, drinking coffee the color of her gently rounded eyes, and shouting “Cuinnutu!” whenever one of the men tells a wondrous tale of his exploits in some sunken Atlantis?

Perhaps I should try two-timing the both of them.  Or would that be too—I don’t quite know how to put it—too Venetian, somehow?