Italy

Our Ragusa Day with Alessandro (Uncovered Sicily)

img_9423Yes, still not done yet.  I have one last day to tell you about before I dwell into our favorite bites in Sicily.  While the entire day with Alessandro was a memorable one, our last stop at the winery was a particular highlight.  Alessandro is the proprietor of Uncovered Sicily, essentially in the business of selling cultural experiences of all kinds.  From archaeological walks with an archaeologist, Museum walks with curators, to Arancini cooking classes with Arancinialogists!  Alessandro lives in Ragusa, and not only extremely knowledgeable, but quite passionate about the area and its terrain.  We spent the day with him, visiting three places the area is known for most (cheese, olive oil, wine) and even had some time to explore the old town of Ragusa Ibla with him

Iabichino – Our first stop was an eye opener.  An old 4th generation dairy farm in a beautiful area.  Three generations on premises, along with 80 cows and one very lucky bull.  You can see the smirk!  Although we’ve been to such farms in Italy before, it was particularly interesting to learn about this farmer’s routine, way of life, and whats in store for the kids living in the farm.  Hearing about milking the 80 cows twice a day alone made me look for the nearest bench.  Its a hard life that makes you appreciate what you eat.  We sampled earthy fresh ricotta they made especially for us, and other traditional Ragusano cheese.  This is something you cant do on your own, unless you speak Italian and know the family and area well

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Cheese Master hard at work

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Cutrera – One of the two olive oil legends we visited in Sicily.  The other one is Mandranova which we visited on our own a few days later.  You realize the status of the two when you visit Eataly NYC (both of them).  While there are all kinds of great oils from all over Italy, the two have their own dedicated sections.  We learned about the techniques and hard work that sets them apart, and had some fun with the proprietors.  We learned how to sample award winning EVOO properly (apparently just tasting it is all wrong), followed by a simple lunch of.. you guessed it… olives and olive based spreads and salads.  Olives is one of the only foods I’m not particularly fond of, but I was fond of this.

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Feudo di Santa Tresa winery – I couldnt do the first one by myself, and I needed a designated driver for the third.  This appointment alone makes this excursion worthwhile.  We were joined by Laura and the winery’s CEO for a property tour and tasting, and boy what tasting it was.  Its a beautiful estate in the middle of a rugged area.  In the cellars, you practically smell the product and history.  We tasted around 7 wines, some of which were quite unique to us.  I particularly liked the Rina Ianca white (Grillo + Viognier combo), while Mrs Z was smitten by the Frappato, a red served slightly chilled and can be used for fish.  All served with a beautiful lunch spread.  But by the end of it all, it was just us having a fun filled lunch with new friends, and a designated driver.  Thanks Alessandro!

http://www.uncoveredsicily.com/

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Ristorante Sirena di Sansica in Bonagia – Meal of the Year

sirena-di-sansica-red-shrimpTo understand the notion I’ve been “preaching” here that Sicily is mainland Italy 30 years ago (I went from 20 to 30 after being corrected by actual Italians living in NYC) one must simply go to Tonnara di Bonagia on the western tip of the island where once tuna hunted and butchered in ways that are only talked about these days.  And to fully appreciate a meal at the sensational Sirena di Sansica, a 20 minute drive from Trapani, one must arrive earlier, right before sunset.  The rugged coastline leading to the rock of San Vito Lo Capo is mesmerizing.  Even with a wedding party patiently waiting their turn, you hesitate to give up the spot.  Compared to much of mainland, the area is underdeveloped and you selfishly wish that it stays like this forever.  Ancient boats lining up next to the Tonnara, overlooking the colorful port around the Albergo Tonnara Di Bonagia Resort.  A magical moment to say the least.  All to the magical sounds of… Reggaeton!!!

sirena-di-sansica-wineOne of the most bizarre things we’ve ever seen on vacation.  The worlds smallest, oddest and loudest, three participant Zumba class was right by the port.  I mean, I like to listen to music loud, but this was LOUD.  I guess such things are normal here.  We danced, the wedding party danced, the seagulls danced, everybody danced.  The volume isnt deafening due to the open space, but its at the point where your booty, shoulders and other parts start to move involuntary, while you wonder what the hell is going on here.  How does one nap in this sleepy looking corner of the world

