Eating My Way Through Sicily
Stay in medieval monasteries converted into world-class hotels and villas. View picture perfect medieval towns climbing up mountainsides. Explore unique Baroque cathedrals incorporating aspects from all its conquerors, Byzantine to Norman. Taste food so fresh it still has a garden fragrance. Drink wine with the proud vintner showing off his carefully trimmed vines. This is how I always imagined Sicily and this is the Sicily I found.
Getting there reminded me of old jokes about Italian efficiency. The flight into Rome was on time, to Palermo anything but. Even finding the obscure gate was a challenge and not for anyone without a strong pair of legs. The flight left hours late, no explanation given. Finding our luggage in Palermo was yet another issue. One bag mysteriously disappeared for several hours. It eventually reappeared--again, no explanation given.
However, once outside the airport, even in a light drizzle and cloudy, the impression of beauty and history was immediately apparent. The history of Sicily is the history of Europe, from the Punic wars to Carthaginian domination, to Greek settlement and the Roman Empire. Through the domination of the Moors for 300 years to the Bourbons, the Normans and the Byzantine Empire, Sicily has been the jewel in the crown of civilizations.
With all this history, Palermo is a jumble of architectural styles, old streets in the historic quarter ending in magnificent courtyards, often an open and outdoor museum. Our delightful local guide, Roberta, imparted enough enthusiasm to keep even our weary jet-lagged bodies going. Our first stop, after driving through late Sunday morning traffic, was a quick stop at the special Palantine chapel. First we explored the amazing Byzantine mosaics of Santa Maria. Then on to the unique Sicilian Baroque style of St. Catherine. The influence of centuries and great empires can be traced through a tour of religious architecture in Palermo.
After nothing but airplane food for 24 hours, our first taste of Sicily was rather urgently anticipated. We were not disappointed. The four-star Excelsior Palace hotel, located in the shopping district of Palermo, served our very hungry and thirsty group a delightful range of tastes. We started with a plate of lovely little tastes, curly little pastas in fresh tomato sauce, a choice of grilled eggplant or breaded meat served with rosemary potatoes on a crispy shell, rich ricotta pie for desert. Washed down with a local wine, of course. No surprise that 11 tired travelers napped on the bus ride up into the hills to our wonderful “estate” the Relais Sant’Anastasia.
This restored Benedectine monastery, with original walls dating from the 11th century, is the epitome of country elegance. Its 29 rooms, each one unique, are charming and comfortable, with hardwood floors, tiled bathrooms, country-style furniture. There was nothing rustic or unsophisticated about our dinner, though, served in the adjoining Ristorante La Corte dell Albate. From the quiche-like fresh ricotta and mushroom starter to the rich creamy wild berries parfait the dinner was superb. It didn't hurt that the accompanying Sicilian wine was tart and tasty. I doubt there will be time to go hungry or thirsty on this trip. I just hope there will be time tomorrow to see our wonderful abbey and its surrounding vineyards.
Cefalu and Other Hidden Places
The next day started out very cloudy, with fog and penetrating dampness. Walking across the cobblestone courtyard to our breakfast room the thick air had an almost magical quality. Our morning repast was a little late, as our host had to wait for the fresh bread to finish baking. To go with the wonderful bread, still warm from the oven, were fresh cheeses, fruit, coffee and teas, thinly sliced ham, cereals, marmalades and spreads.
Today's adventures started off with a drive along the northern coast. With the fog lifting, we looked at a spectacular coast line, and postcard-perfect villages built along the sides of lush mountains. We were traveling to parts of Sicily many visitors do not see and it was delightful. The entire valley is dotted with vineyards, the vineyards responsible for last night's wine. We drove along the edge of the national park, with a perfusion of plants among the vineyards.
Our first destination was the charming town of Cefalu, its magnificent cathedral dating from 1131. The frescoes show the Byzantine influence as well as Roman, reflecting the Norman desire to rule both east and west, and their attempts at a religious synthesis. There is a gorgeous, ornate silver alter, weighing in at over 1400 pounds, possibly the most massive in Europe.
The chilly dampness was not conducive to much exploration of Cefalu’s square. Better to stop for a fortifying latte or espresso or, if not chilled by the rain, a pistachio gelato. Plus it was a chance to try some special Sicilian marzipan. (I confess it looked prettier than it tasted, at least to one for whom sweets begin and end with chocolate.)
