Every time I go to Italy (about seven times to date!) I am amazed at how each region is distinctly unique yet unmistakably Italian, through its food, drink, culture, customs, environment and architecture.
In Sicily, life is proudly rural, relaxed and sun-drenched, and naturally so is its food, which despite being rooted in tradition is amazingly varied.
Here’s what was on our menu when we visited this beautiful Mediterranean island last summer:
Gelato with a twist
As a staple Italian dessert, the gelato in Sicily does not disappoint. Seek out one of the gelaterias that line the main street of the stunning Baroque town of Noto and try one of the more offbeat flavours like refreshing basil. As you eat you can admire the imposing cathedral, or take shade under one of the trees at the nearby war memorial.
Classic cuisine – macco, pasta con le sarde, cannoli, and more
There’s nothing fancy at all about these classics that would be the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of the Sicilian cuisine bible, making them common fare at most restaurants in the region. But it’s their simplicity that makes them really shine, especially when presented against modern, sleek settings by floppy haired, skinny jeaned young waiters as they do at Noto’s Trattoria Crocifisso, which is hidden in a warren of streets behind the cathedral.
Start with creamy macco, a puree of fava beans that I would say is like Sicily’s answer to hommous. It’s known as a soup that farmers would traditionally offer their workers at the end of the harvest, but at Trattoria Crocifisso, it’s no peasant dish. They serve it stylishly with a drizzle of olive oil, a sprinkling of breadcrumbs and a dollop of creme fraiche.
Pasta con le sarde, literally, pasta with sardines, doesn’t sound like much but stands up to its position as the trademark dish of the Palermo province. Smooth and crunchy, glossy and chewy, aromatic and rustic with just a hint of fishiness, it rises above its cucina povera origins and was a dish we ordered again and again during our trip.
For mains, pesce spada and pork in Marsala are again a dime a dozen in Sicilian restaurants but here they are a cut above. If you have room for dessert, and even if you don’t, you can’t leave without trying the cannoli. Being half Sicilian myself, I have eaten many cannoli in my time, but truly not like this. If they’d had these in The Godfather they would have left the gun, not the cannoli, I can assure you. The pistachio nut finishing and side serving of rich hazelnut ice cream are an absolutely genius touch and unfortunately I think I will have to continue eating cannoli in this manner!
If you want to dine at Trattoria Crocifisso, I’d recommend booking in advance as the efforts of head chef Marco Baglieri have made it widely acclaimed.
(Also, if you’re in Taormina and after modern Sicilian, I’d suggest avoiding the many tourist traps and booking Rosso Di Vino, hidden down an alleyway and run by pint-sized blonde sisters with matching pixie cuts. The tempura anchovy and stuffed fish are particularly good.)
Seafood galore in Marzamemi
On this particular day we got in our hire car and decided to see where the road took us. Our car must have followed its stomach because it led us all the way to the sleepy yet stunning seaside town of Marzamemi. There didn’t seem like much going on here except the for the blue sea twinkling so hard it was almost like it was singing, but as we strolled down the main street it became clear that this little town was hiding a big secret – that it is the daddy of all seafood destinations.
It is home to the Campisi deli which is like a seafood emporium, stocking all manner of local products – smoked tuna, cured swordfish, tuna eggs, flavoured anchovies – the list is longer than the Little Mermaid’s wedding buffet. We spent ages marvelling at the stacks of jars and finding out what was in them, before coming out with a bag of our own purchases so heavy that we had to stop for an ice cold lemon granita in the town square before heading off again.
We were so impressed that we came back that evening to eat in the Campisi restaurant, but not before a cocktail aperitivo and a spot of people watching in the square.
Al fresco at a farmhouse
The beauty of having a car on holiday is the ability to find hidden gems that you didn’t even know you were looking for, and this is another of those we literally spotted it from our window and decided to take a look. This century old stone farmhouse at Vendicari was recently converted into the Il Baglietto roadside restaurant. It’s open only at lunchtime and offers a simple seafood, pasta and salad menu, accompanied by just two local wines and its own craft beer.
The tender grilled calamari and garden fresh salad was the perfect start before embarking on a wild rocky coastal walk in the nature reserve next door, taking in the old tuna works and abandoned chapel.
Spizziculiu in Siracusa
The Taverna Giudecca Ortigia in Siracusa’s Jewish Quarter does a ‘spizziculiu’ platter which might be unpronouncable – but you won’t be able to say it anyway once you’re stuffing your face with it. Featuring grilled vegetables, local cheese, anchovies, bruschetta and aubergines, my favourite part was, of course, the fill it yourself cannolo in the middle, not to mention the sayings on the chalkboard – ‘don’t ever trust those who don’t drink’.
Afterwards, discover the town’s lively seafood and fruit and veg market. On this particular day the pouring rain resulted in a giant, uncrossable puddle at the end of the market. It was so big you couldn’t get round it or over it so there was only one option – through it. As the concerned stallholders tried to create an impromptu bridge for me, my husband decided to take matters into his own hands, literally, and scooped me up to carry me across the puddle – attracting a crowd of paparazzi shoppers and a hearty round of applause from the market men. Unforgettable!
The expertly made sweets you can buy in almost every tiny cobbled crumbling village in the Mt Etna region are exquisite, especially the pasta di noce and pasta di mandorla. We sampled ours at the tiny, blink and you’ll miss it, town of Sant’Alfio (that also happens to be the birthplace of my father) at the Vittorio Papotto bakery that doubles as a bar, under the watchful eye of the foreboding grey church. B&B Etma, with its friendly hosts and views of Mt Etna, is highly recommended.
Room for anything else?!
You wouldn’t think so, but we managed to save room right at the end for more cannoli and and homemade pasta with my second and third cousins who live in Giarre, who we’d never met before! In true Sicilian style they welcomed us with a feast and a half, and despite all the excitement and flavours of all the meals we’d had on our trip, this was the most memorable thanks to the company and the occasion!