Thanks to both its fame and infamy, Sicily has been luring foreigners to its shores for more than 2,000 years. The riches that attracted them and the riches they leave behind make this enchanting island a highly satisfying vacation destination. Although it may offer a continent’s worth of attractions, Sicily is best appreciated the same way as its scrumptious pastries—in bite-size pieces rather than whole.
First associations with Sicily often emanate from the kitchen—as in the rest of Italy, the local food is wonderful. Add in ancient ruins, beautiful landscapes, pleasant beaches and friendly people, and the only thing missing is a fragrant bar of jasmine-infused chocolate. Oh, wait—there is that, too. Every part of the island has its particular charms, but the southeastern Val di Noto is the place to experience a marvelous confluence of architectural magnificence, natural beauty, preservation of tradition and superb gelato in equal parts.
Impressive though its picturesque setting and glorious architecture may be, they are not even the main reasons why people come to Modica. That would be chocolate. Modica’s traditional chocolate is celebrated for its adherence to old Aztec recipes, making the classic chocolate sold here similar to that of Mexico.
Testament to Sicily’s desirability among world powers of various eras, this part of Sicily at one time belonged to Spain. The association continues today as Spain’s extant Duke of Alba is also the current Count of Modica. The County of Modica was part of the Spanish Empire at the time when the Spanish brought cacao from the New World to the Old. The grainy texture of Modica chocolate comes from the addition of sugar crystals. Not everyone is a fan of this style of preparation, but there are now also bars with delicious local flavors such as lemon and ginger, red pepper and aromatic jasmine. If grainy chocolate does not appeal, Sicily’s refreshing granita certainly will. Almond is the most traditional flavor and serves as a revitalizing elixir on a hot summer day.
After enjoying a fill of chocolate samples at the mod Motycafé and the venerable Dolceria Bonajuto, the latter recognized as the champion of traditional Modica chocolate, a stop at the Modica Chocolate Museum in the Palazzo della Cultura will clarify the important role of chocolate in the city’s history. A room-sized map of Italy dominates one gallery, while such oddities as Michael Jackson’s portrait painted in chocolate also contribute to a memorable visit. Further along the same avenue is the home of the affable Katia Amore, whose cooking and chocolate-making classes, arranged through the tour company La Rosa Works, have gained a faithful following among culinary cognoscenti.
The chocolate shops and museum are located along Corso Umberto I in Modica Bassa. Between this lower part of the city and the upper Modica Alta is the splendid Duomo of San Giorgio, reached by numerous staircases constructed and landscaped in harmony with the building. Upper Modica is a charming labyrinth of lanes, staircases and landings lined with houses and small businesses such as the art studio of Giulia Berini, whose painted scenes of Modica often see the inside of suitcases owned by visitors taking some of Modica’s impressive views home with them.
Ms. Berini’s studio is just a staircase away from the faded glory of Palazzo Failla, the former home of a noble family turned time capsule of a small hotel that is the best option for accommodations in Sicily’s city of chocolate. The genteel owner is very much a hands-on manager who oversees every aspect of the hotel’s operations. Elsewhere in Upper Modica, the Castle Of The Counts and several other belvederes afford sweeping views of the city.
If there is one place in Sicily to arrive hungry, it is Ragusa. The singular setting and Baroque masterpieces of this grand little city notwithstanding, meals here are a Sicilian dream come true. The appreciation for quality of ingredients comes even before arriving in the city proper.
Ricotta is an art in Sicily, nowhere more so than on the farm of Giovanni Iabichino between the cities of Modica and Ragusa. Perpetuating the profession of his father and grandfather, this amiable farmer braves the elements and early working hours to make ricotta the way it should be made. In a remarkable testament to the continuity of centuries-old culinary tradition in this part of Sicily, the ricotta sold in the market in the afternoon was still milk in the cow the same morning. Yes, it is that fresh.
Ricotta is a deliciously versatile product, though given the mush sold in America, it is forgivable to doubt the ability of this soft cheese—cooked twice as its name indicates—to convey the rich taste and nuanced flavors found in the genuine product here. Ricotta is a breakfast food in Sicily, eaten with the fresh fruit and aromatic pastries that accompany the morning espresso. It is also the main ingredient of one of Sicily’s most famous exports.
