On the sun-baked Italian island of Pantelleria, Christopher Petkanas discovers one of the Mediterranean's last great unspoiled destinations—and succumbs to its seductive rhythms

Anders Overgaard

If you like having your cultural compass skewed, you'll love Pantelleria. The map says Italy, but everything about the island spells North Africa. Villages have names like Bukkuram, Bugeber, and Gadir. Dwarfed by palm trees and built of rough volcanic stone, clusters of one-story cubic dwellings with humped roofs erupt from the prickly black-brown landscape like oases. The port's architecturally challenged concrete apartment blocks and souk-like alleyways lend it the louche, scrappy allure of Tangier. The heat is the heat of the desert, with sun so strong that only crazies leave the cool of a shop awning to cross the street without first picking out a patch of shade on the other side. Citrus trees are grown in circular, high-walled giardini arabi that protect them from the wind. Locals count the days until restaurants serve the weekly special—fish couscous.

I first visited Pantelleria, which is marooned in the strait between Sicily and Tunisia and has a mere 32-mile perimeter, in 1984, when I went to do a story on the house of its most famous (part-time) resident, Giorgio Armani. This may sound ungrateful, but I have been angry with Mr. Armani ever since. He insisted I stay at his compound, causing me to only half-discover the island. Now, I know that a lot of people would sell their mother to be spoiled the way one of the world's richest fashion designers spoils houseguests such as Jodie Foster, but you cannot drape yourself on a chaise longue all day while a housekeeper irons your pool towels and expect to get the feel of a place. Also, I didn't have a car. I was a prisoner, Mr. Armani my warden.

Eighteen years is a long time to nurse a hunger. I don't recommend it. Having had a small bite of Pantelleria, I was primed to return for the banquet version. Unlike in the mid eighties, however, when even the most well-traveled people I knew looked politely dazed when I mentioned the island, on my second trip I would have to share it. For in the interval Pantelleria had acquired buzz. Sting had been and loved it. A little lady called Madonna dropped in with her family—and her yogi—for a summer holiday. Gérard Depardieu and fashion photographer Fabrizio Ferri bought property. Wolfgang Puck was filmed at the caper cooperative for a segment on the Food Network. Manhattan grocer Eli Zabar, who owns a house near mine in Provence and has his own plane, taunted me by saying he flies to Pantelleria from Avignon—for lunch. And I'd learned from Florentine beauty Sciascia Gambaccini, a fashion editor at Jane and Glamour magazines who has the most sensational house on Pantelleria, that the island finally has a couple of hotels a person would actually want to stay in.

One thing that hasn't changed is how difficult it can be to get there. A seven-hour overnight ferry from Sicily would have been below my comfort level, so I elected to fly from Palermo. But just as Gambaccini had predicted, the local carrier didn't just cancel my flight—it erased the route altogether. Stranded and gently fuming, I took a train across the island to Trapani. Rage gave way to exhilaration as beautifully framed pictures of the cerulean coast, craggy backcountry, and Sicily's famed elevated highway system clicked by like a slide show. In Trapani the only thing that stood between me and Pantelleria was a puddle-jumper. Touching down on a grilling afternoon in June with a friend whom I had been promising (and promising and promising) to bring to the island, I felt as if I'd earned a reception committee.

Since my goal this time was to experience Pantelleria the way islanders themselves do, I rented the local car of choice, a standard-issue seafoam-green Fiat Panda in the comical shape of a shoebox. Cushiness is not one of the vehicle's virtues, but the Panda was good at navigating the island's chilling switchbacks and the sheer, stony path leading to the dammuso (as traditional Pantescan houses are known) that we'd rented. Because it is the property of the same grand family that owns the Regaleali vineyards in Sicily, where I have visited them, it never occurredto me that the house wouldn't be perfect.

The views were. The cane-shaded terrace overlooked the coast, where centuries ago streams of lava formed black fingers pointing into the sea. Inside, however, we found thin beds (insanely arranged so they faced away from the water—we instantly swung them around), a shower that flooded the bathroom, and a woefully underequipped kitchen. But then, what else is new?Does anyone ever totally fall in love with his vacation rental?Although there are spectacular houses to let on Pantelleria, such as Gambaccini's, ours was like every villa I've ever had (and paid lots more money for) in the Aegean. And sucking it up wasn't all that painful, knowing that later in the week we'd be test-driving themost luxurious hotel on the island.

