February 2020 The Italian Island with Its Own Distinct Flavor

The Italian Island with Its Own Distinct Flavor

The village of Castiglione di Sicilia, near Taormina.
The village of Castiglione di Sicilia, near Taormina.
Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus
Sicily’s eclectic ingredients, deep respect for tradition, and epicurean experiences transport travelers back in time.
Only two miles of the Strait of Messina divide the island of Sicily from the toe of Italy’s boot, yet refer to the island’s residents as “Italian,” and you’ll quickly be corrected. “We’re Sicilian,” they’ll tell you, and that identity is underscored by a singular mix of cultures – and is most evident in their culinary traditions.

For centuries, Sicily served as a strategic Mediterranean outpost for everyone from the Phoenicians, Greeks, Normans, and Spanish to the Romans, Africans, and Arabs. While other European destinations also experienced occupations, Sicilian cooks managed to cull star ingredients from their colonizers. To the island’s food cart, Arabs added foodstuffs such as eggplant, found in Sicily’s famed pasta alla Norma, as well as currants, pine nuts, oranges, and mint. North African ships carried couscous, which became a frequent base for seafood dishes. From lemon and pistachio trees planted by Greeks to chocolate and tomatoes brought by Spanish aristocrats, the eclectic combination of flavors created a cuisine like no other.

Virtuoso travel advisor Laura Crafton, who recently visited Sicily, says, “Sitting around the dinner table every night was definitely the highlight of my trip. It was a beautiful reflection of what Sicilian cuisine represents: a proud commitment to traditions and a melting pot of cultures coming together as one.” Here are three outings that celebrate Sicily’s historic influences, ensuring no flavor gets lost in translation.
A Le Mamme del Borgo cooking demo.
A Le Mamme del Borgo cooking demo.
Photo by Tyson Sadlo/Belmond

The Way Mama Used to Make It

Sicilian women can be thanked for preserving much of the island’s foodways, and a local chapter of an organization called Le Mamme del Borgo (Mothers of the Village) is continuing that effort. In 2016, women from the town of Motta Camastra united to celebrate homespun flavors that were being lost as the younger generation left the island. Each mamma creates a dish to share in a weekly communal dining event, served round-robin-style in the streets outside their homes.

For travelers, the group hosts small-group gatherings on the grounds of a country estate just 20 miles from Taormina, where pine and chestnut groves frame views of Mount Etna. The women share tricks of the trade, such as fashioning macaroni from pasta dough rolled skillfully around a ferretto (thin wire). Then comes a decadent spread of Sicily’s most prized dishes: scamorza cheese, luscious broad beans, fennel and orange salad, meatballs neatly packaged in lemon leaves, heaps of tender pork, arancine (meat-stuffed, fried risotto balls), and, in spring, a bowl of fresh, warm ricotta, swimming in whey scooped straight from the pot.
Picnic time on Mount Etna.
Picnic time on Mount Etna.
Photo by Tyson Sadlo/Belmond

Do It: Meet the Mamme.
Admire beach and Bay of Mazzarò views from your balcony at the 71-room Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea. The former aristocratic home in Taormina Mare has modern touches, but preserves a luxe residential feel. Dine seaside at Restaurant Oliviero (try the couscous with fresh fish, toasted almonds, and confit tomatoes, along with bucatini served with broccoli, raisins, and pine nuts) and learn how to make the perfect caponata during a cooking class with Oliviero’s Sicilian chef Agostino D’Angelo. The hotel’s Art of Gastronomy tour starts with a two-hour morning hike on Mount Etna and includes a snack of local specialties such as Maletto strawberries and Bronte pistachios, paired with sparkling spumantes. Later, enjoy a bespoke lunch with Le Mamme del Borgo, accompanied by live folk music. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 dining credit. 

Locanda Don Serafino.
Locanda Don Serafino.

Dinner Is Served — In a Cave

Perched on a hill by the Hyblaean Mountains, the village of Ragusa Ibla serves as southeastern Sicily’s culinary heart. Below, lush swaths of terraced farmland chiseled into the area’s steep limestone landscape gradually step down to the sea. Four thousand years ago, troglodytes settled into Ragusa’s caves, where some locals reluctantly resided until the 1950s (the grottoes were considered substandard living quarters). So in 2000, when Sicilian entrepreneurs decided to open the gourmet restaurant Locanda Don Serafino, part of which extends into a cave, many Ragusans were skeptical. Today, this Michelin-star establishment ranks as one of Sicily’s top dining venues.

