We were looking to extend the summer by heading south in the beginning of autumn. We choose to base ourselves around Etna so that we could explore the volcano and its many up-and-coming wine estates and taste the famous Bronte pistachios, visit the plains of Catania famous for their anti-oxidant rich blood oranges, spend some time at the seaside and enjoy the ancient towns of Siracusa and Taormina.
The ancient Baroque city of Siracusa
Ortygia is an island situated in a magnificent bay in the ancient centre of Siracusa, boasting medieval and Baroque architecture. Siracusa was the star in the crown of Magna Graecia and its beauty has not waned. The food market is alive, vivid with colours and garrulous vendors. In one corner is a long queue for sandwiches with piles of glorious options for stuffing. Next is a traditional street food of boiled octopus served simply with few condiments. Most notable are the long tables with capers, caper berries, different types of olives, dried tomatoes, vats of tomato paste, raisins, oregano, Hunched over on the street corner we find a man industriously cleaning sea urchins for consumption raw. We also were able to try the famed Ragusano cheese made in Siracusa and Ragusa (an aged cow’s cheese with crystals and an umami flavour not unlike Parmigiano-Reggiano). One of my favourite parts of renting a place rather than staying in a hotel (after of course, the washing machine) is that we can buy all the amazing ingredients we find (such as purple cauliflower) and try them at home.
A few minutes from the magnificent Baroque main square, Piazza Duomo, where the 7th century duomo is situated, we found a highly recommended restaurant, Don Camilllo. Located inside a former religious building, the atmosphere is relatively formal. The menu features fish and seafood while highlighting local orange blossom honey, almonds from Noto and pistacchios from Bronte. We tried some of their house specialities of pesce spada con miele di zagara e verdure in agrodolce (swordfish with orange blossom honey and sweet and sour vegetables), spaghetti ai ricci e gamberi (spaghetti with prawns and sea urchin), crema di mandorla con gamberi in crosta nera (almond soup with prawns breaded in cuttlefish ink and fried) and tagliata di tonno con marmellata di peperone (tuna with pepper marmalade).
Outside of Ortygia in Siracusa is an extraordinary Greek amphitheater built in the 5th century BC which is one of the largest of the ancient world. Next to it is the Latomia del Paradiso, a former quarry housing the Orecchio di Dionisio, an artificial grotto used as a prison featuring special acoustics allowing Dionysius the Elder (a tyrant in power over Siracusa from 405 to 367 BC) to easily spy on his captors.
Marchesi di San Giuliano and the Catania Plains
On the way to Siracusa, we stopped into the Marchesi di San Giuliano to visit their extraordinary gardens (part of the Grandi Giardini Italiani, “the greatest Italian gardens”) and see the production of some of the finest marmalade in the world (see a separate post here). After our marmalade tasting, we headed to a nearby recommended agriturismo, Tenuta di Roccadia, to dine al fresco overlooking the hills. Hefty portions of spaghetti con sarde e finocchio (pasta topped with sardines and fragrant wild fennel), casarecce con salsiccia e funghi (pasta with earthy sausages with mushrooms), spaghetti con pomodorini e pancetta (spaghetti with fat chunks of pancetta fried with cherry tomatoes) or spaghetti alla Norma (spaghetti with fried aubergine, tomato and salty ricotta) were a sight for very hungry tummies. I tend to over order when famished but this time, I mistakenly gave “over order” a whole new meaning. The costoletta con sale di Trapani e erbe (steak flavoured with herbed Trapani salt and grilled) was too good to not try. My 5 fellow diners tried to assist me but we were all defeated by this Flintstones-eque steak. The flavour remains embedded in my mind however.
The next day we explored Catania, heading first to see the Duomo square to sit at Prestipino Pasticceria and enjoy a coffee and sweets while overlooking the Fontana dell’Elefante (a fountain decorated with an elephant, the symbol of Catania) and the 11th century Duomo dedicated to Sant’Agata, Catania’s patron saint. We sampled cassatelle di algira (sweet ravioli), torrone di Sant’Agata (nougat with candied fruit and nuts), minni di Sant’Agata (literally means Saint Agatha’s breasts and are breast shaped pastries made of puff pastry, almond paste and ricotta flavoured with candies citrus and cinnamon, all topped with fondant and a candied cherry). We also bought the classic conical shaped arancini – both fried and baked variations. Nearby there was an atmospheric food market to explore. While admittedly, parts of the city deserve its lacklustre reputation as an industrial port town, there were many fine avenues lined with Baroque buildings.
