Italy's Best Foodie Vacation: Here's How To Eat Your Way Through Sicily
Aggiornato il: 2 nov 2019
First inhabited some 10,000 years ago, Sicily is a dazzling destination with a fascinating and arguably incomparable past, thanks to its centuries-long perch at the crossroads of history before becoming part of Italy in 1860. The island’s strategic location in the Mediterranean—100 miles northeast of Tunisia and separated from the Italian mainland by the Strait of Messina—landed it squarely in the sights of the Phoenicians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Bourbons (to name just a handful), who stormed its shores and conquered various parts over the ages, each adding a unique cultural layer to this former front line of some of the world’s greatest empires.
Not surprisingly, such an amalgamated antiquity also gave rise to one of the most richly textured culinary heritages anywhere on earth. In the west, couscous is an enduring mainstay thanks to the Arabs, who named the ancient city of Palermo as the island’s capital in the 9th century. (The Cous Cous Fest in the northwestern beach town of San Vito Lo Capo, an international competition that draws chefs from around the world, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year.) They also instilled a penchant for spices like cinnamon and saffron, and a passion for sweets like cassata, a sponge cake layered with ricotta and candied fruit. Meanwhile, the Greeks, who left an indelible mark on the island between the 8th and 4th centuries B.C., introduced olives, grapes and wine-making, which remain major industries. Today, Sicilian cuisine is a singular combination of Arab, Greek, French, Spanish and North African influences, with myriad Italian flavors thrown in for good measure.
Should you want to sample Sicily’s extraordinary gastronomic smorgasbord, Matteo Della Grazia, cofounder of Discover Your Italy, an award-winning travel agency based in Perugia, offers just the itinerary for intrepid gourmets. Painstakingly curated all the way from Palermo to Catania, with plenty of mouthwatering stops in between, Della Grazia has created a tantalizing tasting menu of a trip that showcases many of the delicacies—and the locales they hail from—for which Sicily is celebrated. (And he might even pick you up at the airport with some of Palermo’s best cannoli in hand to rejuvenate you after a long flight.) Following is an overview of what this top-notch tour holds in store.
Founded in 734 B.C. and once part of the Roman Empire, the island’s bustling capital is as renowned for its scrumptious street food and sprawling outdoor markets as it is for its stunning Baroque architecture and Mafia lore. A visit to Focacceria del Massimo, where four generations of one family have been serving up Palermo’s street-snack standouts for over 90 years, is a fitting (and filling) way to kick off a day of exploring this exotic, gritty city. For starters, try the panelle—crispy flat fritters made from chickpea flour, another legacy of the region’s Middle Eastern influence—then dive into the arancine, beloved far and wide and filled here with ham and cheese or a traditional ragù with beef, peas, and carrots. (In keeping with Sicily’s fiercely independent spirit, the word for these tasty treats in its west—arancina—is feminine, in homage to local oranges, unlike in the east and the rest of Italy, where an arancino is masculine. The Accademia della Crusca, Italy's preeminent authority on the Italian language and the world's oldest linguistic academy, even weighed in on the debate following petitions from western Sicilians, deeming both terms acceptable.) Potato crocché, or croquettes, made with cheese—and, uniquely, mint—are akin to the Sicilian version of French fries, but better: it’s hard to stop at just one...or three, or five.
Sated by these savory specialties, you’ll be ready to stroll off the carbs exploring Palermo’s storied open-air markets, which have been central to daily life in this rough-edged metropolis since the Arabic period—and appropriately, have a labyrinthine, souk-like feel, weaving through narrow lanes and alleyways, with the cacophony of vendors hawking their wares and locals exchanging garrulous greetings serving as a soundtrack. Impossibly fresh seafood takes center stage at the Capo market, a hangout for pirates, slave merchants and other pillars of the community during ancient times. If you're lucky enough to visit in May or June, you’ll find stall after stall laden with giant bluefin tuna, which first swam straight into Sicilian legend many centuries ago. Every year, schools of the fish (some of which reach up to nearly 1,800 pounds) migrate through the Mediterranean en route to the Atlantic; as they passed the Egadi Islands to Sicily’s west, resident fishermen would lie in wait, steering them through an ever-smaller series of nets into the final trap—a square pen called the camera della morte, or "chamber of death"—where they were savagely speared by their captors (many singing old Arabic fishing songs all the while) and hauled onto boats to be taken to market.
While this gory ritual, called La Mattanza (the massacre), was outlawed more than a decade ago and the tuna are now captured through more conventional (and less bloody) means, the Sicilian appetite for this prize catch endures: Glistening crimson hunks of tonno, some the size of ham hocks, are showcased next to the belly and often the head, a striking tableau. In between filleting and selling his seafood, a fishmonger will occasionally ring his stall’s bell with the zeal of a general alerting his troops of an unforeseen enemy invasion, frantically signaling neighboring merchants when a leggy bella donna is headed their way.