While every Pantescan has his own ideas about how first-timers should get to know the island ("climb the Montagna Grande," "have a bag of fig-filled mustazzoli cookies"), a drive on the ring road is a good, sweeping introduction. Circling Pantelleria at a relaxed pace took two hours and made me completely sick. You could roll the credits of a film about the early days of our planet over a shot taken on the steep southeast coast, but for sufferers of vertigo, I don't suggest lingering. From a gentler perch above casa Armani, known to any traveler worth the Hello! magazine in his beach bag, we spied the mature palms, reportedly stripped from a boulevard in Palermo, that are an endless source of island gossip and envy. (These days the designer is locked in a palm-tree war with Ferri: if one buys 200, the other buys 400.)

A couple of miles along, past terraced fields where hunched, motionless figures picked capers one by one, we cooled off with a half-crate of white peaches purchased on the side of the road from the back of a three-wheeled truck. If we had wanted a just-caught 50-pound swordfish, we could have had that, too. Arco dell'Elefante is a natural rock formation that looks like an elephant taking a big swig of the Mediterranean; enacting a Pantescan rite of passage, we went for a magical swim under its arcing trunk. And at the Lake of Venus's Mirror we dutifully stopped to remember Madonna, who—barefoot, pregnant, and caked in therapeutic mud—was viciously nailed by the paparazzi there three years ago.

The island has barely a stoplight, as we discovered, and no FedEx trucks hogging its wild fennel-fringed lanes. Despite celebs on heavy MTV rotation, Pantelleria has maintained the elemental aura of a last frontier, of an antique civilization shaped by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Normans, Genovese, Spanish, and Bourbons. Of the island's many occupiers, none left a more lasting trace than the Arabs, who launched their conquest in the eighth century, planted the first grapevines and olive trees, and stayed on for 200 years to tend them.

Continuing an ancient tradition of insularism, Pantelleria cultivates tentative relations with the outside world. Places offering Internet connections come and go, but mostly they go. In a café one afternoon we were entertained by a booker from a Milan modeling agency in bug shades who staged a public meltdown over not being able to pick up her e-mail. Two gas stations service the entire island, and many shops and restaurants don't take credit cards. At U Trattu—a populist trattoria with its own boccie court, the best mulberry cremolata, and waiters as round as Botero sculptures—we found that knowing Italian is sometimes not enough: locals speak a dialect that defeats even mainland Italians. A woman I became friendly with told me to write to her care of the garage where she gets her car fixed in the port town of Pantelleria, because she was more sure of receiving her mail there than at her rural dammuso.

With the countryside so easy to love, we never expected Pantelleria town to put up such a fight. Our first sortie was daunting, with each of us doing his best to pretend that he loved what he was seeing. As we approached the center, bombed-out bits of beachfront gave way to abandoned lots vibrating with gorgeous weeds. Stray dogs roamed the quays before a brooding Norman fort, one of the few buildings left standing after the Allies bombarded the town in World War II. Grocery shops were poky, dimly lit, and so overstocked that we had to turn sideways to get past the towers of bottled water. The terraces of the cafés seemedÉwellÉkind of tacky. We had chosen the verity of Pantelleria over the spit and polish of a place like Capri, deriding the latter as Italy Lite. But suddenly Capri was looking pretty good.

Awful is a word you hear a lot in connection with the port, but it took a couple of visits to understand that the term is meant with affection. For while it is fashionable to run the place down, posh people love it because they get to practice the nearly extinct social sport of slumming. Recognizing her from the party pages of Vogue Italia, I saw Silvana Meneghini, a well-born Sicilian decorator who lives and works in Pantelleria, Palermo, and London, happily queuing for the house specialty, "la bomba," a split brioche filled with an improbable quantity of gelato. Gambaccini is a regular at Panificio Carmelo Giuffrida, where the pizza con patate, scattered with rosemary needles, starts exiting the wood-burning oven at 7:30 a.m. Waiters at Caffè Aurora boasted that their bar was Armani's favorite for aperitivi.

It was amazing how our own relationship with the town evolved. Having started out slightly terrified, we became so drawn to the port's small and lazy life, to its glamorous lack of glamour, that one dose a day wasn't enough. We became unconditional fans of the raffish bar El Tikirriki, where flutes of Prosecco come with heaping bowls of roasted almonds, green olives as fat as lady apples, and a spicy, garlicky, oily tomato pulp, to be scooped up with stale shards of good semolina bread. My booty at a ceramics shop was a chic cachepot in the form of an earringed and turbaned blackamoor's head. At La Risacca, a proto-Pantescan restaurant with wide-angle views of the water, we had systematically ordered the ubiquitous island specialty, mint-and-ricotta-stuffed ravioli bathed in sage butter. One day a courtly pharmacist sold us a few of his own harvest of sponges. At the housewares store, somebody's sweet nonna guided my selection of a wicker cheese platter and dome. Accustomed to the Caribbean, we couldn't believe how nice everyone was. The antagonistic them-versus-us vibe you often feel on islands was absent.