In Catania, we discovered one of my favourite restaurants, MC Turridu, both in terms of atmosphere and food. Locally made lace was fashioned into lampshades, the domed whitewashed walls adding to the restaurant’s character. Then came the homemade bread assortment. We all marvelled at how each of our chosen dishes were equally delicious. We tried caserecce al pesto di pistacchio e mandorla (pasta with pesto sauce made with local pistachios and almonds), spaghettone con alalunga alla Favignana (thick spaghetti with albacore tuna from the island of Favignana), cotolette alla palmeritana (a breaded and fried cutlet of veal flavoured with garlic, cheese, capers and olives), involtini di pesce spatola (scabbard fish rolls breaded and fried), suino di nebrodi (pork chop made with a local breed of pork from the Nebrodi Mountains) and biancomangiare (a medieval almond pudding). While Catania is often passed over, the morning fish market is worth a visit as are many buildings such as the Duomo and the lavish Palazzo Biscari.
Mount Etna: one of the great European volcanoes
We did a quick cruise up the windy road on Mount Etna, the tallest point in Sicily at 3,340 meters at the summit, passing auburn coloured nerello cappuccio and green nerello mascalese vines (I’ll cover the wineries in another post), the occasional dilapidated building and vehicles black with ash from the fairly regular exhalations of a live volcano. Etna is famous for its wines, honey, strawberries, and pistachio, mandarin, orange, lemon, olive and chestnut trees but our destination was a renowned local butcher, Macelleria Pennisi, in Lingualossa. There we found some mouthwatering additions to our barbecue – skewered meatballs wrapped in lemon leaves, homemade bacon wrapped around spring onions, involtini of chicken, pork and veal rolled with different flavourings such as pistachio, prosciutto, cheese, tomato, oregano, garlic and parsley and of course the normal assortment of kebabs, burgers and breaded cutlets. Back down the mountain we had an assortment of filled breads (such as aubergine/eggplant parmigiana filled bread), croissants filled with pistachio cream and cakes. Together with our haul from the market in Siracusa, we had enough for a feast.
Another day, we took the children to a donkey farm to ride Ragusan donkeys, feed Sicilian chickens and sheep and see how donkey milk was used. The children loved it but we found the milk sickly sweet and a tad musty. Apparently donkey milk is the most similar to breast milk so their milk is used as a substitute. The milk is also used in soaps and lotions.
Nearby was one of my favourite restaurants in Italy, located in a house covered with ivy. Inside was a panoply of tchotchkes including a sign which said, “Attenti al padrone – È pazzo” (meaning “beware of the owner – he is crazy”). There was a buffet of starters which was too appetising to resist featuring a semolina pudding, aubergine/eggplant parmigiana, broccoli with onions and caponata (sweet and sour vegetables). The menu features pork and sausages from a local breed of pig from the Nebrodi mountains, porcini mushrooms from Mount Etna, Bronte pistachios and local chestnuts.
Situated on a cliff 250 meters overlooking the Ionian Sea, Taormina has been renowned for its beauty since ancient times. From the entrance of Taormina take Corso Umberto up towards the Greek theatre, passing fashionable boutiques and the 3rd century Teatro Greco (Greek theatre) was rebuilt by the Romans as an arena with a remarkable view of the coast and Mount Etna in the distance. Taormina‘s remarkable beauty is what attracts the tourists but what many miss is some of the most intensely flavoured granita served in a warm brioche bun at Bam Bar and one of the two best cannoli in Sicily at Roberto’s (the other is Maria Grammatico’s in Erice). Don’t make this mistake. Many of the restaurants in Taormina offer up tourist fare but Tischi Toschi serves up excellent local dishes like sarde a beccafico (sardines rolled with breadcrumbs, raisins, capers and pine nuts), cernia con agrumi aeolie (grouper with citrus from the Eolie Islands) and pasta con i vroccoli arriminata (cauliflower pasta).