As innumerable waistlines attest, Sicilian pastries are as beloved in New York as they are in their place of origin. One thing to remember when visiting a Sicilian pastry shop is that there is no such thing as a cannoli. Two cannoli, yes, but not one cannoli. A single one is a cannolo, but the plural cannoli is far more familiar since hardly anybody orders just one of these tubular treats, which reach their zenith of velvety perfection at the restaurant Cantunera. As is the custom, the exquisitely tasty shells are filled to order and enhanced with chocolate chips and candied orange peel if so desired. The tiny Cantunera is most famous for its delicious arancini, which come with different fillings but only one size—enormous. In contrast, the San Vincenzo Ferreri exhibition space, a former church located adjacent to Cantunera, is small in size but big on cultural preservation.
Another quintessential Sicilian summer experience not to be missed can be found at Gelati DiVini, where ricotta is but one of the many surprising gelato flavors available in this establishment on the Piazza Duomo with a splendid view of the cathedral (Duomo). In a land where gelato is venerated, excellence in quality is the minimum expectation; it is originality in flavors that sets one gelateria apart from the others. Sweet onion gelato? Maybe not, but the wine gelato at DiVini is most definitely divine. The play on words of the shop’s name relates to the wine flavors moscato and bracchetto, two of the many must-try taste experiences.
To sample them requires a visit to the hilltop Ragusa Ibla, the center of Ragusa, which is one of Sicily’s most atmospheric Baroque cities, best enjoyed on the outside. As exemplified by the Cathedrals of San Giorgio and San Giovanni Battista, there are individual sights to see behind the glorious façades, but Ragusa Ibla itself is a sight to be seen. The best vantage point for taking in the Old Town in its entirety is from the adjacent hill where the modern district of Ragusa Superiore is located.
Noto’s Corso Vittorio Emanuele III is often cited as the street with Sicily’s most impressive concentration of Baroque architecture. It is difficult to disagree. Centered on the Cathedral of San Nicolò di Mira and the Palazzo Ducezio that faces it, notable buildings and monuments extend in both directions. Meanderings down the side streets reveal the type of personal discoveries that make travel so enjoyable; don’t miss the cherubic faces beaming down from the underside of the balcony of the Palazzo Nicolaci, just off the Corso.
A turn in another direction brings visitors to the door of Pasticceria Mandolfiore, discreetly occupying a corner in a residential neighborhood near the Chiesa del Carmine. The cakes are Mandolfiore’s main draw—one look at the display case makes it clear why that is so. Connoisseurs of Sicilian pastries will be in heaven here, tantalized by both the taste and appearance of the goods. Mandolfiore’s gelato flavors, with names such as Seven Veils and Heart Of Sicily, are extraordinary in taste and texture as well as name.
Just a few miles outside the center of Noto is one of Sicily’s most exclusive places to stay. Maison des Oliviers is the property of legendary French interior designer Jacques Garcia. After supervising the rejuvenation of several exceptional hotels in Europe and Morocco, Mr. Garcia decided to welcome guests to a property of his own. Set on a private estate extending over 500 acres, Villa des Oliviers offers complete privacy to accompany the elegant décor inside what is undoubtedly the most glamorous villa in Sicily. Priceless artworks on the walls, on the tables and beneath one’s feet—that ancient mosaic viewed through the glass floor of the living room is not a replica—only add to the sensation of being somewhere special. Outdoors, an inviting swimming pool amid lush vegetation and centuries-old olive trees create a unique guest experience. The villa is fully staffed to meet guests’ every need.
Thanks to its seaside location, Siracusa embodies the vibrant history of the Val di Noto like no other city. Though Siracusa’s most famous sight, the Neapolis Archaeological Park, is located in the modern part of town, it is the tiny islet of Ortigia that captivates visitors, especially at night when the ornate Baroque buildings of the city’s historic center are gently illuminated to show them off with ethereal effect. While the inland cities have their own distinguished examples of Baroque architecture, Ortigia has the added bonus of the Mediterranean Sea at the end of every street. Almost all of Siracusa’s impressive museums are found on Ortigia, including the outstanding Leonardo and Archimedes Museum, which cleverly connects two visionary geniuses of different eras through their mutual gifts of intelligence and talent.
