On my first morning in Sicily, I stepped out of my room into a fig and pear grove. I sat down to a breakfast of cappuccino with meats, cheeses and freshly picked fruit. The sliced tomatoes were sprinkled with local Trapani sea salt. All this, though, and the highlight was something I had never seen before: a tart made of tender biscotti crust topped with a jade-colored zucchini jam.
"Welcome to the best part of Italy," the owner of the inn declared. And after the start to my day, I knew how true this was. As the southernmost part of the country, the island of Sicily bobs in the Mediterranean Sea, sandwiched between Europe and Africa. Its strategic location has attracted lots of invaders (think Arabs, Greeks, Spanish and Normans) throughout history. Those varied influences, combined with fertile volcanic soil and access to screamingly fresh seafood, has yielded an incredibly unique cuisine that hits you over the head with an exhilarating mix of spicy, sour and sweet flavors.
Italy's more famous culinary regions can overshadow Sicily. But after covering more than 400 miles of the island by car, I’m convinced it’s the best part of the country, at least culinarily speaking. You could probably spend a lifetime exploring Sicily’s culinary treasures and just scratch the surface, but here's where to start.
Hop in a rental car at Palermo or Trapani Airport, and drive through the windswept hills of western Sicily toward the seaside town of Menfi. Da Vittorio, located right on the azure Mediterranean coastline, excels in Sicilian seafood dishes made with ingredients procured from local fishermen. Sit by the window and savor the sparkling sea view while diving into a platter of fritto misto (the highlight is the briny-sweet red shrimp), and then try the spaghetti with sea urchin, squid ink or shrimp with finely chopped pistachios. The grand finale is a glass of fresh lemon sorbetto sipped through a straw.
Drag yourself back to the car and get ready to navigate glorified alleyways packed with pedestrians, daredevil Vespa drivers and even makeshift seafood markets. You've arrived in Licata, a workaday Sicilian port town at the mouth of the Salso River.
It's home to La Madia, a practically unmarked restaurant helmed by self-taught chef Pino Cuttaia. His menu, which offers a modern interpretation of traditional Sicilian cuisine, has earned the restaurant two Michelin stars. Go for one of the tasting menus—which might include a pizza of pine cone-smoked cod, mozzarella foam encased in milk skin and served in tomato juice, a whole-roasted eggplant wrapped in spaghetti, as well as the best marsala-flavored gelato in the world. You'll need a digestif after all that, so visit trendy Drogheria Antona for a nightcap.
The Baroque Hill Towns: Ragusa & Noto
Today, you’ll drive inland through rolling hills toward two elegant historic towns. It's easier to park in more modern Upper Ragusa and walk to the historic section packed with gorgeous Baroque churches and palaces. Besides, after yesterday's gluttony, you’ll welcome the 60-minute round-trip that involves plenty of stair climbing. Your reward is a stop at Giummarra, a bakery that specializes in scaccia, a kind of lasagna-pizza hybrid made of impossibly thin layers of dough filled with tomato sauce and caciocavallo cheese.
Nearby Noto is known for its limestone churches, but food lovers go there for the sweets. According to legend, Sicily is the birthplace of gelato, and this town has some of the best in the world. The renowned Caffé Sicilia has been making it since 1892. Try a cone of the cloud-like Noto almond flavor,or order a scoop stuffed into a brioche roll. Whatever you do, save room for more treats at Dolceria Corrado Costanzo. Besides gelato, it makes some of the best cassata on the island. The cake, filled with thick ricotta encased in a green layer of marzipan icing, cracks like a piece of thin stained glass when tapped with a fork.
There are several routes back from the southeastern part of the island to Palermo. No matter if you stop near the volcano of Mount Etna or the beach town of Cefalù, leave enough time to explore the many culinary delights of Sicily's largest city. The old Arab influence is still palpable in the souk-like Ballarò Market, where vendors sell the best-ever pistachios from Bronte, caciocavallo cheese and olives to go poured into a paper cone.
As your Sicilian trip winds to a close, Antica Focacceria San Francesco is likely to serve any local specialty you've yet to try, including caponata, pasta alla norma and pane con la milza (a fried pork spleen and cheese sandwich). I Cuochini does aracine rice balls stuffed with meat and cheese and other deep-fried snacks. And if you need one more sweets fix before departing, stop by Antico Caffè Spinnato for cannoli filled with pistachio cream. It doesn't get much more Sicilian than that.
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