A place of legend and lore, Italy’s famous island is much more than the Corleones. History, wine and cuisine set the stage in Sicily for a beautiful romance.
As a sommelier, I have been lucky enough to travel to most of the major wine-producing regions in Italy. When the villa rental company, The Thinking Traveller, invited me on a trip to Sicily, it gave me reason to pause. I realized that perhaps I’d spent so much time exploring the proverbial boot that I’d somehow missed the football.
I decided to give it a kick. I planned on a few days with fellow writers (hopefully witty and prone to drinking) and planned my childcare strategy (hopefully free and with Grandma and Grandpa). What I did not plan on was falling in love. I fell in love with Sicily—madly, deeply and irrationally so. I speak of it in besotted tones to anyone who’ll listen. Delete that Francis Ford Coppola soundtrack and related Hollywood caricatures from your mind and get to know the real Sicily.
Because of its geolocation, Sicily is both an island nation-state and a water-crossroads. And because Sicily’s political affiliation with mainland Italy is relatively new, Sicilians consider themselves Sicilians first, Europeans second and occasionally Italians … but only if pressed. Variously visited by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Normans, Visigoths, Byzantines, Capetians and Habsburgs, it’s a rich cultural compost that nourishes a culinary tradition without par outside of maybe Shanghai or New York City.
The meals I ate in Sicily—whether casual trattoria fare by the sea, elaborately plated multi-course meals or simple breakfasts—rank as the best dining I’ve ever experienced. If you like to eat, you’ll love Sicily. If you like wine, you’ll love Sicily. If you like unspoiled beaches, you’ll love Sicily. If you like handsome men, you’ll love Sicily. Just saying.
Our itinerary was confined to the southeastern part of Sicily, considered by many to be the gastronomical epicenter—no offense to Palermo on the other side. Flights go through Rome into Catania and are likely to be filled with tanned Romans on weekend break or savvy Europeans who appreciate the villa culture of the island. The Thinking Traveller specializes in villa rentals that cater to families or larger groups, in addition to its local concierge services, which are superb. (Ask for Max, the British ex-pat who speaks Sicilian with both mouth and heart after 20 years of living la dolce vita there.)
For our stay we were booked into Don Arcangelo all’Olmo, or just Olmo for short, and it is nothing short of divine. You can sip your coffee (espresso and a short pull) on your private veranda as citrus mixed with saline tang scents the air.
Surrounded by lush lemon orchards, Olmo is the crown jewel in their rental portfolio, and it’s where Jude Law and other British celebs are prone to hide out with their kids. But it’s also a homey place where you can wander down to the kitchen and help yourself to another coffee, as those of us with Starbucks-sized caffeine needs did each morning.
The vibe of Olmo reflects that of the region, as the day’s rhythms are decidedly dictated by meals. Sicilians’ staple breakfast items are fresh fruit and pastry, and this briosche is often stuffed with gelato, likely made with local pistachios. As mentioned, you can’t help but love Sicily, where they eat world-class ice cream in a bread bowl. For breakfast.
And as a pasta course is ubiquitous at dinner, Sicily isn’t for the gluten-sensitive. As someone who survived a disastrous summer gig at Olive Garden as a teenager, I admit that I rarely eat pasta at home. (PTSD is real, folks.) But those gelatinous, gigantic masses of corporate pasta have little in common with their Sicilian forbearers where shape, texture and sauce always trump portion. A plate of pasta at dinner is typically half a cup—if that—but is prepared with meticulous detail.
My favorite was the Pasta cu Maccu, a regional dish made with fava bean purée. Sicilian cuisine reflects the staples of the classic Mediterranean diet—pasta, tomatoes, seafood, lemons, EVOO and herbs—but is enhanced with local specialties like capers, sardines, raisins, pistachios, eggplant, tuna, swordfish and red chilies. My own dogged, drought-plagued lemon tree here in Los Angeles can only aspire to the brilliant flavor of Sicilian lemons. Cue Limoncello, as humans tend to ferment whatever is most bountiful.
On the topic of fermentation, I was drawn to this part of Italy mainly due to the opportunity to walk the vineyards of Mount Etna. The wines produced in this region are lately the darlings of the sommelier community in the U.S.—and with good reason. If you’re looking for a textbook example of what the French call “terroir,” or place expressed in wine, this is it. One doesn’t need to be a wine expert to taste the impact of volcanic soil in this area, and Sicily’s relative isolation from mainland Italy means its native varieties continue to flourish. Here, nerello mascalese, carricante and cataratto dominate, although international grapes like chardonnay and merlot have been more recently introduced.
The must-see winery is Planeta, a family operation run by three cousins who were determined to prove that Sicily could produce world-class wines. That Sicilian wines get exported at all is largely due to their zealousness; otherwise, thirsty locals would jealously guard and drink them. Max also conveniently arranged to have Etna erupt while we were in the area, and while no one was in harm’s way, the sight of lava spewing into the evening air was indelibly dramatic. Now there’s a concierge for you.
If pressed to pick a favorite day in Sicily, it would be a toss-up between these two: a market morning spent in Siracusa, the legendary Greek town that defeated Athens in 413 and that gave us Archimedes, or hiking on Mount Etna with Lorenzo, our Italian vulcanologist who looks like JFK Jr. crossed with Brad Pitt. It was easy to stumble on that hike.
For foodies, the legendary market of Siracusa is truly without compare. You can wander for hours amidst astonishing mountains of still-warm vegetables, nuts and citrus while fishmongers expertly hawk their wares with knives sparkling in the sun. The sheer sensory experience of the market is itself a holiday. It’s the finest farmers market you’ll ever find—you can trust this thinking traveller.
And because I spent my childhood summers exploring Yellowstone National Park, I’ve always had a thing for geothermal activity. Hiking on Mount Etna is the real deal: strenuous and exhilarating and dangerous. Hire a guide from Etna Finder, and cross your fingers that you get Lorenzo, who besides being gorgeous is more importantly an impressive polymath who speaks something like seven languages. You’re welcome.
I recently opened a new savings account, and no, it’s not for my kids’ college expenses. It’s for my next big birthday, which I plan to spend at Olmo with my closest girlfriends. Sicily is magic, and I can’t wait to go back (and eat, eat, eat) again.