Sicily Trip Report 2013 - Palermo, Siracusa, Taormina, etc. (way too long as usual)
First, of course, I have to thank all the previous posters here about Sicily - though they're sometimes few and far between (especially recently), Chowhound recommendations are always still the best - better than Slowfood, better than Plotkin, better than Gambero Rosso, definitely better than Michelin, just the best. So thanks!
Second, just a general observation from our time spent in Sicily - if you're planning a trip and you want to visit the beautiful (and touristy) places like Taormina and Siracusa, don't fret that there won't be any good food for you there, or think that it's all in Palermo so you HAVE to make a stop there. We actually found the opposite to be true from our small sampling.
PALERMO (and nearby-ish)
While not the high point, we did have some nice meals here, especially on day trips. And the Arab-Norman architecture is reason enough to go, even if you just spent all your meals in your apartment cooking goodies from the markets (which don't disappoint).
I would recommend:
Monte San Giuliano in Erice (for great smoked fish, a dish of ravioli di ricotta con seppia where the inky sauce was just full of flavor, crespelle with broccoli and spiced couscous with fish; abbondanza was the rule here, as both the ravioli and crespelle were ceremoniously topped with a pretty ridiculous amount of ricotta tableside - they already both were filled with the stuff, plus bechamel in the crespelle - but we'd had such a lousy rainy day that the over-the-top lunch was just what we needed)
Trattoria del Pavone in Monreale (for their wine list, antipasti, polpette di sarde, and tortelloni di vitello in a curry sauce of all things - which was especially nice with the bits of eggplant they added in; this place was an elegant escape from the crowds at the cathedral)
We also visited a few other places in Palermo that had some high and low points:
Basile (really simple, giant plates of pasta/antipasti, one of the cheapest meals I have ever had in Europe, very friendly service; my pasta al sugo di salsiccia was enjoyable, but my BF's ravioli was sadly cold and boring, so its a roll of the dice)
Antica Foccaceria San Francesco (the milza is definitely worth getting - totally greasy comfort food, elevated by the bread and cheese; also tried their arancino alla norma which was fine but not outstanding; we actually ate in the ristorante upstairs, which had a lovely view, but I don't think anything we ate up there was really so worthwhile - you're better off eating your street food style selections downstairs as those were the highlights)
Sant'Andrea (for the antipasto of pane fritto with bacalao and sweet caramelized onions; the primi and secondo we had didn't quite come together - they were trying some creative combinations that didn't work, but the space was pretty and service nice)
Osteria dei Vespri (voluminous wine list - so heavy it required its own chair(!); this is a tasting menu type place, with dainty, somewhat belabored food, most of which was just ok, standouts being a very homey gnocchetti with rabbit and a little taste of tuna tartare with superfresh flavorful herbs; our main of "lamb two ways" was sadly overcooked and bland)
Sfincione from a guy at Ballaro market (I can see the comparison to the NY grandma slice; a very enjoyable snack with simple flavors, and nice textural contrast between the spongy bread and crisp crust - but I wouldn't go out of my way to get it here, anywhere on the street is probably fine)
Spinnato (for their gelato in brioche - very enjoyable but not life changing)
And if I had it all to do over, I would have skipped:
Piccolo Napoli - really underwhelming
Pasticceria Maria Grammatica - had a cannolo that was just bad - they must be coasting on fame; I had a much better one later at an agriturismo
And instead visited:
Ai Cascinari - which was closed when we planned to visit
Markets of note:
We stayed right by the Capo market, which was great, perhaps a bit smaller than Ballaro, but I found it much more atmospheric and it had equally impressive produce and fish. I would recommend seeing whichever is closer to the rest of your itinerary; you don't need to do more than one.
Another note about Palermo - from the descriptions of others, we expected it to be crazy like Naples (where any moment it feels like you could be attacked by a pack of feral children on scooters - which to me is endearing - I love Naples), but it was just a very average Italian city, lots of middle class college students, working class folks, no real danger, friendly people, but also less personality than I expected. Certainly no need for anyone to worry about safety while visiting there. It felt just like walking about NY or any other large city.
