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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: What’s in a name? Well for a lot of places around the country and the world, food. If I say Napa Valley you think of wine. When you hear blackened fish you might think of New Orleans. Maine is known for its lobsters. Well a sleepy Sicilian town of San Vito is trying to get on the food map. And no, not for its pizza. Megan Williams reports.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: Less than a decade ago if you strolled down the main boulevard of San Vito lo Capo, you’d be lucky to find a restaurant open off-season. Now summer’s over, but restaurants and hotels are bursting. Beaches are crowded. Nightlife lasts until 4 in the morning.
San Vito lo Capo is cooking.
It all started with a dish that’s been quietly simmering in this Sicilian town for hundreds of years. Tiny rolled beads of grain known as couscous.
San Vito Mayor Giuseppe Peraino decided to take his small-town specialty, couscous with fish sauce, and use it to put San Vito on the map.
Welcome to the world couscous competition. Since Mayor Peraino launched the festival nine years ago, top chefs from couscous-eating countries Mediterranean-wide show up each fall for a couscous cook off.
Peraino says Italy inherited couscous from the Arabs and perfected a fish sauce for it.
MAYOR GIUSEPPE PERAINO [translated]: This has been a major economic turnaround. Our little town of 4,000 has no unemployment now and we also provide work for many of the small towns around us.
Not only has the couscous fest fed locals, but it’s also drawing immigrant money back and keeping would-be emigrants at home.
PERAINO [translated]: Now instead of people leaving, some of these immigrants are coming back and investing in the town or working here.
Like Giuseppe Aiuto who manages the Hotel Panaramic restaurant here. After working for 10 years in northern Italy, he came back to the town the year the couscous festival began.
Giuseppe Aiuto [translated]: People used to immigrate. Now with the tourism booming, the season now lasts six or seven months. This is wonderful because coming back home you get to experience all the things that you thought you’d never see again.
And a few he likely never expected to experience. Like seeing the tiny town piazza crowded with thousands of visitors eager to crown the latest world champion of couscous.
In San Vito lo Capo Sicily, I’m Megan Williams for Marketplace.
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