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May 22, 2013 08:12 AM

Sicily trip (still in progress) or "How I am Eating My Way Through Sicily"

Well, I just lost about a page's worth of write-up about our favorite places we ate while here in Sicily. This time, I'm saving the work to notepad. I hate when my reponses get eaten. I know better, but that never seems to matter until I do it again.

Instead of staying in Palermo, we stayed at a B&B in Cefalu. We only did a day trip to Palermo to see the markets and found the city entirely too depressing with its dead markets and closed shop fronts. Indeed, entire vacation communities are left half-built and abandoned around Cefalu. We also took a day trip to Marsala & Erice. After Cefalu we drove to Marinella del Selinunte instead of Agrigento, and took a day trip to Sciacca. We were there for two nights before moving on to Siracusa where we stayed in a charming apartment in the Ortigea district right on the passeregio of Arteusa (boardwalk along the sea wall). Yesterday we left Siracusa for Taoromina and we're here for a few more days before we spend our last night in Catania & fly home from there.

That said, one of the charming things about Sicily has been that we've found good food most everywhere we go. We've had several disappointing dinners, but only one experience where we literally walked away. That was in Siracusa, along the Passeregio Arteusa - Lunga la Notte. Apparently you have to know someone to get a decent meal, even the spaghetti was mush. Then we ran into a chef in Siracusa - Salvo Ficara - who made the most gorgeous food, but I'll get to him later.

While Cefalu is a tourist town, it's a tourist town for Italian and Sicilian tourists as much as it is for the rest of the world. So the food was very good. We ate more than once at Il Normano and enjoyed it thoroughly. We enjoyed it more than the other places, but Il Normano set the standard for what we should expect for presentation and service in Sicily. That is, it is a very correct procession of wines, water, antipasti, primo & secundos. The seafood should always be fresh, the pasta al dente, and you should expect combinations of flavors to take you by surprise. Flavors should bite without being overwhelming.

We also had a very good pizza along the boardwalk in Cefalu at da Nino. We didn't plan on eating there, but my husband wanted pizza. Nino stopped him along the way and convinced him to give it a try. My husband was very, "Non, non, no", but Nino promised and came through. The crust was perfect, but the tomato sauce was light and fresh. He always gets his with prosciutto crudo, so it is easy to overwhelm the flavors, they didn't. Ask for their picante olio. Nino makes it himself and it's a nice hot oil to add to your pizza.

The other place worth spending electrons on was the Cathedral Coffee Pasticerria in the Piazza Duomo. Their pistachio marzipan sweet bits have amazing texture. Pair that with one a cappuccino or one of the dry Marsala wines and you've got yourself an Italian holiday people watching in one of the best piazzas.

We did eat other places in Cefalu, but remarking upon the unremarkable takes more words than I'm prepared to spend time on. We were there for four nights and two of those nights we ate at Il Normano because we were not happy at other places we'd eaten lunch or dinner at. When you have a bad run of restaurant eating while travelling (i.e., never been there, don't know except through other people's reviews, if even that), we tend to return to where we know we can get a good meal. These three restaurants delivered.

Palermo was a shortened day trip for us. We caught the 6:50 train to get into Palermo before 8am so that we could get to the Ballero market which was supposed to open "at dawn". Besides Palermo being dirty (doesn't everyone write that?), we found it nearly abandoned. There was traffic on the roads, on some roads, but most we walked down were deserted. Storefronts were closed, windows of apartments were shut not from the sun or to keep out the morning noise but because no one lives there any longer. We walked down street after street that day and found entire blocks without a single open restaurant, bar, or even people looking out their window. It was quite distressing after awhile.

The Ballero market either opens after 9 or 10am, or it's much reduced from its former "glory". We even stopped for coffee hoping we'd see more stalls open up. We walked there from the station down the nearly deserted streets. We had pastries & coffee along the way, but nothing remarkable. Frankly, we were just glad to see people. After finding the only other museum I wanted to check out was closed on a Monday, we walked back to the station and returned to Cefalu.

