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Restaurants & Bars

Sicily trip debrief (w bonus Rome content)

NY350GT | Sep 3, 201907:41 AM     11

Given there is a lack of resources on restaurants in Sicily figured I'd share a writeup I did on the back of our recent 12-day trip.

General notes:
The restaurants below are listed in the same order in which we visited them (with the exception of Grano and Salumeria Roscioli which we ate at on the front end of the Sicily trip). This (to an extent) colored our perception of some of the dishes.

Basic approach was to tilt restaurant selection towards those serving the things we like to eat on vacation (raw, marinated and grilled seafood) and away from things we normally don’t (small delicate beautifully-plated dishes typically offered by Euro Michelin-starred restaurants). Convenience was generally a tertiary consideration (the only convenience-driven pick was Villa Carlotta’s restaurant, as we didn’t want to go out to eat after travelling all day). We also generally ignored the “you have to eat XXX, because it is a regional specialty” advice.

All the commentary below is purely subjective, in the sense that it reflects our view of what constitutes an enjoyable meal and good cooking practices. It doesn’t take into account how closely dishes come to some sort of a paragon ideal or compare to versions produced by competitor kitchens, as we don’t have the local knowledge/context (this is probably less of an issue for most writeups other than Cesare al Casaletto).
Outside of a couple of last-minute lunches, all meals were booked ~1mo in advance. Would definitely recommend making reservations for all dinners.

Villa Carlotta Restaurant (Taormina)

Key takeaways: The clear least favorite meal of the trip in terms of food quality. Would only go back for drinks (which we did). Great view. Great service.

Logistics: Dinner. EUR180 w 2 glasses of sparkling, a EUR35 bottle of Sicilian white, and a EUR10 dessert wine. On the roof of Villa Carlotta hotel.

Ordered: Raw red shrimp (the highlight as the kitchen didn’t have to cook them and didn’t get a chance to screw them up; but was probably the weakest red shrimp preparation out of the five restaurants where we ordered them). Spaghetti moorish style (basically spaghetti w a ton of bottarga, overly salty and a weird texture). Black rice (tasted like wild rice w 4 reasonably well-prepared shrimp on top). Octopus (overcooked to the point where was sent back). Tuna (the octopus replacement, told the kitchen not to overcook it and ended up w a cold middle; if I cooked a tuna steak like this I’d sleep on the couch). Pork three ways (how many ways can you overcook and oversalt pork - that’s right, 3 out of 3; but at least edible, which counts as a win in the context of this dinner). Tiramisu was actually enjoyable, if a bit meh. On the bright side, the wine recommendations were on point. Dinner would have been better w the same alcohol selection and a Kind bar (we discussed at length). A Happy Meal (even absent a toy) was also suggested as a favorable alternative.
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La Bottega del Formaggio (Taormina)

Key takeaways: A generally enjoyable somewhat functional meal. Would probably go back, though this is as much of an indictment of Taormina’s dining scene (x-Michelin-starred restaurants) as anything else.

Logistics: Dinner. EUR70 w a EUR28 bottle of Etna red. Sat on the roof. Booked via hotel.

Ordered: No real menu choice per se, just a pick of one of the cold cut platters (come in 3 sizes (S/M/L) and include either meat, cheese (or both) and vegetables. The vegetables (which I was ambivalent about initially) were the highlight: eggplant and peppers both excellent. Cold cuts (both meat and cheese) were good/enjoyable, though not on the level of Salumeria Roscioli’s much more expensive platter. Ricotta w honey (which effectively functioned as a dessert) was outstanding. Dessert itself wasn’t memorable.
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Nero D’avola (Taormina)

Key takeaways: A solid meal, but felt a bit expensive for the level of cooking, more so after eating elsewhere on the island. Would probably eat at again. Service generally ok, but the pacing of dishes a bit off.

