Postcard from Southeast Sicily
We decamp to the country, to lovely villa La Paolina near the remote Castello di Donnafugata. It’s the perfect base for trips out to Noto, its honey-coloured Baroque streets fragrant with the smell of sugar and almonds, home to the justifiably famous Caffè Sicilia (125 Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 00 39 0931 83501) with its bewildering array of romantically titled cakes scented with basil or bergamot, saffron or jasmine; and exquisite ices, made from black olives, perhaps, or almond milk granita.
Then Modica, where we wander about open-mouthed at the beauty and our new chum, cookery school doyenne Katia Amore, tells us about the ancient tradition of the town’s unique, dark, granular chocolate. She introduces us to Bonajuto; the almost hidden store offers the finest Modican chocolate: curiously granular, fat-free, made to the original Aztec recipe and flavoured with vanilla, cinnamon or chilli – astonishingly pure and powerful. We try the town’s unique ‘mpanatigghi’, little pastries containing a mix of chocolate, nuts, spices, sugar and finest controfiletto. Which is, of course, sirloin steak.
Bonajuto may be deservedly famous, but even unassuming joints like the Caffè dell’Arte offer treasures. So taken with our enthusiasm are the owners, mother, father and son, that chocolate work of art after chocolate work of art is paraded in front of us: my favourite are the nuts and screws that actually work. Cakes, too, are unmissable: cannoli filled with sweet ricotta ‘al espresso’ i.e. at the last moment so the super-friable pastry tubes don’t have time to get soggy; or ‘pesche’ – two doughnuts sandwiched together to become the eponymous peach. To childish me, they look more like bums. Then we’re offered a chocolate salami…
Stop me if I’m gabbling: there’s just so much of it and it’s all heaven. I could go on and on. It’s a long time since anywhere so comparatively accessible has impressed me quite so much – I’m like a Bieberstruck teenager. And I haven’t told you about the island’s famous pasta alla Norma: smoky grilled aubergine and concentrated, fruity tomato. Nor the trip to Michelin-starred La Madia through the weird, industrial ugliness of Gela. Or other local specialties like marzipan frutta martorana, or ossi dei morti (bones of the dead) or giuggiolena, a kind of sesame torrone. Or, Majore, the pig restaurant in Chiaramonte Gulfi that could have come straight from the pages of The Godfather. But at least I’ve managed to tell you about the place itself. Which was a struggle, believe me.
Marina O’Loughlin, London newspaper Metro’s restaurant critic, has remained incognito for 11 years. She regularly travels the UK and abroad in search of culinary adventure. Marina’s accommodation in Sicily was provided by thesicilianvillacompany.com.