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Discover Pantelleria

After dessert we would lie about waiting for the temperature to creep down, reading Lampedusa, nodding off in a stupor induced by the rough local wine, or simply watching a pair of buntings build a nest in the eaves. In the late afternoon, when it seemed safe to go out, we ventured to the beach, a different one every day. Pantelleria has some of the most dramatic beaches in the Mediterranean, though most are not for the lazy or faint, and few are sandy, which is what saves the island from mass tourism. Nicà is reached via a zigzagging path, shaved through the maquis, more suited to goats than humans. At the bottom, a smooth platform of rocks juts into the limpid sea. The only thing that lured us out of the water was a tall pitcher of Negronis at home and the promise of tuna bresaola at La Nicchia for dinner.

The hushed courtyard restaurant is one of the places people have in mind when they describe Pantelleria as the Holy Grail of Mediterranean cooking, nearly uncorrupted by off-island ingredients. Tables are set around a central orange tree, menus are fastened to clipboards, and niches in the stone walls hold colorful pottery. The food is the most serious and rigorous on the island; think of La Nicchia as Pantelleria's Chez Panisse. We had made a rule never to go to the same restaurant twice, but broke it to work our way through Nicchia's remarkable menu, which features fat shrimp in a luscious sweet-wine sauce and spaghetti with an enticingly smoky caper pesto.

Capers with hard-won denominazione di origine controllata status rule the islands' kitchens. At La Conchiglia, a cliffside place that plays cheesy Italian wedding music, capers lend their winy, grapy quality—like a cross between an olive and a plum—to Pantelleria's gruff culinary emblem, a salad that also includes boiled potatoes, onions, tomatoes, olives, basil, and oregano. The shrimp in a dish of linguine with zucchini at La Vela, an enchantingly scruffy beach shack, tasted as if they still had seawater clinging to them. Our affair with tumma, a fresh cow's-milk cheese showered with fiery local olive oil, began at Ristorante Castiglione Franco, a down-and-out joint lit by the glare of the neighboring Agip gas station. At the next table was Cristina Muti, the conductor's wife.

Dining at the dammuso, we adopted the custom of dusting pasta with toasted bread crumbs, the poor man's Parmesan, and capping every meal with passito, a lush dessert wine with an orange nose, made on Pantelleria from dried zibibbo grapes. But when it came time we were not sorry to leave our dammuso. After nearly a week of subsistence-level niceties, we were ready for Monastero, a head-spinningly exotic resort owned by Ferri and marketed to collectors of one-of-a-kind fantasy hotel experiences. A lot has been written about the property, including that Madonna and Sting have stayed, yet everyone dances around what might be called its dirty secret: though you can see the Mediterranean, the water seems about as near as Tunisia. If you require crashing surf, Monastero is not for you.

Locked in the mountainous interior, on a dusty patch of magnificently raw countryside, the resort also feels too isolated for some. But as far as I was concerned, isolation was what I was paying for. One of the great pleasures of my stay was piercing the thick bubble of hype that surrounds Monastero: "To reserve a room you have to know the owner"; "You have to book the entire place." Ferri tries to whip up an aura of exclusivity with these conceits, but neither happens to be true. If you pay, you can stay.

The resort has three groups of dammusi, sleeping between 4 and 12 people. Technically, the minimum reservation is one group of houses for one party for one week, but in practice the property's policies can be quite supple, depending on the time of year and availability. Le Palme, a freestanding double, can be booked on its own. La Casa del Tè—two doubles in two interlocking dammusi with a thatched outside area for cooking, dining, and lounging—is ideal for two couples. Sometimes you have to wear down Ferri's people to get what you want, but the effort is worth it.

If you're not the kind of traveler who appreciates the thought that goes into stowing toilet paper in a Moroccan tea caddy, skip down a few lines. Monastero has no interior public spaces, no restaurant (though a cook is available), and no turndown; reception is in a garage, the one time I thought Ferri had gone too far. The decorating is reductive, designed for people who have it all and want to experiment with less. Maybe you get a night table and maybe you don't. Closets are chunky rails in hand-wrought iron draped with nubby textiles. Ferri's look is often summarized as "ethnic," but that doesn't do justice to its complexity and originality. My room was washed in purply browns and grayed-out pinks you won't find on a Donald Kaufman color card. And by borrowing elements from a handful of vernacular styles—African antique woven silk throws, Malaysian four-poster beds, vanity basins of Pantescan volcanic rock—Ferri has created another: his own. The wind keeps the landscaping in shape, razing plants to the ground.

With the hotel Santa Teresa just down the road, we had only to roll out of bed to visit it and decide if this was where we wanted to book for our next trip. It was. Modest but stylish, the Santa Teresa is the answer for anyone who wants to visit Pantelleria, is shy about renting a house, and doesn't want to sell the farm to stay at Monastero. Grapevines, olive trees, and caper plants march right up to a dammuso sensitively divided into three spacious, vaulted, fresh-scrubbed apartments. Each has a kitchen, a dining terrace, and unpretentious furnishings that ring true to place, from tole lanterns to rush-seated chairs. For more of a hotel feel, another building has three rooms overlooking a handsome pool ringed with palms, oleanders, bougainvillea, and rosemary. Breakfast is served amid the orange trees in a giardino arabo.

We had pulled off the road to peek into so many of these curious, nearly identical gardens that their fascination might easily have worn off, but that never happened. For Pantelleria makes a virtue of sameness. Every day is reassuringly like every other, with variations measured in the thickness of a palm frond. Will the pasta sauce have capers today, or shall we leave them out?A swim at Nicà or Elefante?Drinks at the Tikirriki or the Aurora?The hallucinogenic heat and bristling landscape, the sullen architecture and erotic lassitude—nothing ever changes, or subsides. Inhabiting the island is like inhabiting a hall of mirrors. The repetition is hypnotic, and enslaving.


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