The next day we drove to Marsala & Erice. Uhm, about the Florio tours for the Marsala wine making - they have very specific hours where they have the tour. At the time of this writing, it's 11:30am & 3:30 or 4:30 or something like that. You have to dig to find this information and if you arrive outside the window, there is not much around that was open when we went. We went to a little cafeteria along the waterfront, but nothing remarkable.

Erice was a sweet little town with a breathtaking view of the salt flats of Marsala. We bought our sweet wines there at a pasticerria. The sweets here in Sicily are very (and that would be underlined VERY) sweet. Getting two might just be too much even if they're small. Forget eating a whole cannoli by yourself unless it's by gunpoint or eagle eye (never underestimate the power of a direct stare and a smiling face). But you're in Sicily for heaven's sakes! Let off the brakes a bit, work on becoming your own expert. We are now critics of the ricotta filling used in cannoli. If one is lumpy, or does not meet the consistency standards of the cheese place we ate at in the market in Siracusa's Ortegia district then it gets derated. If the Aracina doesn't have the exact toothy consistency of Dolce Antiqua Bonajuto's from Modica then I shake my head.

But really, when it comes down to it, what do I know? Nothing! I've just enjoyed trying a few items I've found of interest and then comparing their variations along the trip.

We left Cefalu and drove across Sicily along the back roads, north to south where we landed in Marinella del Selinunte. The devestating effects of the Euro crisis and the crash of 2008 were completely evident in and around this area. We came to Selinunte because we wanted more freedom among the ruins and it's not such a large city area. I also wanted to check out the ceramics in Sciacca.

I'll add on to this thread. At this point, we're headed out again. We're currently in Taormina, arrived here yesterday from Siracusa, so I'll post later about Selinunte and Siracusa. Siracusa will probably have it's own thread because chef Salvo Ficara deserves his own thread.

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  1. Many thanks for such an honest, unpretentious, informative, and heart-filled report. Look forward to installment 2, and anything about Sciacca, too.

    1. Sciacca was a happy series of accidents - the kind you want, so you travel. I'd read about it as one of the Sicilian centers for ceramics and so I'd planned to day-trip there from Marinella di Selinunte. As the cellular coverage isn't very good in that part of Sicily, uploading changes to any route can take an enormous amount of time. We often redirected and had to wait for another upload as we passed yet another exit we should have taken. This meant we travelled to Sciacca (and most other places) the long way. We arrived at the Porto Palermo via google maps & typing Sciacca. The parking was easy and the needed pharmacy was across the street. We asked there for a good place to eat. They gave us the names of two places. One was closed.

      The other place, Trattoria del Buongustaio was not the one which shows up on google maps at via Magliente Friscia, but is at the end of the "strip" on what maps calls via Recinto Mulini. Face the gate (Porto Palermo - the one with the eagle on it) and the strip on your right hand side is the one you want to follow to the end. There we had the bad form to walk in at the very end of the lunch hour, 2pm. The chef / owner handed us a menu and as we went down it became obvious that he needed to just tell us what he had fresh and available. He told us what we were going to eat and it was good. Really good. The seafood filled (shrimp and heavens knows what else) ravioli was topped by a cream sauce which just melted in your mouth. The bread was toothy, but with a crunchy crust, the salad sparkled. But the best part, by far,
      was our first experience with the Sicilian orange.

      It was nothing so dramatic as the famed "blood orange", no, the first Sicilian orange we tasted, was a simple orange orange. Here the chef sliced the oranges after having cleaned them of their rind, and paired it with the tiny Sicilian strawberries we've only ever seen here. These strawberries pack a flavor punch and sweetness that are larger than their size. Forget their bloated cousins and go for these tiny berries, often no larger than the nail on your pinkie. The fruits were layered instead of tossed and sprinkled with sugar. We ate our dessert with the finish of the house white wine.

