Sicily, Old & New
In the remote reaches of southern Italy, John Seabrook uncovers some of the country's best—and most inventive— food and wine.
Viviana's tomatoes have been drying on a plank for the past three days. Their flesh looks molten, like congealed drops of magma that have fallen from the sun and landed here, in Modica. They're Pachino tomatoes, the small ones you can find in almost any supermarket in the world, but these tomatoes have a curious aura, maybe because Pachino, one of Europe's southernmost towns (it lies farther south than Tunis), is only 20 miles from here. I keep looking at them, even though I'm supposed to be packing, trying to find a place in our luggage for all the flavors we have accumulated on our tour—thyme-scented honey, bars of chocolate, wine, and jars of the capers that grow wild out of stone walls.
Like many people, I carry images of the "old Sicily" around in my head. I imagine groups of unemployed men strolling slowly through the streets, "like a torpid circulation of blood," as Norman Lewis put it in The Honoured Society. I see bereaved women in black weeping at the funerals of their husbands and sons, victims of Mafia killers.
Can there ever be a New Sicily?Can an island so ancient, where the past is present in the smallest details, ever really change?Romans, Normans, Swabians, Saracens, Spaniards, Bourbons, and Garibaldians have conquered and tried to change Sicily, but the defining features of the island for at least 500 years—bribery, corruption, poverty, and joblessness—have remained, and the vestiges of feudalism go back as far as Roman times. In Sicily, wrote Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in his supremely cynical novel The Leopard, "everything must change so that everything can remain the same."
Recently, however, there have been signs that Sicily is indeed changing, and that it won't ever be the same again. During the 1990's, partly in gratitude for the island's strong support of his political party, Forza Italia, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi spent billions in public money there on new roads, new airports, hospitals, and, most extravagantly, a proposed bridge across the Strait of Messina that would have cut car-transit times from 12 hours to 10 minutes. (The project was shelved by Romano Prodi, Berlusconi's successor, last October, and the funds reserved for building the bridge will instead be used to improve ferry service between Messina and the mainland.) The private sector has responded to these improvements in infrastructure. In the mid 1980's, Sicilian winemakers, after years of producing wine for other labels, began to establish their own brands. Restaurateurs and food producers followed the winemakers, and hoteliers followed them. And although the Mafia has certainly not disappeared, its DNA seems to have changed in the decade and a half since the murder of Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino caused general outrage and revulsion. The Mafia has moved into legitimate businesses, such as health care, retirement homes, and hospital equipment—mafia bianca, Sicilians now call it.
So, in the hope of catching a few glimpses of this renaissance, my wife, son, and I charted a course through southeastern Sicily, seeking out a generation of Sicilians who are trying to reinvent the island for a new kind of traveler, one who is looking for rustic beauty and authentic charm. We stayed around the hilly rural area west of Siracusa and east of Agrigento—Noto, Ragusa, and Modica—all beautiful Baroque cities largely ignored by tourists, who almost invariably head for the beach. This is a region of deep gorges, quiet farms, carob plantations, and rugged limestone cliffs. In 1693, its towns were completely razed by a massive earthquake—giving the great Baroque architects a blank slate on which to build rationally planned cities like Noto. The landscape is neither European nor African, but something in between. Culturally, it is the Switzerland of Sicily. Unemployment, which is still at a staggering 23 percent across the rest of the island, is half that in Ragusa. And because the southeast is geographically isolated from the rest of Sicily by the Iblean Mountains, it has remained relatively free of organized crime.
We had considered renting a villa somewhere in the Val de Noto, and to explore the possibilities, I met in Rome with Emma Averna, a Milanese who learned the luxury business while working at Bulgari, and Federica Musco, a Sicilian journalist based in Catania; together they run Sicily Deluxe, a rental agency that aims to persuade Americans who traditionally take houses in Tuscany to consider Sicily instead. Over lunch, they told me they spend a good deal of time trying to coax what remains of the old Sicilian aristocracy to bring their villas up to "American standards"—which inevitably means putting in a swimming pool. "Why do Americans always need a swimming pool—they have the sea!" Musco cried, in a husky-voiced imitation of an outraged Sicilian count.
Sicily Deluxe had a couple of great-looking places, but in the end we decided against a villa, in favor of moving around. However, as we were driving south from the Catania airport to Siracusa, passing the gigantic oil refineries on the coast—a view that looked very much like the old Sicily in its utter lack of regard for the preservation of the island's natural beauty—I thought of something else Musco had said. "Sicily selects certain people. If you like to go to the Hamptons, then you will like Tuscany, because everything is in place. But in Sicily you have beauty right next to the horrible, black and white, the sea and the mountains—there is no middle ground."
