Sicily in 10 Days
I’ve been a lurker on Chowhound for some time so here goes my first post, based on 10 nights in Sicily in late May/early June 2016. Note: please forgive the misspellings, which I’ll blame on hotel and airplane-writing!
We arrived late in the evening after a long series of flights (SFO->CDG->FCO->Palermo), checked into our hotel (the perfectly fine Hotel Artemsia) and ventured out to a late dinner at Trattoria Napoli. The family that owns the place welcomed us warmly and prepared a very nice meal for us. We started with a sampling of their freshly prepared antipasti and then had a crudo plate of tuna, gambreri rosso and cuttlefish. Then we moved on to a hearty and savory plate of spaghetti di nero con sepia, finishing with a roasted branzino that was cooked just right¬--falling off the bone, but still moist and flavorful. The wine list was simple and very reasonable (as you’ll find around much of Sicily) but nothing exceptional. We shared a bottle of Ciuri from Terraza dell’Etna. Recommended for a quality home-style meal.
The next day, we walked around the Ballaro street market, which was a true feast of sights and aromas, and highly recommended. We immediately purchased a bag of gorgeous little forest strawberries at .90 euro and soon sat down at a market stall that was crowded but the food we ordered was barely edible – little fried bits of different kinds of seafood mostly (cuttlefish, smelt, etc). There just wasn’t anything particularly enjoyable about it; the fish might have been fresh but the frying oil tasted spent.
Following Katie Perla’s recommendation, we sought out a wine bar for a continuation of lunch but, rather by mistake, ended up at Antica Focaccia San Francesco. Neither of us ordered the classic spleen focaccia and instead ordered a plate of local cheese and cured meats and a salad with smoked swordfish. Both were far better than expected and, combined with the wine (negoiant Cussumo Grillo), helped compensate for the lackluster market meal.
Dinner was a bit of a loss because we failed to make reservations and all of the places that we wanted to eat were booked solid. However, we did stumble on an outstanding wine bar that is a must if you’re into small, family-owned producers. Wine with charm and authenticity is something we seek out and we really enjoyed a selection of natural wine at a Champagneria tucked into a line of bars on a back alley near the Theatro Massimo.
The next day we rented a car to head south to Agrigento but first stopped in Cefalu, a really beautiful town and well worth a few days if beaches and relaxing are your thing. We enjoyed a good lunch, a fresh salad with smoked tonno (albacore) and a salad of melon and prosciutto and were on our way.
When in doubt on Sicily about the tourist-level of the restaurant or the skills in the kitchen, go simple and raw. If you have the time, as we did in Taormina, stop in at lunch and have a light snack of dishes you think will demonstrate the quality of product and the skill in preparation.
We stayed two nights at Feudo Muxarello, which is an agriturismo tucked in the remote hills about 45 minutes north of Agrigento. The accommodations were fine – nothing spectacular – but the hosts (a couple, and their four kids) were very sweet, even though our lack of Italian made communicating a challenge, but worth it in the end. We enjoyed two meals at the place, largely because it was so remote and there were no restaurants nearby. The meals were hearty, home-style Sicilian meals and very compelling! The first night was an intimate meal with just the family (kids departed after their pasta). It included a hearty serving of homemade pasta with baby fennel sugo and a generous serving (or two) of Parmgiani. I’ve never been a big fan of eggplant, but this was delicious enough to change my mind. The second night, several more couples arrived from across Europe bringing an interesting array of experiences and opinions to the table. The meal included another pasta with eggplant and veal sugo; the main course was roast lamb and potatoes, garnished with fresh house-made ricotta. Dessert was notable: homemade pistachio cannoli. Both dinners we’re served with wine from the property, the white was an orange wine of Grillo, the red a Nerello Cappucio. Of note: the wines are made using the natural process, so much so that they don’t even contain sulfites. They paired perfectly with the food and never resulted in any morning haze. In fact, the farm itself is as close to a registered biodynamic property as they come without the paperwork—balanced fields, respect for the terrior and pest/herbicide free. Do they bury a bone on the full moon? Probably not, they’re more practical than that. However, they do grow nearly all the food they serve. The breakfasts were good, the usual buffet of cold cuts, cheeses, breads, fruits, and yogurt… and, of course, cappuccino. Recommended if you are in that part of Sicily: visit the Valley of the Temples, an amazingly restored set of ancient ruins and gardens.
