A visit to Sicily after Christmas

Etna from air

The BBC online headline, sent to me by a friend on the morning of our flight meant we nearly didn’t go. Etna had erupted and there had been an earthquake.  Catania airport had closed the previous day.  After some twitter research and finding the airport was open again, we decided to risk it.

Leaving Bristol behind us, the flight was full. As we approached Catania, we looked out the window and saw a red and orange sky behind smoke billowing from an angry Etna. An incredible sight!

Our taxi dropped us off at BAD hotel (Bed and design!).  We felt unsure as the taxi left and we looked down a dark street, lit only by the opening to a dingy bar and amusement arcade.  A drunk man was shouting and telling cars where to park. We rang the buzzer and there was no answer. We started wondering if this was a good place to stay, after all.  After some searching, we found a phone number and rang Alessandro the owner who arrived ten minutes later.  Not really a hotel, more an eccentric airbnb, it was very quirkily decorated with fish wallpaper and 50s furniture.  At 45 Euros per room per night, it was pretty good value.

Sicilian fish market

The next morning Simon and I got up early to explore.  At the bottom of the street were stone arches into a bustling fish market. Properly bustling.  Full of men (hardly saw any women) buying and selling, de-boning and preparing glistening fish and seafood.  Enormous swordfish, tuna, silver sardines, squid, cockles, clams.  All sorts of creatures on ice next to mountains of oranges and lemons.  Beyond the market was the town square – from gritty fish market that could have been from a Dickens film to elegant Baroque architecture.  We stopped in a tiny bar next to the market for a cappuccino and pastry, standing alongside delivery drivers, postman and parking warden downing their morning espresso, before grabbing a ‘spremuta’ – fresh orange juice pressed on demand to take back to the boys.

Catania was a lovely surprise – a proper Italian / Sicilian city full of locals going about their business.  One street, Strada di Santa Filomena, is filled with restaurants and a good place to go for food and atmosphere.  We ate pizza here and the next night went to a small trattoria a little more off the beaten track where we ate perfectly al dente pasta – with squid ink, seafood and fresh pesto (but not all together).  Rosso d’Etna, the local red, is superb and so reasonably priced. The restaurant was full and the sole waiter rushed around tirelessly while the boss sat at the desk near the entrance taking payment and chatting to locals.

We went with a guide up Etna – an hour or so drive and then an hour’s walk.  We weren’t able to go to the top due to the recent eruption, but got close to the now hardened and blackened fresh lava.  Blue skies and warm sunshine made it all so beautiful and also, the fact there were hardly any other walkers or tourists around. Rosario took us for a speciality Sicilian snack of deep fried pizza folded in half over melted cheese, sausage, ham.  Sam ate his enthusiastically.  The rest of us ate a polite amount.

We stayed in two other towns – Syracusa and Ragusa and from these bases we visited others. Many of the towns have an older and newer part.  Syracusa’s old town is called Ortygia and is a perfect Baroque town with glorious and immaculate cathedral and square as well as seafront and gardens.  A lovely, lovely place.

Good food is plentiful.  One memorable lunch was round the corner from our hotel run by a young woman who owned the restaurant and bar nextdoor.  I ate spaghetti with tuna bottarga (grated dried tuna eggs) one of my absolutely favourites. We stayed at Villa della Giudecca in the old Jewish Quarter.  One of the best suppers we had overall was in Hotel Gutkowski  on the seafront. We enjoyed it so much, Simon insisted on going to speak to the chef who spoke no English and with Simon’s pretty much non existent Italian it was an interesting exchange. The sentiment was clear and the chef looked delighted!

Spaghetti bottarga

Ortigia is beautiful and its market is superb, along with many great delis – we stopped for a local prosciutto plate at Fratelli Burgio on our way to catch the little electric bus up to Teatro Greco – a beautiful 5th century theatre built into the Sicilian hillside.

Driving on to Ragusa, we stopped on the coast in Marzamemme.  This tiny village feels hardly lived in, but comes alive on a Sunday lunchtime – in the Winter with visiting Sicilians and in the Summer, with tourists, I’m sure. We had lunch on the square – a smart, popular eatery with slightly snooty staff.  The food was good, especially the local favourite, raw red prawns. It was seriously lovely sitting in the warm sunshine on this pretty square – definitely served to lift the spirits and charge the batteries for a British January and February.

Ragusa, like many other Sicialan Baroque towns, has a modern part ‘superiore’ in this case, and an older part , Ragusa Ibla.  There is also an old part of the new part.  We were staying in Villa Boscarino in Ragusa Superiore.  We hadn’t worked out the location before going and in hindsight may have found it better to stay in Ragusa Ibla, although getting in and out of Ragusa to visit other towns was easier from here and observing a few cars driving around the narrow streets of Ibla, it could have been a good thing we didn’t venture there with a hire car.