Logistics: Dinner. EUR215 w 2 bottles of Etna white (one EUR45, one EUR28). Sat on the ground floor patio. Booked via hotel.

Ordered: Marinated/raw red shrimp (very fresh, served heavier on the olive oil mixture than at other places, absolutely delicious). Liked it so much that followed up w a marinated seafood platter (combines several types of fish carpaccio w 4 of the same shrimp). Might have liked the shrimp so much because was only the second time we were having them on the vacation (and because this was a clearly superior preparation to VC’s the night prior). Fried porcini mushrooms (excellent, gave me ideas for my own cooking mostly revolving around “use even more oil”). Two pastas (one was w a shorter pasta with a seafood mix the other maccheroni w octopus in red sauce). Both pastas were serviceable, but unexceptional, with overcooked seafood, though not atrociously so. Swordfish rolls (enjoyable, mostly reminds me of a breaded kefta or a fish cutlet). Dessert wasn’t memorable (possibly because was served as we were finishing off the second bottle of wine).
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Apollonion Osteria da Carlo (Syracuse)

Key takeaways: An absolutely excellent meal at a silly low price point. Was voted (subjectively) the most enjoyable meal of the trip by one of us (not to be confused w “best food”). Cooked dishes actually superior to excellent Sakalleo’s (swordfish recipe better than S’s tuna steak; mussels have better broth than S’s and a touch more delicately cooked; fried course more enjoyable; pasta probably a touch better-to-comparable). Would absolutely go back. Service functional. Was one of the two most local restaurants of the trip (the other was I Sapori).

Logistics: EUR95 with a EUR25 bottle of Sicilian white. Sat inside (they do have one table outside in the narrow street but we wouldn’t bother w it).

Ordered: A kaiseki restaurant with 6-7(?) courses for EUR35pp including bottled mineral water and digestif/coffee. Raw course (red shrimp - excellent; oysters - superb and for once actually improved by addition of a sauce (some sort of a slightly citrusy olive-oil based one); anchovies - very good; smoked swordfish - very good). Giant bowl of mussels and clams (some of the best if not THE best mussels we’ve ever had, not overcooked and with an excellent broth with tomato adding a welcome touch of acidity). Fried course (calamari - excellent, light batter and tender meat; and what looked like v large fried anchovies which were good). Swordfish steak (fantastic, in an absolutely delicious caramelized sweet onion sauce). Seafood spaghetti (mussels, clams, shrimp; impressively the seafood was NOT overcooked; pasta and butter-based sauce w some tomatoes both excellent). “Crushed cannoli” was the more memorable of the two deserts, was exactly what it sounds like and was very good.
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Sama (Marzamemi, a ~45-min drive from Syracuse).

Key takeaways: Good food (though everything we ordered was raw or marinated, so don’t know how their cooking is), but the service is a bit “transactional” (difficult to put your finger on what exactly was off). Not sure compelling enough to go back to given the drive from Syracuse.

Logistics: EUR110 w a EUR35 bottle of Etna white. Booked via hotel. Sat outside (note the restaurant doesn’t really have a sea view). Park in the large lot nearby; it starts filling up by 7:30pm (restaurants in the village seem to open for dinner at 8:00pm). Be very careful leaving town if using Waze, as it leads you into some very narrow intersections that a mid-size car might not be able to navigate.

Ordered: Raw red shrimp (very good; but aren’t they good everywhere?). Marinated(?) octopus (OK, probably even “good” in the big scheme of things, but we are v picky w octopus having had many excellent versions over the years). Langoustines (very fresh, sweet, and delicious). Swordfish carpaccio (good, not memorable). Tuna tartare (good, not memorable)
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Caseificio Borderi (Syracuse)

We didn’t originally plan to go, but were convinced to try it by a Michigan family who were raving about it. Key takeaway: a really good sandwich but not sure would go out of our way for it (which you kind of have to - we waited in line ~30min at 10:30am). Definitely a steal for EUR6 for a sandwich that can reasonably feed two people. Note we didn’t try Borderi’s cold cuts platter which is supposedly excellent.
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Sakalleo