I can see why the tourists love this little town. We stayed on Ortigia and it was just beyond charming - the perfect scale town to explore leisurely. If you like jogging, that is apparently THE thing to do here, so bring your trainers and soak up the views working off all that pasta.
I heartily recommend:
Oinos (for their creative Sicilian dishes - highly recommended here on CH, and I have to agree; we had the single best dish of the trip at Oinos: a not-remotely-Sicilian and possibly crazy-sounding cacio e peppe with lime marinated scampi crudo mixed in, which was so unbelievably good we came back a second night - but they were full! Also excellent was their fennel and orange salad with peppers and anchovies, grilled octopus, and their spaghetti ai ricci with summer squash on top of a bed of braised greens.)
Osteria Gazza Ladra (for their antipasti alla Siracusana - a bounty of perfect vegetable nibbles - plus a frittata, and simple, balanced pastas: one with just anchovies, breadcrumbs, ground almonds and oil, and other with a light local fish and parsley - they sound boring but were perfectly executed, and the proprietress so friendly, I'm surprised we didn't eat here more than once as well)
Caseificio Borderi (for sandwiches to go; this place was swamped so it took a while to get an order in but we were rewarded with two of the best sandwiches we've ever had, each just 2euro - one was just prosciutto with mozzarella and caponata, the other was a salsiccia of some kind with a firmer cacio-like cheese and a sicilian pesto; plus the folks there are super nice)
We had a pretty enjoyable, but not outstanding meal at:
Porta Marina (for their house specialty of spaghetti and shrimp with smoked swordfish and breadcrumbs in a really fantastic buttery rich sauce - it was more northern Italian tasting than Sicilian, but still a winner; the marinated crudo and the sformato of zucchini were both nice, as was the sea urchin sauce on the ravioli of scampi - though the scampi failed to make much of an impact)
And I would avoid the following:
Vite e Vitello (everything was lackluster - how is this place a Slow Food pick? - with the exception of our secondo, the caramela di orata, which was an exceptional piece of fish wrapped up like a giant piece of candy in puff pastry - by no means should you make a stop here just for this, but if you're dragged here, get this!)
Trattoria da Mariano (I know people like this place but yikes, it was PAINFUL. We, and another Italian couple next to us, sat there an hour without even getting our wine. I'm all for slow meals but jeez, no drinks even? Then the salad and antipasto arrived sometime during hour two, both were good enough but nothing special. One of our pastas was quite nice - one of the only spicy dishes we had in Sicily, just a simple pasta con frutti di mare, but the other pasta was a tasteless rendition of pasta al nero di seppie that we didn't finish despite being by this time rather hungry. Our main was an abysmal dish of lumache - horribly bitter and disappointing. We averaged one dish an hour and were there past midnight - so did several other annoyed tables. Unless you are here with a big group and really don't care how long the lags are between your courses - maybe you've brought your own wine? - this place is just not worth the effort.)
Trattoria Crocificio del Bagliere in Noto (for their tender roast octopus, a pretty epic lasagna with broccoli, sausage and bechamel, another great ravioli di ricotta al nero di seppie with perfectly cooked sepia, coniglio al agrodolce and a very good wine list - even at lunch they filled up, so book this one or arrive early; it's slightly elevated cooking in a pleasant, contemporary space, and was an excellent value)
Don't understand the raves:
Cafe Sicilia (granted I am not really a huge fan of sweets, but neither of the little cakes we had here were good - didn't finish them)
Dolceria Costanzo (we didn't find anything particularly outstanding about their gelato, but there wasn't anything wrong with it either)
Beware if you are taking the train from here, they weren't selling tickets at the train station (no machine, no human, no nothin - just a sign informing you the nearest place to get them is about 10-15 minutes away, up the hill).
I know people complain about Taormina being touristy, but at least in early May when we were there, the only touristy area was the main Corso, which was indeed awful, but easy to escape. Just a block or two off, and you're all by yourself in a truly lovely old town, with incredible views at every turn. Rent yourself a house or apartment nearby and just drink up the natural beauty in privacy - it's really unbeatable.
