One 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.
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.
Via Santi Coronati 42/44, Syracuse
First I will attempt to put this day in perspective. If for some ever reason, on the way to our hotel, I would have gotten kidnapped, blindfolded, and left in a room somewhere where I would get abused in ways I can not describe for 15 days. All while able to watch only reruns of Full House, and eat nothing but olives and 2 day old bread. It still would have been a good day.
I may have to dig the archive or consult with Eating With Ziggy Historians to see if I ever wrote about a tour guide before. I recall writing about some special accommodations, and experiences, but never really about a particular guide or an experience quite like this. Guides are becoming a bigger part of our travels which is ironic in a way since its easier than ever these days to research a destination. I think it was in Portugal when we realized that guides provide much more than information about the subjects you hire them for (food, attractions, etc). Guides can also help you connect with the local culture, and provide you with an experience that is a lot more meaningful than doing it on your own.
As a result, wife and I had our share of tours over the years. Some private, some not so. Some guides we found are extremely knowledgeable, but then turn into encyclopedic funeral directors who put you to sleep. Some are fun and pleasant to be around, but are not that engaging with kids. We basically figured out that the most important trait of a guide is not something you can detect from email exchanges or even reviews. Personality! Ok, enough reviews do help, but they can easily mislead when guides are likable. Though in the case of Davide of Continente Sicilia, out of 121 Trip Advisor reviews as of this writing, only one is lower than 5 stars (4 stars)
You can not possibly design a better tour guide. Recent deregulation now allow anyone to essentially become a tour guide of Mt Etna, and as a result Mt Etna tourism simply took off. These days most tours out there are operated by knowledgeable but unlicensed guides hoarding tourists on buses, or jeep around the mountain in areas where vehicles arent permitted. Davide was already licensed before the recent deregulation took place, and is one of a few “Licensed” tour guides remaining. Did I hype this guy to unmet expectations already? Good! 😉
I even put full trust in Davide with more serious matters. Breakfast! Davide and Lya run the comfortable Agon, a B&B just outside Taormina, by the sea. Convenient with a car, quiet, and spectacularly fresh baked goodies on offer in the morning courtesy of La Dolceria in nearby Giardini Naxos. After the tour when Davide learned about my struggles to find Gelsi Neri (Mulberry) Granits (first world problems), he took us straight to the bakery where the Granita was fresher than the one in the famed Caffè Sicilia in Noto
We started the day at Alcantara Gorge for the first wow moment of the day and the entire trip really. We kept struggling with the name (including my Auto-correct), and kept calling it Alcatraz. I was fully expecting Davide to take us to the touristy location you see on TA, but instead he took us to a remote location without a human in sight. It was just us, and 5 very surprised cows, the only Alcatraz inmates. Davide explained the geology of the area, and the rich fauna and flora, much of which we witnessed. Then we briefly stopped at the picturesque Castiglione di Sicilia, and Linguaglossa (literally means Tongue Tongue) nearby where we picked up sandwiches and tasted some of the most delicious baked ricotta we ever had.
The hike on Etna Nord couldn’t have been more perfect. We walked about 6-8 km which was a good fit for my family. The way I tell the degree of fun is by the amount of “are we there yet” “what’s next”, “when do you think we’ll back, I have to check how many likes I got on the picture I took yesterday” from the youngest. Zero! Not a word, as she was not only having a blast, but found new and improved selfie opportunities. We take full advantage of our National Parks in the USA, and this was as spectacular as it gets. Steep at times but manageable. The contrast of the colors, the craters, the fractures, the dead Lord of the Rings trees (it will catch on, you heard it here first). At the top of a crater (one of many) every 50 meters yielded a different spectacular view. Davide provided walking sticks that came in handy
At one point while walking behind Davide I saw him pick up a small water bottle cap from the ground which seemed a little strange when taking into account the massiveness of this place. His knowledge and love for this mountain is very evident. Quite possibly the most easy going, fun to be around guide we’ve ever met. One you want to be friends with, and who is interested in you just as much as the tour. A tour full of intangibles, like the knowledge and understanding we got about Palermo and its struggles with the mafia. A tour I cant recommend enough
Even my Google Maps app was in a confused state as my taxi raced through traffic, seemingly going the wrong way. Our female driver just smiled and said “Welcome to Palermo”. The only time she slowed down was when we passed Giovanni Falcone’s monument for me to take a quick picture. The site of perhaps the most famous mafia assassination in history, which changed Palermo forever. Falcone’s friend and fellow judge Paolo Borsellino who spoke at the funeral, was killed in similar fashion 57 days after his friend’s death. The airport is named after both heroes.