Places to visit:
Via delle Maestranze, 96, 96100 Siracusa SR
Tel: +39 0931 67133
A rather formal restaurant in an atmospheric former religious building. The cuisine is heavily seafood based and focused on the use of local ingredients with an inventive twist.
Recommended dishes: spaghetti con pomodorini di Pachino (spaghetti with Pachino cherry tomatoes), carbonara con gamberi affumicati (pasta with creamy egg sauce and smoked prawns), crema di mandorla con gamberi in crosta nera (cuttlefish ink crusted prawns in almond soup), pesce spada con miele di zagara e verdure in agrodolce (swordfish with orange blossom honey and sweet and sour vegetables), spaghetti ai ricci e gamberi (spaghetti with sea urchin and prawns), tagliata di tonno con marmellata di peperone (sliced tuna steak with pepper marmalade).
Gran Caffe del Duomo
piazza Duomo, 18/19, Siracusa
Tel: +39 093 121544
A great place to have a coffee in the morning or snacks and a cocktail in the afternoon and take in the scenery. They also have sweets, gelato and granita.
Caffe La Piazza
piazzo Duomo, 16, Siracusa
Tel: +39 093 124260
A great place to sit on piazza Duomo and enjoy the scenery. They also have snacks, sweets and granita.
Between Siracusa and Catania:
Marchesi di San Giuliano
SP95, 96010 Melilli SR
Tel:+39 0931 184 5897
One of the most extraordinary estates we have ever visited. The orange groves and gardens are worth a visit as is the factory where mandarin, lemon and orange marmalade and biscuits are made. Book in advance to arrange a tour.
Tenuta di Roccadia
Contrada Roccadia, 96013 Carlentini SR
Recommended dishes: bis di pesce spada affumicata e tonno affumicata (smoked swordfish and smoked tuna carpaccio), spaghetti con sarde e finocchio (pasta topped with sardines and fragrant wild fennel), casarecce con salsiccia e funghi (pasta with earthy sausages with mushrooms), spaghetti con pomodorini e pancetta (spaghetti with fat chunks of pancetta fried with cherry tomatoes), spaghetti alla Norma (spaghetti with fried aubergine, tomato and salty ricotta), costoletta con sale di Trapani e erbe (steak flavoured with herbed Trapani salt and grilled), tagliata (sliced grilled steak with rocket/arugula).
piazza Duomo, 9, Catania
Tel: +39 095320840
Perfectly situated on Duomo square with a perfect view of the Duomo, this is a fine place for a coffee and a choice of any of their delectable sweets.
Recommended: cassata (sponge cake sandwiching sweetened ricotta and chocolate drops and glazed), frutti di marzapane (marzapane fruits), cannoli (fried biscuit cylinder filled with ricotta cream, can be flavoured with candied fruit or chocolate drops), olivette (marzapane sweets), torrone con mandorle d’Avola (nougat with almonds from Avola), almond paste flavoured with lemon, pistachio or orange, cassatelle di algira (sweet ravioli), torrone di Sant’Agata (nougat with candied fruit and nuts), minni di Sant’Agata (literally means Saint Agatha’s breasts and are breast shaped pastries made of puff pastry, almond paste and ricotta flavoured with candies citrus and cinnamon, all topped with fondant and a candied cherry), cotognata (quince paste), rame (biscuits coated in chocolate), various arancini (conical rice croquettes with different fillings) both fried and baked.
via Monsignor Ventimiglia, 15, Catania
Tel: +39 095 7150142
Understated elegance would be the best way of describing the ambience of MC Turridu. The kitchen produces excellent traditional dishes with the best local ingredients.
