The few memories that I have from my first visit from Southern Italy in 1987 as a 6 year old boy were enough for me to not visit for another 30 years. We basically only visited family that didn’t speak any English whatsoever, and I missed every amenity the US has to offer for a young child.
July 2019: Whatever negative judgments I had of Southern Italy were quickly erased after this trip. My cousins from Northern Italy seduced me with another visit to the island 300 kilometers away from where I once visited when I was a little boy, Sicily. The photos and articles of crystal clear blue water and fishing ports that he sent me seemed like a place that was more like 3,000 kilometers from the small towns in Calabria.
This was a 10 day vacation where I had thoughts of wandering the streets, visiting markets, obviously eating and sitting on the beach. Now my cousin Giorgio, who is a kung-fu master (not joking) and a diesel motor engineer, is a very meticulous person and planned a very extensive itinerary. Sicily isn’t as easy to plan a vacation for as I would say a more popular summer destination because what I quickly learned, is that the old culture is still very strong there.
After a pretty long travel day, I arrived in Catania and picked up my 69 horsepower Fiat 500 (yes, I missed American horsepower). After a 30 minute drive, I pulled up to my Airbnb at Faraglioni di Acitrezza. I immediately opened every window in the house and walked out to the balcony, leaving every ounce of travel stress behind. My Airbnb was on the top floor of a three story building with a huge balcony that had a dining room table, a grill, an awning – all overlooking the most beautiful beach in Catania.
Let the snacks begin. Starving and being completely turned around in travel time and not knowing if it was breakfast or dinner, there was an amazing café right underneath the apartment building that was extremely affordable and had a large menu of delicious Sicilian food I’ve been dreaming about. My first snack consisted of local prosciutto and melon, olive oil poach Sicilian tuna, mozzarella and bruschetta with tomato and anchovies. These were no normal tomatoes or anchovies, Sicily takes the prize of best tasting for both.
Soon after, Giorgio and his nephew Federico arrived to greet us. After finishing our Sicilian beers, I showered quickly and the Sicilian itinerary began. Giorgio had been planning this trip for months and did a lot of research to satisfy my culinary craving for Sicily. Our first dinner was at L’oste scuro, a small – very old school trattoria with a patio overlooking a gorgeous lit up cathedral. In a very Italian fashion, Giorgio prepped every restaurant owner we met along the way, that his “famous New York chef cousin,” hilarious. For this first meal, he took the honor of ordering everything and I have to say, he did a pretty fucking good job. Round after round of food came out: grilled swordfish, octopus, caponata, calamari, shrimp, of course Sicilian tuna, pasta and local wine. It was an amazing second taste of what this beautiful island has to offer.
The next day, we took a ride to see Mt Etna. This is actually the first active volcano I’ve ever seen and the trip came along with the added bonus of some beautiful scenery as we made our way up the mountain. Through the power of social media, my good friends Salvatore Rizzo from DeGustibus Cooking School in New York City and his husband Gary Portuesi from Authentic Italy, saw that I was out my Mt Etna. Sal immediately called me and said I had to visit their favorite vineyard in Sicily: Benanti Winery. The owner of the winery, Antonio Benanti, was gracious enough to extend an invitation for a delicious lunch and wine pairing that afternoon. It was definitely an unexpected treat and highly recommended experience. Sometimes Southern wines get a bad rep, but the Benanti’s are producing some delicious and unique bottles.
Taking another recommendation from Sal and Gary, we took an hour ride from Acitrezza to a restaurant called I Rizzari in Brucoli. With both Sal and Gary’s family being from Sicily, I was sure all their recommendations were going to be incredible. But I have to say, for our second dinner in Sicily – I Rizzari was something special. It was another meal where I famously over ordered, but I’m happy I did because dish after dish was absolutely delicious. For me that evening – the dish that still makes my mouth water was their Spaghetti ai Ricci, a very simple dish, but executed perfectly with the most pristine Sicilian ingredients: spaghetti with Sicilian olive oil, garlic and local sea urchin.
We spent the following day relaxing on the beach right across from the apartment. Most of the beaches in Catania are very rocky so most of the lounging that was done was spent floating in the salty Mediterranean sea. Later on that afternoon, we drove about an hour and a half to the famous town of Taormina. This town was mixed with Roman architecture, tons of restaurants, high end shopping and packed with tourists– kind of reminding me of Capri. Just a fair warning, those of you who are scared of heights, the drive up there is a bit exhilarating especially while driving a very small Fiat. Definitely take an hour to walk through the town and do some shopping. Definitely go check out the ancient Roman theater. It will begin a state of constant wander of how Romans built such sophisticated things over 2,000 years ago. The week I was there, John Legend was there performing a concert in the theater. I just kept thinking how unbelievable of an experience it would be to attend a concert there at night overlooking the lit up town and coastline below.