In no time we settled into the sexy do-nothing routine Pantelleria is prized for. Not that there is much choice. After you've visited the Byzantine tombs, taken a sauna in a thermal cave, and scoped out the port, you've pretty much "done" it. The rhythm of our days was dictated by the sun. No matter how early we got up, it was never early enough to beat the heat, which made the "voluptuous torpor" of Sicily in Lampedusa's Leopard seem like a tropical breeze. After a quick coffee made in a dangerously cruddy aluminum pot and a meditative moment studying the wave patterns, we would drive into town for more coffee and cornetti, and to do the marketing for lunch.

Typically, lunch at the dammuso was a bowl of penne sauced with tomatoes, anchovies, garlic, black and green olives, parsley, peperoncini, and capers, quickly assembled after consulting U Pantiscu 'n Tavola, a tiny ingenuous cookbook of island dishes. This was followed by a few of the darling little ricotta cakes that are a Pantescan hallmark and that the pasticceria Da Giovanni does better than anyone. As with pasta, any untried shape is an excuse to invent a new cake.

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.

Once a week, Alitalia (www.alitalia.com) flies to Pantelleria from Rome (April to October) and from Milan, Venice, and Bologna (June to October). Air One (39-06/4888-0066; www.flyairone.it/en) flies daily from Rome (July to October) and Milan (June to October). In Trapani, Sicily, you can take the daily seven-hour car ferry or 2 1/2-hour hydrofoil. For more information, contact the Pantelleria Tourist Office (39-0923/911-838; www.pantelleria.it).

Monastero Dammusi from $2,850 per week. Contrada Kassà, Scauri Alta; 39-02/581-861; www.monasteropantelleria.com

Santa Teresa Doubles from $130. Contrada Monastero Alto, Scauri Siculo; 39-0923/916-389; www.santateresa.it

Buckland & Abeti This company rents the best, most stylish dammusi on the island. Sciascia Gambaccini's spectacular compound, for example, sleeps up to 12 people in four guesthouses. Houses from $1,535 per week; 39-055/284-828

U Trattu Dinner for two $40. 2 Via Gabriele, Rekhale; 39-0923/918-356

La Risacca Dinner for two $55. 65 Via Milano, Pantelleria Town; 39-0923/912-975

La Nicchia Dinner for two $75. Contrada Scauri Basso, Scauri; 39-0923/916-342

La Conchiglia Lunch for two $60. Contrada da Khamma Conitro; 39-0923/915-333

La Vela Lunch for two $55. Scauri Scalo, Scauri; 39-0923/916-566

Ristorante Castiglione Franco Dinner for two $45. 24 Via Napoli, Pantelleria Town; 39-0923/911-448

La Pergola The first choice of locals for swordfish involtini and spaghetti with sea urchin. Dinner for two $55. Contrada Suvaki; 39-0923/918-420

Il Goloso 39 Via Borgo Italia, Pantelleria Town

Caffè Aurora 36 Via Borgo Italia, Pantelleria Town

El Tikirriki 2-3 Via Borgo Italia, Pantelleria Town

Panificio Carmelo Giuffrida Excellent pizza. 21 Via Borgo Italia, Pantelleria Town

Da Giovanni The island's best pastries. Piazza Cavour, Pantelleria Town

Cooperativa Agricola Produttori Capperi The source for Pantelleria's famed capers. 11 Via del Cappero, Scauri Basso; 39-0923/916-079

Lillo Antonioni A producer of passito, the Pantescan sweet wine. Contrada Bugeber, Bugeber; 39-0923/914-025

Enopolio di Pantelleria The place to stock up on all types of local wine. Via Balate, Contrada da Arenella; 39-0923/912-556

La Nicchia Pantescan olive oil and oregano, transportable sauces, preserved eggplant and zucchini, marmalades, jellies, and more from the people behind the restaurant. 24 Via Messina, Pantelleria Town; 39-0923/912-968

Panificio Carmelo Giuffrida

La Vela

La Risacca

La Pergola, Pantelleria

La Nicchia

La Conchiglia

Ristorante Castiglione Franco

U Trattu

Santa Teresa