Just outside Ortigia, the island on which the ancient city of Siracusa is built, the Anapo River flows out of the mountains. Beside the river, about a half-mile from the port, is a boutique hotel called Caol Ishka, Gaelic for "sound of water." It falls loosely into the tradition of the masseria, or converted farm, as opposed to an agriturismo, or working farm. The young owners, Emanuela Marino and her partner, Gareth Shaughnessy, retained the skeleton of the farm buildings but redesigned the interiors to make 10 rustic-chic rooms with lofty wooden roofs, lavish showers, and stylish Italian lighting and bathroom fixtures. You can get Wi-Fi out on the veranda, as you walk around the papyrus and bamboo stands that ring the grounds, or sit by the river and watch the rowers go by in their shells. There's also an infinity pool.
Marino is a clever 36-year-old Sicilian with flashing black eyes and perfect English, who attended business school in London, where she met Shaughnessy, who is Irish. Both were working in business, advancing in their careers, but neither was very happy. So when the possibility arose of developing an old farm that had been in Marino's family, they decided to quit their jobs and give it a try. They moved to Siracusa, where they live in the town's historic center, and converted the rustic farm buildings into one- and two-story bungalows with the help of local designer Roberto Gallo.
At dinner at the hotel's Zafferano Bistrot—cooked by a spectacularly talented 21-year-old chef, Massimo Giaquinta, who is part Sicilian and part Kenyan—the couple elaborated on their vision for Caol Ishka: not so much a hotel for tourists who come to see the ruins in Siracusa as a quiet retreat for Italians and Europeans looking for privacy and seclusion. The dining room has a stone floor and a farm-style beamed ceiling. There are winking references to the Baroque in the gilded mirrors and the paintings of the Virgin Mary on the wall.
"These were painted by my brother," said Marino, gesturing around. She paused. "He is also in the paintings." Closer scrutiny revealed her brother, dressed as Mary, Photoshopped in.
Very New Sicily.
Giaquinta joined us at the table. Like many young chefs we met in Sicily, he points to Ciccio Sultano, of Duomo restaurant in Ragusa, as an inspiration. Sultano was the first local chef to receive two Michelin stars; more importantly for ambitious entrants like Giaquinta, he showed it was possible to achieve fame without having to leave the region.
But it's one thing to persuade the international food press of your talents; what's harder, Giaquinta said, was getting ordinary Sicilians to try something new. "In Sicily we don't have the tradition of experimenting—people eat to fill their bellies. If they go out, we have the trattorie, so that you can eat the way you do at home. It's hard—everyone just wants what their grandmothers made."
Giaquinta's tasting menu began with sautéed prawns, marinated in lemon and intensely flavored anchovies, offset with a little carrot juice. (Carrot juice is one of Ciccio Sultano's signatures.) This was followed by rare tuna with a balsamic vinegar reduction. (One of the great recent changes in Sicilian cooking in particular, and Italian cooking in general, is the acceptance of crudo, or raw, fish.) The next course was the highlight of my meal—grouper roe with ricotta and honey. It was as much a texture experience as a taste—the firm and cool roe with the soft ricotta, and the honey oozing out and enrobing the other ingredients. After that, Giaquinta made a traditional pasta with bottarga (tuna roe) and anchovy, again flavored with carrot juice. For dessert, he had prepared two traditional tortes—a white one with ricotta and a black one with chocolate.
Giaquinta's point about everyday Sicilian cooking was reinforced the following day, when we went to Arenella, the nearby beach. Although a trip to southeastern Sicily is less about the beaches than about the cities, if you want solitude, driftwood, and romantic ruins, this coast has them, in one of the largest nature reserves on the island. However, on this broiling day we were grateful for the big umbrella and beach chairs at the local beach club. We had lunch in the club's cafeteria. I ordered eggplant parmeggiano, which I could see under the glass counter; the server cut me a piece. Presented on a plastic tray, with plastic utensils, it was possibly the most delicious thing I ate on the whole trip. Everyday Sicilian food, made with the freshest, most flavorful ingredients you've ever tasted—the sweetness of the eggplant, the powerfully aromatic basil, and, of course, the earthy tomatoes—has to be the best home cooking on the planet. What's the point of tricking everything out (except, of course, that you can charge a couple hundred dollars per person) when traditional dishes like spaghetti alla Norma (pasta with eggplant and ricotta in tomato sauce) are so incredibly good?
