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Sicily, Old & New

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Photo: David Cicconi

Lunches were like good stories, each course a delightful twist in the plot. The central theme was one of war—of conquest by successive waves of invaders, all of whom left their mark on the cooking of Sicily—but also tenderness and sweetness. I think of an epic lunch I had at the Masseria degli Ulivi, outside Noto, where the chef is Salvatore Guarino. It started with panella—chickpea paste formed into long strips and fried, which we dipped into olive oil pressed at the masseria. Then came a carpaccio di pesce con limone, also with olive oil. Then sweet-and-sour rabbit with vegetables—a lighter version of a traditional Sicilian dish. Then ravioli stuffed with dentriche, a type of firm, white fish, served with a light sauce made of squid ink and dentriche broth, and a flat, lacy goat-cheese biscuit. Then a filetto of meltingly tender beef, cooked for 14 hours, on a bed of risotto flavored powerfully with verbena. Then grilled swordfish with sundried-tomato ice cream. The seventh course was meaty, slender lamb ribs with puréed eggplant marmalade and a vinegar-reduction sauce made with Nero d'Avola, Syrah, thyme, and honey, and olive-oil gelato. Finally came dessert: fig gelato with caramelized carob fruits. After lunch, as the ice cream melted on the plate and our son dozed, we spoke to Guarino about his plans to open a restaurant in Modica in 2007. "Things are changing—the time is right," he said. He was sensing a new Sicily, too. However, when I got back in touch with him this summer, he reported terrible delays to the project, which sounded distinctly Old Sicily.

Vines cover much of the Sicilian countryside. During the 1980's, when the wines of the region first became popular in the United States, leading producers such as Tasca d'Almerita and Donnafugata created outstanding wines using imported grapes—Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. It was their success that first planted the idea of Sicily as a kind of Italian Napa Valley in the minds of the island's promoters. In the 80's, Planeta, begun by two brothers and their cousin—Allesio, Francesca, and Santi Planeta—extended the renown of Sicilian wines with their Chardonnays and Cabernet Francs. Finally, over the past decade, Sicily's native grapes have also become popular—most famously Nero d'Avola, but also Moscato, used to make sweet wines, both white and red. For Nero d'Avola, try Valle dell'Acate wine estate's Il Moro, made with grapes from one of the best regions for this variety. For an excellent dessert wine, try Felice Modica's Dolce Nero—black and sweet, full of violence and tenderness, the taste of Sicily. The most delicious of all the local wines is the Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a red made from 60 percent Nero d'Avola and 40 percent Frappato grapes. The latter give the wine its cherry flavor; the former provide the inky, concentrated heat of the sun.

COS is a smaller producer than Planeta, but is just as admired by oenophiles. The vineyard is in Acate, in the Ragusa region north of Modica. I drove out there one morning, through the flat fields full of grapevines, with the dry hills in the distance. I waited in the cool and dim cantina for one of the winemakers, Giusto Occhipinti, to arrive. The cantina was an old building, with terra-cotta, stone, and wood throughout. The musty smell of grapes flowed from a big stone trough, where in their younger days Occhipinti and his brothers used to press the grapes with their feet.

After a while, Occhipinti drove up in his jeep and brought out some wines for us to try. He was born in Ravenna, moved to Sicily for his education, and started COS in the early 1980's with several classmates. In their adamant refusal to use yeasts in wine making or chemicals on the vines, COS's owners are heavily influenced by the militantly naturalist wine making of Stanko Radikon, who has gained fame by forgoing stainless steel and new oak in favor of the ancient Roman method of burying the wines in large clay amphorae in the earth. At COS, we tried a delicious white, called Rami, made with Insolia and Grecanico grapes, then moved on to the incomparable 2003 Cerasuolo. Giusto took a sip, straightened his back, gathered the fingers on his right hand into a bunch, and slowly brought his hand down from his mouth to his chest. "This wine is vertical. The body accepts it. Most wines are horizontal—they stay in the mouth and don't leave it. Our wine goes to your legs, your arms—it floods the body." Then I tried it. It was a revelation. It had the fruitiness of a Pinot Noir, but something else too—a mineral, almost elemental taste. The old, cold earth itself was in the wine.

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