We had outstanding meals here too (though you will spend more), at:
L'arco dei Cappuccini (which has the online reputation of being the best restaurant in town, and I believe it - everything we had from start to finish was excellent, even the secondo, which we had not really been so impressed with at other places. From their special of whitebait pressed into patties and fried, to the classic pasta alla norma and pasta con le sarde - the best renditions of either dish we had on the trip - to the brilliant costoletta di vitello with Etna mushrooms, with the veal just seared, so tender and pink inside, there was not one misstep. Everything perfectly seasoned and balanced.)
Nero D'Avola (where they do an excellent job of bringing together all of the best local product, have a very deep and focused wine list full of great stuff, and were just generally very nice, welcoming folks. We loved their tuna tartare - every bite was different, first a perfect caper, then a crunch of sea salt, then a hit of ginger. Two different dishes of suino nero were also outstanding - one an intensely piggy fettucine with Nebrodi mountain sausage and local mushrooms; another a pile of thin slices of maialino, some belly, some loin, all browned in a pan, then layered with cheese and toast to soak up the drippings. And then one of the best surprises - a lemon salad with just red and green onions and salt - the lemons were so sweet you could eat them rind and all. This is the place to go for a showcase of top notch local Sicilian goods.)
Not quite in a class of those, but also very good were:
Al Duomo (for the view, the marinated anchovies in orange, the pasta alla vecchia Taormina and con le sarde - both very good, close rivals of those from L'Arco dei Cappuccini - and the excellent sarde a beccafica; the value equation here is the only black mark - smallish portions and somewhat high prices are the tradeoff for the charming view of the square)
Al Saraceno (for pizza - the one with crushed tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, smoked tuna, arugula, mozzarella and olive oil was a standout; and pretty good beef carpaccio, as well as the great view)
We had some hits and misses at:
Viccolo Stretto (for the over-the-top pasta which was a bit like a marriage of pasta con le sarde and a ragu bolognese, with both anchovies and ground pork in a rich tomato sauce with cream swirled around the outside - just because it wasn't already rich enough! Caution: this place is also pricey and some of the dishes too precious for my taste. Other dishes were cooked nicely but the seasoning was a bit off.)
Trattoria da Nino (the salad of smoked fish was fabulous, the tuna tartare nice, the pastas good but unremarkable, but the service was very welcoming and cheery)
And I don't think I would bother with:
Al Melograno (dishes lacked balance, some elements were overcooked, it wasn't all bad, but nothing really stand-out)
Agriturismo San Marco (where we stopped for a lunch break during a day of hiking on Etna - their antipasti spread was neverending, and all of it was delicious. Highlights were a head cheese made with lemon infused into the gelatin, fried cheeses, and many many vegetables. Their mini cannoli were also lovely - not too much sugar, just fresh ricotta cheese speckled with vanilla. Pastas and wine were forgettable, but the location and antipasti were worth a stop, and the price was very low.)
I also urge you, if you're in the area and have the means, to go out to visit some of the wineries on Etna - just find a wine you like and go! We spent a day doing just this, and had a wonderful time - and a wonderful meal - in the process. We visited Frank Cornelissen and Salvo Foti on the North side of Etna, both of whom make incredible wines and were charming hosts. Or maybe I should say that Signore Foti's wife is the charming hostess, since her lunch was just delightful - most of it straight out of their pizza oven (I am so jealous of this lifestyle). Her artichokes made it hard to drag my sad self back to the Catania airport and real life this side of the pond. That's probably an exaggeration; it had something to do with the mountain views and the wine as well!
This is incredibly helpful, emilie!
While the time of year is not ideal given anticipated heat & crowds, I'm off on a family trip to Italy next week that will include 5 days in Sicily -- 2 nights in Taormina, and 3 in Siracusa (Ortigia), with a planned side trip to Noto.
We are really looking forward, and this excellent report will be a great reference! Many thanks for the detailed write-up.
Thank you SO much for that additional information, this is amazing. I'm not sure how to send a PM on Chowhound but feel free to PM me if you can.
We definitely prefer smaller or more intimate wineries and are hoping to avoid ones that cater to the cruise ship day-trippers. Sadly we do not speak Italian but we plan to hire a driver for the day, so I'll check with Sicily life (also hopefully that can help us with the language barrier). Ideally we don't want to spend all our time driving so we're hoping to focus on North Etna wineries if possible and 'hitting' multiple wineries near one another sounds great so Tenuta Delle Terre Nere would be nice to add to Salvo Foti.
