My partner, Pete, just got back from visiting in-laws in Sicily and I was reminded of my visits to the island and how I enjoyed being there. I write this now because if any of you are contemplating a trip to Italy, this is an ideal time to take in Sicily: The tourists are gone and the weather is perfect.
If you tour by car (and you should, because the island has fantastic roads), you’ll likely cross into Sicily by ferry from Reggio Calabria (the toe of the boot), crossing the Straits of Messina and arriving at the city of Messina. Here, in August, 1943, General Patton won the horse race with British Field Marshal Montgomery to take the city from the Germans (you may recall Montgomery’s humiliating scene from the movie Patton).
One of the first things you’ll notice when you arrive is the Trinacria, the symbol of Italy. Known by the Romans as Trinacrium, meaning “star with three points,” the symbol features the snake covered-head of Medusa surrounded by three bent running legs and three stalks of wheat. Yoga practitioners, in your leisure time I encourage you to try to replicate the pose.
First stop: Palermo and the 700-year-old VUCCIRIA MARKET in the center of the city. Arrive early in the morning to take in the abundant stalls overflowing with all sorts of unexpected culinary treats. This is perhaps the best, most authentic market I’ve ever visited.
Touring Vucciria will undoubtedly stoke your appetite, so head to RISTORANTE ‘A CUCCAGNA for dinner.
This seafood restaurant situated in the heart of Palermo is a great place for swordfish, perhaps the national “go-to” dish in all of Sicily. Abounding in the Straits of Messina, the fish is usually simply grilled, and often served with caponata (eggplant salad), although more frequently it’s brushed with olive oil, fresh lemon, garlic and parsley. The only dish that perhaps rivals swordfish in Sicily is pasta con sarde (pasta with sardines). In this offering, with its raisins, pine nuts, wild fennel and saffron, one can see the strong Arab influence prevalent throughout Sicily, which was under Arab rule for 120 years beginning in 908 AD. Also note that the dish typically comes topped with seasoned breadcrumbs, not Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, since cows cannot tolerate Sicily’s hot climate.
Palermo is a “gritty” place. Street crime is common….so do not wear an expensive watch or jewelry. Ladies, keep your purse strap on your opposite shoulder and men: wallets and passports in your front pocket, please. There are truly magnificent buildings in downtown Palermo but other parts have the city have never bothered to repair structures bombed during World War II.
Palermo, of course, is a Catholic city, and shrines can be found on most every street corner. The 12th century cathedral in the close-in suburb of Monreale is not to be missed.
Once you’ve had your fill of the grit and frenzy of Palermo, head for the VILLA IGIEA, a hotel known for its beautiful gardens.
As your drive continues, be sure to stop in the town of Marsala, home to the Florio winery, and indulge in a Marsala tasting. Dinner that evening must be Veal Marsala. The Arab influence is felt here as well – from the abundance of couscous (or “cuscusu” as the Sicilians call it) to the Arabic name of the town itself (MARS means the sea, ALA refers to Allah – the “Sea of God.”)
Next, head south to Agrigento and visit its Greek/Roman ruins, which are gorgeous and relatively untouristed compared to those in more accessible locations.
On one visit we took a side trip to the center of Sicily to enroll in a Sicilian Cooking School taught by Anna Tasca Lanza on her estate in the wine region of Regaleali. We made Cassatas (a traditional sweet made with sponge cake and fruit),
drank Regaleali wine,
and observed cheese makers forming wheels of Pecorino Romano, cured from sheep’s milk. Since we were there, Anna died and her daughter, Fabrizia, ramped-up the program to the extent that nowadays it attracts rock-star chefs and celebrities from all over the world.
A satisfying way to end your visit is by spending a couple of days in Taormina on the eastern coast. There are several really good restaurants here, and one that we loved was RISTORANTE LA GRIGLIA, perched high above the rocky bays of the Mediterranean. What to order? Get the swordfish and pasta con sarde!
Our hotel? An oasis called the San Domenico Palace, located on the edge of town just a kilometer from the ancient theater of Taormina.
Taromina, by the way, is an interesting town.
It’s clean and vibrant, with wonderful restaurants and shopping, but a significant number of visitors are drawn by its notoriety as a capital of gay culture. A frequent resident was Oscar Wilde, who worked on poems, essays and plays here. The town was also home base for Wilhelm von Gloeden, a German-born photographer known for his pastoral nude studies of tawny, smooth young Sicilian boys. With the rise of Fascism in the 1930s, the gay scene faded, but after the war, Taormina regained its allure, becoming a celebrity hangout for Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Christian Dior and others. Years have passed since its gay heyday, but – like the portrait of Dorian Gray – the city remains as entrancing as ever.
Ristorante ‘a Cuccagna
Via Principe de Granatelli, 21/A
90139 Palermo, Italy
Tel. +39 091 587267
Hotel Villa Igiea Palermo
Salita Belmonte, 43, 90142 Palermo, Italy
Phone: +39 091 631 2111
Via Vincenzo Florio, 1
91025 – Marsala (TP)
tel +39 0923781111
Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School
Ristorante La Griglia
Corso Umberto 54
Tel. +39 0942 23980
San Domenico Palace Hotel
Piazza San Domenico, 5
98039 Taormina, Sicily
Tel. +39 0942-613111