Even so, the glimpse Caol Ishka had given of a new Sicily—the reinvention of a traditional farm into a contemporary oasis—had us in search of another kind of novelty: not a new place, but a new taste, and we found it at Caffè Sicilia, in Noto. The laboratory of inspired flavor-maker Corrado Assenza isn't exactly a secret, but he is such a fecund inventor that there's almost always something new and remarkable to discover there. Accursio Craparo, the chef at La Gazza Ladra, in Modica—another young star of the region—told me that Assenza was the main reason he had returned from Germany several years earlier to work in his homeland. "Corrado is my master," he said. "He took me for walks in the countryside and taught me to smell the rosemary, the thyme, all the different flavors that were growing wild. And after this experience I was ready for my own restaurant."
Noto is built on a long broad ridge of highland, with the center of the city at the highest point. (It's the inverse of Modica, where the center is at the bottom of a steep ravine.) We parked in front of the Cathedral of San Nicolò, a masterpiece of the Sicilian Baroque, and found Caffè Sicilia just down the street. There we met our new friends Katia Amore and Ronald Ashri, who run a local travel service called Love Sicily, for a breakfast of cappuccino and mocha granita with a warm brioche for dipping. Amore is from Modica and Ashri is Cypriot; like Emanuela Marino and Gareth Shaughnessy, they met in London, where Ashri was getting his Ph.D. in computer science and Amore her M.A. in European history; then, also like Marino and Shaughnessy, they decided to come back to the old country and start a business. Now they provide tours, arrange cooking lessons, and offer all manner of useful information on where to stay and what to do in the area.
Caffè Sicilia doesn't look any different from a thousand other Italian cafés, but in fact there is no other place in the world like it. Duomo's Ciccio Sultano may be the best-known chef in the area, but Corrado Assenza is the undisputed flavor master of the southeast. No one in the world is better than Assenza at making traditional Sicilian sweets like cassata and cannoli, as well as gelati and incomparable granita—fruit, almond, and coffee ices with whipped cream. His uncategorizable talent is actually a combination of several culinary achievements: he is a master pastry chef (his little cherry pastries have the lightest, flakiest crust I have ever tasted), gelatiero, granita maker, cook, and gardener. He mixes the flavors of the countryside, especially thyme, with cream, sugar, vegetables, and fruits. Among the ice cream flavors we tasted were nespola (a tart, golf ball-sized fruit known as a medlar in English), zucchini, sweet pepper, and basil. I also had a cassata with sweet peppers on top, pink-grapefruit marmalade, two kinds of cream, and sponge cake, while Katia and Ronald each had a zabaglione, hers with blood-orange sauce and ginger infused with honey and thyme, his with double-latte cream, white pepper, extra-virgin olive oil, almond flour, thyme, and honey. We talked about how 800 years of Sicilian history were present in each mouthful—the Arabs, with their almonds and honey, provided the base, while the Spanish contributed the Baroque swirls of cream and sugar on top.
Eventually Assenza emerged from behind the counter, wearing a paper pastry hat and a white smock, and sat down at our table. He explained that he had studied agronomy at the University of Bologna and had done a concentration on honeybees. "I believed I could be among the next generation of important bee researchers. But instead I was called home to work here in the business." To hear him tell it, his real skill isn't sweet-making or chemistry—it's beekeeping. Coaxing the same bees that pollinate the orange trees to also pollinate the thyme, and thereby produce a honey flavored with both, is a project to which Assenza devotes a lot of time and care. He said that Sicilian bees are different from the bees of the mainland. "They are a little more nervous than the Italian bees—a little wilder. Harder to manage."
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.
The most complete view of the new Sicily I got was from the garden at Casa Talía, a small bed-and-breakfast in Modica. Viviana Haddad grew up in Milan, and that's where she met her partner, Marco Giunta, a fellow designer and an architect. Ten years ago, she would never have considered living in Sicily, but like so many other well-educated younger Italians we met, she opted out of the moving sidewalk of modern big-city professionalism in favor of "slow living." She and Giunta acquired five small adjacent houses on a ridge high above the town center, in what was once Modica's ghetto, and created Casa Talía, bringing an urban design sensibility to the ancient stones. They have taken great care in choosing simple but beautiful materials—lace bedspreads, pressed-iron beds, glossy white stones in the walls, and bamboo ceilings. Thanks to high-speed wireless Internet (an essential part of slow living), Giunta now runs his design business from underneath their fig tree.
Seen from above, as we sat in the garden of Casa Talía, Modica looked dreamlike, with labyrinthine passageways swirling down the steep sides of a ravine, ending at the dry bed of the river that runs through the center of town. One night we watched fireworks in celebration of San Giorgio, for whom Modica's great Baroque cathedral is named. Shot from below, they burst not far above our eye level, safely distant in the space between the two sides of the ravine.