Key takeaways: One of the best seafood restaurants we’ve ever been to (though this is biased in favour of prioritizing the raw and grilled parts of the menu). Not only would go to again, but make the same 2+hour detour to make it happen. An absolute steal at EUR110 for lunch w a bottle of semi-sparkling wine the owner recommended (to the point where I am still wondering if we got undercharged). One of us enjoyed it as much as Le Bernardin. Was so good and w such large portions that we ended up cancelling the dinner reservation for that evening. Service excellent.

Logistics: EUR 110 w a bottle of ~EUR20 wine. Booked via hotel. Sat inside (the restaurant is up a flight of stairs).

Ordered: Another kaiseki restaurant, with an appetizer degustation (which is in itself enough food for a full meal), and with primi and secondi available as bolt-ons. Raw plate (oysters - very good but we probably liked Apollonion’s a touch more; pink shrimp, red shrimp, langoustines - all three superb, somehow materially better than Sama’s; smoked tuna and swordfish - excellent, easily on par with the best stuff at the Russ & Daughters Café in NYC; some awesome white fish in mayo(?)). Fried plate (very lightly battered tender calamari; similarly light fish cakes; grilled anchovies; overall still excellent but less immediately impressive than the raw plate). Tuna steak (absolutely perfectly grilled, though I kind of prefer my own version w bolder flavors and sesame seeds to give texture). Fried larger anchovies (good but still makes me miss Algarve sardines). Marinated octopus (better than Sama’s but again probably a touch short of best-in-class). Mussels and little clams (mussels v good but we liked Apollonia’s broth and preparation a touch more). Primo we split - white spaghetti w mussels (superb). Secondi was grilled larger shrimp and a larger langoustine (both perfect, on par with best Lisbon examples).
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Lounge Beach Scala dei Turchi (Realmonte; ~15min drive from Agrigento)

A last-minute lunch, as we skipped dinner the night prior after overdosing on seafood at Sakalleo. Very competently prepared food: marinated octopus, fried mixed seafood platter and seafood fish fillets. Also introduced us to Franciarota sparkling (a EUR40 bottle tasted on par w something like a base Tattinger and notably better than base Moet/Clicquot).
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Il Salmoriglio (Porto Empedocle; ~10min drive from Agrigento)

Key takeaways: An absolutely stunning dinner. One of two biggest positive surprises (w Apollonion) and top two outright preparation quality (w Il Convivo). Every single dish could be served at Le Bernardin and wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Better execution than a large share of NYC’s Michelin-starred places we’ve been to. Even more amazing at EUR135. Would overnight near Porto Empedocle just to go to dinner here. Stunning, stunning, stunning! Special shout out to Ziggy of eatingwithziggy.com, who flagged the place in his writing. Service good.

Logistics: EUR135 w a ~EUR30 Sicilian Chardonnay. Booked via hotel. Sat outside in a little fenced off area on the town’s main street.

Ordered: One of the apps was by far the best steak tartare we’ve ever had (more finely chopped than usual, and served w watermelon and impressively spicy but not overpowering mustard). The other app was a “tapas carousel” w 5 raw bites (all sashimi-sized and all fantastic - scallops, smoked mackerel, anchovy, an oyster, and chopped swordfish - all would not be out of place at Kanoyama (our absolute favorite NYC place for new-school omakase)) and one cooked app (a vaguely familiar Japanese-tasting dish w plenty of umami and finished w bonito flakes). The primi were an anchovy pasta (could be argued the single best pasta I’ve ever had, though I would struggle to explain why exactly) and risotto w raw red shrimp (delicious creamy risotto balancing the sweet shrimp). We shared the main which was a fish of the day (some modestly sized white fish) and was absolutely fresh and impeccably cooked. Don’t remember what the desserts were called but they were both very refined and great.
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I Sapori (kind of middle of nowhere; next to Alcamo).

