“Italian bread” according to the narrative of my youth.
A few years ago my mother came to visit me in Switzerland. Lugano, conveniently located 20 minutes from Como, my Italian happy place, meant that this would also be her first trip to Italy. She landed at Malpensa in Milan and her first request was a cappuccino. At the café, she turned to me and said, “Where is the Italian bread?” In fact, she said this to me every time we entered a shop or ate at a restaurant. She was baffled, where was the “Italian” bread. After the first week she got used to this unexpected version of “Italian” bread, and she still did not call it that, now it was just bread. For my mother, “Italian” bread has sesames on top.
Some people trace their roots online, creating family trees from scattered branches dropped over time and space. My roots are in my tummy. When the waiter placed a basket of bread on our table at da Antonio in Catania, I knew I had a clue. This is what my mother called “Italian bread”. Specifically, bread that has sesame seeds on it. I took a photo and sent it to her immediately. Later back in Palermo our friend Irma informed me that these ‘seeds’ are actually called ‘cimino’ in Sicily, the word sesame is not in fashion.
Essentially, I went to Sicily to eat and drink. What I discovered was the essence under the food and wine, the hospitality that made me feel like home. I found my roots, without meeting a single actual relative.
Originally this trip to Sicily was to be the celebration of our collective 175 years. In 2020 my mother turned 70, I became 50, and Claudio reached 55. This trip all started as a birthday blitz, southern Italian pilgrimage. In the circumstances of the time, it morphed into a cross country adventure in two. Together Claudio and I arrived in Palermo and 16 days later, having traversed the majority of the island sampling food and wine along the way, our adventure took us back to Palermo for a final two days of revelry.
Short of a novella, describing our trip is impossible. What I hope is that these photos with their short explanations will give a glimpse into the magic of our adventure and express gratitude to all those who contributed to the magic. Caution, they may make you hungry.
We, were almost never hungry, as food, good food, is on large supply in Sicily. To be sure we were headed in the right direction, before we left we equipped ourselves with recommendations and contacts from dear friends who love, and or have roots, in Sicily. Then, while there, we received each day from Giovanni some sort of guidance about our current or suggested next location, and the food to be enjoyed there. It got to a point where before Claudio ate anything he asked, “has this been suggested/approved by Giovanni.” Featuring most prominently were wine and ricotta. Little did we know that there was an internal (to Sicily) battle over which is the best ricotta, goat or cow. As for wine, it was nearly all divine, and we found ourselves gravitating to the rich, mineral flavored tastes of wines from the Etna region.
The red line is our route.
Palermo >>Monreale>>Scopello >> Trapani (Vultaggio Agritourismo 9 km from Trapani) >>San Vito lo Capo>>Favignana>>Marsala>>Mazara del Vallo>> Selinunte>> Sciacca>>Marina di Ragusa >> Scicli >> Modica>> Ragusa ibla>>Ragusa >>Noto>>Ortigia>> Syracuse >> Marzamemi>>Catania>>Aci Castello >> Acitrezza >> Acireale>>Etna>> Catania>> Palermo
-Palermo! We arrived to the Funky Flat in Palermo and Giovanni was there waiting for us on the pavement. His giant smile straight from his heart lit up the street. We walked 20 kilometers that day and ate our first (and last) spleen sandwich (not pictured), one of the many dishes for which Palermo is ‘famous’.
Breakfast in Palermo outskirts, Giovanni took us across the city to eat THE best of a certain kind of ricotta pastry from “da gangi”, il cartoccio fritto con ricotta, featured here center with Bearlilino; top left a side view of this bite of ricotta bliss; second left Giovanni took us to visit the Albero di Borsellino, an olive tree from Bethlehem planted on the initiative of Maria Pia Lepanto, mother of Judge Borsellino. This tree, also called the Tree of Peace is a symbol of regeneration, solidarity, civil commitment, and of justice; the rest are wonderful, relaxing clips of us at the seaside soaking in sun and salt air.
Featured my first gelato with brioche (the original ice cream sandwich?) overlooking the sea, we finished our day. The men in the shop could not believe it was the first time for me to eat such a thing!; bottom left the Rosalia, patron saint of Palermo at Monte Pellegrino Hermitage where she rests when not being paraded around; middle the view of Mondello; bottom right Giovanni with his gelato while Claudio explores the seaside ruins.
Famosa autista. In an effort to make us eat more, Giovanni made us a Palermo specialty which is meant to aid digestion. Di, this is a homemade version of ENO. Soda water, with lemon soda and bicarbonate (baking soda). It is meant to be drunk in one go as soon as the bicarbonate has been added. I am not sure it worked entirely, and it was a lot of fun!
Featured a cassata siciliana, an experience in itself. Giovanni cooked us dinner at their place in Palermo. He even sang us happy birthday complete with candles on this orgasmic confection made of ricotta, sponge cake, marzipan, homemade icing, and candied fruits. A meal in itself. We enjoyed it for the next two days. It is from the same place we had something called “apostle’s fingers”. Tiny little bite sized paper thin pastries filled with the smoothest, richest ricotta cheese ever. When we went in to buy them, Claudio was inside buying more before I had eaten my first one, that is how good they are.
Monreale, a magnificent experience for the eyes and the taste buds! After visiting the extraordinary Norman-Byzantine cathedral a meal, complete with a decadent pistachio dessert fit for royalty at bricco e bacco, was heartily enjoyed complete with an Etna red.
On a rare cloudy day we bid farewell to Palermo and headed to the sea, Castellammare on the right was our first full site.
Scopello. Claudio’s kind of lunch, pane cunzato and a glass of local white, this is what one eats ‘on the road’ in Sicily.