It was in Modica that I tasted one of strongest and most unyielding of all the flavors in Sicily—the cold-processed chocolate from Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. The store, at the bottom of the stairs leading from Casa Talía to the town center, is well-known, but the longtime owner, Franco Ruta, has recently handed over control to his son, Pierpaolo. They still do their famous impanatiggi—pastry envelopes stuffed with eggplant or meat mixed with chocolate—but Pierpaulo is pushing the shop in new directions; salty chocolate is one of his ideas. The Rutas cook their chocolate at 113 degrees for 30 minutes, a temperature at which the sugar does not melt; commercial manufacturers boil chocolate for two days at 176 degrees. The latter method makes the chocolate easier to digest, but, according to Pierpaulo, it destroys most of the flavor (380 different flavors, he says—but who's counting?).
Pierpaulo is serious, committed, and political; he has a poetic expression and sad eyes. He is haunted by the history of European exploitation of South American growers of cacao. He approaches chocolate not as a confection, but rather as a bitter allegory of colonizer and colonized, cold-processed together with the Spanish Inquisition and the 16th-century Jewish diaspora in Modica.
"Chocolate is not about the first moment of taste, it is about the last moment," he said. "First the texture, then the sugar, then the bitter and finally the personality—that is the most interesting thing." Pierpaulo is a personality himself, and a new Sicilian if ever I met one. He gave me lots of different kinds of chocolate, and that's what I should be packing now, if I could tear myself away from our final morning in the Casa Talía garden. I also have a bottle of COS Cerasuolo and some of Corrado Assenza's honey. But before going, I want to experience one final flavor: Viviana's tomatoes.
By now I believe I have found an answer to my question of how Sicily, this oldest of cultures, can ever be new. It will always be new.
Viviana brings out her tomato jam, and I take a spoonful. I feel like I am eating the sun.
When to Go
May is the best time—cool enough to visit the cities but warm enough to enjoy a swim. From mid-June through August you won't want to stray far from the beach in southeastern Sicily.
How to Get There
Until the new airport outside Ragusa opens in December, flying into Catania is your best bet. There is regular service from Rome and other European cities, and direct flights via Rome or Milan from New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Rent a car at the Catania airport (Hertz and Avis are the most reliable) and chart a circular tour: Siracusa, Noto, Modica, Ragusa. The distances are small; you could drive across the whole region in two hours.
Where to Stay
Caol Ishka Hotel
Via Elorina, Contrada Pantanelli, Siracusa; 39-0931/69057; Caolishka.com; doubles from $256.
1/9 Via Exaudinos, Modica; 39-0932/752-075; Casatalia.it; doubles from $162.
Hotel Eremo della Giubiliana
A former monk's retreat, now an 11-room boutique hotel south of Ragusa. Contrada Giubiliana, Km. 7.5, S.P. Marina di Ragusa; 39-0932/669-119; EremodellaGiubiliana.it; doubles from $336.
The hotel has maintained the feeling of a Sicilian villa, with wrought-iron fixtures, frescoed, vaulted ceilings, and antique furniture. 5 Via Blandini, Modica; 39-0932/941-059; PalazzoFailla.it; doubles from $182.
Where to Eat
Antica Dolceria Bonajuto
159 Corso Umberto I, Modica; 39-0932/941-225; cannoli for two $3.
125 Corso Vittorio Emanuele, Noto; 39-0931/835-013; gelato for two $5.
The most famous restaurant in the region, the only one to get two stars from Michelin. Chef Ciccio Sultano's business partner, Angelo Di Stefano, looks like a Sicilian Oscar Wilde. 31 Via Capitano Bocchieri, Ragusa; 39-0932/651-265; dinner for two $269.
Fattoria delle Torri
Peppe Barone's sweet-and-sour rabbit was the best version I tasted. 14 Vico Napolitano, Modica; 39-0932/751-286; dinner for two $102.
La Gazza Ladra
A restaurant helmed by chef Accursio Craparo, next door to Palazzo Failla. Try the branzino fillet with saffron and potatoes. 5 Via Blandini, Modica; 39-0932/755-655; dinner for two $130.
A dim, cool restaurant in the center of town that specializes in fish. 18 Via S. La Rosa, Noto; 39-0931/574-818; dinner for two $95.
Masseria degli Ulivi
Contrada Porcari, Noto; 39-0931/813-019; lunch for two $80.
Where to Sip
Visits and tastings must be booked in advance. Contrada Dispensa, Menfi; 39-0925/80009; Planeta.it.
Tours are free but reservations are required. S.P. 3 Acate, Chiaremonte Ragusa; 39-0932/876-145; Locandos.it.
What to Read
The Patience of the Spider, by Andrea Camilleri, the latest in a series set in the region and featuring the Sicilian detective, Inspector Montalbano.
What to listen to
Eva Contro Eva
The most recent CD from Catanian singer-songwriter Carmen Consoli.