One of the highlights of our trip to Italy was the Food and Wine tour of Sicily that we booked for the beginning of our two weeks in Sicily. Having never been to Sicily, we were excited to see the island and learn about its culture as well as the food and wine. Happily, we were able to do all those things.
Note: This is a long article, feel free to skip to the food pictures.
Getting to Sicily
Rather than fly from Naples to Catania, Sicily, we chose to ride the rails, in first class. The train goes to the tip of the toe of Italy and takes a short ferry to Messina. We had heard that you could take the train all the way to Catania or to Palermo. If you do that the train cars are loaded on a ferry to get to Sicily. That would have been interesting to see but we opted to get off the train on the mainland and take a ferry over to Sicily. Apparently, the people in Sicily keep talking about building a bridge or a tunnel but everyone told us it would never happen.
Learning About Sicilians
Most of the Sicilians that we met used the term dominate to describe the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Spanish, and the Italians. The reason is that Sicily is right in the middle of the Mediterranean. Everyone passed by so everyone wanted to control the trading through the Mediterranean. All of the different influences give Sicilians a unique outlook. They are very proud and will tell you if you ask, I’m from Sicily, I don’t say I’m from Italy.
Even today, the Sicilians think they were doing better on their own than since they have been part of Italy. Sicily is an agricultural and fishing island rich in grapes, olives, and other crops. However, since unification, they have become very poor because much of the money they generate funds other parts of Italy. In general, Sicilians aren’t too happy about that. They are also famous for the mafia, which apparently isn’t too active anymore.
Because we arrived in Taormina a day early, we decided to take a Godfather tour. Frankly, when it was offered to us I really had no idea what it was about. However, just after we arrived at our hotel, I figured out it was about the making of the Godfather movies. Had I realized that earlier, we would have tried to rescreen at least the first movie before we arrived.
Our half-day trip to the small antique villages Savoca and Forza d’Agro located in the mountains near Taormina was still interesting. We were able to see the squares and churches used for the most famous scenes of Godfather movies. Most of the scenes were of Michael (Al Pacino) and Apollonia from the first godfather movie. We learned that having used Sicily in the movies, Francis Ford Coppola is a favorite son.
We saw the famous Bar Vitelli, which aside from the actual building, doesn’t look much like it did in the 70s. I remembered more of the movie than Mike did so it was easier for me to picture the scenes that our guide discussed. We were also shown the table in Bar Eden used by Al, Francis, and others to plan the filming. The local people are very proud of their participation in such a famous endeavor.
Conquered by the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Byzantines, and Normans, Taormina boasts a rich and fascinating history and a robust mix of architectural styles. The entire town is built on top of a big hill overlooking the sea. Our hotel was a staggered affair perched on the side of the hill. Fortunately, this hotel had a pool, which was really welcome considering how hot and humid it was in town. Here, we also learned about the traditional Sicilian breakfast of brioche and lemon granita. It sounds a little strange, but I found a big bowl of huge brioche and a granita machine sitting in an alcove at the breakfast buffet. It turns out to be really good, especially in the warm and humid climate of Sicily.
On the first day, we were able to explore on our own. We just happened onto a really good restaurant and sampled our first, and probably the best, Pasta Alla Norma, for dinner that night. Little did we know that this is one of the most famous dishes in all of Sicily and we would be eating it everywhere. It is a specialty of Catania and was named for the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. Bellini was from Catania and the name was given to the dish by another Catanese composer, playwright, and poet Nino Martoglio. The dish is pasta with eggplant and tomato, which sounds simple but really isn’t.
Food Tour in Taormina
On our walking tour of the town, we tasted fish and wine, then cheese, salumi, bread, olives, and wine, then dessert and Sicilian liquor. The most common fish on the east coast of Sicily is swordfish, which are plentiful in the Strait of Messina. The fish is typically rolled and breaded then served in tomato sauce. Not one of my favorite dishes but “when in Sicily”.
On to the cheese, which for the most part is Ricotta in various forms. One of the most common is baked ricotta, which replaces parmesan in many Sicilian dishes. Sicily is also known for cannolo, not one of my favorites but I ate several during our time there. Somebody had to do it. While we were sampling our desserts, one of the other guests on our tour, who is an opera singer and vocal coach, entertained us with a very moving aria. Her talent was so impressive that she gathered quite a crowd.
Mt. Etna Gambino Winery
The next day we visited the Gambino Winery which sits on Mt. Etna at 1000 meters above sea level. Here we learned about the effect of volcanic soil on the wine and we had beautiful views of the sea. After our cellar tour, we had wine tasting and antipasti. Then we went to a small family trattoria where we had lunch with more food and wine. All day, we had beautiful views of the steam coming out of Mt. Etna volcano, which is very active.
