The Italian island of Sicily sits lonesome below the country’s boot-shaped tip and, while mainland influences are present, life here is distinctly Sicilian.
Locals on the island share a passion for the uniqueness of the region; its beautiful, wild terrain is never far from view and Mount Etna looms large on the east of the island sculpting much of the landscape.
Etna is the beating heart of Sicily, affecting the climate, the environment and most importantly for foodies – the produce.
Beyond the tourist attractions lay beautiful villages all ripe for discovering. Here are just a few of my favourite places on the island.
Café Sicilia, Noto
We couldn’t resist a day trip to visit celebrated bakery Café Sicilia to sample that famous almond granita with brioche buns as well as the plethora of the artfully crafted confectionery the café is known for. If you’ve not watched the episode on netflix’s Chefs Table series, I’d highly recommend you watch prior to visiting. The town of Noto alone is worth a day trip just to admire the impressive baroque architecture.
Benanti Winery, Viagrande
Benanti Winery is an absolute must for anyone who appreciates wine with a little geography lesson thrown in for good measure. The richly celebrated vineyards are positioned across numerous regions of Etna, reaping the benefits of the mineral rich terrain that dominate so much of this winery’s key characteristics. Here we sampled the wines in a sumptuously decorated dining room alongside antipasti. The perfect afternoon treat for those passionate about wine.
Al Duomo, Taormina
Arguably the best spot to dine in Taormina. Here, the restaurant sits perched over the main square and we dined on its incredible four-course lunch menu. Impressive sharing platters of raw seafood grace the table; a plethora of tuna, langoustines and oysters all remind us of our proximity to the ocean. Pasta comes in plentiful portions, freshly rolled that morning. It’s the perfect spot to experience all the island has to offer.
Osteria Frammento, Acireale
For those that enjoy a more modern approach to traditional cuisine. The food here is beautifully presented, refined, richly indulgent and locally sourced. The octopus on a bed of chickpea puree was a highlight and this was a great find in this small town. Be sure to book ahead.
While any trip to Sicily should centre around the island’s cuisine where influences from Spanish, Greek and North African settlers to the island can clearly be spotted, a tour to take in the historic landmarks is a must. With architecture as steeped in history as the food on offer, the island boasts impressively preserved sites throughout with the amphitheatre in Taormina especially worth a visit.
Otherwise, check out the Catania Food Market (Monday to Saturday, 7:30am to 12pm), which was the highlight of my trip. Here, the Catania fish market proudly displays the morning haul and is worth a visit alone. Not to be missed are the endless streets running from it which house local fruit, vegetables and cheeses. Ricotta in its many forms is sold at almost every turn as is the famous Minne di Sant’Agata (Sicilian ricotta and chocolate pastries) – a must try.
Whether or not you have plans to cook while staying in Sicily, a visit to the market offers a sense of the vibrancy of the city. The wealth of produce on display from the island is eye popping and this was a morning well spent.
While there, try to also book in a villa cookery class and market tour. The tour began by first heading out to explore the street markets of Catania, where our chef takes us around her favourite vendors. We not only gather produce for the cookery class but can’t resist loading up for the rest of our stay. Produce is wild, overgrown, ripe and heavily scented. On our return we cook up several dishes all local to the area, including homemade cavatelli. As we cook up course after course, we build a feast that we finally sit down and scoff. All totally delicious, unique to the region and richly flavoured.
Villa Linera, Santa Venerina
Previously an Etnean winery, the lavish Villa Linera now sleeps 10 within the sprawling property. Landscaped gardens sumptuously surround the villa and host a pool, outdoor kitchen, and numerous picturesque al fresco table settings each with an uninterrupted view of Mount Etna. We spent a week here and relished the days spent lounging by the pool and feasting on local produce. The Thinking Traveller can also assist in organising any activities or tours during your stay whilst cookery classes and an in-house chef made for the perfect indulgence while at the villa.
Villa Linera rates start from £4,298 to £11,679 per week, thethinkingtraveller.com
Donna Carmela, Contrada Grotte
A modernised guesthouse with sensitively crafted private lodges that come fully equipped with your very own hot tub, outside decking and plenty of calm space to unwind among lush greenery. The lodges were impressive, spacious and artfully minimalist in design. Think poured concrete throughout and floor to ceiling windows letting in vast amounts of daylight. The restaurant is bustling and serves up incredible local fare which is proudly served by staff as passionate about the cuisine as the chef himself. Dining here is a must with both à la carte and tasting menus available.
Rooms from €100 per night, donnacarmela.com
How to get there
Sicily has two international airports. Fly into either Catania, situated on the central eastern coast, south of Mount Etna or Palermo, situated on the north west coast.