      Which brings me to another topic. Why bother with labels? We've asked for the house whites or reds and have never turned a bottle or a pitcher back yet. They serve the house wines commonly in the mezzo (1/2) liter pitchers. Smaller portions of wine are usually the glass, or .375 l bottles (for a prosecco, for example). The sweet dessert wines are usually served by the glass, the exception being what we experienced at the wonderful Osteria da Mariano's in Siracusa where they bring a bottle to your table. Just see if you can avoid drinking it all down. If you can, you're a stronger person than we were. Smack! But it was tasty stuff.

      Anyways, we didn't spend much more time in Sciacca beyond wandering through some of the ceramic shops found further down the road. The most remarkable sight I saw was the beautiful Cortile Carini found off the Piazza Saverio Friscia. This little dead end appears to be a cooperative of neighbors who have been applying tile to make some charming mosiacs on their stair risers and along the walls. It's a short walk up and into a tiny courtyard area, but worth exploring for the variety.

      We spent too little time in Sciacca but after the meal we did enjoy walking through the historic center and the ceramic fabricator's shops.

      When we returned to Selinunte, we spent our first evening enjoying ourselves at the wonderful bar along the waterfront - il Penguino. They serve fine cocktails, great panini, and really REALLY good music. This would be a place to find yourself on a Friday or Saturday night would be my guess. We were leaving on a Thursday, so can't really say, but just from their mixes, whoever chooses the music would have the ear to bring in a band worth listening to. The bar is situated near the end of the marina. There's waves to watch and the old men of the town seem to gather at one of the neighboring open doors. I was worried I'd budgeted one too many nights in Selinunte, but il Penguino made for some dolce vita. We had to slow down.

      After we we spent the morning meandering the ruinsthe next day we drove through the olive groves to Porto Palo for lunch at da Vittorio. This time, our transgression was arriving early - 11:30am. But they too were still welcoming and seated us. We'd had enough of the sun and so went inside.

      da Vittorio's is also a B&B, the complex is situated down what seems to be a dead end road right on the sea. Their terrace was twenty steps from the tide pushing out, ten to the high water mark. That day jellyfish had landed, so I didn't do more than stick my toes in the water. da Vittorio's served up a fishcake with a perfect crust. While their breads were great, as well as their wines and pasta, that fish cake made me sing.

      3 Replies
      1. re: andrea345

        Now that I'm home and sitting at my computer, the upload of photos seems to be working. I'm not a photographer, and in the case of da Vittorio's fish cakes, I couldn't "wait" to take a photo, so the food in that piccie is mostly eaten.

        In Sicily, no matter how simple the meal was, I learned to expect a pleasing presentation. Even in "touristy" restaurants like Ristorante da Nino Pizzeria and Il Normano in Cefalu were the ones where my expectations were set. The meals were to come out in courses. You spend your time discussing ingredients and menu items with the servers, or even the owner, so the plate can be adjusted, or even sometimes - a new meal prepared. The servers should eat at the restaurant and be familiar with the wines so let them be responsible for the pairings. We were tourists, for heavens sake, what would we know of the wines of Sicily when most of them are home-made, and even some of the grapes are not readily available here in the U.S.?

        For example, the Nero d'Avola grape. Now that I'm aware of it, I plan on hunting wines down from that grape. I've had the deep red wines (bottles were running 5-13E. The most expensive I paid for any bottle was 26E). Most of the house reds we ordered were either "house" (mezzo litro - 1/2 a liter served in a pitcher at your table) or the bottle was a Nero d'Avola. Smacken good stuff, lots of nose, great deep color.

        Another thing we noticed was the serving style. Servers don't hover in the places we went to. We weren't shy about flagging them if we needed something, otherwise we would probably have died from frustration. It just seemed normal there at the end, that you'd have to flag someone if you wanted attention. But if we were eating a menu of courses, they were at our table often enough. It was mostly at the bars that we found ourselves raising our hands.