To get from Capo to Ballarò—the city’s oldest and largest market—you cross the ancient Cassaro, Palermo’s oldest thoroughfare. A study in ordered chaos and ripe with a panoply of aromas (many better than others), it’s akin to a boisterous medieval marketplace where anything and everything is for sale: velvety peaches, glossy eggplants, and pyramids of crimson tomatoes share real estate with socks, cellphone covers, T-shirts, and myriad other odds and ends. Turn down an alley to find waxy pink pigs’ heads hung high from huge hooks, seemingly surveying a scene filled with tables groaning under piles of cheeses—fat wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano, warm ricotta fresca al forno with honey and pistachio, chunks of Sicilian caciocavallo (a sharp variation of provolone)—and baskets brimming with babbaluci ("snails" in Sicilian), many of which cling to the woven handles, possibly in an effort to escape their inevitable fate. And don’t forget the small mountains of briny olives, toasted nuts, fragrant spices, dried fruits, and succulent capers for which Sicily and especially its neighboring island, Pantelleria, are famous. To say you could spend hours shopping and eating your way through the mayhem is an understatement; fervent foodies will want to set up camp and stay for days.
Rounding out an action-packed day in Palermo is a spin through the Vucciria market, near Piazza San Domenico (home to the city’s second most famous church behind the jaw-dropping city cathedral, also on the itinerary). While the market has shrunk considerably in its impressive 700-year run, it’s still worth a visit, even just for a pani ca meusa prepared by resident celebrity Rocky Basile, sometimes called the “King of the Vucciria.” Literally “bread with spleen,” the storied sandwich is filled with veal spleen (which has a surprisingly calamari-like texture) expertly fried in lard at his trusty cart by the master, who serves it with a spritz of lemon on a deliciously soft sesame roll. To reward yourself for polishing off this separates-the-men-from-the-boys Palermitan specialty (word of advice: don’t think about it, just eat it), make your way to the nearby Gelateria Lucchese for creamy gelato served on a golden brioche bun, another five-star Sicilian indulgence. It’s twice as decadent as it sounds and worth every calorie.
The landscape along the “Via del Sale,” or Salt Road—the moniker given to the coastline between Trapani and Marsala in Sicily’s west—likely looks much like it did when the Phoenicians began producing the crucial commodity here after their arrival around 800 B.C.: shallow saline pools, divided by narrow strips of land and buffered by hot African winds under a relentlessly sunny sky, studded with gleaming mountains of salt and Dutch-style windmills (the latter having arrived long after these early settlers). Production reached its zenith in this region, around 100,000 tons, after Italy's unification in 1860, when salt was exported throughout Europe and beyond; today, it enjoys a niche market primarily with gourmets who swear by its delicate flavor, purity (100% natural), and attributes (more potassium and magnesium than the common variety).
The intriguing Saline della Laguna in Mozia, a cultural center dedicated to this ancient tradition, was our next stop after Palermo. The area’s flat, expansive topography is almost otherworldly: A stroll along the rocky paths that divide the silty salt pans, the sun dappling the water under an azure sky, brings to mind what a visit to Mars might resemble. (The entire area was designated a nature reserve in 1991; at certain times of year, flamingos snack on the tiny shrimp that live in the surrounding lagoons.) The centerpiece is the Mill of Infersa, a functioning windmill that dates back to 1500 and houses a museum and tasting rooms, where you can sample the unique salts produced here (flavors include juniper, coriander, and sage) with accompaniments including bread, olive oil, and fresh fruit. If you visit in summer through fall, you might witness the manual harvest that takes place four times annually; bronze-skinned workers in broad-brimmed hats use shovels to break the salt crust in the crystallization tanks, collecting and raking the bounty into rows of snow-white heaps.
Located just over 50 miles from Palermo, the agricultural center of Menfi, carpeted with rolling, vineyard-studded hills overlooking the white-sand beaches of the nearby coast, is an oenophile’s paradise. It’s also home to the lovely La Foresteria, the boutique wine resort of the prestigious Planeta Estate, a family of winemakers that’s been honing its craft for over five centuries, with a viticultural footprint that today extends across Sicily. Our next port of call after Mozia and Marsala, the property, whose 14 rooms (named after herbs grown in its garden) all boast ocean views, exudes casual elegance and an almost palpable stillness; it’s difficult not to feel totally Zen while gazing seaward across the verdant hills from your private terrace at sundown, when strokes of hazy lavender and rose-gold paint the sky.