Key takeaways: A really enjoyable dinner, would definitely go back if overnighting within driving distance. A combo of a salumeria and a butcher’s shop that’s also a restaurant. Great high-end beer list, a welcome change from drinking wine all of the prior week (we picked a Moretti Grand Cru which was excellent). Everything cooked on a grill in the back of the dining room by a guy who looks to be the owner. Was probably the most “local” place we went to on the trip. Was packed with natives on Sunday night. Service very good.

Logistics: EUR85 w a EUR12 bottle of beer. Booked via hotel. Sat in the deli room.

Ordered: Steak tartare (massive portion - think 230gr, a bit plain for our taste but not unenjoyable). Tried off-menu lamb skewers (think yakitori-sized or NYC’s Le Sia’s but without the cumin, a bit gamy, a bit tough, but overall not bad). Split a bisteca florentine (1.1kg bone-in at something like EUR45/kg; very good porterhouse, tasted grass fed and aged though not sure was either, both filet and strip sides excellent and perfectly cooked to medium rare). White pork sausage (excellent).

As a bonus, here’s feedback on the restaurants where we ate in Rome on the front end (Grano, Salumeria Roscioli) and back end (Cesare al Casaletto, Il Convivo, Emma) of the Sicily trip.

Grano

Key takeaways: First dinner of the trip. Our initial take was that Grano is very competent, but w no dish really exceptional. But this impression drifted in a more positive direction as the vacation progressed. Definitely a worthwhile place to visit (and we’ll be back), especially early in the trip where it would serve to reset expectations for what good Italian food should taste like (esp. pasta which was one of the best). Fairly priced for what it is. Good service. Saw people on line complain about eur15 service fee, but wasn’t in our bill.

Logistics: Dinner. EUR165 w EUR62 bottle of Barolo. Sat outside facing a little quite plaza. Booked direct.

Ordered: Eggplant (good w a disclaimer that we don’t know what it’s actually supposed to taste like). Tuna tartar (good, fish v fresh). Spaghetti carbonara (v good, bacon enjoyably crispy). Spaghetti w uni sauce (v good pasta; great sauce). Lamb (meat of the more gamy variety, impeccably cooked). Millefeuille for dessert (basically a Russian Napoleon; very good). The Barolo (a seemingly nothing-special 2015) was the most enjoyable wine bottle of the trip.
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Salumeria Roscioli

Key takeaways: Really excellent. Just like Grano [above] gets better the more you think about it. Will definitely be back. Great service.

Logistics: Dinner. EUR200 w a EUR75 bottle of Barolo and a dessert grappa. Sat in the wine cellar, which is tight but not to an extent where it’s a problem. Booked direct (was the only restaurant to take a deposit).

Ordered: Tripe Roman style (wow, perfectly cooked w amazing texture; much better than La Conde Verde NYC version (the one place where we tried something similar) and positively crushes Cesare al Casaletto’s take on the same dish). Zucchini blossom stuffed w oxtail (fantastic and shocking it actually stays together and doesn’t leak; better than Emma’s mozzarella-stuffed version and vastly better than C-al-C’s). Italian black pork cold cuts platter (everything besides Parma was anywhere from excellent to best-we’ve-ever-had). Extra-baller anchovies (really impressive if not necessarily worth EUR30, appreciated the choice of yuzu butter which intensified the umami flavor and vanilla butter which moderated it). Mozzarella w bottarga (great). Barolo was good, but not as exceptional as the one at Grano. Grappa (amber) as dessert wine was excellent, never had anything like it. Ended up talking to the waiter about it at which point he had me try a bunch of flavor-infused grappas which were all v interesting. Special props to hard liquor list - whoever picks it knows his stuff or at least has tastes that closely align with my own: cognac is A.E.Dor; calvados is Camut; scotch is Highland Park. Best in class each. Respect.
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Cesare al Casaletto

