Mom and I are headed to Siderno Marina, in Calabria, Italy which is located in the instep of the boot, to see the family (cue Italian folk songs) for a couple of days and then headed across the Strait of Messina to Sicily. The plan is to start our food and wine tour in Taormina, then head to Val di Noto, Menfi, and finally Palermo over 10 days tasting as much of the local wines and food as possible.Yea, I’m thinking this will be a 10 pounder. What’s the number to the Betty Ford Clinic?
We made it to Siderno, home of Dad’s ancestry. Here we are at dinner with some of my cousins. Starting at the left and going clockwise we have Maria Rosa who is holding Alessandra, then there’s Mom and me, followed by Annalisa and her hubby (my cousin) Danilo, then his Dad, Gaetano, followed by Salvatore (Gaetano’s other son and married to Maria Rosa). Last, but not least, is Chiara (the light-weight) who is the other daughter of Salvatore and Maria Rosa. Chiara had spent the day playing tennis and passed out after dinner. Dinner by the way was at a little trattoria in Sidenro Superiore called Zio Salvatore. The restaurant has been in Maria Rosa’s family for three generations. They specialize in the food of the region (Calabria) and won a 2012 Slow Food Award. The dinner started with an antipasto of homemade salamis, fried potato zeppoli, potato croquette, rice balls, roasted vegetables, fried squash flowers, and fried eggplant. We then had homemade pasta with roasted tomato sauce and pork meatballs. Homemade wine of course with dinner and then an “amarro” as an after dinner drink. Lots of fun, food, and wine. What a great time! I’m surprised we didn’t all join Chiara after a dinner like that!
While we were in Siderno, we took a short drive to a seaside resort called Tropea. What a gorgeous little beach town. The town is hilly and very old with great restaurants and lovely people. The weather was a little iffy so we didn’t stay long. Just long enough for us to catch a quick “pranzo” of pasta, veal scallopine, salad, and a half liter of wine.
Day 3, at last we’re here we are in Taormina, on the first day of our food and wine tour of Sicily. Our trusty driver, Sabastiano, picked us up in Reggio Calabria and drove us first to the ferry to cross the strait of Messina, and then to our hotel in Taormina. We’re staying at the Ashbee, which is a hotel that was converted from a villa first owned by a British colonel around WWI. We took a quick walk around town and found out that the Taormina International Film Festival is taking place this weekend. Sure to be a lot of fun and a little crowded. I had pasta con le alici which is pasta with a sauce of minced anchovy, basil, garlic, and bread crumbs. Mom had prosciutto and melon and a salad. We had dinner at a restaurant called Santanera, which was pretty well hidden between several large buildings. We started with pasta with sea urchin sauce (Mom thinks she finally ate fish, but since sea urchins don’t have gills they’re actually mollusks, i.e., like clams, but don’t tell her) and then Mom had the most tender pork loin in balsamic vinegar sauce and I had white fish in white wine sauce. We washed that all down with a Sicilian nero d’alva which tasted like a slightly peppery dolcetto.
Day 4 We woke up late (couldn’t have been all the wine and food we had yesterday) and rushed to get to the Biondi Winery in Trecastagni. There, we were met by our lovely hosts and owners of the winery, Ciro and Stephanie Biondi. The winery has been in Ciro’s family since his grandfather. It’s located along side of a few of the many small volcanoes around Mt Etna. The elevation, rich soil, and minerality of the soil are great for everything that grows in the area, including the vines. While the winery operates on only 12 acres, they make several whites and reds. Needless to say, we tried them all. Stephanie and her assistant Ruth prepared a wonderful and simple lunch of sliced meats, grilled vegetables, spaghetti alla Norma (spaghetti with sautéed eggplant in fresh tomato sauce), meatballs wrapped in lemon leaves, and then almond cookies and fruit. After a quick shopping spree, dinner was at a great restaurant in Taormina overlooking the strait of Messina called La Giara. Mom and I shared a plate of lobster ravioli in calamari sauce, then Mom had roasted lamb chops coated with an oregano breadcrumb mixture and I had a zuppa di pesce. Both were incredible! We shared a bottle of red from the Etna region called Archinera 2010 which is a blend of several red grapes. I can’t wait for our cooking lesson tomorrow!