        We also tipped. This is southern Italy we figured and while tipping in the north is frowned upon, leaving a euro or so at the table in the south didn't seem to cause offense. But we did that only when the service was excellent.

        If I can think of any other general tips, I'll add them back into this response thread. But here are the photos from the first half of the trip - Cefalu, Marinella & Sciacca

        The first picture is from Cefalu, the Cathedral Coffee sweet wine paired with "pasta de mandorla" (marzipan). Sweet on sweet is very Sicilian. The second photo are what's left of the fish cake and home-made grissini from da Vittorio in Porto Palo. The photo of the oranges topped with the very small Sicilian strawberries is from Sciacca & the Buongustino restaurant. Then there's the front shot of Bar Pinguino in Marinella. Sit next to the back wall if it's windy and stormy outside. You'll still be quite comfortable.

        1. re: andrea345

          In Siracusa (Syracuse) we had the best fortune to stay at a B&B run by Adriana Breuer and chef Salvo Ficara. This was the highlight of our trip. The B&B can be booked on AirBnB, but can be contacted at dulcisnatura@hotmail.it. They have several spaces to let right on the Lungomare Alfeo. Your view as you eat overlooks the whole of the Syracuse harbor and you are one of the spectacles the passerbys comment on as they walk the passareggio. You sit at Salvo & Adriana's table as they lay out a feast of freshly prepared Sicilian dishes and the other tourists weep over displays and scents. People were taking pictures of "us".

          The first "brunch" was a shopping trip to the Ortigia market. We love markets and after the disappointing experiences in Palermo, we were much relieved to see the fresh seafood, vegetables, and activity of the market in Ortigia. We walk markets and buy from them and Ortigia's market was a working market, not a tourist stop. Here people buy their vegetables, breads, and spices for the day's meals. You will see foods there you've never seen before. Make sure you have cash before you enter. We messed up and didn't hit the bancomat first so were really limited.

          While we were there the cherries were out in full flavor. There was also a fruit which looked like a damaged apricot, but wasn't. You had to peel the skin from the fruit. The flesh was firm and there was a slight juice to the fruit. Unfortunately, we were talking and eating so much, we didn't take a lot of pictures. I can't remember the name of the fruit, but the moral is the same - try what you don't know.

          Many of the stalls had the packaged herbs, sun-dried tomatoes (oh-em-gee good!), and other culinary basics. While we bought ours later, in Taormina, I regret not managing to make the second pass through the Ortigia market we'd planned. We'd arrived earlier in the morning - around 8:30, 9am, but when we left around 11am, the crowd was thick enough that the idea of going back through was a non-starter. We entered the market along the Piazzale Emmanuele Pancali side (I think - I'm using google maps) and exited on the water side. Bancomats are on the piazza side. If you can actually execute a second day's return, I'd suggest shopping it that way - view the market the first day & return to purchase the items you want a second day. We were simply too full & too overwhelmed the first day to really make any decisions by the end. And, unfortunately, trying to find parking for the second day return which was the day we'd checked out & were leaving was impossible. Parking is a nasty business.

          Salvo & Adriana shepherded us through to Caseificio Borderi and the ricottas and other cheeses there are as good as anyone has ever written. At Caseificio Borderi they will prepare small plates of meat, cheese along with wine combinations. The ricotta is prepared daily and the cannoli became the standard by which we measured all others. The filling was absolutely smooth and had a depth of flavor which must be another secret recipe because we certainly couldn't find a replacement. One of the other surprising moments at Caseificio Borderi was when they served a chilled merlot with one of the meat plates. Not being a wine connoiseur, it struck me to wonder why we never serve reds cold. The wine cleaned my mouth with its youth and freshness. We walked away with both the sweet wine and merlot.