The hotel was in a renovated villa with its own internal chapel where we had breakfast.  This Baroque beauty is in the centre of more recently built flats, on the top of the hill, so not particularly picturesque, although they have planted lots of trees and climbers and the back garden with jacuzzi looks very attractive.  The staff here were super helpful, especially Enrico who had worked at Corn Street’s San Carlo for 6 months some years ago and so knew Bristol well.

Sea food, pasta, blood orangesThe food of SIcily

We spent New Year’s Eve in Ragusa.  Most restaurants seemed to be charging high prices for the evening and set menus.  We opted for Terrazza dell’Orologio in Ragusa Ibla.  We made the boys walk there (40 mins down hill) and back (40 minutes uphill with 350 steps).

The restaurant had all its lights on full in an empty room filled with laid up  tables.  We were on time and there was one table of a couple with their daughter who’d come early.  Nothing then happened for an hour.  The waiting staff buzzed around arranging seating plans.  The owner, and older, shorter man with a serious look came and shook our hands. I think we were given a bottle of water.  Then the others started arriving .  Our food was served nearly two hours after we had arrived.  It was all pretty amusing and we ate so much food from raw red prawns mashed into a taramasalata type paste (not entirely sure about that) , anchovies, calamares, bruschetta with a bright green paste (not entirely sure what it was), seafood risotto and lasagne, a fish grill of sword fish, calamares, fennel and orange salad.  At ten to midnight, the owner came to inform us we should follow him to the terrace.  We dutifully followed him to a terrace facing Ibla town with its little houses cut into the hillside all lit up.  The countdown started followed by our own fireworks and a glass of prosecco (after most of it was sprayed all over the terrace much to everyone’s delight).

If you’re going to Ragusa, we’d also recommend I Banchi.  It’s a deli / restaurant owned by a Michelin starred chef, Ciccio Sultano (his ‘proper’ restaurant is also in Ragusa).  The interior is imaginatively decorated with contemporary art (and no bright lights here, thankfully).  Sicilian food has been given a contemporary twist.  Some of it works beautifully, other bits less so, but we did love the experience. We took some of their pastries and pizzas back to the hotel and they got a definite thumbs up.

Noto was another hill top town that is definitely worth visiting with lots of great food places, including a lovely bar we came across after lunch where we had coffee and cake.  We wish we’d eaten there! https://www.anchegliangeli.it/site/

Modica was also lovely. It is famous for its chocolate which has a very distinctive texture.  They work the chocolate cold so that the sugar doesn’t melt, giving it a crunch.  There are many chocolate shops here and we visited a couple – one by the church above the town next door to duomo di San Giorgio, called Sabadi, which is the hip, contemporary one, with chocolates flavoured with herbs, spices, fruits and very funky packaging – worth a look on their website.

Bonaiuto is an old fashioned shop in the old town with chocolate-making kitchens behind.  You can order a freshly filled giant cannoli or hot chocolate and taste a wide range of chocolate here and I imagine it is a popular place in high season.

On our way back to Catania airport, we stopped by chance in Lentini looking for lunch.  We stumbled across Navarria, just next to the main square.  A busy little bar with tables and a huge counter full of the most mouthwatering pasta dishes, bakes, risottos and roast vegetables.  The boys got very excited indeed about the range of pastas and sauces and I got excited about the equally huge counter full of bitesized sweet things – meringues, biscuits, chocolate dipped candied fruit, mini donuts, viennese swirls.  The incredibly patient waiter took our order at the counter as we struggled to narrow down our lunch to a couple of items we could actually eat rather than the tens of items our eyes would have liked.

This place is a real gem and clearly popular with locals as many, young and old popped in, leaving with beautifully blue and white paper wrapped takeaway dishes and cakes. A lovely way to end our Sicilian visit.

We absolutely loved this part of Sicily.  Just after Christmas was a great time to go as the weather was warm (17 degrees) and the skies were a piercing blue.  There were very few tourists around which made it all the more pleasant.

The food was probably the best food we’d had in Italy – it was all consistently good.  Their seafood is superb, we loved the orange, fennel, black olive and red onion salads that accompanied many meals, the pasta was excellent , the Pachino tomatoes extra special (apparently because this part of Europe gets the most daylight) and the red wine of Etna is now a firm favourite.  Prices were very reasonable and we’d definitely like to go again soon, please!

A trip up Etna

If you’re interested in Sicilian food, Papadeli runs cookery classes – some of which cover Sicilian dishes. You can see our timetable here.