Several days later, I took a detour to the source, Bronte. Nunzio Caudullo, 57, whose grandparents founded the Antonino Caudullo pistachio company in Bronte, one of the first to open just after World War II, calls the nuts “green gold from the base of the volcano.”
Mount Etna rose in the distance, a wisp of smoke drifting from its summit. “The lava in the earth, the minerals in the lava, makes the taste of our pistachios different,” Mr. Caudullo said. “Other places like Iran, Turkey, California, do not have this kind of soil.”
A few miles from the center of the town, the trees, fairly low and spreading with shiny green leaves, are tangled everywhere. The harvest, usually from late August through September, is done entirely by hand. The nuts are spread under cloth canopies overnight, then shelled and packaged whole, chopped, ground or as paste at simple factories like the one attached to Mr. Caudullo’s house. His mother, Maria Luca Caudullo, 85, is still involved in the company.
With little prompting, she will reel off her favorite recipes for the nuts, like filet of beef encrusted with them, and a simple but lush pistachio cake. “That one I only make for Christmas,” she said.
Her son said, “Every family in Bronte has some pistachio trees,” adding that the Romans first brought pistachios to Sicily from the Middle East, but then they were more or less forgotten. “When the Arabs conquered in the ninth century,” he said, “they restarted the cultivation.”
The nuts are harvested every other year. Alternate fallow years protect the trees and improve quality. And, unlike with California pistachios, the trees are never irrigated, making the flavor more intense.
In the United States, Sicilian pistachios are imported out of the shell and vacuum-packed, to help them retain their freshness. Sicilian pistachio cream or paste and ground pistachios are also sold. But, as Mr. Caudullo explained, since Bronte pistachios account for less than 1 percent of the world’s pistachio production, and they’re very expensive, there’s great demand worldwide for nuts from California and elsewhere.
Gustiamo, the importer of fine Italian foods in the Bronx, sells 8.8 ounces of shelled Bronte pistachios for $33.50, which can be a deal-breaker. “I love those pistachios, but the cost of them really limits our ability to use them more freely,” said Ignacio Mattos, the chef and a partner in Café Altro Paradiso in SoHo, who uses them in gelato. Gustiamo also sells Sicilian pistachio cream: A 9.8-ounce jar costs $24.50.
On its website, Grom, the Italian gelato chain, compares the price of the pistachios to that of “fine jewelry.” No wonder. The beautiful little nutmeats grown around Bronte are variety called Smeraldo, meaning emerald.
Recipe: Sicilian Pistachio Cake