Recommended: caserecce al pesto di pistacchio e mandorla (pasta with pesto sauce made with local pistachios and almonds), spaghetti alla Turridu (spaghetti with olives, garlic, cherry tomatoes, capers and breadcrumbs), spaghettone con alalunga alla Favignana (thick spaghetti with albacore tuna from the island of Favignana), cotolette alla palmeritana (a breaded and fried cutlet of veal flavoured with garlic, cheese, capers and olives), involtini di pesce spatola (scabbard fish rolls breaded and fried), suino di nebrodi (pork chop made with a local breed of pork from the Nebrodi Mountains) and biancomangiare (a medieval almond pudding)
via Sicula Orientale, 124, Mascali (CT)
Tel: +39 0957701745
Recommended: croissants filled with pistachio cream, filled bread (particularly the aubergine/eggplant parmigiana filled bread), traditional Sicilian biscuits and cakes, frutta martorana (marzipan fruits)
via Nuova, 2 Linguaglossa
Tel: +39 0956432160
Recommended: sausages (salsiccia tagliata al ceppo), pancetta, capocollo, guanciale, involtini of various flavours, hamburgers and meatballs wrapped in lemon leaves.
via Crispi, 9, Milo (CT)
Tel: +39 095 955566
Closed on Wednesdays
One of my favourite restaurants in all of Italy with a familial environment, excellent food and a great wine list. Reservations recommended.
Recommended: the antipasto bar, tagliatelle con ragù di suino nero di Nebrodi (tagliatelle with pork ragu made with meat from a local breed of pig from the Nebrodi Mountains), lasagne con broccoli e salsiccia (lasagne with broccoli and sausage), tagliatelle con funghi porcini di Etna (tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms from Etna), salsiccia di suino nero di nebrodi alle brace (grilled sausage made with meat from a local breed of pig from the Nebrodi Mountains), semifreddo di pistacchi (pistachio frozen mousse), budino di castagne (chestnut pudding).
Via Salice, 95010 Milo (CT)
Tel: +39 333 527 5920
A donkey dairy farm which is lots of fun for children. They can ride donkeys, feed donkeys, goats and chickens, see a donkey milking demonstration and taste donkey milk.
via Di Giovanni, 45, Taormina (ME)
Tel: +39 094224355
A casual bar serving the most delicious granita (flavoured shaved ice) with can be topped with whipped cream or served in a warm brioche bun. Choose to eat in or take away.
Recommended: almond, coffee, chocolate, strawberry or lemon. Other flavours available seasonally. The almond, lemon and strawberry were amazing.
Roberto – Il Mago dei Cannoli
via Calapitrulli, Taormina (ME)
Tel: +39 0942626263
Known for his perfect cannoli filled upon ordering, you can be assured that the biscuit cylinder will be perfectly crisp. Because the biscuit is filled upon ordering, it can be made thin as there is no risk of it becoming soggy.
Recommended: cannoli (fried biscuit cylinder filled with ricotta cream, can be flavoured with candied fruit or chocolate drops), almond and pistachio sweets such as marzipan, cakes, delizie al pistacchio (puff pastry filled with pistachio and marmalade), mafiosi al pistacchio (pistachio cream covered with whole almonds) and cassata (sponge cake sandwiching sweetened ricotta and chocolate drops and glazed)
via Francesco Paladini, 3, Taormina (ME)
Tel:+39 339 364 2088
Well prepared dishes featuring local ingredients and an excellent Sicilian wine list. The restaurant is tiny but has a lovely outdoor space to sit.
Recommended dishes: fritto misto (deep-fried mixed seafood), spaghetti with nero di seppia (cuttlefish ink spaghetti), sarde a beccafico (sardines rolled with breadcrumbs, raisins, capers and pine nuts), cernia con agrumi aeolie (grouper with citrus from the Eolie Islands), pasta con i vroccoli arriminata (cauliflower pasta), pasta con n’duja (pasta with spicy Calabrian sausage), tagliatella con tonno (tagliatelle with tuna and tomato sauce), pecorino in cartoccio (pecorino cheese baked in a bag), alalunga alla liparota (albacore tuna
corso Umberto, 59, Taormina (ME)
Tel: +39 094223321
An upscale food delicatessen featuring Sicilian products such as sea salt, capers, jarred tuna, salumi from the Nebrodi mountains, Ragusano cheese, liquors, chocolates, biscuits and top olive oils.