Taormina Cooking Class
One of the most engrossing things we did on our food and wine tour was our five-hour cooking class. First, we went with the chef to the Taormina Food Market, where local farmers, fishermen, and butchers sell their fresh goods. After we returned to the restaurant, we started by making bread using the same dough as pizza.
The most fun part of the cooking class was learning to make pasta. In Sicily, the pasta is just Semolina flour and water, no eggs. In northern Italy, they use eggs in their pasta but the hot and humid climate in Sicily isn’t compatible with eggs. To make the pasta, you mix the flour with the water and form it into a long thin roll of dough. Then cut it into inch-long pieces and finally, we rolled the dough on a stick to make a hollow tube, ‘voila’ pasta. After that, we took a break on the patio to eat the bread that we made and drank some wine before returning to our cooking lesson.
Making Melanzane and Fish
After our little bread and wine break, we packed a fish with salt for baking. Then came the melanzane (eggplant) layered with tomato sauce and ricotta cheese. We made Sicilian swordfish rolls that the chef grilled the traditional way. Finally, we made stuffed sardines rolled that were fried with a fragrant tomato sauce. So by the time we sat down to eat, we had the eggplant casserole, baked fish, grilled swordfish rolls, our pasta with red sauce, stuffed sardines in tomato sauce, and of course more wine. Everything was really good except the sardines. Neither of us really cared for any kind of fish in a red sauce.
Noto Baroque Town
The next day on our way to Syracuse, we made two stops. The first was a guided tour of Noto, a UNESCO heritage site called a jewel of baroque. The town of Val di Noto was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. After nearly all of the town was destroyed, the Spanish, who ruled at the time, decided to move the town. They rebuilt the town in the Baroque style of the 1700s. The other notable thing about Noto is a café that makes a dessert called Cassata, so we had to try one, delicious.
Our next stop was Marzamemi, a typical Sicilian fisherman’s village where we enjoyed lunch next to the sea. A great place to while away the afternoon.
In Syracuse, we stayed in Ortigia, which is the oldest part of town. This town was very important to the defense of Sicily over the centuries. We took ourselves out to dinner that night after admiring the waterfront and the yachts. It was a nice treat to choose our own entrees and wine.
The next evening after meeting at the Archimedes Fountain, we toured the old town including several stops for food and wine. The first one turned out to be the same place we had eaten dinner the previous night. I guess we chose well. Since we hadn’t really done any exploring during the day, coming into Duomo Square was very impressive, especially with it all lit up. There are actually two churches in the square, the Duomo and the Church of St. Lucy. If we had more time it would have been fun to hang out in the square longer and maybe go into the churches.
Pupillo Winery Outside of Syracuse
While the northeast side of Sicily is dominated by Mt. Etna and volcanic soils, the southern end of the island has very different soil. The result is a very different terroir that makes the wines made from the same grape taste very different. After leaving Syracuse, we stopped at the most ancient winery of our trip, Pupillo. The oldest part of the winery was the crush room which is still there but no longer in use. We had a nice tour of the winery, the vineyard, and the garden before enjoying some food and wine tasting.
A Little About Sicilian Wines in General
Wine production in Sicily goes back at least 3000 years. Our first exposure to Sicilian wines was a bottle of Nero D’Avola that we ordered at Maggiano’s Little Italy a few years back. We really enjoyed the deep flavor and texture, similar to Syrah. We set out to learn more about this and other local varietals.
While we were in Sicily, we found a confusing mess of imported and local grapes, where loose controls and widely varying weather, terroir, and blending made it difficult to know how it might taste. Similar to California wines, in that way. Further, various wine pundits have declared each of these grapes to be the most important grown in the region: Marsala, Nero D’Avola, Nero Mascalese, Grillo, Malvasia, Catarratto, Zibbibo, Cabernet, Frappato, etc.
Until 80 years ago, most of the land produced bulk wine that was shipped to northern Italy. There it was used as cheap juice to blend with more popular grapes. Quality production and marketing are starting to transform the Sicilian wine landscape, but it is still a work in progress. So, good Sicilian wines might be priced below their true value in your local store for the time being.
After our final winery tour, lunch, and yet more wine, we took a three-hour drive to get to Palermo. The next day we had our last food tour in the old town of Palermo. For many years the downtown was unsafe but there has recently been a revitalization of the area. Our guide took us to the Mercato del Capo outdoor market where we tasted chickpea fritters and ‘arancini’ and of course cannolo.
The Food and Wine tour of Sicily was fun and interesting because we had different guides in each area. Each guide brought their own perspective and knowledge of the island’s history. Mike was a little disappointed that we didn’t learn more about the wine of Sicily. For me, after the first four of seven days of ‘day drinking,’ I was over it. Frankly, I’m not used to drinking every day for a week and particularly during the day. I know, you are rolling your eyes right now but apparently, I do have a limit.
Where would you like to enjoy a food and wine tour?