Palermo is misunderstood. Just like most of Sicily pretty much. Its old, its gritty, its congested, and its old! The same can be said to much of metropolitan Europa, but it feels different here. Emphasis on different, which is essentially why we travel. This blogger compares it to India, and I can understand why. Strangely, some of my favorite moments in Palermo came from the times when my daughters were slightly terrified. Like when we witnessed the scene at Mercato Vucciria at night – an intestine, seafood, clubby, smoky BBQ
orgy extravaganza. A scene we only see in movies, never in Italy. Different! Like our neighbor restaurant Il Pipino Rosso (the red penis) and its slightly disturbing logo. This heat made me only imagine that when the Pipino committee met to discuss the name, someone showed up with a horrific heat rash.
On this post, I will touch on some of the obvious (markets, churches), and some of the not so (fountain, dog droppings, red penises, etc). You probably already heard about Palermo’s legendary street food and market scene. Panelle, the Sicilian falafel, alone with a drizzle of lemon, or as a sandwich (Pane E Panelle), or with fried potato croquettes (Pane E Panelle Con Croquette Di Patate) quickly became our snack of choice. It sounds and looks bland, but yet another example of “Dont judge a food by its cover”. It also holds true for peaches. The uglier the better, while the most beautiful often come without substance (AKA The Paris Hilton syndrome).
The Sicilian peaches in July are outrageously aromatic and sweet. At the bustling Capo market while I was busy admiring the fishy creatures from Mazara for too long, my family would simply hold a peach 5 meters out to the direction of where I’m supposed to go. But just like with the Oritgia Market, one needs to spend some quality time (alone preferred) with the Rialto-like seafood displays. Make sure to come to Capo early, Ballaro before 13:00, and Vucciria at night for the party. If you’ve seen markets and “shuks” like in Israel and Barcelona, these markets may not exactly shock, but interesting nonetheless.
The usual suspects in Palermo… the magnificent, jaw dropping, slap your sister Cathedral. The awe inspiring, splendid, slap your other sister Cappella Palatina. And the only in Palermo, elegant Oratorios, are reasons enough to spend a few days. The recently Unescoed Cefalu and Monreale nearby means make it 4 days. You will pass by the cathedral a few times, and get mesmerized by its majestic magnificence as if you are seeing it for the very first time each and every time.. staring, admiring, selfying… until you step on dog poop.
Ziggy’s Palermo Dog Poop Survival Guide:
Do not despair. The Palermian dog poop, perhaps due to the seafood and Panelle diet doesn’t smell too harsh. Think 3 week old asparagus meets Bengay. Pick a nice looking square with pretty cobble stones and a place to rest. Chance are there’s some water on the ground there. Have someone in your family pick up little spoons off the ground, the spoons used for granitas and ice crea, they are everywhere. Gently remove the poop with the spoons. Use that bottle of water you are carrying if you have to. The square may have a different meaning to you when you next pass by as it loses its charm a bit, but thats the small price you pay
The summer heat also means discovering things you may otherwise overlook. Like the Orto Botanico di Palermo with its ancient trees (including oldest in Europe), and Zucchini shape trees (Maybe I was just hungry). Its location near the train station also means discovering the Palermo Chinese wholesale district, just in case you need to buy handheld fans for 100 of your closest friends. You can also cool off at the Fontana Pretoria, where up close it transforms into one of the most photogenic fountains in Italy. There’s even a “Costanza Pose”. When I posed in similar fashion on one of the fountain steps, Mrs Z said a policeman watching from the corner whistled to get off. Or was he just admiring? We’ll never know.
