Here’s a first: I don’t really want to write this column. I want to keep this extraordinary part of the world, nominally in Italy (although locals still refer to Italy as ‘the mainland’) to myself. So far, it’s not even that firmly on the tourist map, which, when you feast your eyes on the place, is little short of astonishing.
I’m not here to wax starry-eyed about the area’s breathtaking Baroque architecture or rich, multicultural heritage (and believe me, I could). Town after town, Ragusa Ibla, Siracusa, Noto, Modica, offers World Heritage-protected loveliness, so much so that you fear an imminent bout of Paradise Syndrome.
Outside the cities, the island rolls out like something from a Spaghetti Western, dotted with little agriturismi: farms producing their own ricotta, or the region’s favourite caciocavallo cheese, or who host delicious dinners in their dusty courtyards. We drive past locals picking snails and foraging for bitter greens along the roadsides. And Sicilian cooking is as unique as our surroundings, especially in this corner: sweet, rich tomatoes from Pachino; milky almonds from Noto; long, fat pistachios that make my new favourite pasta sauce, salsa di pistacchi; vibrant clashes of sweet and sour; incredibly sweet pastries including the famous cannoli; lemons like no lemon you’ve ever tasted before; oddnesses like the grape mustard jelly mostarda or quince paste cotognata or salty lemonade. I feel like my tastebuds have been newly-minted.
We kick off in the main city, Siracusa, where our ‘b&b’ room in La Via Della Giudecca is more like an apartment in the most beautiful boutique hotel, right in the heart of the atmospheric old Jewish district. In Ortigia – Siracusa’s old town – winding Medieval streets lead to treats like Castello Fiorentino (6, V. Crocifisso, 00 39 0931 21097), the world’s loudest, maddest and most excellent pizzeria, or tiny, barebricked Apollonion. Here, there’s no menu and an entire staff of three manages to produce a succession of extraordinary dishes – swordfish involtini stuffed with mollica (Sicilians’ favourite breadcrumbs), raisins, pinenuts and teeny explosions of fragrant lemon peel; crisp fritters of neonati (splinter-sized baby fish); sensational chewy pasta with clams and the local teeny red prawns. The kitchen loves sensationally fresh carpaccios and marinated raw fish. It’s also my first tentative steps towards what becomes a full-blown love affair with the wines of Etna.
Siracusa’s sprawling, open-air market is mind-blowing: banks of silvery fish, locally grown vegetables and fruit, curios like tenerumi – stems and leaves of an indigenous gourd, like Jack’s beanstalk; and prickly pears, choc full of seeds and endearingly known as ‘bastardi’. In its midst, Fratelli Burgio is the kind of shop that makes our grocery stores look positively tragic. Nearby is L’Ancora, where fictitious local hero, detective Montalbano, loves their wonderful fish dishes – we love the Arab-influenced fish couscous – in an environment that defies the ministrations of the interior designer. The heavens open and rain falls like Niagara. The concerned owners offer to drive us back to our b&b.
But then there are the streets of Ragusa Ibla, a mad wedding cake of impenetrable, ancient alleyways. Piazza Duomo (the cathedral square) is home to Gelati diVini, a combined enoteca and ice-cream parlour that dishes up pistachio ice cream of staggering lushness; you know the good stuff because it’s greyish, not bright green. The Sicilian specialty, ice cream served in a briosca (brioche sandwich) is terrifyingly delicious. Behind the cathedral is chef Ciccio Sultano’s Michelin-starred Duomo restaurant. I’m not even going to try to do justice to the extraordinary food that emanates from his tiny kitchen in this jewel box of a restaurant, but he plays on the local tradition like a maverick jazzman. Ingredients and influences are deeply, traditionally Sicilian, techniques and realisation wickedly contemporary.
From the sublime to the unassuming at little trattoria La Bettola. The filetto di puledro is a new one on me, but its rich, ferrous, dark red meat is tantalisingly familiar. Oh, crikey – it’s horse. Why couldn’t they call it cavallo and then I’d know where I was? But it’s also my introduction to the pasta al pistacchio: a thing of wondrousness.
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.
The article 'Postcard from Southeast Sicily' was published in partnership with BBC Olive magazine.