          At the end of the market are some very fine food stores which have everything packaged and ready for shipping.
          Eating with Salvo is a conversation with a friend about season, dirt, sun, and rain. His presentation is a balance of color and texture. Beauty is not in the perfect, but in the contrasts of color and scent. Our first "brunch" with him was simple. There were scrambled eggs with Sicilian ham, the flushed Sicilian tomatos with absolutely fresh mozzarella topped with basil leaves, a harder cheese I can't remember the name of streuseled with his own olive oil and one of the herb mixtures from the market, a red pepper salad with capers, one of the smoked mozzarellas and some fresh ricotta. This was served with two types of bread, one warm and crusty with a texture near a cornbread, the other a chewy olive bread.

          That night we ate dinner at Lungo la Notte Caffe on the Lungomare Alfeo, just steps away from Adriana & Salvo's. We'd had cocktails at Lungo la Notte the night before, and had them there again that evening. We weren't particularly hungry, but were willing to take a gnosh. We started with their shrimp cocktail. When the cocktail arrived, it was a few shrimp swimming in a bowl of mayonnaisey/ketchup mix. The bread was good, so we served ourselves like it was a condiment and decided to commit ourselves to a mediocre meal, but one which had a view. Uhm. Wrong decision.

          We each ordered a pasta and had decided to share a fresh fish and wanted a green salad. One of the things we'd learned by this time is that we could neither of us individually make it all the way through the courses of salad, antipasto, pasta, and fish plates. We began to share at least the secondi. At Lungo la Notte all three plates arrived at the same time. The pasta I'd ordered was supposed to be a large shrimp pasta. The pasta was overcooked - the only time we ever experienced overcooked pasta in Sicily. It was gruesomely decorated with two large shrimp heads, but had only three other piccoli gambini (small, small shrimp) in the pasta. The salad had canned corn in it. Yes. Canned smelly corn. I was served a green salad with stinky canned corn. I had to push it away. The vinegar they served was a common white vinegar. Forget it. My husband's pasta was likewise inedible. The fish arrived the size of a grown man's hand. We asked that they clean it for us & it was returned looking like one of us had cleaned it. there was also barely a palm's worth of meat. It too was overcooked to the point of tastelessness. We asked for the bill. Paid the 70E and walked away.

          While there was one other restaurant in Cefalu, Al Vicoletto, which served a disappointing meal, no other restaurant we ate at in Sicily approached the Venetian level nadir of Lungo la Notte for Tourist Fodder. And while we found Le Chat Noir in Cefalu unremarkable, we were still served ingredients which didn't smell of tin can. Lungo la Notte was shocking.

          The next morning Salvo knew we weren't joking about enjoying food, so that day's brunch introduced me to fresh orange salad. It is a mixture of the fresh oranges and, in this case, Salvo used a red onion (although he said that is not classic, they were available and good looking), mixed with an olive oil and topped with some of his herbs. He also served a tomato salad mixed with the red onions, another herbed soft cheese, and a red pepper salad. The other surprising items on the table were olives from his grove stuffed with a parmesean and breadcrumb mixture and then a sweet finish of cubed pears and a softer cheese mixed together with honey and then topped with a chocolate (not cocoa, but chocolate) powder. And cappuccini were had by all.

          That night, Salvo cooked us a dinner to take away the tast of Lungo la Notte. I didn't get pictures because it was dark by the time we ate, but his "frutte de mare" was absolutely fresh and flavorful and as I was going for the "water" of the seafood, he laughed. It was going to be used for the pasta, but as I was going at it with relish, he shrugged and worked with what was left. His fish was a white fish and could have served four. People actually stopped and pointed at us eating at the table. I heard one woman remark, "Now that's authentic Sicilian food." And dinner with Salvo was much less expensive, wine inclusive, than Lungo la Notte.

