Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea is just off the toe of Italy. Its diverse culture, architecture and cuisine are what makes Sicily such a special place. There are two airports into Sicily, one being Catania, where six of us began our east coast tour and shuttled to Taormina for the first few nights of stay.
The Ashbee Hotel in Taormina is a historic English villa that was built in 1908 and sits above the Bay of Naxos, and rests alongside the central part of the city which makes it easy for walking and exploring on foot. The welcome drink was a great touch before settling into the hotel – rustic with modern furnishings, rooms small, but sufficient for a centralized location.
Before dinner, some napped, while others me, Carola and Dan — headed out for a quick cannoli and shopping. Ricotta cheese fills the center of cannoli in Sicily – mostly made of sheep’s milk -strained, then mixed with sugar until creamy. I recommend the shop right next to the hotel il dolci di Nonna Rosa (look right just as you exit the hotel driveway), which we were told was the best in town.
For cocktails, head to Caffe Wunder Bar – an outdoor restaurant both on the water and inland sides of the street, right in front of the Duomo. The bar looks super touristy, but the service was outstanding – not to mention, they make a pretty great Aperol Spritz and Negroni and have a decent wine list. The bowls and bites of cocktail snacks were generous and fun to nosh on during cocktail hour, and it’s a pretty great people watching spot too.
Our first meal of the trip began at Kiste – Easy Gourmet, just a kilometer from the hotel. The restaurant with an open indoor-outdoor flow with white stone walls and modern tablescapes operated by Chef Pietro D’ Agostino, who runs Capinera – another well known restaurant in Taormina.
Seafood is the overall theme in Sicily with some of the freshest catch. Swordfish, tuna, sardines and anchovies were abundant selections in most restaurants. At Kiste, the Crudo or raw sliced fish topped with fresh sauces blended with nuts and herbs was a delicate plate of adventurous fun. The white wine from Mount Etna was crisp on the tongue and paired perfectly with each silky bite.
All the plates of seafood were freshly prepared, though a little overcooked at times, but my sister’s Seafood Salad was not only gorgeous, but prepared with a variety of shrimp, vegetables, fish and edible flowers. For dessert, we surprised Carola with a birthday treat – this pic is so fun, I had to share it. Chocolate coated Gelato with sauce and meringue for six.
Donkey trekking was our morning adventure and for some it was fascinating and fun, while others found it remedial and wishing we were up on a volcano riding our way to town, instead of around a vineyard. Overall, it was unique and if you have kids – definitely worth the trek.
The following day we headed out in Jeeps to tour Mount Etna. The weather was not cooperating as much as we had liked that day, but we drove around the eastern coastline and up the volcano, crossing rivers and viewing the remnants from the last major eruption back in 2009.
After exploring Mt. Etna by jeep, time for a visit to Cottanera Winery for a tasting and lunch. The wines were interesting with a unique flavor profile. The Nerello Masacalese grape is the most predominant red grape from Mount Etna, followed by Nerello Cappuccio. The white wines at Cottanera, from grape varietals unique to Sicily – tasted similar to Sauvignon Blanc, but with a Chardonnay finish – if that’s possible.
Our lunch of sliced meats, cheeses, roasted eggplant and olives with a nice dollop of fresh ricotta was very satisfying. But, let’s not stop there – Rigatoni with fresh tomato sauce and Meatballs rolled up in grape leaves, Involtini (pounded beef stuffed with cheese), and freshly diced Tomatoes.
Our dinner reservations were not confirmed properly and my advice – email directly to the restaurant to confirm location and time, or wait until you arrive at your hotel and let them do it directly. We decided on casual meals for nights two and three – the third being the best of the two at Porta Messina Ristorante. A little touristy, but some really great pasta dishes and pizza made with local ingredients.
Mozzarella, Tomato, Speck & Pistachio Pizza read brilliantly on the menu, and in a bite the sensation of smoky, creamy, earthy and chewy began. The freshly made pasta (waiter’s favorite dish) tossed in a sheep milk cheese sauce and prepared with magnificence, then sprinkled with freshly toasted almonds for a crunchy finish was a comforting bowl of fun.
If you’re looking for a good gelato in Taormina, head to C&G in town. The space is large and sells chocolates too, but the gelato was creamy and smooth – thanks for the recommendation from our driver, Stephano. There’s also a C&G in Catania.
The next day, we hired a boat and crew to motor around Aeolian Islands, just north of Messina. It was one of the most magical days of the trip – clear skies, warm and turquoise waters as far as you could see. The boat with two friendly staff and all of us were set adrift, and the fun began with music and dancing amongst ourselves. Swimming off of Panarea Island (Madonna had her 60th birthday off the coast here), wine and lunch to follow, as well as a visit to the island of Salina for their famous Almond Granita at Alberto’s (no website).
Granita, unlike gelato, has no dairy and is strictly made with ground nuts, and sugar syrup, then churned until creamy. Traditionally Sicilians eat this for breakfast in the summer months, along with a freshly baked Brioche, which they use for dipping. Definitely my kind of breakfast.
The Arancini were the largest rice cones I have ever seen – stuffed with Beef Ragu and Mozzarella Cheese. The ride home was sobering when the rain began, but the beauty of Stromboli in the background spewing a delicate stream of smoke was beautiful to witness at the end of our spectacular day.
A day of biking along Naxos through the city streets and back to the sea to Acitrezza. The beauty of the seaside and historic towns were magical with a stop for espresso and gelato along the way.
For lunch, the Pane’ Condito in the city of Acireale. This stuffed bread sandwich can definitely hold its own to our grilled cheese here in the states. The crispy baked bread, gently filled with mozzarella, prosciutto and peppers hit the spot after a little biking, but maybe too soon for the large climb ahead. We ended our bike tour with a view of the black volcanic rocks poking their heads up through the crystal blue coastline.
Our final dinner in Taormina was at Vineria Modi which the restaurant at times tried too hard, but there were some highlights like the Anchovy Toasts layered between crispy bread, fresh mozzarella and roasted tomatoes. The anchovies are not like home – they are plucked fresh from the sea and taste as imagined, a bit like fresh saltwater. Bottoni pasta stuffed with Parmesan mousse and resting in a pool of Lamb Ragu was exceptional too.
The following day we toured Catania, which was founded in the 8th century and devastated by the an earthquake in 1693. The Duomo including the Cathedral of Sant’Agata, Giardino Bellini (Gardens) and the Roman Amphitheatre are all sites to see here in a day visit.
The outdoor markets in Catania had a vibrant presentation of fresh fish and vegetables. I loved the gorgeous steamed artichokes – which blew like a volcano on the open air grill, and don’t miss a wedge of fresh Pecorino – this is definitely the island of sheep’s milk.
Now off to Noto, Sicily. Stay Tuned!
For tour information on tours contact Viviana at Essence of Sicily