I look forward to researching all this additional information. And we're excited to try your restaurant recommendations as well. Thanks again, much appreciated!
Found it (the pdf):
If that link doesn't work, google "guida alle cantine dell'etna" and it should be the first result.
It doesn't look like you can private message on CH. Too bad.
It would definitely be interesting to see those two on the same day - it was pretty clear Foti's not a big fan of his Tuscan neighbor's vineyard technology. He's extremely low tech and hands on - he seems to raise those vines like children. We were walking through a vineyard on a raised wall at one point with Foti's vines on one side (traditional Sicilian albarello style, old grizzled vines) and de Grazia's (Terre Nere) on the other side (newly planted with a shiny new irrigation system all neat and tidy and pristine) - really cool to see what a huge difference there is in the way they farm (and to hear Foti get all salty about it). I wonder what the other point of view is? The only problem might be that I think they both like to do their vineyard visits at the same time of day. Anyhow, definitely get your hands on both wines and give them a try.
If you can't do both of those in one day, there are MANY other producers near there on the north side of Etna that you'd have no problem doing together in one day. Romeo Del Castello seems like a nice, small family winery. I've liked both wines I've had of theirs - if I recall, they were a little more feminine. I would have liked to have fit them in but time was not on my side. Cottanera make some wines I wouldn't mind drinking again (had a bottle at lunch somewhere in Sicily) and might be worth checking out too, but I know nothing about them. I have to say I would not want to have the Murgo again. Not much to it, plus I think its one of the more heavily visited places.
Realistically, I think you're going to hit 2-3 max in one day though.
Emilie - thank you so much for your wonderful trip report. My husband and I are traveling in 3 weeks to Siracusa and Taormina (as well as Sardinia).
We're trying to arrange wine tasting in Etna and the two you mention, Frank Cornelissen and Salvo Foti sound great, especially lunch at Foti. Unfortunately I can't find a link to the Foti winery where you had lunch. Do you have any additional information?
Thank you and we look forward to trying out some of your other suggestions (Oinos etc) next month.
Please don't take this the wrong way, but I really don't want you to be mad at me later or think I'm crazy - have you had Frank Cornelissen's wine? I think it's AMAZING, but its very unusual and tends to be polarizing. I definitely recommend trying some before you go all the way out there. He's a natural winemaker doing things in a very non-interventionist way, and he gets some really unique, unconventional results. His Etna Bianco I particularly love but it's totally weird (cloudy, sour-beery, skin contact like an orange wine, great complexity and funk, lots of orange and pithy notes). If you're in NY you can find them in several places now - Chambers St for sure, but I've even seen a rogue bottle of his Contadino at my neighborhood Discovery Wines. On the bright side, if you love the wines as much as I do, you'll be pleased that he's a Swede and speaks perfect English!
Here's the link for Salvo Foti - really beautifully made wines (if you haven't had them already, I have also gotten some of these at Chambers Street, but you could just google it - I Vigneri Vinudilice (rose), Vinupetra (red) and a white one I can't recall the name of). He is also making wine very naturally, but in more of a doing-it-the-way-my-grandfather-did-it traditional way. I know my palate is not the same as everyone else's (I'm bona fide quirky), but I can't see not enjoying anything he makes. We were just utterly charmed. Still it can't hurt to make sure it's your style beforehand. Also, it will greatly help you to speak Italian here, as he was not too comfortable with English. (Note, this part of the outing was on the pricey side, but totally worth it for me.)
Some of the wineries on Etna are larger operations than others. Just depends what you're into. Visiting Frank - he's just one very passionate guy basically doing it all with maybe one assistant. Salvo Foti has a slightly larger operation, but still super intimate. You might very well be the only people visiting when you go.
Since I have the info, here are some other places we didn't go (just not enough time) that you might be interested in (so you can do a little "research" drinking before you go to make sure you hit a place that best suits your taste - that's the whole point!):
Calabretta (accepts guests http://www.calabretta.net/ email@example.com)
Tenuta Delle Terre Nere (accepts guests, literally right next to Foti's vineyards, so same terroir but different style firstname.lastname@example.org www.tenutaterrenere.com)
Romeo Del Castello (accepts guests, http://win.stradadelvinodelletna.it/elencosoci.asp?page=romeo)
Biondi (accepts guests http://www.biondisanti.it/Ita/Visite.php)
I did not look into wineries in other areas, but if you are hitting points south of Siracusa, Arianna Occhipinti makes some really fabulous wines too (also natural), so look her up. I would guess she also sees visitors.