          Salvo doesn't hold his recipes as state secrets. He let my husband into his family kitchen where he was able to watch the food preparation. Adriana interprets where my husband's Italian failed, but he spoke freely about selection, combinations, and the history of food in his family and country.

          The final breakfast introduced us to new foods, yet again. It started with a simple frittata - perfectly brown and smoothly textured surrounded by small tomatoes. There was yet another fresh cheese, a tabouleh of cilantro, tomatoes, and onions, mixed together. But the stuffed onions were addicting. I'd never had a stuffed onion before. They were thick slices of onion baked to a sweet consistency, but still had some firmness left in them. They were topped with a breadcrumb and cheese mixture that was broiled somehow with the cheese forming a crunchy spidery-webby texture across the top. These stuffed onions could start wars. There was also a prosciutto and breseola wrapped around cheese, topped with the very sweet sundried tomatoes. The sweet were nectarines mixed with oranges served with fresh nasturtium flowers from their little container garden.

          Pictures and kisses were shared as we prepared to leave after this wonderful stay in Siracusa. While we ate at da Mariano's and other restaurants, they paled in comparison to the brunches we had with Salvo. At the Osteria da Mariano, we mostly enjoyed the dessert plate which came with your own personal bottle of sweet wine. We did have one meal there and while it was fine, all courses arrived simultaneously on separate plates. This, of course, fills up a small table. I really don't know how to get it stated - please serve the courses separately. Only da Mariano & Lungo la Notte did this, so it must have to do with us being tourists. We didn't see them serve others' tables that way.

        2. this is a terrific thread Andrea - Im hoping you would at least mention the names of places that disappointed though....any tips are useful.

          1 Reply
          1. re: jen kalb

            jen - thank you so very much! I'm just back and so will have more time to catch up & finish up this thread while everything is still fresh. My thought is to dedicate a section to those places I didn't like

          2. Thank you for posting your wonderful trip to Sicily. I am surprised and saddened about your experience in Palermo. It is so different from the few days we spent there in 2008. Though there is a dilapidated feel, we found the center of city full of life. During our morning visit, the Capo market was very busy, especially the food section. There were so many scooters buzzing around the dry good section that we had problem avoiding them. We stroll around the Ballero market in the middle of the afternoon and there were a fair number of people shopping and munching sandwiches from the carts. There was a lot of renovation going on around the Vucciria market, therefore, very little going on there. During late afternoon, there was the usual daily passeggiata on via Maqueda. The area around via V. Emmanuel/via Roma where there are a lot of shops, cafes and pensione, it was buzzing with people. We had problem finding a free outside table at Caffe Spiannato during the late afternoon café ritual at the pedestrianized via Princepe di Belmonte. Maybe the city was so deserted because it was a Monday when things do get quieter or there is a permanent change due to the economic austerity that is going on in Italy.

            1 Reply
            1. re: PBSF

              Thank you PBSF. I've heard that Vucciria is "closed", I think from TripAdvisor posts or something. It was certainly "not much" when we walked through. There were only four or five stalls. Two still had some interesting WWII memorabilia, but I wouldn't know reproduction from authentic. And as I mentioned, the Ballero market was barely going as late as half-past nine. We walked all the way down Vittorio Emmanuel to the water and I nearly died of thirst. There was like one café open and we walked past that thinking to find something closer to the water. My husband bought a bottle from a street vendor who had a push cart at Piazza Santo Spirito.

              When we talked to people, they were saying that the real estate hit killed the development. Taxes are pushing people out of their businesses and homes. Some areas seemed like they were doing better than others, for example, Palermo areas outside the center were packed. We'd decided to take back roads to Marsala for a day trip and we could barely navigate the traffic and people along the area outside the E90 / A19 highway.

            2. Do you remember the name of the bnb you stayed in in Syracuse run by Adriana and Salvo? I can't recognise it on airbnb as there are so many listings. Love your descriptions!

              1 Reply
              1. re: joma21


                This hyperlink should take you to her profile and to her listings.