Our entire Sicilian schedule centered around one particular event, the Santa Rosalia Festino. This is arguably Sicily’s biggest festival, with concerts, fireworks, races, and various parades throughout the week. And the grand finale, July 14, where the entire town, and 1000’s of tourists come out to see Rosalia slowly parade down Vittorio Emanuele. The energy, the anticipation, the emotion was heart felt. I hope my rabbi will understand
When you take a close look at the history of Palermo, it may seem like everyone and their mother invaded Palermo at some point. Arab influence is more evident here than anywhere else especially when it comes to the wonderful cuisine. They brought in the citrus fruits, raisins, fennel, sugar, and introduced the Arab “Shuks” (markets). You may see some sort of an Arab influence in almost every dish in Palermo and elsewhere.
At Ferro Di Cavallo we started our Panelle relationship, and enjoyed Spaghetti with seafood and a fine spaghetti with squid ink, among other less memorable dishes.
The father and son team of A’Cuncuma dazzled us with colorful flavors, while mom was home with fever. This is Haute Palermo, a playful homage to Palermo classics. We enjoyed more raw Gamberoni, and fresh fish which we couldnt get enough of in Sicily. A duller, lighter version of Pasta Con la Sarde was missing its oomph, but everything else worked ]. In particular, the perfectly cooked Fassone beef from Piedmont. You can’t get this stuff in NYC. The closest is Fassone-like cattle from Montana
Turns out there’s also good pizza in Palermo, like at Ciccio Passami l’Olio. Unlike the rest of Sicily’s notables, here its a lighter, airier fare with cleverly assembled ingredients. Out of the three we tasted, the mortadella with pistachio, tomato and various cheeses stood out. Our favorite Pizza in sicily
But our favorite meal in Palermo came courtesy of La Cambusa. Originally recommended by a trusted waitress from Mercato (NYC) who grew up in Palermo. Being in the center, it does attracts a fair number of tourists, and evidently… clowns. A misunderstanding led to double the house white we wanted (bigger than a bottle) which turned out to be a fun challenge. The previous day in Trapani I ordered a fish sandwich instead of peach juice in a cafe, but my Menu Italian is getting better. As a result of all the drinking, I was desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the clown. Pasta con le Sarde here was outstanding. Same dish featured in the last Travel and Leisure issue (as of this writing). The raisins, fennel, breadcrumbs, pine nuts, sardines resulted in this sweet richness we’ve never tasted in pasta before. Vongole was one of the better Vongoles of a Vongole filled trip. Rabbit loin was tender and juicy, but the branzino baked with potato stole the show among the secondis
You are faced with several options. Which of the three islands? how long in each? By a boat excursion or on my own? Should I pre-purchase boat tickets? Of course we are all different, and we all travel differently, but this plan worked wonders for us.
The boat excursions sounded like a fun, stress free way of visiting the islands. But the more I looked into this, exploring the islands on our own sounded superior in many levels. The islands are just too beautiful for a quick timed stop. We opted to visit Favignana and Levanzo.
First order of business, purchase the tickets at Liberty Lines in advance. Recently two companies merged to make this purchase a lot more convenient, and tickets do sell out sometimes. Arrive at the port, present your vouchers, and you get your tickets. They ask you to pick up your tickets 30 minutes prior, but I dont think its a hard rule. We opted for the 8:30 boat from Trapani to Favignana (30 mins), 14:00 From Favignana to Levanzo (10 mins), and 17:00 from Levanzo to Trapani (45 mins through Favignana). The one caution: When taking the ferry from Favignana to Levanzo, once you arrive, you may naturally feel like waiting for some green light, or someone to tell you you may leave. That will not come. You need to get up and leave, otherwise, you leave with the rest of the passengers to Trapani. You may be the only one getting off. Get off!
Five hours in Favignana, and three hours in Levanzo seemed about right. In Favignana, the closest and most visited island, biking is king. Rent bikes and explore. And by explore I mean make sure to make it to the stunning Cala Rossa. Or you can try to hire a taxi as we did, and for about 60 euros, give you a tour of the island, drop you off at Cala Rossa, and pick you up at a designated time. We spent 90 minutes which felt about right, maybe another 30 would have been perfect. He took us to see other beaches, coves and a very curious Cave Bianche Hotel, essentially a resort inside a giant hole. Other than that you can visit the beach near the port (walk right), The Tonnara (tuna factory), and the charming little town where you can grab a bite.