Day 5 Our cooking lesson at the Villa Britannia. We met Luisa and her cousin, Carmelo at the kitchen of the Villa Britannia which is only a short walk from the Hotel Ashbee (and boy did we need the exercise!). The Villa is part of the family heritage of Luisa and Carmelo and has been in their family for generations. Luisa now manages the Villa and Carmelo is a retired chef who was the chef at the Doral Hotel in the late ’80s. Don Carmelo showed us how to make eggplant caponata (sautéed peppers and eggplant), Sicilian pasta with eggplant in fresh tomato sauce, breaded veal cutlets, and for dessert, Sicilian crepes in a lemon sauce. The lesson started at 10:30 am and we cooked until 1:30 pm. After a homemade aperitif of orange and lemon juices, gin, sweet and dry vermouth, and several types of bitters, we were ready to dig in. Everything was delicious! What a great day spent with lovely people doing some of our favorite things.
Day 6 Sicilians are trying to stuff us with delicious food and drown us in wonderful wine! Today we visited the Passopisciaro winery and Cottanera winery which are both on the north side of Mount Etna. One of the very interesting facts about wine making in this area is that the wineries can harvest the same grape from vineyards not too far away from each other and end up with different tasting wines. Both wineries offer red and white wines, the difference is in the volume of wine they produce. Passopiscaro is a limited producer offering wines in the states only through boutique shops and Cottanera is a much larger producer offering its wines either through the internet or at restaurants in the US. Both make delicious wines. Mom and I had lunch at the Cottanera winery where Patrizia was our host. We enjoyed a white and a different red with each of our three courses. No dinner for us tonight!
Day 7 Walking tour through Siracusa. After a delicious light breakfast at the Ashbee Hotel, we checked out and headed to one of the most historically important cities in Sicily, Siracua (Syracuse). We met our guide, Enzo, at the Archeological Park in the city and started our walking tour. The “Park” is centered around a huge limestone rock quarry that was used to build the buildings around Siracusa starting nearly 3000 years ago! Believe it or not, more than 1 million cubic meters of limestone were quarried in the vicinity to build the palaces, homes, theaters, and walls that contained approximately 200,000 Greek citizens in the heyday of Sicily which was approximately 300 BC. We then went to the nearby island of Ortigia, which reportably was the first island of Sicily inhabited by the Greek explorers 3000 years ago. The island is important for being one of the only areas where papyrus grows naturally, without which history would never have been written. After our tour, we enjoyed our best lunch yet at Don Camillo restaurant in Ortigia where we enjoyed some local fish, pasta, and delicious nero d’avola. We later drove to our new countryside hotel in Ragusa called Eremo della Giubiliana, which is a converted monastery.
Day 8 Driving and walking tour of the ancient cities of Scicli and Noto. Scicli sits on a gorge above the regions beaches and is overlooked by the Church of San Matteo which sits on top of a huge rock tour. After a refreshing granita, we headed to Noto which is another of the cities that was inhabited by the Sicels who were the inhabitants of Sicily well before the Greeks colonized the islands here. We had a light lunch at Viccola Restaurant of salad and a plate of local cheeses and meats followed by a nera d’avola from Noto. A special dinner has been arranged for us at La Gazza Ladra Palazzo Failla in Modica.
The dinner at La Gazza Ladra was tremendous! We ate a seven course meal in the patio behind the restaurant. We started with a grilled cuttlefish, over a sweet cream, citron, marjoram, and squid ink sauce (thus the black tongue), followed by octopus over a stuffed potato, then turnip flowers over cream, which then led to spaghetti in smoked eggplant water (not my favorite), and then risotto with olive oil, black olives, and oregano. Finally finishing with roasted mountain lamb. Dessert was orange ice cream covered with grated orange and almonds. Each course was of course accompanied by its own local wine. Yea, they needed to roll us out of the restaurant. We barely fit into the back of our car.