Sufficiently revived, the next stop was the Mandralisca museum. Once a Baron's house, the Venetian styled home is filled with beautiful works of art, archeological artifacts (including a collection of stuffed birds and once-indigenous animals), and priceless paintings, including the famous Unknown Man by Antonella da Messina. By this time, early afternoon, the sun had poked out and we could enjoy the atmosphere of an old Sicilian town.
Food and Games
Sicily is nothing if not about food. And that includes upholding their reputation for fresh cheese. It does not get any fresher or better than at the dairy farm Azienda Zootechnica Bergi. The setting is as delightful as our hostess Anna. I wish I could remember the names of everything I ate, from the creamy very fresh ricotta to the string cheese-like ball, to several mildly pungent hard cheeses. There was rich yogurt, fresh olives, a half dozen locally made unusual fresh spreads, plus accompanying crusty bread. All this was washed down with homemade wine followed by a huge pan of dessert. And this was a promised “light” lunch!
Fully sated, it was time to explore the streets and local products (more food!) of Castelbuono. Time for tasting unique Pistachio spread on special breads. Time for sharing a little Proseccio in the local bar and providing some amusement for the local bar regulars not used to foreign women invading their domain. Time for joining the centuries old passaggiata along the winding streets before returning to our lovely Relais and another unique dinner.
For this dinner everything except dessert was made of fish: smoked fish with salad, grouper stuffed ravioli in Mediterranean sauce, fish soup, large pieces of local fish in a lightly flavored broth. Chocolate cake with cinnamon oranges. More locally produced wine. I could get used to this.
A Rainy Day in the Hill of Vases
Unfortunately the next day had an ominous start, with thick clouds followed by never-ending rain. We had hoped to admire the amazing wide stone steps inlaid with tiles dating from 1608 that are the highlight of any trip to Caltgirone. The name is derived from Arabic, another example of Sicily’s complex history, meaning Hill of Vases. This is a center of ceramics, a city dotted with shops selling the local wares. Despite the rain, we try to do the town justice, dutifully climbing most of the 142 ceramic-tiled steps dedicated to Santa Maria del Monte, spending a bit in the town shops before ending at a local factory where everything is done by hand. By the time everyone is done with their purchases, the rain is relentless and the drive to Ragusa exhausting. Too bad—the countryside must be stunning.
However, the long drive had a magical ending, the luxurious Eremo della Guibiliana, located in the midst of pristine Sicilian countryside. The once feudal estate dates to the 12th century, eventually becoming a fortified hermitage. Owned by the same family since the 18th century it is now one of Sicily’s most famous places to stay. I doubt the monks ever knew such 5 star luxury. The nooks and crannies, little alcove rooms off the roaring fireplace are inviting, the vaulted dining room an elegant setting for an amazing meal with an equally amazing wine. The bottle said “Nero de’Avola Sicily 2006”, but to only call it by the grape varietal common in Sicily is an injustice. It was our gold standard for more than a few different bottles consumed. Equally amazing was my Mousse al Cioccolato di Modica. Sicily also has its own unique chocolate, delicious under any circumstances (for a confirmed chocoholic) but amazing in this torte-like mousse. In between we savored a just harvested garden salad, freshly made pasta, beef tenderloin (Tagliata di manzo con salsa al Nero d’Avola), stuffed mussels. I could learn to like this.
Ragusa, Siracusa, and Taormina
In case I hadn’t had enough to eat for dinner, the breakfast buffet, lit through the high arched windows by a sun struggling to come out, was another feast. Fruits, yogurt, more wonderful cheese, crusty bread, great coffee, and even some Prosecco if so inclined to start another day of exploration. Now that the rain has stopped, a brief walking tour of our estate reveals its pristine location, unbelievable grounds and the gardens that have fed us so well. This is a place to be savored. However our exploration of Sicily must continue.
Bright sunshine made the previous day's rain a faded memory. Our next stop, Ragusa, is built on the edge of a gorge and consists of upper Ragusa and lower Ragusa Ibla. After exploring the interesting and varied churches surrounding it, the local square or Giardino Ibleo, is the place for an evening stroll. I wish there had been time to sit in one of the surrounding cafes or restaurants, but there was time to have an amazing gelato--dark Sicilian chocolae with chili peppers. That alone would be reason for a return visit.