Though there’s ample time to lounge poolside sipping crisp vintages, the real highlight is a cooking class with resident chef Angelo Pumilia. A gifted teacher and witty raconteur (a rare talent in a first language, let alone a second), he’ll expertly guide you through a range of Sicilian favorites and have you laughing throughout; our menu included caponata, Sicilian pesto (an ode to simplicity: just ripe tomatoes, basil, and almonds), fresh pasta, veal cutlet with fennel and tomato salad, and cannoli. The hours flew by like minutes, and afterward we ate our dishes al fresco on a breezy, wisteria-covered terrace. Accompanying the feast was Planeta’s own exceptional olive oil, all three varieties of which bear the D.O.P. designation—Denominazione di Origine Protetta or “Protected Designation of Origin”—an exclusive certification that means they’re locally made and packaged using traditional methods often dating back centuries. Be sure to grab a few bottles upon checkout.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country’s southeast, Modica, often referred to as the city of 100 bells and 100 churches, is acclaimed for both its breathtaking Baroque architecture and its esteemed chocolatiers, a legacy of roughly 500 years of Spanish rule between the 13th and 18th centuries. Here, in her grandparents’ airy former apartment overlooking the historic center, Katia Amore, founder of the Love Sicily cooking school, will teach you how to make Modica’s famous chocolate just like the Aztecs did in 16th-century Mexico (straight from cacao beans, with no cocoa butter or other additives you’ll typically find in today’s chocolate). The confection’s signature grainy texture derives from the fact that the added sugar shouldn’t melt, which requires working the cocoa at a relatively low temperature. The charming Amore expertly demonstrates this technique in the apartment’s roomy, inviting kitchen, decorated with tiles handmade to mimic the 19th-century Neapolitan beauties that adorned the space when her grandmother cooked there.
You’ll taste the fruits of your labor at the class’ end, along with some other sweet treats. While the traditional flavors of Modica chocolate are vanilla, cinnamon, and spicy pepperoncino, others (including lemon, orange and marjoram) abound; you’ll be spoiled for choice and can sample them all at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, founded in 1880 and Sicily’s oldest chocolate producer, located right down the road.
No visit to Sicily is complete without a stay in Siracusa, once the foremost city in the Greek Empire. The birthplace of the peerless Greek mathematician and engineer Archimedes, the 2,700-year-old metropolis equaled Athens in size during the 5th century B.C., and was described by the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero as “the greatest Greek city and most beautiful of them all”; these days, it rightfully draws visitors from across the world. A stay in Ortigia, the city’s tiny historic island center that’s separated from Siracusa by a small channel, is another highlight of the itinerary. You’d struggle to find a more pleasant couple of hours than sipping a cocktail or two at sundown in the dazzling Piazza del Duomo, home to the cathedral of Siracusa (originally a Greek doric temple) and the church of Santa Lucia, the city's patron saint; these majestic, honey-colored landmarks seem to glow at dusk, when the square—a visually arresting symbol of the Baroque reconstruction following the devastating earthquake that leveled Siracusa in 1693—fills with revelers.
Afterward, stroll down the Corso Matteoti, Ortigia’s main shopping street, and peruse the array of chic boutiques, many of which sell jewelry and other locally handcrafted trinkets, before heading to one of the old town's outstanding seafood restaurants for dinner. (A meal at Apollonion Osteria da Carlo, with its exquisite platters of seafood crudo and garlicky mounds of linguini with white clam sauce, verges on a religious experience.) Amidst all the seaside strolling and sightseeing, Della Grazia can arrange a cooking class in a converted monastery, where we whipped up fresh ravioli with eggplant in a tasty tomato sauce and other local favorites.
The impossibly picturesque seaside village of Marzamemi, nestled deep in Sicily's southeast and a can’t-miss stop, leaves a lasting impression: Home to one of the most important tuna-processing plants (or tonnara) on the island in the 10th century, it endures as a sleepy haven for fishermen and a source of delicacies like marinated anchovies, smoked swordfish, and virtually all things tuna-related: bottarga (dried tuna roe), smoked tuna, bocconccini di tonno salato (chunks of salted tuna with chili), even tuna salami. You’ll be able to sample all these goodies and more at Adelfio, a vast seafood emporium right in town. Founded in 1931, the company uses its own fleet, fishermen, and handmade artisanal processing system to produce an impressive range of specialty products, employing traditional salting, smoking, and preservation methods handed down through the ages in this maritime mecca (guided tours of its onsite plant provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the magic happens). And while Adelfio's wares will win over your taste buds, the village itself will steal your heart. On Piazza Regina Margherita, Marzamemi’s 18th-century town square, charming outdoor restaurants lure diners with riots of color: White-linen-covered tables and chairs painted sky-blue neighbor giant ceramic urns bursting with pink and red geraniums.