The architectural harmony of Siracusa’s Piazza Duomo makes an impressive sight, especially in the evening when the Square’s restaurant patrons are enjoying both the food and the view. Very close to Piazza Duomo is the former Palace of Justice, now a venue for temporary art exhibits. A little further along is the Opera dei Pupi, a traditional Sicilian puppet theater and its attendant museum. Operated for generations by the Vaccaro-Mauceri family, Opera dei Pupi is Siracusa’s premier venue for the art of puppetry. Alfredo and Daniel keep the spirit of their grandfather’s famous puppet theater alive, delighting their audiences with skits based on Sicilian history that are both comical and informative. Puppetry has been performed in Sicily for hundreds of years and remains extremely popular among local residents seeking lighthearted entertainment. Far from being juvenile fare, puppet shows in Sicily are a big deal and are attended by adults with the same fervor as New Yorkers attending Broadway shows. Though the shows are only in Italian, the storyline is often easily followed; in any case, the visuals alone are entertaining enough.
A leisurely walk from the puppet theater is the carefree Hotel Gutkowski, which has garnered a legion of admiring guests who enjoy the casual luxury and convenient location of this small boutique hotel. As it was an immediate success upon its opening, Hotel Gutkowski now occupies a second building on the picturesque waterfront promenade where the Italian ritual of the passeggiata evening stroll provides ample opportunity to take in the views, both of the water and of the historic buildings facing it.
Often regarded erroneously as merely an industrial city, Catania’s stereotype belies the discreet allure of a city where, unusual for Sicily, tourism seems incidental to real people going about their daily business. This aspect makes Catania all the more appealing to travelers wishing to observe contemporary Sicilian society while still having access to historical sights, Baroque architecture and excellent food. It is Catania, not Palermo, that has Sicily’s largest airport, confirming the popularity of eastern Sicily’s many attractions, most notably Mount Etna, on a clear day visible from the city center.
That center is full of interesting sights and vivacious atmosphere, most obvious at the famous fish market, which has operated for centuries in the same location (and includes many items beyond seafood). Visits to traditional European food markets are among the most enthusiastic experiences for international travelers more accustomed to supermarket aisles and self-checkout registers. Here in Sicily, where human interaction retains a revered place in the community, the market experience is far more meaningful. Vendors greet longtime customers with heartfelt welcomes, sometimes complemented with a shot of liqueur. They greet strangers the same way, offering samplings of their products to entice potential customers.
The market is just south of Catania’s Piazza Duomo, whose four sides are lined with grand buildings, including the ornate building dedicated to Saint Agatha that gives the square its name. Other sights to see are the Botanical Garden and Giardino Bellini, where the belvedere provides romantic views of Mount Etna in the distance.
Among several ancient ruins around the city, the Teatro Romano complex is the most evocative. Like Siracusa, Catania also has a puppet theater. A performance by the Fratelli Napoli puppeteers will exhibit the dexterity required to maneuver the three-foot-tall puppets, handmade of wood in intricate detail by generations of the Napoli family for nearly 100 years.
To make the most of one’s time in the market and in Catania, it would be wise to have a local guide who knows the city well and can tailor tours to individual preferences. La Rosa Works, a tour company based in New York that specializes in authentic Sicilian travel experiences, makes the necessary arrangements for walking tours, food tours, wine tastings, culture tours and other customized experiences, including private cooking classes, some of which take place in a deluxe kitchen in Palazzo Asmundo. Each room in this grand edifice recently transformed into a stunning, intimate, five-star hotel is cleverly decorated to bring to life a different Sicilian legend.
Thanks to owner Karen La Rosa’s insider knowledge of Sicily and connections that open doors to places not found in guidebooks, La Rosa Works can also arrange excursions outside Catania such as private wine tours to vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna, coordinate arrival and departure transfers, and handle travel needs across the entire island of Sicily—not necessarily the easiest place to get around on one’s own. It is, of course, possible to rent a car, but then eyes must be kept on the road while going past the many sights of the island. There is a lot to see.