I pulled this from some website:
Northern Mt. Etna Wineries (near Taormina)
Gambino: Wine Tasting cost – 10 euros; an appointment is appreciated.
Passopisciaro: (wines by Andrea Franchetti): Wine Tasting cost - 20 euros for 3 wines; 25 euros with salami and cheese; 45 euros with lunch; an appointment is recommended.
Cornelissen: The cost of the wine tasting is determined by the cost of the bottles opened; an appointment is necessary.
Cottanera: Wine tastings are offered Monday – Saturday; an appointment is necessary.
Antichi Vinai : Tastings are available; an appointment is necessary.
Scilio: Tastings are available; an appointment is necessary; overnight accommodations are available.
Central Mt. Etna Wineries
Murgo Winery: Wine Tasting cost 8 euros; an appointment is necessary; overnight accommodations available.
Barone di Villagrande : Wine tasting offered; an appointment is necessary.
Enoteca Etna Wine : This wine shop in Riposto offers wine tastings without an appointment.
Southern Mt. Etna Wineries (near Catania)
Benanti : Several wine-tasting options are available, including vineyard tours in English. The basic wine tasting costs around 20 euros; an appointment is necessary.
Biondi : Wine Tasting is free; an appointment is necessary.
Then I highly recommend reading Robert Camuto's book on Sicilian winegrowers - it's really entertaining and will give you a sense of the place and people (NYPL has it too): http://www.amazon.com/Palmento-Sicilian-Wine-Odyssey-Table/dp/0803239955
This is not a bad list to check out: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/29/dining/reviews/etna-reds-wine-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
And I also have a useful pdf on Etna wineries I would love to share (lots more contact info), but I'm not seeing a way to attach it here, maybe private message me with your email if Chowhound allows such a thing?
Also if you are in Taormina and interested in the local wine, you MUST go to Nero D'Avola; their wine list is bonkers. Everything you could ever want from anyone in Sicily, and they are very knowledgeable and happy to steer you in the direction of something you'd like. Cornelissen recommended it to us.
Finally, we hired a driver from Sicily Life (best price I found and nice folks), since I am not much of a driver and wanted to enjoy my wine. I think they may also be willing to plan the tour for you with places they recommend - not my style but saves you trouble. You may get a little car sick on the ride up - both my partner and I were woosy on the curvy roads. Our driver peppered the drive with lots of interesting local lore and pointed out sites along the way, which was nice. http://www.sicilylife.com/
If you have any other questions let me know and I hope you have a fantastic time! I wish I were going all over again.
I would second the comments about Cornelissen's wines. Personally, it's not really my thing, so I'm not really interested in visiting. You could check out the book "Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey" by Robert V. Camuto -- read up on Cornelissen and his role in the "rebirth" of Etna wines and maybe decide on whether you're interests are piqued enough to visit.
I really loved my visit to Benanti. The people who work there are warm and lovely and very fluent in English. And the wine is really, really good.
I've also visited Murgo. It's a more "rustic" experience than Benanti in both the winery and the wines. They put out a full lunch of mama's homemade goodies, which was really enjoyable.
Wherever you end up going, you will have a great time in a unique and beautiful area.
emilie - thanks for the trip write up. I'm still here, so can look forward to trying more of your suggestions.
I'll ditto Pasticceria Maria Grammatica in Erice. The cannolo filling wasn't smooth. I also tried a petit four and nearly went into sugar shock. I couldn't finish because of texture as well as flavor.
I will chime in to agree with you about Osteria Mariano, which I enjoyed last spring. But coming back this spring I found it not a pleasant experience. I stopped in for lunch and, although the food was not bad (I had an orange salad ---- which was actuallly just a couple of orange sections, and a vegetarian pasta with I think zucchini), the service was so perfunctory that it tipped the scales to an overall negative experience.