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Travel Guide: Sicily

The Sicilian sun is very hot. Or, perhaps it is the combination of the sun and the dry winds that blow in from Africa. Sicily is located at the tip of Italy’s ‘boot’ and parts of it are actually geographically closer to Tunisia than Rome. I knew this before I went there, but only when I dug into a plate of cuscus al pesce, fish couscous, and drove around the island of Pantelleria, with its Arabic gardens, did it really hit home.

Sicily is a delight to the senses from every possible angle. Over its long history, it has been home to great Greek and Roman empires, as well as an African trade route. Signs of this history is scattered throughout the island in the form of magnificent ruins, as well as in the spices and grains that still play a predominant role in Sicilians’ diets. Over the two weeks that we spent there, driving from city to Baroque town, on occasional dirt roads, and straight to the southernmost tip where the sea met the land in a dramatic, almost end of the world feel, I experienced a place unlike any other I’d been to before.

There was a lot of seafood to be eaten. Polpo, or octopus salad, grilled calamari, chilled mussels, busiate with shrimp and pistachios, almond gelato, hazelnut granita, couscous, and marinated sardines were all consumed. I was charmed to find that virtually every city we stopped in had its own form of pasta, or some sort of truly local ingredient. In Trapani, it was busiate (corkscrew) pasta with Trapanese pesto, one of our favorites. A sweet treat in the form of gelato or granita was on our daily agenda (sometimes twice!). And, after reading this Saveur article about the pasticcerias in Sicily, I knew we had to sample Maria Grammatico’s and Caffe Sicilia’s goods. Despite the variety, my favorite Sicilian pastry remains the cannolo, a crispy fried dough filled with a pillowy ricotta mixture, dotted with chocolate chips.

In Modica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we sampled the town’s famous chocolates, made there since the 1800s. The nibby, crumbly texture of each bar is unique to this town’s historic recipe, which doesn’t incorporate milk but rather focuses on the bean itself. In Noto, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, we enjoyed our granitas the traditional way, with a side of brioche which is dipped into the icy, cold dessert. The brioche from Caffe Sicilia was perhaps more memorable than the granita sampler itself. We had our first, and favorite, gelato of the trip at Massaro 2 in Palermo. One cone, one brioche and two scoops of pistachio. In Sicily, virtually everything is made with or topped with pistachio nuts and who were we to complain?

Caponata, the Sicilian dish I knew best prior to this trip, wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before. Every restaurant had a different approach to one of my favorite vegetables, the eggplant. Some caponatas were more chunky, some more sweet, some with a more pronounced taste of olives. In each instance, I finished every last bite. On days when we just couldn’t bear to eat another huge meal in the hot afternoon sun (or simply arrived at our new destination just in time for siesta) we sampled paninis from the local grocery stores and delis. Each one was made fresh: the tomatoes were sliced before us, the buffalo mozzarella was taken out of its watery bath, and everything was generously sprinkled with dried Sicilian oregano.

Each meal, whether fancy or casual, offered something memorable. In Marsala, where we ate while being engrossed in the Eurocup Final (which, sadly, Italy lost), we proclaimed to have had the best pizza. With a blistery crust that was thin as paper, the pizza we had at Divino Rosso is one I’ll be dreaming of for years to come.

But, beyond the food, there is much to be said about the culture, nature, and people of Sicily. From the man at the market who shooed us away when we tried to pay for a bag of tomatoes to the absolutely stunning nature reserve at Zingaro, the places and ways of this island are something truly special. Thanks to Matt’s foresight, we brought our GPS to help us navigate and, despite a few minor snafus, it truly helped us circumvent the island and reach some amazing places. I mention the Zingaro nature reserve as it, along with a tuna fishery in nearby Scopello, were hands down our favorite places to swim and relax. With little hikes that take you down to the water’s edge, white pebbled shores, and the clearest and calmest turquoise water, it was hard to motivate to go anywhere else.

Among the larger cities we visited, we agreed that Trapani had the best and most unique food, Siracusa the most charm, and Palermo the most big city umph. Taormina, crowded and touristy as it was, was a magical place with many gorgeous sites (including a can’t-miss botanical garden and the best stop for the creamiest granitas). The Baroque towns of Noto, Ragusa and Modica were small enough to conquer in one day but left an impression that lasts much longer. The best way to enjoy them? To just linger. Erice, a hilltop, walled town that sits high above Trapani, was another location that simply took my breath away and brought me back to my days in Siena.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip for us was being able to experience the local culture, which very much revolves around the land and the sea. In many of the towns and cities we stopped in, we tried to make a point of exploring the local market. The seafood selection, the fishermen hawking their wares, and the interaction between sellers and the local community were all a site to behold. We purchased some tiny local fragole (strawberries), grapes, figs, tomatoes, and nuts. We wished we had an opportunity to try cooking some of that glorious seafood at home!

We returned with a large supply of chocolate, local honeys, salt-packed capers from Pantelleria (an island off the coast that we visited for a friend’s wedding), caper spread, Passito desert wine (a local specialty of Pantelleria), and a bottle of wine from Mount Etna. I assure you we will be working our way through our tasty treats very, very slowly. Below, I’ve included some recommendations for some of the tastiest places we ate, our favorite places where we stayed, and some must-try foods. In the coming months, I’m sure you’ll be seeing recipes inspired by our time there.

