This year, more tourists have arrived in Sicily than in years before. Why the sudden attraction to this magnificent island? It is the food, the scenery, the archeological sites, the people and the wine. It is so steeped in history and culture that it opens a whole new world to understand the past.
Sicily is not quite the cradle of civilization but its earliest artifacts are from 6,000 BC. Sicily was first settled by the Carthaginians (Lebanese) then a stream of other Arabs from North Africa. Then came the Romans, the Greeks, the Normans and 400 years under Spanish rule before becoming Italian in 1861. This has made the island an archeological paradise. Don’t miss Agrigento and its incredible Greek temples and the newly excavated village which was found under a Roman town that was built on top of it. Erice is a functioning village from the 11th century famous for its baking. Ragusa, Modica and Noto are famed for their baroque churches and architecture. Modica and Noto have great chocolate shops and gelato.
Food in Sicily
Fish is the staple here, especially sardines. We had sardines fried and grilled in pastas. All were notable. Sicilian pizza is thicker crusted (although with a nod to new styles, thin-crusted pizza is available), topped with strong toppings including anchovies, strong cheeses, tomatoes and onions.
Nuts are a major group here. Pistachios and almonds are everywhere. You can pick them off the trees by the roadside.
The pastries have a Middle Eastern bent to them with lots of marzipan, syrups and nuts. They’re not too sweet. Here, the nuns were the bakers and today you can still buy their specialties made by some very ancient nuns including minni di vergini: a white cake with a pink cherry. The name translates to “virgin’s breast”. Raunchy old women.
I can’t understand why people diss Palermo. It is a bustling city with beautiful churches, art installations and the best markets. I would recommend doing an eating tour of Palermo because the guides talk about everything including politics, history and the food. We had a diverse tasting of food including the iconic Palermo spleen sandwich. It was a bit liverish, but served with lemon, it was interesting. We had real Sicilian cannoli made in front of you with the freshest ricotta filling. It’s the only way to eat it. Our tour was through Streaty, a company that specializes in street food in Italy. They had young, enthusiastic guides and a varied itinerary. We walked and ate for four hours. I highly recommend it.
It is worth going to Monreale to see the church. Buses run there as well as taxis. A good guidebook will direct you to all you have to see. We used the Eyewitness Travel Guide to Sicily which was very detailed.
Our best meal was at A Cuncuma. We had a magnificent eggplant caponata that had Moroccan undertones to it. Each dish was beautifully presented. Perfect grilled sardines. It is a family business with each member having a role. The father is the chef.
Gagini Social Restaurant is a fun restaurant with inventive food and excellent local wines. I loved the raw marinated squid and the perfectly cooked al dente pasta. They have a long table for guests to meet others if they want to.
In Trapani, I was on the lookout for the typical pasta from the region which is called busiante. It’s a bit like a corkscrew pasta and traditionally from that area. Our guide recommended the Restaurant Stravento and it was superb. Casual but each dish was perfect. We asked for the Trapanese pasta and his traditional sauce or pesto was exactly what I had imagined. Garlicky with a sweetness from the tomatoes, a saltiness from the pecorino, crunch from the almonds. Practically perfect.
The people are so mixed in looks and character. The mafia is slowly losing its grip here as they have made some terrible mistakes and there is now an association that proudly displays a sign that says “no mafia involvement”.
Typically, in Sicily, things go wrong. The Sicilian hotel loaded our luggage in to the wrong car and we had to chase it around the area, eventually catching up with the truck and surreptitiously meeting at a gas station. Very cloak and dagger.
In Agrigento we stayed at the Villa Athena. If you can splurge, this where to do it. It sits in the grounds of the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO Site which is full of glorious Greek temples that are still being excavated. From our room, we faced the Temple of Concordia. So magnificent and peaceful. Also, visit the Villa Casale della Romana which dates from the 4th Century AD. There, you will see its famous Roman mosaics, one of the largest, richest and most varied collections in the world. In Agrigento, eat at Osteria Expanificio which used to be a bakery but is now an excellent casual, inexpensive restaurant. Otherwise, we ate at our hotel because the view was so beautiful.
Ragusa and Modica
This is the baroque area of Sicily. Built after the earthquake of 1693, which destroyed huge swaths of the area, it is a highly decorative style imitating Spanish and Italian styles of that time. Guides are a necessity. They bring to the country alive and the guides we had were all archeologists, historians or art majors. In Sicily, guiding is a good way of life. Our guides all worked with Uncovered Sicily. All of them had great English and so much information.
We ate at I Banchi, a bakery café in the beautiful Palazzo Diquattro in old town Ragusa. It has a delicious restaurant at night. It serves simple food with taste and style. Highly recommended.