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Photo by Theophilos Papadopoulos

My first visit to Sicily was with my mother, when I was fourteen—we were there to look up her Sicilian relatives on the outskirts of Palazzolo Acreide. Although my mother was born in New York, her older brother had lived in Sicily until he was sixteen, so it was through his recollections that she pieced together the location of her ancestral home and the distant cousins who still lived there.

Palazzolo, located well off the tourist track southeast of Siracusa, did not lend itself to casual visitors. At the time of our visit there were no tourist offices or large hotels, just a small square surrounded by a crumbling baroque church, a bakery, and a few cafés. Women in black sat on benches, and groups of men wearing vests and Borsalino hats strolled around the square’s perimeter. It appeared no one under the age of fifty-five lived there.

Up to that point, everything I knew about Sicily I learned from reading The Godfather. The book was making the rounds at my junior high school—not for its literary merits of course, but for the violence and raunchy sex scenes. An ambitious reader before me had created a Cliff’s Notes version of the book by highlighting all the graphic sections, such as the one in which Sonny Corleone bangs Lucy Mancini (a bridesmaid) on his wedding day. The Godfather was set mostly in New York, but the Sicily scenes shaped my expectations of what I might find...