From Ragusa it was on and up the southeast coast to Siracusa and the island of Ortigia. Under the Greeks, Siracusa became a center of Mediterranean power. Conquest by Rome ended its power, and subsequent waves of conquest had little effect. The great earthquake of 1693 leveled much of the city, and while there are ruins to see, notably the catacombs, and Sicilian Baroque masterpieces, most of the sightseeing is found on the adjoining pedestrian-only peninsula of Ortigia. There the beautiful square, anchored by the cathedral and surrounded by shops and outdoor cafes, evokes the architectural splendor of an ancient Sicilian town. Ortigia is small, but the absence of any cars or busses works as an invitation to wander and explore. There are markets, the skinny streets of the Guidecca, the Piazza Archimede with its fountain depicting Arethusa the symbol of Ortigia, and restored medieval palazzi. It would be nice to linger, but it was getting late and a long drive to Taoarmina.
Arrival in Taormina is nothing short of spectacular. The legendary jewel of Sicily, existing in the shadow of Mt. Etna, is a gem of little streets winding up the mountainside. Big busses are not allowed, only cars and small vans like ours. Even in the dark it is obviously beautiful. In the morning there will be time to explore the history and admire Taormina’s perfect setting, other than the occasional Mt. Etna eruptions. The evening though belongs to the unbelievable San Dominca Palace, Taromina’s finest hotel. The elegant rooms have been designed to preserve the original 15th century convent; in the old wing each room is unique, the low doors the original openings to the monks’ cells. From most rooms, the balconies view either the exquisite gardens or the sea, sometimes both. In the newer area where my room is located (newer meaning dating from the 1800’s) the oversized accommodations overlook a picture perfect view of the Ionian Sea.
But first there was entry into the gracious lobby and a reception in the great high-ceilinged lounge with deep chairs, a large fireplace, and welcoming staff. Sipping Prosecco, nibbling on the special fresh capers and olives, slivers of raw swordfish on silver spoons, skewers of fresh cheese, I could listen to our host all evening.
Sicily is about beauty and history and enjoying life. So why should I be surprised to hear the hotel has a registry of every guest and which room they stayed in? This sounded trivial until one of my travel companions explained that years ago an American honeymoon couple conceived their son during their stay. Now their son plans to visit Sicily and would like to stay at San Dominica. Yes, our host assured us it can arranged for the son to stay in the very same room his parents enjoyed!
Despite the long day, despite the bountiful reception, it is time to go off for one last grand meal, to a typical Sicilian restaurant. Although A Massaria is well known in Taormina, March is still off-season and we have most of the restaurant to ourselves. The lack of other diners apparently does not discourage our host. After platters of eggplant dishes, olives, various cheeses and other assorted antipasti, there is the pasta course. When we cannot eat any more there is roasted pork or grilled swordfish. And of course canolo for dessert. I’m beginning to think it might be a good idea to skip a meal. But first a good night’s sleep.
Breakfast at San Dominca is another overloaded food experience, also in a beautiful setting. At this point the scheduled walking tour might better be described as a waddle. Taormina is charming, a classic hilltop treasure. Two ancient squares flank either end of the main pedestrian street, with plenty of churches, shops and ruins to satisfy either the shopper or the serious. There can't be a coliseum with a more spectacular view. From the upper seats one can look through the remains of Greek columns and Roman arches to imposing Mt. Etna that still occasionally entertains with fiery eruptions. Talk about a backup band. No wonder concerts are regularly performed here.
The Last Supper
No trip to Sicily would be complete without one last meal and one last sample of wine. The slopes of Mt Etna are known for growing excellent grapes, and it is up the mountain to the prestigious Tenuta Chiusa del Signore whose wines are internationally known. From the beautiful restored estate there are views of both Mt. Etna and the sea. It was a perfect afternoon. Now all old friends, we drank wine from the slopes of Mt. Etna, and feasted on more delicious Sicilian food—eggplant caponato, huge marinated mushrooms, vinaigrette flavored artichokes, fresh cheese, crisp breadsticks, olives, sun-dried tomatoes. Then hot eggplant, then hot pasta, rolls of spaghetti inside rolled slices of eggplant. Plates of canolo passed as quickly as the chef could fill the crispy shells.
It’s time to drive back to Taormina, time to make one last stop for those beautiful Italian scarves or Italian shoes and purses, or maybe a few Gucci shirts. The 3 am wakeup call to begin the journey home will come all too soon. Meanwhile, the sun is shining, the wine is flowing, the food is delicious, and Sicily is wonderful.