Key takeaways: Probably the most disappointing of the dinners, given the restaurant’s status as the food blogosphere’s darling. The dishes with direct counterparts at other restaurants (carbonara at Grano, roman-style tripe at Roscioli, zucchini blossoms) were generally inferior to peer comps. All of this this with a disclaimer that: (A) we don’t necessarily know what the dishes are supposed to taste like; (B) we don’t know how other trattorias execute them; (C) none of the dishes were obviously deficient per se; (D) the quality/price ratio suffers once you bake in 2xEUR15-20 of taxi to the hotel which is obv our own choice/fault. That said, the wine list is very impressive, the staff is knowledgeable and the service good.

Logistics: EUR120 w EUR35 bottle of Barbaresco. Booked via hotel. Sat outside.

Ordered: Fried calamari (excellent; v fresh calamari, well fried in fresh oil w light batter, not overcooked). Zucchini blossoms (the weakest of the three blossom dishes we’ve had (vs. Roscioli’s and Emma’s), partially due to the stuffing and partially due to the batter which didn’t really work for us). Eggplant croquets (good). Note that primi portions are massive, so we shared two half portions. One was spaghetti carbonara (wasn’t as good as Grano’s version, not as “clean” tasting, overly salty and less buttery, w less crisp bacon). The other was ravioli in oxtail sauce (same issues of overly salty and a bit overpowering sauce). Roman style tripe (not necessarily bad, but not as silky as Roscioli’s, w a bit more chewiness and too much pecorino and/or salt) Oxtail (generally ok, but all the same issues w not loving the flavor profile of the tomato sauce, which once again erred on the salty side)
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Il Convivo Troiani

Key takeaways: Spoils us on NYC Michelin-starred dining scene. Food is excellent, with everything cooked impeccably well and best dishes having a well-judged playfulness. Il Convivo also gets right all the extras that add to the overall dining experience: the tasteful décor, the reasonable table separation, the appropriate sound level, high waiter:table ratio (3:6). Think all the things that places like Ichimura do so well. Would very much like to return and check out the balance of the menu. Service perfect. Wine list is absurdly sized.

Logistics: EUR440 w a EUR175 bottle of Barolo. Booked via hotel.

Ordered: In general, the kitchen seems to do the more flavorful/gamy dishes consistently better than it does the more subtle ones (steak tartare> artichoke, mushroom risotto>prawn pasta, pigeon>turbot). This is not to knock the execution, which is impeccable either way, but more of our own subjective preference. Raw Marango beef (think steak tartare tacos - it isn’t really, but is probably the closest approximation; superb). Jerusalem artichoke (as the menu says “like an artichoke”, though probably more “like really nice potato chips”). Porcini mushrooms risotto w veal sweetbreads (absolutely sick; the best primi of the trip). Ajo e ojo (prawn pasta, excellent and quite possibly the best pasta of the trip but not nearly as good as the risotto). Pigeon cooked multiple ways: ravioli in pigeon broth, sashimi, fried-chicken style, roasted breast (phenomenal overall; reminded me of how Le Coucou in NYC does rabbit, but vastly better). Turbot cooked multiple ways (perfectly executed, but w a recipe that’s a bit on the subtle side and hence losing the head-to-head comp to the pigeon in a rout). Dessert (excellent; essentially a deconstructed tiramisu)
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Emma Pizzeria

Key takeaways: Amazing. We don’t know if there is a pizzeria in Rome that is 10% or 20% better, but to someone coming from NYC and well-versed in the NYC pizza scene (from Song E Napoli to Mama’s Too) this place is mind-blowing. Perfect thin crust and very high-quality toppings.

Logistics: EUR55. Booked via hotel. Sat outside.

Ordered: Zucchini flowers w fresh mozzarella (really enjoyable). Zibello & Bufala (amazing). Napoli e Bufala (amazing).

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