On Levanzo, you have Egadi’s biggest, and most important attraction, the cave paintings of Grotta del Genovese. You can try to schedule it in advance or just ask for some info at the bar, or the popup info desk (just a girl greets and helps new arrivals) when you arrive. We opted against doing it, and instead take the 20 or so minute trek to the Cala Minnula. This is another rocky cove with crystal clear water and the added bonus of a forest and picnic tables right there. Just walk right (there’s only one way), until you see the sign at about the half way point. The other big attraction in Levanzo is the picturesque little village you’ll see as soon as you get off the boat. In a way, with only 400 inhabitants, and no hotels, this is the more memorable island.
Sometimes the best laid plans are the ones you make that morning, after Modica coffee, or inside a stunning Baroque cathedral. Not months prior while eating leftover General Tso’s Chicken. To Noto or Not to Noto was the question I’ve been wrestling with the most during planning. Decision was final, until Mrs Ziggy, suffering from a small case of ‘Fish called Wanda‘ syndrome, asked me time and again.. “why arent we going to Noto? Italian men with Italian accents are telling me I should go to Noto”. And so its back to To Noto. And while in beautiful but Baroque Disney Landish Noto, escaping the heat inside that stunning Cathedral (picture below), another thought crossed my mind. Instead of having lunch in Baroque Disney, we will have lunch at the old fishing village of Marzememi, 20 minutes away. Its been 36 hours since our last seafood meal, and my left arm is starting to twitch ever so slightly.
The old village of Marzamemi, a sleeping beauty, where once tuna was trapped and tortured by the numbers. One of the first and most important ‘Tonnaras’ on the island, though the practice is no more (Thanks Obama!). Today, two shirtless men collect two euros to watch your car, restaurants are lined up along the shore, and the old center is now as picturesque as fishing villages get. Surprisingly fairly quiet during the day, even in the high summer. Action picks up at night I was told by our host at Modica. And nice sandy beaches (a luxury on this island) are minutes away in San Lorenzo
But the highlight of the day, as often is the case in Italy, was lunch at Al Boccone. A huge deck overlooking the ocean, with an English speaking young waiter who really cared about our enjoyment. We found this common all over Sicily – owners, workers were grateful and humble that YOU chose THEM, and they are on a mission for you not to regret. An appetizer mix of local specialties including a fine smoked swordfish. Another assortment of cheese and salami was forgettable. Calamari Siciliano was a revelation of sorts, two huge squid stuffed with bread crumbs, more squid, pine nuts and more deliciousness, served in a stew like fashion with tomato and onions. Excellent fresh grilled Amberjack was like a more succulent swordfish. A Busiate-like Trofie (surprised to see Trofie pasta in the part) with tomatoes, basil, pistachio, big shrimp, little shrimp, medium shrimp (top picture) was well balanced and quite exceptional. The one dish I didn’t care for much was spaghetti with bottarga, which tasted incredibly strong after sampling the other dishes (tho oldest didnt mind so much). Fantastic lunch in a most picturesque village
“I promised Marcello I won’t be taking too many seflies”, said chef Lele while we were gearing up for the second one. My kids would argue that two in 90 minutes suggests that you are fairly close to a comma. But different rules perhaps apply to the island of Ortigia in east Sicily, home to a spectacular Duomo, puppets, mussels, and a pretty nifty market
90 minutes prior we met Lele Torrisi next to the Temple of Apollo, the oldest doric remains in Sicily, 6th century BC, 27th century BI (Before Iphone). The temple is adjacent to what later became our favorite market in Sicily. I already knew chef Lele would sport his chef attire, and I briefly considered all four of us to show up in similar fashion. But it was too hot, and I wasnt too certain about the chef’s sense of humor. I was sporting my spanking brand new Fedora
Turns out I didnt need to worry about the sense of humor part, which made the walk that much more enjoyable. And within minutes, I was an expert. I knew which swordfish was frozen. I knew where the pistachio really come from (hint: Not from here). I knew what the vendors are shouting. Mrs Ziggy knew what to do with the spice pack she’s been hiding in the cabinet for over a year. And I knew how to inspect the fish for freshness. I can already imagine the look on my fishmonger face on my next visit, when he sees me open up those gills with gloves
We also learned about the various seasons. That July is a particular good time to cook in Sicily. That mussels and peaches right now are at their best. Another big lesson that set the tone for us the rest of the trip is not to judge a peach by its cover. The uglier the better. But the highlight came at the end, when we popped into the famed sandwich maker Borderi (if you wear “I love [your name]” t-shirt, you officially made it). And out pops a board of deliciousness, including sensational smoked mozzarella.