Antonio Benanti was kind enough to email me a list of his recommended restaurants in Sicily. We decided on Vicolo Stretto which translates to narrow alley. This is a very accurate name because I walked by this tiny passage about four times. Once you squeak through, there’s a stairway that leads to a gorgeous Michelin recommended restaurant on the very top of Taormina. In this meal, we indulged in Benanti wine, an array of seafood and antipasti. My favorite dish this night was braised rabbit leg, reminding me of taste of my childhood, with an extremely sophisticated delivery.
While everyone else slept in, Giorgio and I took a trip to the Catania Fish Market in the downtown area early the next morning. We were a bit early to the market, but I would say around 8 or 8:30am would be the best time to arrive because all the old fish salesmen have their fish stations fully set for sale. As I walked into the entrance of this outdoor market, I was taken back. This market probably looked the same and conducted business the same for hundreds of years. Stand after stand, there was another unique character of an old man selling their prized catch of the day. Of course my cousin introduced me as the “famous New York chef” and for a place that doesn’t get many American tourists, the old men were very excited to engage in conversation and talk about their pristine products. The list of absolutely gorgeous fish is too long to write. After spending just five minutes in this market, all I could think about was the amazing view on my terrace and that grill. It was time for me to cook. It was almost impossible to walk by some of these stations and not buy something: Sicilian tuna, sea bass, prawns, anchovies, sausage, the most delicious looking olives, tomatoes, calabrian red onions (which I was unfamiliar with, but will never forget), hand pulled mozzarella, stone fruit, the most aromatic herbs, and one of the most special ingredients I encountered there, the Sicilian citrus. It was the Fourth of July and it only seemed right for me to cook out on the grill. That night I hosted everyone at the apartment and cooked a feast which probably could have fed 12 people, although there were only four of us. We drank and ate and laughed while reminiscing about old stories late into the night. As night fell, we had a special surprise by what must have been Americans blasting off fireworks from a rooftop. God bless America. This was how we spent our last night in Catania.
For the remainder of the trip, we were headed northwest towards Palermo while spending one night in Erice and then Favignana. What Giorgio didn’t inform me, was that this was going to be a 4 ½ hour drive. Now I consider myself an offensive and aggressive New York City driver. This drive, although extremely beautiful and full of amazing sights from blue coastlines to dry and grassy rolling hills that kind of reminded me of Fresno, California – kind of scared the crap out of me. Now where my fear stemmed from was the 69 horsepower Fiat that really didn’t move too quickly and resembled a matchbox car. I’m pretty familiar with driving in Europe and the rules. They go such as: drive as fast as you want, only in the left lane, and if you’re in the left lane, and some crazy Italian is driving extremely fast – you better get out of the way quickly. Now if you don’t, they won’t break the rules and pass you on the right, instead – they’ll completely tailgate you up your ass. At this point, I down-shifted my Fiat into third gear and floored it, but the car still couldn’t move quickly enough out of the way.
About two hours into the trip, Giorgio made a very important point for us to visit Villa Romana del Casale. All he kept referring to was mosaic. When we arrived, our minds once again began to race of how did these Romans do this over 2,000 years ago? This was an ancient residence with a huge thermal spa that apparently was used for aristocrats and politicians. The story behind this is a few hundred years ago, there was a mudslide that completely buried the villa. When originally discovered, I’m sure no one had any idea of what they had stumbled upon. What was uncovered was a very sophisticated Roman thermal spa with thousands of square feet of extremely detailed mosaic art floors. The artwork looked more like it was done hundreds of years ago, not thousands of years ago, and depicted the happenings of that era in the Roman Empire. To give you an idea of how ahead of their time the Romans were, there was one area used for a gym for the females that pictured women in what looked like very modern bikinis, stretching, lifting dumbbells and playing with what look like beach balls. I know mosaic art may not sound like the most exciting thing, but if you’re in this area and as intrigued with ancient Roman culture as I am, you have to 100% visit this site.
From there, we drove to Trapani to the Salt Flats. Being a chef and obsessed with salt, this was super cool to learn about the history of salt mining in Sicily and all sounded so familiar to me from the stories I’ve heard from family in Calabria. A little tip if you visit the salt flats, make sure you have cash on you and buy up on as much fiore di sale you can fit into your luggage (yes, your luggage will be checked at the airport).