On the drive to Modica we made the obligatory detour to Piazza Armenia to see the Roman mosaics and, damn, they were amazing. Famished after the long visit, we stopped for lunch at Trattoria La Routa, which is just outside of the historic site. We had fairly low expectations, but the meal was good and hearty. I recommend the braised rabbit, apparently it is a house specialty. The grilled pork sausage wheel was a surprise hit with deep, well-spiced porky goodness throughout. Not to let the pig down, we also enjoyed a deeply rich pork ragu pasta. The wine again, a negoiant. Which leads to the question of why, with so many small, local outstanding producers of wine, does nearly every menu consist of Planeta, Cussimo or “Grande Vino”? We joked that maybe the mafia still has a hold on a couple of businesses, wine distribution being one.
We stayed at Hotel Cavacello, which is about 15 minutes outside of Modica, on the road to the beach. They serve a nice dinner with a menu that changes nightly, for 22 euro (meat) or 27 euro (fish). The fried swordfish wasn’t all that great but the Sicilian lemon cream pasta with bottarga was memorable. The breakfast was good, including some house-baked dishes. Recommended (the hotel staff were very nice and helpful).
The following afternoon we lunched at Cappero in Modica and had a very good meal. Fresh ingredients and thoughtful preparation without being too fussy. Notable dishes included a pumpkin and wild nettle lasagna, risotto sepia, and grilled black pork on chicories. I bet dinner is quite good too.
We indulged in gelato and picked up some chocolates at Bottega Sicula, across the street from the more famous Dolceria Bonajuto. The chocolate gelato was nearly black. No complaints here.
That same evening we dined at Duomo in Ragusa and went full-boar with the Movimiento menu (190 euro). After spending that much for dinner (nearly as much as I ever spent for a meal), I wish that I could write an unqualified endorsement, but the results were rather mixed. The staff was helpful and professional and the wine pairings were good but not sublime (nor did they feature particularly rare or high-end wines). There were some dishes that justified the price and Michelin stars (two, I believe) including the famed citrus pasta (made with citrus flavored herbs such as verbena and lemon thyme), topped with ground mixture almond, cinnamon and bottarga, pickled herring with blood orange supremes over truffle whipped cream wrapped in little cheese crisps, and these precious little savory cannoli topped with a raw red shrimp and garnished with just the right amount of caviar. But at least two of the dishes were subpar, including the final savory dish, a black pork that was profoundly overcooked (think very well-done). It also missed in the pairing with a bit-too-lean Legrein from Alto Adige. A Sicilian red from the north slope of Mt. Etna would have been better received and demonstrated the power of Etna’s volcanic soils. In hindsight I should have sent it back, but 8 courses in I was already done. In the end a very good meal but not deserving of the stars or the price tag. They also serve meals ala carte.
We took a relatively quick drive from Modica to Zafferena, skipping past Noto and Siracusa, both of which were on the agenda, but will have to wait until next time. The goal for visiting this part of the island was to taste wine at some of the interesting and excellent Mount Enta wineries, but in that regard we were mostly unsuccessful. I failed to make appointments well in advance and so I was unable to get tours/tastings (they were either full or didn’t answer their phone) for Foti, Delle Terre, or Corneliessen. Instead, we popped into Don Saro and got an appointment at Barone Villagrande. Although I know next to nothing about the wineries or their wine-making practice, I thought both produced good wines. Interestingly enough, the most distinctive wine I tasted that afternoon was a Merlot with ~10% Nero D’Avola by Villagrande; I’m bringing this one home to cellar for a while. The whites were all pleasant but none a revelation. The Pinot Nero from Saro was good, unique, and pretty rustic and thus threw rather a lot of sediment when we drank it before leaving the island. I should say in an aside that I didn’t take too much time to plan winery visits because I had assumed that the good, interesting wines of Sicily would be readily available at the better restaurants on the island. In this I was wrong: I found it exceedingly difficult to find some of the wines that I had been seeking and, in fact, never found many anywhere. The lists at even good restos are dominated by your Planetas, etc.; the wines are typically enjoyable, but not what I was hoping to experience. Next time I’ll make certain to do more research and plan better!
