Its surprisingly difficult to get started on a report on our recent 16 day Western Sicily trip, ending May 14 – we moved around a lot and are still thinking quite a lot about what we saw did and ate. In general it was a fascinating place to visit, a great time of year, and we ate very well, a cuisine that was quite different from that of the other parts of Italy we have visited.
We were surprised that much of the the pasta in the restaurants we visited was fresh and handmade, not factory made. At the west end of the island, busiate (an ornate twisted form) and casarecce, a sort of doubled tubular shape prevailed, while in modica/ragusa the shapes tended to be more solid. Contorni were sparse – while I had read that antipasti were not traditional in sicily, they were commonly offered where we visited and were the best way to experience the varied vegetable and fish preparations, salumis, and cheese of the region, as well as interesting bread treatments. On the coast the fish and seafood was wonderful, inland pork and cheese seemed prevalent. Finally, fresh mint was frequently used which we greatly enjoyed, especially with swordfish tuna and other fish dishes and in the potato croquettes.
We started our visit in Trapani, the largest city in the west, attracted by the large number of slowfood restaurants in the town and its reputation for excellent food as well as its convenience and long history. The historic part of the town is long and skinny – we stayed in the old ghetto area at the landward end of the historic part and ZTL While the immediate area was less buffed up than some other areas, our Airbnb was fine, a good base for walking around the town and close to several of the good restaurants we were interested in. Note, as with many Italian towns the center was somewhat depopulated and (especially arriving on a Saturday afternoon of the May 1 holiday weekend) we did not find a solid food shopping area near our apartment, but we were able to find enough cheeseand fruit (local strawberries and a bag of unfamiliar nespoli (loquats), given us by a kind grocer) with a bottle of the local zibbibo (light, sweet, a little oxidized) to meet our needs along with bread scavenged from our restaurant bread baskets!
Cantina Siciliana was our first (and third) dining stop in Sicily and a great start. This is a historic slowfood restaurant with kind servers (as I recall the menu had English translations) and a whiz of a host running around and opening bottles so people could taste the (predominantly white) wines. We initially ordered a bottle from our server – she recommended a local chardonnay, but I note that most patrons were ordering by the glass, the better to try different things and this is the way we went on our second visit. Its just a shame that this wine maven is a bit shy with English speakers he was such a charming enthusiast and the wines are excellent. Nothing served at this place in two dinners was less than very good most dishes were excellent - the a pasta con le sarde made with the chewy casarecce and plenty of fragrant wild fennel leaves, certainly the best version of this dish I had ever experienced and a wonderful dish overall,, a busiate dish with a creamy sauce of tuna eggs (uova di tonno and almonds (picture provided) , a delicious roasted calamari.. We had two slightly different versions of the house caponata with black honey and almonds, the first had more pepper and tomato intensity, the second was part of a mixed veg appetizer, recommended. Sicilians excel at frying and the use of bread crumbs – the roasted fish panati (lightly breaded) were particularly good here. It takes a delicate touch to roast a breaded fish without overcooking the fish (very thin slices of swordfish and other fishes) or burning the crumbs. Id go back in a minute.
Our Sunday night dinner was at Hostaria San Pietro a little and more informal place in the same area which I'd originally seen mentioned in a Saveur article https://www.saveur.com/sicily-italy-a.... Since we did not have a res, we made sure to get there right at opening (owners were hanging around in front amusing themselves with a street cat and her kittens when we, the first comers arrived but thankfully they had room for us, The deal at this place is the mixed appetizer platter (picture provided) showing clearly the north African influence in the design, and the very typical sweet and sour flavor palette in the very good caponata and marinated fish dishes. We drank a carafe of the house white (probably grillo), along with his cuscus (ample seafood but not as good IMO as the Cantina’s) and my wonderful plate of busiate with swordfish and eggplant. This was a perfectly balanced dish with the mild fishiness of the swordfish, the light tomato sauce, the puffs of fried eggplant and the mint (picture included).
There is a considerable passagiata in the historic part of this town, in the bars along the south waterfront and inland from there. Most of the touristic action seems to be out near the tip of the land, where Ai Lumi, Caupona Taverni di Sicilia and quite a number of other restaurants are situated. On our last night we we walked around past many of these, including Trattoria Corso, closer to home before concluding that we would be happiest returning to the Cantina for our final meal.
Note, we never did try pastry in this town but were intrigued by glimpses of the pastries in Pasticceria La Rinascente di Costadura in the window, some of which appeared to be almost middle eastern looking layered confections, as well as genovese (they also seem to be offering the more typical traditional specialties) – Trapani is reputed to have the best cannoli in sicily at the Euro Bar Dattilo in the burbs, unfortunately we did not ven try to make it there, nor to Trattoria del Sale or Agriturismo Vultaggio.
Day trips from Trapani were to Erice (via the funicular, a LONG walk from the center but a fun ride) and to fascinating Mozia followed by a late lunch in Marsala (no wine visiting, alas).
In Erice, we were very happy with our Sunday lunch at Gli Archi di San Carlo, which is situated in the part of the old San Carlo monastery where Maria Grammitico labored as a child. It is quite a new entry in the slowfood guide and well worth a visit in that offputtingly touristy town center. We enjoyed lovely fragrant whites from the Erice DOC vineyards, grillo and cattaratto (the latter the Fazio Calebianche label) and particularly liked a mixed appetizer plate with delicious cold favas cooked with mint (the first of several fava experiences), delicate fried cheese ( cotolette di tuma) mini “pizzas”, a fine caponata and very interesting polpetti of wild fennel. My busiate alla trapanese with red shrimp was excellent, I should have skipped the featured dessert as I had no appetite when we passed by Maria Grammatico’s shop a half hour later (two pictures included, one of her famous Genovese pastry.
In Marsala (it was a holiday Monday with several closings and late too) we landed at Da Pino, a slowfood trattoria with an ample buffet which was a bit depleted by the time we hit it. Very convivial and friendly several big family parties in progress, the opportunity to choose your fish from a case of pristine specimens and a keg of marsala by the door. We ordered the appetizer, pasta and one smallish fish, which the waiter carefully filleted for us. Id definitely go back but was disappointed by my pasta – I ordered pasta con le sarde – but it was a version with fish and tomato sauce which I didn’t much take to, not the lovely classic with fennel, pine nuts, etc.