Places to eat:
For the most incredible combination of brioche and granita: Caffe Sicilia (Noto)
For amazing busiate with shrimp and pistachios: Al Vicoletto (Trapani)
For an upscale meal: Serisso47 (Trapani)
For the best gelato: Massaro 2 (Palermo), Costanzo (Noto), Gelati DiVini (Ragusa)
For great couscous with seafood: Cantina Siciliana (Trapani)
For great pizza: Divino Rosso (Marsala), Vecchia Taormina (Taormina)
For great busiate al pesto Trapanese: La Bettolaccia (Trapani)
For an atmospheric dining experience in a quiet square: Taberna Sveva (Siracusa)
For the best granita we had: Bam Bar (Taormina)
For a local dining experience: Zammu (Palermo)

Other recommended delicacies include: pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines, fennel and raisins), arancini (fried rice balls), panelle (fried chickpea fritters), chilled seafood salad (any mix of seafood)

Places to stay:
For a great modern room, and delicious complementary breakfast: L’Approdo delle Sirene (Siracusa)
For amazing views and a fantastic host: Villa Sara (Taormina)
For feeling like a local, and a great host (albeit, with a lot of stairs): Casa Zatlo’ (Palermo)
For a splurge, great buffet breakfast in the garden and charm: Hotel Carmine (Marsala)

A few additional links and recommendations:

Delicious Days’ recap of their trip to Sicily
Saveur’s Guide to Sicily
Stephanie Hua’s recommendations for must-eat foods in Sicily

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Posted by Kasey

Kasey is the food editor and co-founder of Turntable Kitchen. She loves dark chocolate, warm crusty bread, and traveling to new places. She speaks Russian, but does not like vodka.

  • Nicole @Eat This Poem

    Gorgeous photos! Sounds like you had an incredible trip.

  • Kathryn

    It looks just magical, what stunning images. It makes me want to jump on a plane this minute and head there!

  • WithStyleGrace

    now I want to go to Sicily, sounds like such an amazing trip! love that you put together this guide – hope someday I can refer to it 🙂

  • Stephanie Hua

    And…i officially have a case of wanderlust again. gorgeous post, kasey!

  • Nicole

    What a magical place! And wow, the food. I recently had carpaccio polpo at a new, excellent Italian place nearby and I’m sure the polpo you had was memorable. Granita with brioche sounds amazing!!!

  • tracy

    I have some serious vacation envy!!!

  • Kasey

    It was a pretty great trip, but it’ll be a while before the next one, so I’ll be living vicariously through other people 🙂

  • Kasey

    It was amazing! And although all the pastas might be hard for someone who is GF, the amount of seafood (and incredible gelato + granitas) make it totally doable!

  • Kasey

    Ohh carpaccio made of polpo sounds amazing! There’s a great place in SF (lolo) that does a thinly sliced octopus – you would love it! Next time you visit, we should go 😉

  • Kasey

    Thanks, Stephanie! I’m indebted to you for the fantastic recommendations! I referred to them often.

  • Kasey

    Thanks, Kathryn! It’s nice to know that my post conveyed what a lovely place it is. I would highly recommend it!

  • Kasey

    Thank you so much, Nicole! It was quite memorable indeed. 🙂

  • Kimberley H.

    I cannot wait to spend a month eating my way through that country. Looks like it was fantastic!

  • Kasey

    When are you spending a month in Sicily?? You will LOVE it.

  • sarah kieffer

    Oh, my heart. This looks like such an amazing trip. Hopefully one day we will get there!

  • sara forte

    love the pics! so thoughtful of you to put together suggestions, I know that takes some effort. I’m positive it’ll be so helpful to people heading there.

  • Kasey

    Thank you, friend! This post was definitely a monster, but it’s always nice to share the knowledge you gain with other people. xo

  • Kasey

    It truly was, Sarah. I hope you make it there someday, too. xo

  • Kelly

    Kasey, how did you fly there? To Palermo or…?

  • Kasey

    Hi Kelly! We actually flew direct to London via Virgin Atlantic and then hopped on an EasyJet flight to Palermo. You can also flight to Catania, and lots of airlines offer flights (with connections) to either of those to airports. Hope that helps!

  • Aida Mollenkamp

    Oh, thanks for this roundup, Kasey. It makes me feel as if I was traveling right there alongside you. I’ve never been to Sicily but this post just gave me an overwhelming desire to go there immediately.

  • eric slatkin

    Great write up – definitely makes me want to go … I’d be all over those panini’s!

  • Kasey

    Thanks so much, Eric!

  • K

    Wow! Your photos are gorgeous and everything looks delicious! Sounds like a perfect trip. I was so excited to see this as we are heading to Sicily in September! Now I am even more excited. Do you have any tips on where to eat in Modica? Or is it the kind of place we can just wander and find somewhere? I wish we could make it to Trapani–instead we’re spending a few days in the Aeolian Islands, which also seem amazing. I can’t wait!

  • Kasey

    Hi K, Thank you! You’ll have a blast! We actually didn’t spend a ton of time in Modica, but we relied heavily on our guidebooks, as well as TripAdvisor for on-the-spot recommendations. I wish we had more time to spend there – we would have definitely checked out the Aeolian Islands. Have a great time!

  • Nina Henz

    Hi Lisa, hi Kasey, I have been to Sicily and they had GF pasta in every restaurant I went to which made me love Sicily even more, it was amazing and every time I told them I could only have GF food, they brought me GF crackers/bread, said they would make my pasta sauce on the side, etc. Definitely a paradise for a GF 🙂

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