Welcome to the Sicilian Food & Drink Revolution
This trip to Sicily is going to be special.
I had visited once before, writing about the incredibly diverse wine region, but now I had the opportunity to take my husband whose family immigrated to the US from Sicily before landing in Brooklyn three generations ago. We knew that his grandfather was born and raised in Catania, so we structured the trip as such that we would begin there and continue for further exploration throughout Mount Etna and Taormina, stopping to eat and drink along the way.
Sicily is still an incredibly untouched region for tourism in many ways and I experienced that the first time I was there. This time around, I chose to work with New York-based Karen LaRosa of La RosaWorks to help my husband and I navigate the intricacies of planning a trip to Sicily.
She helped with everything from booking hotels in different regions, choosing restaurants and helping us decipher which wineries to visit during our time so that we could maximize our week in Sicily.
Transportation: The Truth About Traveling in Sicily
Getting to Sicily and navigating travel within it can be precarious, to say the least.
We chose a US air carrier (Delta) to fly directly into Rome where we later transferred to Catania. As per her suggestions, we began our trip there, Sicily’s second-largest city, a working town with a younger vibe, according to LaRosa, that is going through a major culinary revolution.
Winetraveler Tip: Get updates on flight deals into various Italian airports as they arise using AirfareWatchDog.
To make the most of my first few days in a new region while fighting jet-lag, I often use the app TimeShifter to help begin setting my body clock to my destination’s time before the trip so I can maximize my time.
LaRosa told us that the best way to get around once there was to rent a car and provided us with a thorough explanation of Italian tollways, tunnels, gas stations and the like. She rightly explained that driving in Italy can be intimidating, a challenge to say the least.
While we often relied heavily on Google Maps during our road trip, we also printed out addresses and directions from place to place (Google Maps didn’t have it all) and we also had the navigation system in the car, should we need it. Given the intricacies of the roads and lack of street signs, I would highly recommend the three-tiered approach.
While you can easily fly between main cities within Sicily, we constructed this itinerary to begin in Catania and then drive to Mount Etna where we would spend the bulk of our time exploring wineries and restaurants and then end in the popular town of Taormina, where we could park the car in the hotel and get around mostly on foot.
It’s worth noting that while all of Sicily speaks traditional Italian (the days of dialect are not as prevalent as they were a few generations ago) many people do speak English fluently, even in the most remote places. Still, be armed with Italian phrases including greetings, asking where the bathroom is and be sure to know how to thank someone after they have helped you.
When to Go
The Spring and Fall seasons tend to have the most temperate weather in Sicily, making the trips more enjoyable while avoiding any extreme heat. Most of the hotels, agriturismos, and accommodations on wineries rarely have air conditioning. While some are beginning to incorporate AC into their rooms, most do not, so it’s better to avoid that situation. I have been to Sicily twice in July and I would caution against it. Months like April, May, September, and October are the way to go.
Begin in Catania
After arriving in Catania and fighting dreaded jet-lag, we had a quick shower and hit the town to see the famous fish market. We took a stroll through the market and had dinner at the restaurant Mm!!, which artfully prepared fresh seafood in every way imaginable: raw, grilled and fried.
Seafood platters with raw fish are often the star of a dinner table in Sicily. They marinate the fresh fish ever so lightly and dress it with olive oil, lemon, pepper and sea salt. The lemon and oil tenderizes the fish, just like ceviche, and adds flavor without detracting from the taste and freshness of the fish itself.
Within the city, the relatively new dedication to elevated cuisine was on display. Catania is undergoing a true culinary renaissance with restaurants like Ostier and Sapio (awarded a one-Michelin star) which are redefining the way Sicilians eat today. Once a place for more casual dining, these two restaurants in particular offer fine dining experiences with true Sicilian flair.
When it comes to accommodations in Catania, it is slightly lacking in moderate to upscale options, so we choose to spend only a few nights in town at a local apartment rental which can easily be found on Airbnb, HomeAway and the like. Some alternative, higher-end hotel options include Hotel Villa del Basco and Il Principe Hotel.
Head to the Mountains: Mount Etna
While Catania is filled with raw energy and excitement, once we were well fed, we were itching to head to the quieter region of Mount Etna to continue our wine and food exploration.
Up in the mountains, the volcanic vistas are nothing short of life-changing. You can feel the fresh breeze sweep over the mountainous terrain even on the warmest of days. Another reason we chose to go to Mount Etna is for their daily breakfast spreads. Hotels, agriturismos, B&Bs and the like all showcase local breakfast specialties with everything from fruit and yogurt to juice bars to warmly cooked eggs, baked goods, Italian meats, and fresh vegetables.
Our first transformative breakfast experience happened at Tenuta di Fessina, a boutique agriturismo, and winery owned by winemaker and proprietor, Sylvia Maestrelli. She bought the land back in 2007 from 18 families who previously owned it and started her organic vineyard that produces 90,000 bottles per year with eight different varietals. Her winemaking philosophy is simple: she wanted to produce feminine, crisp wine that was complex. After our private tasting on the property, we agreed that she achieved that and then some.
During our stay at Tenuta di Fessina, we also made a trip to Planeta Winery in Etna run by Hungarian winemaker Patricia Toth, who is truly Sicilian in spirit. The vineyard spans 10.8 hectares and began its first production in 2009. Toth came to the property where she was dedicated to her pursuit of volcanic-style winemaking.
Guests travel to the Planeta year-round for tours and tastings. After we explored the vineyard and had our tasting with Toth, we sat down for a proper Sicilian lunch in their tasting room which included fresh olives, cheese, meats, crackers and vegetables paired with more of their wines.