Even after recent renovations to modernize the place, Sirena di Sansica is old school.  Outside it looks like an old movie theater or a disco, while inside its like a dim sum palace meets old Brooklyn trattoria.  “Modernizing” in Sicily is like going from the 60’s to 80’s.  The restaurant is facing the water, and the sunsets here speak more volume than the Zumba.  Ok maybe not.  But its really the type of place you immediately feel at home.  Especially when the kids start making fun of their mom’s facial expressions after she had a little too much Grillo.  Sursur from Donnafugata, the smoothest, most balanced Grillo of a Grillo filled trip.sirena-di-sansica-busiate-expo

But it’s all about the food and the fresh seafood due to the special relationship they have with the local fisherman including their own boats.  You first get introduced to the lovely catch of the day and you sort of build your order based on that (along with other menu classics). This was a little more expensive ($140) than other meals but considering what we chose and ate, possibly the steal of the trip.  Fantastically fresh mussels which my oldest guessed properly from Messina.  She was probably thinking about clams but I gave her the credit anyway.  Busiate with lobster was outstanding, but another Busiate, “Expo” stole the show… eggplant, pistachio, swordfish, breadcrumbs, and more.  Rich but oh so nicely balanced and delicious. It’s called “Expo” because they made it for the Milan Expo as part of a food competition. Perhaps the best pasta of the trip.

Couscous with broth without the fish or any seafood was actually better than the other couscous we’ve had in Sicily with the fish. You can buy and add fresh fish but we saved that for the secondi.  I picked 6 lovely Gambero Rossos from the ‘Bunny Ranch’ like lineup and these were the fattest and sweetest red shrimp of the entire trip.  After realizing I prefer them slightly cooked than raw, we asked them to be grilled.  Raw they can be a little limp.  And a red scorpion fish they call cipolla (onion) made traditionally soup like, sautéed with a nice tomato based broth, specatucarly tasty dish (plate shown is one of the halfs).  One of those meals.sirena-di-sansica-cipolla sirena-di-sansica-shrimp sirena-di-sansica-busiate-lobster sirena-di-sansica img_0614 img_0615 img_0617 img_0627 img_0633

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Scala dei Turchi and Valley of the Temples

img_9979Reason #42 why you need two weeks in Sicily.  The stupendous whiter than white Turkish steps, and the magnificent Valley of the Temples are 20 minutes apart near the ancient (but not so any more) city of Agrigento.  Do it in style, with fresh seafood lunch at Salmoriglio in Porto Empedocle, right between the two attractions.  Probably one of the most memorable single days I’ve had in any trip.  Staying in the surreal Ciuci’s Manor surly helped.  The way to see the temples, especially on a hot summer day, is to park at the bottom of the valley, take a taxi to the top (3 euros), and walk down.  At Scala dei Turchi you park in the parking lot off the road, and go down to the beach.  Takes about 20 minutes to reach the steps.  Bring plenty of water to both

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This is Modicarte

img_9276“These are caper bushes. Lizards poop the caper seeds inside the stones, and a year later we have capers” exclaimed Maurizio while we toured his property in the cooler hills just outside Modica.  The previous day he showed us his pepper garden where he grows some nasty stuff including Jalapeño, Ghost, Carolina Ripper, and Habaneros.  The garden overlooks the beautiful country side, sitting in front of Maurzio’s sister pottery studio, where seasonal students stay for a week to learn the craft.  Add olive trees, tomatoes and a whole lot more to his backyard arsenal.  For a New Yorker like me, the entire scene and three day stay is surreal.

img_9274An hour prior I was smashing those lizard dropping capers and mixing it with parsley, garlic and bread crumbs.  Then we dipped thin slices of pork loin into that and rolled them around Ragusa cheese sticks, cigar style.  That was our meat course.  Under Maurizio and his adorable mom’s (who laughed at all my jokes even though she didnt understand a word) supervision we cooked all sorts of traditional area specialties.  We baked bread.  We made eggplant ravioli (who knew it was a thing) served with fresh tomato sauce. We baked Focaccia Tomasini rolls, a local traditional snack filled with ricotta, onions, and fresh sausage.  Everything obviously delicious when YOU make it, especially those amazing Tomasini rolls pictured here twice.  Most of the stuff I havent even heard of before that day.  There’s not a whole lot in common between NYC Sicilian and Sicilian Sicilian turns out.