We had two wine tastings on Day 9. The first wine tasting was at a little seaside winery in Scicli, called the Amrmosa winery. This winery is only 12 years old, but already won several awards for its wines. The winery is owned and operated by Michele Molgg who is an enologist turned semi-conductor engineer who makes wine in his spare time! He researched where ancient people made wine in the area, then bought vineyards that fit his specifications and then planted local varieties of grapes (nero d’avola and muscato). After about 4 years, his winery produces very delicious full-bodied red and white wine. The production itself is very small; 10,000 bottles of his entry level wine (salipetry) and less than 600 bottles of his nero d’avola reserve (we picked up a couple of those). We skipped lunch (can you blame us?) and headed to our second wine tasting at the Arianna Occhipinti Winery in Vittoria.
The Occhipinti Winery is altogether different from the Armosa Winery. Occhipinti produces hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine/year and prefers to produce lighter wines than those of the Armosa winery. Occhipinti was started by Arianna 10 years ago at the tender age of 21 after completing enology school in Milano. Unfortunately, Arianna was not available for our tour, but her trusty side-kick Giovanni did a great job. Their wines are available in the US. After the Occhipinti, we freshed up at the Eremo and headed to our dining odyssey at Duomo Restaurant in Ragusa. I say dining odyssey because I lost count at the 10th course of our meal! We actually started dessert with a pre-dessert and then had an after-dessert after the dessert! I became bleary-eyed after the 7th or 8th seafood course. Everything was delicious and Chef Ciccio was very attentive to our dining preferences. WHAT A MEAL!!!!!!!
Day 10 found us leaving the Eremo Hotel and headed along the southern shores of Sicily to Agrigento. Agrigento is another town with a rich ancient Greek history. Our guide, Sergio, showed us around the ruins of several Greek temples along the Valley of the Temples. The temples were built in 500 BC out of local sandstone, but were destroyed by the Carthaginians in around 400 BC and then the Christians in around 600 AD. The Greeks chiseled the huge sandstone blocks out of the quarries and lifted them using ingenious cranes powered by several men inside a running wheel resembling a rats toy. The running wheel would wind up the rope holding the block, thereby lifting it up the crane. By the way, Sergio is a surfer and gave me a couple of surf breaks to check out in Calabria (Bova Marina) and Sicily (anywhere along the southern shore). We are staying in the outskirts of Agrigento at La Forestieria Planeta which is a winery and five star hotel.
Day 11 was a short day. We left our room at the Planta Hotel and headed to the Donnafugata Winery outside of Marsala. The Donnafugata is a family run winery that has been in the Rallo family for six generations. In the early days, the winery made marsala wine which is a fortified wine. Three generations ago, the Gabiella Rallo rebranded the family winery and changed its focus to match the tastes of the evolving tastes for wine lovers. Today, the winery has hundreds of acres of vineyards and produces around a dozen different wines. Our lovely sommelier Julia, took us through a thorough wine tasting of two whites, three reds, two dessert wines, and two of their grappas. Needless to say, we slept all the way to our next and final destination, Palermo. Here we will stay at the Hotel Plazzo Sitano, which is a very contemporary hotel in the middle of the very urban Palermo. Our dinner this evening was at the Osteria delle Vesperi which is another gourmet meal of 5 courses and 5 wines. Delicious!
Day 12 Our last day in Sicily. We took a short auto tour of the city and then headed to the mountain city of Monreal. Monreal overlooks the city of Palermo and is the jewel of the area. It’s filled with winding narrow streets walled in shops, bars, restaurants and homes. There is a Sicilian saying which translated says “If you take a tour of Palermo and don’t visit Monreal, you come as a donkey and leave as a pig.” A little strong perhaps, but Sicilians are a tough bunch. It was a great trip and we had a great time. Ci vediamo, Sicilia!
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