While staying at Tenuta di Fessina, we also tried other local eateries like Dai Pennisi in Linguaglossa, which is a popular local butcher shop with a sit-down restaurant that makes grilled meats and traditional eggplant dishes. Their deceptively simple preparation wowed us with every bite. Other wineries worth noting in the region include Frank Cornelissen that produces intriguing natural wines.
We also spent time at Palmento Costanzo, which produces wines within the Parco dell’Etna (Etna Park). The winery was renovated and restored in 2011, carried out according to the principles of bio-architecture. The organic vineyard now spans ten hectares, built on a series of terraces made of dry lava stones found in the region. They produce a variety of wine that we felt connected to (perhaps due to the fact my husband’s family name was the same as the family’s owner), namely the Mofete Bianco 2018 that we sent home to fill our wine cellar with.
A Little Luxury
As world travelers, my husband and I do love a little luxury in our lives. We found the understated elegance we were looking for at Villa Neri Resort & Spa in the Etna region and let ourselves completely indulge.
The accommodations were excellent and geared more towards the American traveler with amenities like incredible air conditioning and other creature comforts, plus a wonderful pool area complete with loungers and an outdoor restaurant.
The restaurant in the hotel, Le Dodici Fontane, offers an elegant dining experience curated by head chef Elia Russo. The menu wows with sensory dishes and different tasting options. We chose one that took us on a culinary journey that mixed traditional Sicilian ingredients with a more elevated, new-age way of executing dishes.
Following our stay at Villa Neri, we spent a night at Monaci delle Terre Nere that provided us with a holistic, sustainable experience from beginning to end. Part of the Slow Food International movement in Italy with organic, local, sustainable options, this boutique hotel has one of the most beautiful outdoor restaurants overlooking a luxurious pool and garden area.
We enjoyed a typical al fresco Sicilian lunch there including linguine vongole and a tomato and mozzarella salad paired with a fresh, crisp Sicilian white wine from Mount Etna. Dinner was another special experience at Locanda Nerello on the property where we took the server’s recommendations with vegetable dishes including the beloved eggplant, as well as a pasta and meat dish, all paired with Sicilian wine. We ended that meal with a mouthwatering, delicate cannoli, smaller in size then I have seen back home, but packed with love that made each bite taste like heaven.
Our morning breakfast buffet was served on the top of the hill, a wonderful way for us to get a little exercise without foregoing a meal. Afterward, we went back to our room with a private garden where we had a private yoga instructor come and give us a wonderful 60-minute yoga class, with nature as our backdrop.
Our final two evenings in the region were spent at Relais San Giuliano. This Italian oasis hotel felt like a dream. It was home to a quaint and warm spa where we each got a treatment and a restaurant on property with one of the best meals we had– a simple roast beef with fresh figs.
On our final afternoon in the area, we decided to simply lounge by the pool and stay put, but we weren’t sure if we wanted to eat at the restaurant on the property again. We spoke to the hotel manager who said they would be happy to coordinate a poolside luncheon that featured “tavola calda” which roughly translates to “hot table.” In practice, it essentially means Sicilian street food like arancini, versions of Stromboli, pizzette (mini pizzas) and other fried goodness. We even finished the meal with a pistachio flavored granita, the Sicilian dessert of choice and more local wine, discussing how we finally got the hang of the Sicilian lifestyle.
Everyone Loves Taormina
Our final stop on our week-long journey in Sicily was Taormina. I hadn’t had the pleasure of visiting on my first trip, so we decided to end our experience in a more touristic part of Sicily where we could sneak in a bit of shopping and restaurant and bar hopping before heading back to reality.
The hotels in Taormina are more expensive given its popularity, so we went with a standard hotel close to the heart of town so that we could park the car and leave it there for a while as my husband was certainly tired of driving like a Sicilian.
We chose the Grand Hotel Miramare, nestled into the side of a cliff with beautiful views of the sea. The standard room was basic but we didn’t spend much time there. Instead, we toured the local town, shopping and eating any chance we could get—trying everything from gelato to cannolis, washing them down with refreshing Aperol spritzes.
For our final meal before heading home, we dined at Villa Zuccaro and kept it simple with our ordering. We split a bowl of spaghetti vongole, a spicy salami pizza made in a brick oven and a bottle of Nero D’Avola.
Our final meal was simple, yet deeply satisfying, exactly how I felt about the trip itself.
Winetraveler Tips for Visiting Sicily:
Make appointments and schedule tours at wineries that you would like to visit, especially in their main seasons of the Spring and Fall. Book lunches at a handful of wineries as well so that you can taste and eat at the same time, which takes the guesswork out of finding food in remote locations after your hunger has kicked in after a long morning of wine tasting.
Stay at boutique agriturismos on vineyards for the holistic wine experience. Not to mention they often have the best breakfast spreads.
Schedule some wellness time in between meals and tastings. Several of the boutique hotels offer private yoga classes or nature walks (or simply some pool time if it’s warm enough) so that you can add in a holistic element to your trip.
Save your shopping for Taormina, that has everything from beautiful tapestries to classic souvenirs and unforgettable local citrus-themed perfumes.
Want to Read Up on Sicily Before or While Traveling? Check Out These Reads Recommended by LaRosa
A fun romp through the vineyards of Sicily, this writer interviews many of the winemakers who have been instrumental in bringing Sicilian wine to the forefront of winemaking.
This book is thorough and contains much about the wine history and how it intertwines with the history of the island as a whole. A good summary and reference guide for the subject matter. This is not a travel book, but a real look at Sicily for people who want to delve a little deeper.
This winemaker owns his family estate but only because he fought for it when local “undesirables” wanted his land. A tale of courage and heart-warming passion, with local wine as a backdrop. B & N carries the book.