By the end of the night I was counting my blessings that we don’t need to drive anywhere, and I can just roll myself with some help from the lizards to bad.  When Maurizio ran out of wine and homemade alcohol, he started emptying his dad’s which was a few houses down.  Maurizio will discuss anything and everything with you with great interest. He used to cook at Ciccio Sultano’s famed Doumo (Arguably Sicily’s best), but preferred to waiter at another Sicily legend, Cafe Sicilia.  He loved interacting with people and it certainly shows. His love for food and his unconditional love for Crocs is very evident.  When we exchanged gifts, we gave him a bottle of wine, and he gave us a gift that made me teary eyed all the way to Aragona, 5 jalapeno peppers.

The setting overlooking Modica and its Duomo made leaving that terrace very difficult each morning.  Each breakfast featured a new item that Maurizio or mama cooked. Usually some nutty pastry, bread or cookie of sorts.  That same Duomo was watching us the entire time while we cooked in the sprawling open kitchen.  Only the next day while finally sober, going to the mesmerizing Modica for the first time, I realize that that is a different church, not the famous cathedral.  Either way, the whole stay at Modicarte with the ex-chef and mama felt very genuine, filled with moments we will never forget.  Next time I bring crocs.

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This is Ortygia

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The island of Ortygia or Ortigia in Siracusa or Syracuse has a lot going for it, including even an orange lady (for the Syracuse Orange fans).  A fine, pure, baroque duomo in one of the most picturesque piazzas in Italy.  Old traditions like the still functioning puppet theater.  One of the only places in the world where you can still find papyrus plant (to make special paper and sandals.  picture below).  Europe’s oldest Mikvah which we inexcusably missed (wait till my rabbi finds out about this).  A plethora of caves and beautiful scenery surrounding the island, allowing for fun boat trips where the guides only speak three English words.. “Small Port, Large Port”.   The cool limestone cave known as the Ear of Dionysius (name given by Caravaggio) that feels like a religious experience when you approach it due to the guides chanting inside the cave.  One of the liveliest and best markets I’ve seen (see my walk with a local chef in case you missed it).  And truly fantastic dining like Sveva and Macalle offering sensational local mussels, and more.

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L’Arco Dei Cappuccini – Hidden Gem in Taormina

img_8838As is the case with just about any super touristy city, our best meal in Taormina was outside of the tourist path.  Not only did it best the much more famous, highly anticipated dinner at Tischi Toschi (which wasnt even known by our hosts), but special Brownie Points are given for flat out curing me out of my misery.  Ok, lets rewind this one to one of the biggest mistakes of the trip with this very important tip…

If you head to Taormina and wish to climb to Santuario Madonna della Rocca, which will seem fairly short according to Google, make sure its a) Not over 90 degrees, and b) The church is open!  The only thing this tiring shadeless climb accomplished was slightly increase the radius of my bald spot.  And no one warned me that the views from the top were not a whole lot more dramatic than the views from the quarter way up.  An hour later, before munching on the excellent Da Cristina Arancini, the heat started to get to me.  I even remember hallucinating, seeing a bar named Ziggy in the area, though my family still claims it was a real place.  Do I cancel lunch plans?  Never!  The show must go on.img_8841

Taormina, for much of its recent history was a popular playground for the English aristocrats.  Today, its still a major British hub, some of which make it their yearly summer destination.  At L’Arco we had a nice chat with a British gentleman who vacations in Taormina every year for the past 17 years.  He told us that L’Arco Dei Cappuccini, is one of his favorite seafood restaurants in Europe.  That statement started to show more merit after he told us about his travels, and after the first few bites of that Octopus Carpaccio.