By the way, we stayed at a small but well-run inn called Antico Borgo Petralia. This is a family-run affair and is highly recommended. The rooms are simple and the beds a bit firm, but the hosts, and especially their daughters who run the front-end, are warm and very helpful – they go the extra mile, actually. We had dinner there one night and it was good, county food if a little too generous on the portions!
First off: I’ve read so many negative accounts of Taormina that I nearly canceled my hotel and made plans for staying elsewhere. Thank goodness I stuck with my original plan, as Taormina is a true gem. Yes, the main street is a tourist nightmare of epic proportions and yes it can be nearly impossible to find your hotel amidst the tangle of streets and steep hillsides, but the rewards are worth the sacrifices. First off, if you can muster it, book yourself into a good hotel, a bit off the beaten path. We stayed at the Hotel Belvedere, which I’d highly recommend. The grounds were gorgeous, the pool area relaxing, and the rooms clean, comfortable, and beautiful – the view out of my room was addicting, even. And the breakfast at the hotel was excellent, the best I had on the island.
The first afternoon we wondered through the streets hungry. Coming across a nice display of fresh fish we plopped ourselves down without even first checking the online reviews. The name of the place is called La Grotta Azurra. We started with ricci (urchin) bruschetta, which was lovely after letting the flavors seep into the bread, then a big bowl of nicely steamed fresh mussels, and ended with a few grilled scampi. The seafood was very fresh and the diners around us seemed to be enjoying their meals too, so we made a reservation for lunch the following day and resolved to have a grilled lobster. We knew that we were going to self-cater a cheap dinner that next evening (not wanting to waste the view for the hotel room!), so we splurged on a big lunch: a crudo platter with scampi (large, clawed, hard shell shrimp), ahi, and “truffle” clams (all good, although the clams might have been better steamed); big plates of ricci spaghetti, which we devoured; and finally that generous grilled lobster, perfectly cooked, accompanied only by a dousing of warmed up olive oil with garlic. I later checked their Tripadvisor review and the place ranked somewhere around 85 of 250+ restos in town. My sample size is small, but I’d place it rather higher on the list.
In between those two lunches, we had dinner at Vineria Modi, which was ranked much higher in Tripadvisor than the lunch resto and came with some good recommendations from this website too. The meal consisted of, for starters, little raw red shrimp (gamberi rossi) accented with tiny slices of candied orange peel, orange crean and grated ricotta salata and expertly grilled octopus set in creamed potatoes; we shared the pasta course which was a very seasonal orechetti pasta in an English pea emulsion with a few gamberi rossi added; the mains were tuna grilled very rare set in a delicious burnt onion cream and Sicilian seafood soup filled with shrimp, mussels, scampi, and an unknown local fish (the fish, alas, was the one negative in the meal: I found the bones too small to really pick out but too big to swallow – I ended up leaving most of the fish, slightly mangled, on the plate). The wine selections at this resto happily bucked the trend of only big houses and featured smaller producers from around the island; we had a Tenuta di Castellaro “Bianco Pomice,” a refreshingly crisp white, I believe, from the Aeolian Islands.
All in all a very good food experience in Taormina – really, it far exceeded expectations. The rest of the island was quite enjoyable too, except for those extra pasta-related pounds acquired. If (and when) I visit again, I’d spend all of my time of the beautiful eastern coast of the island and make plenty of reservations to visit wineries well in advance!
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