Everything about Lele Torrisi reads like the Ferran Adrià of Siracusa. From his time spent in various Michelin powerhouses, including Osteria Francescana and Massimo Bottura, to the more humble times spent with his dad Alfio at Ristorante Dioniso, 10 minute walk from market. The unexpected expected consequences that came out from all of this, is that we ate exceptionally well the rest of our Sircausa stay. Within minutes we were tasting local craft beer (a luxury in Sicily) at one month old Pani_Co, an artsy local wine bar with a full menu. The Alveria American style IPAs turned out to be the best brew we drank in Sicily. And later that night we were dining with locals in the know at Macallè, where Lele serves as a consultant
Lele markets himself these days via Marcello Baglioni’s Agave Travel Creative. Marcello specialty is experiences, “Slow Travel”, memories that stay with you far beyond the memory of seeing yet another church. Instead of just staying at an Agriturismo, he will set you up with various activities, like harvesting (pistachios, olives, grapes). He can arrange an archaeological dig (I’ve done it in Israel, fun), climb Mt Etna with a volcanologist, tour mafia facilities and even go on a “job” with some. Ok, I made the last one up, but you get the idea.
Lele is Agave’s culinary arm, where you can schedule such market walks, cooking classes, and anything you want really (anything!). We could have walked the Ortigia market by ourselves in less than 10 minutes, take selfies with the fish, and ate in other restaurants I planned on. But what kind of memories would have derived from that.
This is not a painting. Just like every other visitor stepping into the second floor of this Agriturismo like no other, we thought we were staring at a painting. Its a custom made window overlooking Ciuci Land, where once over 60 donkeys roamed free, producing milk for kids with special needs. Only three, luckiest donkeys in the world, left in the property, but they have friends; Ostriches, cows, rabbits, chickens, ducks, parakeet. Ginevra’s dad promised one day, he will stop coming home with animals. A week later.. “What is that you hiding under your arms”. Its another duck.
As with any such trip, I choose to write first about experiences we speak most highly about. The place that produced the most memories. But pictures will do very little in this case, no matter how much digging I do (camera and 4 phones, 2 of which filled with only selfies). You need to see it, listen to it, smell it, take the drive there, meet Ginevra and her mom, and maybe then you will get the idea. The gate to Ciuci’s alone is reminiscent of a Gladiator movie set, when Maximus comes back to his family (In happier times).
“She is not real”, my oldest description of young Ginevra who manages this Agriturismo. The only place I ordered eggs in the morning, with some guilt over the fact that our host is 8 months pregnant. With everything so fresh tasting, and chickens a few meters away, I just coudnt resist. And it was good. Just like the rest of the morning lineup including rotating fresh fruit pies, and the legendary Pistachio cream. To fully appreciate Ginevra’s pistachio cream you need to pop into any random store in Trapani and try theirs. Feh! Ciuci’s Manor is a pistachio paradise
And just when you think this can not possibly get any better… “We take all the guests in a 9 passenger van, and have dinner in a Palazzo we inherited in Favara. Would you like that?” (speechless). Just one question. What should I wear? My nicest shorts have three stains on them already but with proper lighting we can manage. I live in NYC. The closest thing to this experience is when friends invite us to a house in south Jersey where properties are a little bigger, and the Chinese food a little worse. Dinner at Palazzo Fanara with our new friends from France was that proper magical finish, to a magical place. Ginevra, Mama, and of course the wonderful Vagabonda – Thank you for the memories.