Its most likely the finest Octopus Carpaccio I ever had.  They press octopus into this huge cube (the waiter brought one from the kitchen to show us), smoke it and slice it into this thin silky smooth mortadella like slices and drizzle with olive oil.  Simply phenomenal!  Fresh langoustine, crumbed with deliciousness and baked was sweet and succulent.  More awesomeness from the Primis.  Fresh tagliatelle with zucchini flowers and grouper tasted so light and heavenly.  And more tagliatelle with tuna that tasted almost like sausage.  An extremely enjoyable light lunch

And yes, felt much better after that.  Maybe I needed a break, who knows, but this meal saved an otherwise lackluster afternoon.  Until we got to Ortigia at least.img_8839 img_8843 img_8844

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This is Segesta (And Erice)

img_0435The picture of my daughters and I laboring up an Erice alley is exactly what it looks like.  We are not checking for dog poop.  This was the tail end of a brutally hot day that involved hiking to the majestic Segesta temple.  I thought I could handle the Sicilian July heat everybody warned me about, but this was hot.  To give you an indication, when it was time to take a food break in Erice, we had no other choice but go to a tourist trap.  We were seated on a touristy terrace with other tourists, given overpriced tourist menus (Caprese salad!), and then gave them our money and soul.

But this was still a good day.  Segesta blew us away with its beauty and setting.  Once a Greek powerhouse, one of many in Sicily, whose pride and overconfidence left it badly defeated.  Now whats left is a roofless temple, and a Greek theater with that classic Greek theater style setting.  The best I’ve seen.

Meanwhile Erice, perched on a mountain, not a hill, was surprisingly quiet for such a major tourist attraction.  Its home to the famous Pasticceria Maria Grammatico, Sicily’s sweets jewel founded by a nun who grew up in an orphanage in Erice.  Nuns are responsible for much of the desserts found all over Sicily.   img_0411 img_0416 img_0440 img_0442 img_0444 img_0446 img_0450 img_0456 img_0460 img_0495 img_0506 img_0508 img_0511 img_0521 img_0526 img_0545 img_0552 img_0553 img_0559 img_0461

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Salmoriglio (Agrigento) – Valley of the Awesomeness

IMG_0026Yesterday I was having lunch with an old friend, and a new friend, and we were discussing my favorite subject in great length, Italy.  There was a moment during the conversation where I tried to convey that between all the sights, scenery, and everything that Italy has to offer, at the end of the day my favorite thing to do there is simply eat.  Those are the moments that stay with me longer than anything else.  I explained how two trips ago, I realized that a day that includes a 3 hour lunch, and a stroll in a small town or winery, is as magical to us than a day filled with sightseeing.  The old friend seemed to understand, while the new friend struggled to relate to such nonsense, but did try her best

IMG_0027Take Salmoriglio, a gem in between two of Sicily’s biggest gems.  The jaw dropping, magnificent Scala dei Turchi, and the mind blowing, inspiring Valley of the Temples.  I was inspired to find water quickly (it was hot), while Mrs Z found her inspiration in the green statue in front the Temple of Concordia.  She was very worried that it’s temporary would be missing, and we all dodged a meltdown as big as when the pissing fountain in Prague wasnt pissing.  But what made the day so perfect was what we did in between those two star attractions.  A meal that was only bested by one particular dinner about 20 minutes off Trapani a few days later.  Its just one of those meals that felt so perfect that day.  And when you look back at the pictures, and go “hey, remember this octopus?” or “hey remember the Gnocchi?” only to get a “Yes, I remember, now can you stop with your food porn and finish emptying the dishwasher already”  Yes dear!

Considering this was lunch in the middle of the week, Salmoriglio in the port town of Porto Empedocle, wasnt exactly buzzing this time.  But a quick look at the kitchen, and the empty rooms inside suggests that the place buzzes often.  We sat outside on the pleasant sidewalk setup, while a team of 4 cooks carefully and masterfully assemble dishes behind the glass.  You get a sense of Michelin type attention to detail without the Michelin prices.  No tourists in sight, almost zero English spoken, but we managed fine with hand signals and my ever so improving “Menu Italian”.. “Ahh, “Uova al Forno?”  Thats “Menu Italian” for “Are the eggs baked”?