Locanda Don Serafino chef Vincenzo Candiano grew up on a nearby farm and champions local produce. He notes that his ingredients (think wild mustard greens and tenerumi, the leaves and shoots of cucuzza, an Italian squash) aren’t zero kilometer – they’re zero meter. His proteins’ carbon footprints are also minimal: He sources beef, for instance, from Modicana cows in the nearby village of Vizzini, and rabbit from Palazzolo Acreide, just 25 miles away. Visitors can join Candiano in his kitchen, making – and later dining on – seasonal dishes born from the sea and Ragusa’s pastoral hills. Whether you’re learning how he updates his grandmother’s tomato sauce with egg, basil, and a foam of caciocavallo (stretched-curd cheese) or experimenting with his twists on Sicilian staples – such as his acclaimed black-ink spaghetti using sea urchin, cuttlefish, and cow’s milk ricotta (rather than the more typical sheep’s milk variety) – count on dishes and stories rich in local tradition.
Chef Vincenzo Candiano’s black-ink spaghetti with sea urchin and cow’s milk ricotta.
Chef Vincenzo Candiano’s black-ink spaghetti with sea urchin and cow’s milk ricotta.
Photo by Alessandro Castiglioni

Do It: Get Cooking. 
Your travel advisor can work with Virtuoso on-site tour provider Essence of Sicily to craft customizable food journeys across the island, highlighted by cooking lessons with chef Vincenzo Candiano at Locanda Don Serafino. Highly recommended: Weave the experience into a ten-day Luxury Sicily tour that has you sampling street-cart treats such as panelle (chickpea fritters introduced by Arabs) in Palermo; enjoying a garden picnic at Agrigento’s famed Valley of the Temples archeological site; meeting a chocolate maker at Modica’s Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, which uses an Aztec technique brought to Sicily by the Spanish; and, in Noto, visiting pastry chef Corrado Assenza – who, along with his cannoli and granitas, was featured in an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Departures: Any day through 2020.

Planeta Ulmo’s bountiful vineyards.
Planeta Ulmo’s bountiful vineyards.
Photo by Luca Savetierre

Time for Wine

In southwestern Sicily, historical roots both literal and figurative are best traced in Terre Sicane. This vast wine region, comprising a collection of vineyards surrounding the port town of Sciacca, produces traditional varieties such as nero d’Avola, perricone, and inzolia, along with international grapes like chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet.

Learn about Sicily’s rich – and long – winemaking history (grape residue recently found in a cave outside Sciacca suggests that wine was first produced on the island some 6,000 years ago) during a tour and tasting at the family-owned Planeta Ulmo estate near Sambuca di Sicilia. A short stroll from its sixteenth-century farmhouse, the family created the Iter Vitis outdoor museum, with a “collection meadow” showcasing Sicilian varietals. Guided estate tours can also include walks through the adjacent Risinata Forest to see a palmento (gravity-flow wine press) dating from the fourth to third century BC, hidden on an unmarked trail.

Chiara Planeta, whose uncle pioneered winemaking at Ulmo, often provides guests with this intimate glimpse of history, along with foraging tips, insights on local flora, and information about sustainable growing practices employed at the family’s six estates across Sicily. Tastings at the winery offer chances to sip whites such as Planeta’s “super cru” chardonnay and La Segreta bianco, along with reds that include nero d’Avola and merlot. For additional local flavor, pair them with a family-style lunch of caponata, arancine, and timballo (baked pasta), prepared in the estate’s kitchen.
Bearing fruit at Verdura Resort.
Bearing fruit at Verdura Resort.

Do It: Say Salute!
Just south of Sciacca, the 203-room Verdura Resort, a Rocco Forte Hotel sits on 570 acres of sunbathed coastline and countryside, where tennis courts are tucked in among orange groves, and three links-style golf courses attempt to tame Sicily’s unapologetically raw terrain. The resort offers multiple food and wine tours, including some in the Terre Sicane that include visits to the Planeta Ulmo estate and other celebrated wineries. Back at the resort, there’s plenty of food and libations to be had at eight dining venues. Balance Sicily’s epicurean indulgences with the help of Verdura’s four thalassotherapy pools, Finnish and infrared saunas, and wellness staff that includes a nutritionist, mindfulness coach, and fitness guru. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 dining credit. Visits to the Planeta Ulmo estate (including a tour, tasting, and lunch) from $67.

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