We finished the day in the ancient mountain-top town of Erice. Yet again, the drive to Erice had unparalleled views which led to this very small, incredible town that looks like it was cut out of ancient history and never touched.
For the remainder of the trip, we spent our days in Favignana. Now I like to consider myself as being pretty well traveled, and have seen more of my fair share of breathtaking beaches. I’m sure I’ve said this once before, but in this moment, this is what I feel: between the culture, food, and unbelievable crystal clear water beaches that are situated around beautiful stone mine areas, Favignana might rank very close to the top of my list of beach destinations.
Immediately after checking into the hotel, I had to get to one of the beach scenes I have seen so many photos of ASAP. We got a quick snack and a few beers right outside one of the piazzas in the center of town. Then, headed to Lido Burrone. This beach is one of the few, full sand beaches in the area. It’s definitely the most modern beaches that had most amenities we’re used to: chairs, umbrellas, bars, etc. Now about the beach itself. It was everything I imagined – white sand, clear blue water, super tan Southern Italians, and the most beautiful surroundings as I floated out in the water looking around. Later that afternoon, I planned a sunset drive to the beach that everyone speaks of when Favignana comes up, Cala Rossa. Cala Rossa is off the beaten path - I definitely tested the off road capabilities of the poor Fiat as I drove through the very narrow, rocky dirt roads. We arrived thirty minutes before sunset to walk around and take in all the beautiful cliffs that overlook the beach. As I watched the sun go down, I couldn’t even imagine a more beautiful setting.
That night I had one of our “fancy” dinner reservations planned, but as I was driving back to the hotel after the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever experienced, I immediately started throwing up and shitting. I believe the culprit was a stuffed sardine I ate the day prior at a small bar in Trapani. I ate it cold, directly from the window case, and was the only one in our group who ate it. Shit happens.
With only a few days left, and after seeing what this island had to offer, I spent the rest of the time exploring beaches. I kind of became somewhat of an expert. I got lost in these dirt roads so many times that I figured this small area out. Beaches that are absolutely not to be missed include: Lido Burrone, Cala Rossa, Cala Azzurra, and Blue Marino.
Cala Azzurra is another one of these rocky cliff beaches and is not one to lounge at, just to walk down, go for a swim and to take in the stunning beauty of it. Blue Marino is one that we didn’t hear much about. It’s a little nook adjacent to the very popular Cala Rossa. I think this was my favorite beach. Once you make your way down the rocky path, not only is this beach incredibly gorgeous, it will spark your imagination once again with the huge rock caves that run under the cliff side. On my next visit, I will go to the market, shop for an incredible picnic, and find one of these cut outs at Blue Marino and spend the entire day there.
One our second to last night, I rebooked the reservation from the night of my unfortunate stomach issue at Albergo Ristorante. At first I was a little confused by the menus because they had one seasonal restaurant and one dedicated solely to focaccia. Typically I wouldn’t order an item off a bread menu, but the server did an excellent job explaining why this was so special. I won’t get into the in depth explanation of why, but this was hands down the most delicious, light and airy focaccia I’ve ever had in my life. We got two different kinds: one a traditional caprese, and another with burrata, basil puree and thinly sliced cured Sicilian tuna. Out-fucking-rageous.
Another special destination on Giorgio’s itinerary, was the tuna factory, Tonnara di Favignana. We took the full tour of the facility that was open from the 1800’s to 2007. I know a museum is a hard sell while on vacation, but if you’re into history, culture, and food – this hour and a half is well worth it.
For our last night, Giorgio had planned a special dinner at Il Giardino delle Aloe. We arrived close to sunset to the most quaint bed and breakfast type hotel with the most beautiful outdoor dining room under a canopy of a huge, obviously very old, well groomed, illuminated tree. There were many highlights of this meal – I honestly don’t think you can go wrong ordering anything off this menu. The absolute stunner was a fritto misto which I originally ordered just to have a small taste of, but ended up blowing my mind. The calamari was perfectly crisp and tender, and the shell on baby red prawns were the sweetest shrimp I’ve ever put into my mouth. Between the texture, flavor, seasoning of Sicilian sea salt and local honey, and a squeeze of lemon – I could not stop eating it even though of how extremely full I was.
Out of all the places I’ve traveled in the world, some of them I take those one time memories and experiences with me without necessarily needing another visit. Although this was a packed 10 day vacation, I feel like I have just scratched the surface of this beautiful island and it will be a place that I will continue to visit for years to come. Thank you Giorgio, Margie and Federico for getting me back in touch with my Southern Italian roots. I’ll never forget them again.