About eight months ago I went to Sicily. It had been on my list for awhile, and eventually became the first of the two S-named Italian Islands that I would visit this year (full disclosure: there are only two in total). Sicily intrigued me for many reasons – tell of its beauty had spread far and wide; how can you not love a place whose signature dessert is a fried pastry shell filled with ricotta cheese?; a fascinating and complicated history, much of which was still visible today; and, perhaps most of all, I was desperate to see the home of Nero d’Avola, that luscious grape that births the 3 euro bodega wine that fueled many a night in Rome. As it turned out, the timing was perfect. We were scheduled for a study trip in Calabria the week after our spring break. So, I posited to a few classmates, what better way to spend SPRING BREAK 2K13 than driving around a hilly, rocky, narrow-roaded Mediterranean island in a tiny manual automobile! Also, I’m not confident driving stick, so one of you all better be!
Fortunately, Maria Estela saved us all with her superior Ecuadorian driving abilities, and flights were booked and Airbnb inquiries were made. It was off to Sicily! Stop one was in Palermo, one of the main Sicilian cities, and located on the coast in the north westerly part of the island. We flew in on Pasquetta, and, while it is not always the best choice to arrive in an Italian city on a national holiday during which most food purveyors like to be closed, we managed to make do with a waterside shack grilling up fresh fish and slinging ice cold wine. The travelin’ life can be a bit rough…
The next two days were spent exploring Palermo and its environs – nausea-inducing shuttle rides up to the gorgeous, hilltop Monreale, regretfully forking over 5 euro to explore the creepy-but-not-in-a-good-fun way Capuchin crypts, breakfasting on cassata and spleen sandwiches at the famed Antica Focacceria di San Francesco, trespassing through construction zones to track down finger-licking pastries that would eventually be consumed in the sun-drenched garden outside the Duomo, and eating lots of fish.
On day 3, we packed up and hit the road, first heading west of Palermo (well, first heading west, then east, then south, then north, then eventually back west again as originally intended) to the coastal splendor of Scopello. To use a description that could really be a quite a bit more thought out, it’s like a mini-Cinque Terre. Adorable town dangling over the water, fresher than fresh seafood whose deliciousness is only compounded by the impossibly blue sky and water surrounding the diners, and, of course, a post-prandial stroll down to said water to finally soak it up literally. Just with our feet, though – despite the sun, it was a tad nippy out.
With a daytrip under our belts, we hit the autostrada again to traverse the Sicilian interior and head toward the southern coast. Our destination this time: Agrigento, home of the ripped-out-of-an-Indiana-Jones-movie Valley of the Temples. I’ll just skip over our first 14 hours in Agrigento, as they were absolutely terrible, and actually, mostly skip over the awesome (Valley of the Temples) part as well – this is a food blog. Suffice to say, it is totally awesome and worth spending a few hours at (or more, if you are so classically inclined), but dear GOD avoid the town itself at all costs. Or, at least get some good tips ahead of time, and double check your Airbnb address about 14 times.
After getting in touch with the old gods at Agrigento, we sped off along the coast toward Marina di Ragusa, a seaside town a few hours east of Agrigento. Unbeknownst to us, it is a major international sailing destination, that can be totally overrun during the summer. Fortunately, we were a few months early, so while the weather was not ideal for wave splashing (accidental or otherwise…), we did get to enjoy the clean and quiet charm of a beach town abandoned. Also, the granitas were killer. We had found ourselves a beautiful and spacious apartment, so we took advantage of the kitchen and the opportunity to save a few euro, and feasted on our balcony with a few of the sea.
The location of Marina di Ragusa also put us in a great position to make our first (actually, only) vineyard visit of the trip. The morning after arrival, we reluctantly left our beachside abode and headed inland toward Vittoria to pay a visit to Arianna Occhipinti. Her wines had first come across my radar about a year before, and, in addition to really liking them, was intrigued by the story of the young, female winemaker (maybe a few years older than me?) who was making natural wines and making waves in the wine world. As our visit was the day before the start of one of the biggest wine fairs in Italy, we were only able to speak with Arianna herself very briefly, but her operations manager Alessandro gave us a great tour of the vineyard and cantina, and a few tastes straight out of the tanks. We headed back to the coast with the trunk of Simples, our trusty steed, just a little bit heavier.
The next day it was off to Catania, but with a brief detour to Modica, city of chocolate. Unfortunately, despite nearly two and a half years of Italian day trips under my belt at that point, we neglected to consider the timing of our detour, and how it was going to coincide exactly with the afternoon pausa. Alas, we strolled and climbed the streets of this vertical city, found an open shop to sample a few bites, and then hit the road to northeast to Catania.
That night, on a tip from our Airbnb host, we headed toward the fish markets of Catania in search of a restaurant whose name currently escapes me. The walk may have not been the most aromatically pleasant, but oh, was it worth it. A plate of crudo that tasted as if it had been fished the minute we ordered it. Perfectly fried sardines – fried in that way that transforms the flavor, and takes it from the simple, yet delicious fishiness it starts with, and turns it into a fully-fledged ambassador of umami. Spaghetti con nero di seppia. And, of course, in the land of Norma herself, pasta alla norma.
The following day saw a rain-spattered trip up the coast toward Taormina – an ancient city with a theater perched on the cliffs. The sunshine brought us back down to Catania, and we picked up arancini (deep fried ragu-stuffed balls of saffron rice) and Sicilian pastries for our last-night aperitivo. Then it was off to an early bed, as we were up again by 1am to catch a 2:30 train. Interestingly enough, at that hour there are not enough passengers to warrant a full train, so instead they send a party bus as replacement. The driver must get paid by efficiency, because he tore up those dark, windy, cliffside roads at about 200 miles per hour. It was a dark time in my life, both literally and figuratively, but we made it to Messina in one piece, in time to get a stomach-settling cappucino, catch the ferry to Calabria, take a train up to Lamezia, and meet up with the rest of our class, freshly arrived from Torino.
Come back next time for: Calabria, the Stage of the Absurd.