We started with a stunning assortment of raw goodies that included scampi, snapper tartare, bacalao, tuna, oysters, and more of that sweet goodness gambero rosso we couldnt get enough of during the trip.  Sliced octopus with olives, capers tomatoes was simple octopus perfection.  Gnocchi with bright fresh red sauce, cheese and basil was outstanding.  Why similar dishes dont taste the same back home?  Ingredients.  Their signature spaghetti with Ricci (sea urchin) delivered richness and flavors I haven’t experienced from Ricci before.  A plate of grilled seafood including just about the best swordfish steak I ever had, more gambero rosso, scampi, calamari and an outrageously delicious baby octopus.  At this point I realized that I prefer the gambero rossos (red shrimp) slightly cooked instead of raw, which gives it a little texture.  Raw is great, but sort of too limp in comparison.  A truly fantastic meal

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This is Modica

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Macallè – A Gem Well Hidden in Ortigia, Siracusa

IMG_9176One of the joys of travel to me, not so much to others, is the time spent researching the destination.  Reading food blogs, online magazines, finding those obscure dining spots, stores, attractions.  That new gelato shop that was just opened by a master ice cream maker and not quite on the tourist trail yet.  All part of the fun.  Other travelers we talk to derive no pleasure out of this.  And for some of them, the research process can be a painful chore, like folding laundry, or changing diapers.  Grandpas diapers.  The one thing I learned however over the years is that staying flexible and going with the flow is equally as important.  And no matter how much research you do, you may somehow bump into a Macallè, a place that makes you look silly, with all that research dimmed just about useless.

Researching Sicily is more challenging than mainland Italy due to lack of information out there.  Tourism in general is a fairly new concept for Sicilians, and Italians visiting Sicily.  Its like mainland Italy 20 years ago.  There are practically no food blogs written by locals.  To find the right places you need to make local friends quickly, and in the case of Macallè, friends in high places.  After our tour of the market with chef Lele, I was essentially at his disposal.  First stop was Pani_Co for some local beer tasting, followed by dinner at Macallè where Lele consults.IMG_9181

Macallè, just like 99% of the restaurants we visited in Sicily, is a family affair.  Chef Maurizio, Margherita, and son run a tight ship in a corner of Ortigia not too frequented by tourists.  I didnt think its possible on this island but you may not see one tourist walking by in this corner unless he’s lost and trying desperately to get back.  When I asked Maurizio how a visitor like me would find this place without the help of a Lele, he said I would need to stay in one of the few area hotels that recommends it.  This is the definition of “Hidden Gem”.  And while the place gets generally high praise on Trip Advisor, the TA algorithm that takes into account the quantity of reviews, ranks Macallè fairly low as of this writing.  In Sicily, more than anywhere else, Trip Advisor is king.  Because there’s not much else.

Chef Maurizio created a playful, whimsical take on Sicilian cuisine.  He’s very proud and passionate about his ingredients, and in Slow Food style explains where this and that came from and why.  The menu options include a “Leave it to Macallè” 30 euro 4 courser which we took advantage of, and a la carte items like the sensational chicken.  You will be hard pressed to find a juicier, more flavor packed bird.  It was so good we ordered it twice, something as rare as the Olympics.  Buttery swordfish, pistachio bruschetta with raw Gambero Rosso (red shrimp) from Mazara and white scampi set the tone nicely early on.  Clams with mussels, gnocchi in a delicious clear broth.  After several meals on the island, I realize that Mussels is the one must eat especially in the summer.  That saltiness and flavor stays with you hours later even at the most inappropriate times!  Marinated Squid cooked in three stages, sitting on top of a small hockey puck of mashed potato shows the attention to details here.  Perfectly sautéed tuna on a bed of delicious peppers with sweet sautéed onions.  To make peppers taste this good requires some work and a lot of love.  The kids enjoyed their own Bruschetta (same as ours), the magnificent chicken, and Tagliolini with shrimp and shrimp broth.  Easily our favorite meal in Ortigia.

Macallè
Via Santi Coronati 42/44, Syracuse

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