Follow one of the narrow lanes away from the piazza and find yourself at the cerulean sea’s edge, where waves lap gently against rocky outcroppings, then wander over to the small harbor, where brightly colored wooden boats bob hypnotically in the breeze. Fans of the Inspector Montalbano TV series, based on the bestselling novels by Andrea Camilleri, may recognize Marzamemi as an occasional stand-in for Vigàta, the detective's fictional Sicilian home.
The foothills of Mount Etna are the source of one of Sicily’s most sought-after exports: Bronte pistachios, named for the town at this region's heart. Called “green gold” and smaller than their California cousins, the nuts, which were first brought by the Romans to Sicily from the Middle East, are coveted by the world’s leading chefs and gourmands alike for their moist, rich flavor, which producers say comes from the mineral-rich lava that infuses the soil in the shadow of Europe’s largest (hyper)active volcano. During a tour of one of Bronte’s pistachio farms, you’ll get an up-close look at the pretty, glossy-leafed trees, whose gnarled roots tangle with the rocky terrain; good shoes are a must given the tricky turf. The pistachios, which have enjoyed coveted D.O.P. status since 2009, are harvested by hand every other September, when it seems the area’s entire populace is out shaking the branches, the fruit falling onto canopies spread beneath. Once they’re dried and shelled, the nuts are packaged chopped or whole, and also made into products like pistachio pesto (which you’ll sample) and even liqueurs; they also find their delicious way into an array of sweets, including cakes, pastries, and of course, ice cream.
Afterward, a visit to the elegant Barone di Villagrande, a winery founded in 1727 on the eastern slope of Etna overlooking Taormina and the Ionian Sea, was a welcome reward for not breaking an ankle on the pistachio adventure. Following a wander around the impressive facilities (notably the cellar, whose mammoth casks would dwarf most professional basketball players), wines made from the region’s native grape varieties, carricante (white) and nerello mascalese (red), accompanied an indulgent lunch, where warm cheese panini from heaping antipasti platters nearly inspired tears of joy.
Other Stops of Note
While cuisine is deservedly the focus of this Sicilian sojourn, Della Grazia also works in plenty of food-free culture along the way. A visit to the Valley of the Temples, an archaeological park located just outside of Agrigento on Sicily’s west coast, is an absorbing trip back in time to 510 B.C. to 430 B.C., when the Greeks built eight temples here. Horticultural enthusiasts will want to beeline to the Garden of Kolymbethra, a lush, 12-acre earthly paradise filled with ancient varieties of citrus and olive trees, myrtle, prickly pear, and countless other flora that tell the story of the island.
A pit stop in Caltagirone, Sicily’s city of ceramics, is another highlight, especially for fans of Italy’s incomparable knack for craftsmanship. The Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte, a wide stairwell of 142 ceramic-tiled steps that connects the lower town with the older upper neighborhood, celebrates the elegant enclave’s venerable artistic tradition, which dates back to ancient times ("Caltagirone" derives from the Arabic phrase for “fortress of pottery jars”). While a wide array of high-quality pieces spills out from its many storefronts, those looking for a singular souvenir should consider a testa di moro, or "Moor’s head," a lavishly hand-painted ceramic noggin that doubles as a vase. Its legend dates back to around A.D. 1100, when the Moors had conquered Sicily; as the story goes, a beautiful, raven-haired maiden with "eyes the color of the Gulf of Palermo" whiled away her days caring for her plants on her balcony, as proper ladies weren’t allowed to venture out unescorted at the time.
One morning, a wealthy young Moorish merchant caught a glimpse of her as he walked by, and instantly besotted, professed his love. Swept away, she surrendered her virtue to him in short order, but soon discovered he was married and would return imminently to his wife and children in his home country. Blind with rage, she decapitated him as he slept one night, and turned his head into a pot the next morning so he could never leave her—filling it with basil, a symbol of love and passion, and cultivating it amongst her other greenery. (The moral of this memorable tale: It’s best to think twice before vexing a Sicilian lady—especially one with a green thumb—in matters of the heart.) The basil thrived, much to the envy of her watchful neighbors, who, in perhaps one of the earliest examples of keeping up with the proverbial Joneses, promptly ordered a slew of clay pots in the image of her ill-fated inamorato. If you're willing to (carefully) lug one home, there's perhaps no memento more iconic to remind you of this incredible land.
Lifestyle | Alexandra Kirkman
This post originally appeared on Lifestyle and was published on July 24, 2018