Erice where ancient city meets modern art and the GPS began a series of indications which took us to odd and wrong places. Here inside the old city it took us to a near disaster which brought us to meet kind folks from Modica, building our community connections.
The road to San Vito Lo Capo. Happy birthday to Claudio we went to this spectacular seaside to have a special lunch, along the way we were treated to vast expanses of green, gold, and yellow shades of earth and skies of blue.
San Vito Lo Capo. However wonderful the beach was, the real draw was Ghibli where Giovanni had assured us the best couscous on earth was served. Top my deux couscous, rais on the right, tuna so delicate and delicious it melted in my mouth; bottom left Claudio’s birthday cannolo; middle the kids cheer on his birthday; final right dessert that evening at Vultaggio, more ricotta, this time fried in a ravioli!
Favignana. Everyone told us we had to go there. They were right. This sleepy island with its amazing beaches and even more amazing views is a treasure. While bicycles were suggested, Claudio was all ears when his two wheeling heart heard scooters were for rent, and that was our mode of transport. Top left, Claudio with his helmet on the road; top next a view of the road ending in the sea; the next three photos are taken from the top of the castle at the highest point on the island (which we walked up to, no wheels aloud); center view from Claudio’s catnap (those are his feet you see) while I swam in that sea. I also ate a tuna kebab, a giant open sandwich made with fresh tuna, tomatoes, and lettuce all chopped up and cooked together on the grill. Divine! Bottom right the kids at the sea at our coffee stop overlooking the sea as seen in the image above them.
Next stop Selinunte, where we marveled over ancient temples, center the first you see when you enter the area; top left the kids pose with an ancient column; below the temple from another angle. From Selinunte we stopped in Sciacca for homemade pasta; bottom left with bottarga and next to it with smoked salmon and pistachio. This was our longest driving day as we skipped past Agrigento and ended our day’s journey in Marina di Ragusa. Later we learned this is where much of the Italian series Montalbano is filmed. When we arrived all we wanted to do was eat, and the image of pizza with fresh anchovies on the far right fit the bill. The Calabrese pizzeria where we ate it was full of joyous people. To top the night we took a stroll around the small seaside city dotted with a mix of modern and liberty buildings, a welcome delight on that warm, moonlit evening after our long day of driving.
Marina di Ragusa. Excited to be just five steps from the sea in Marina di Ragusa, I was up early for a beach walk, Qi gong, and my first granita with brioche for breakfast. Top here the beach where I did Qi gong; bottom left the view from my breakfast spot by the sea; middle almond granita; bottom right me and my treat.
Scicli, World Heritage site of Baroque splendor and home of more Montalbano locations was our next stop. Highlight for us, amazing food. Left Claudio and the Bears ready to dig into their board of local cheese and cured meats; middle one of the best pastas I ate on our trip with sublimely smooth mackerel and bottarga sauce; far right to finish, pistachio ice cream covered in pistachio cream and topped with pistachio ‘sprinkles’. Divinity at a nondescript café aruci aruci.
Modica, so much more than chocolate! Thanks to the couple we met in our near GPS disaster in Erice, we stayed in a lovely place in this charming ancient city. Moreover we enjoyed a spectacular evening ‘on the town’. Center a romantic kiss overlooking the old city of Modica; bottom left Claudio and our hosts in front of the church of San Giorgio; middle our dinner, the fabled ‘cup’ of fried fish and chips; bottom right the entire city of Modica from the opposite hill, same place as our kiss.
Daytime in Modica was equally lovely, and tasty. Top left the Bears skeptically consider a modern version of the cassata siciliana; top right a cookie made from chocolate and chopped meat, strangely similar to my grandma’s cookies with ceci and chocolate; bottom center San Pietro, the second ‘first’ church in Modica.
Ragusa ibla, another of the UNESCO sites on our trip offered us Baroque churches, grand homes, and even our first visit to a conversation circle. Left Claudio, in his new shirt from Modica, scales the church steps; top right Bearli samples an Etna white while we wait our time to visit a local villa; middle the church of Ragusa proper; bottom right, fresh, local burrata for dinner in Modica.
Noto, top of the UNESCO list was a Baroque paradise. Not pictured the amazing lunch we had at il Libertyno. We also met a wonderful family from Catania here who figured largely into our delights while there.
Ortigia is a gem. We arrived around sunset and set out for a long walk along the perimeter of this tiny island off the tip of Syracuse. Next we wandered into the main piazza where there is a Baroque style cathedral built into an ancient Temple of Athena, pictured right; left Claudio’s preferred cocktail, a Tom’s breakfast, at Cortile Verga, a gem of a place inside the gem of Ortigia. My favorite cocktails was the “inaspettato” (unexpected).
A rainy day, we walked to Syracuse from Ortigia to find the Greek/Roman theater. It’s name depends upon who you ask, and its beauty is unanimous. Top Claudio looks up at the theater from the perspective of a player on the stage; bottom we view the theater from the highest angle as a spectator with the sea and Ortigia in the distance.
Top center, back in Ortigia at the end of the day the sky rewarded us with a glorious sunset; bottom left we rewarded ourselves with a terrific pizza ‘alla norma’, made with olive oil so delicious I could taste olives and sunshine on the crust; bottom right Bearlilini’s size up a rum Bhaba complete with ricotta and pistachio cream. Both at Anima e Core.
Nearly always have mornings to myself, perfect times for seaside Qi gong. Left my shadow just after enjoying Qi gong with the view seen top right of the seacoast in Ortigia; bottom left the cathedral by morning light; bottom right the sun reflects on the sea promising another brilliant day.
Marzamemi dazzled us, especially out of season. By chance we found ourselves at Taverna La Cialoma. When we got home, we learned that this is the favorite restaurant of the owner of our favorite restaurant in Lugano. Three weeks in Sicily, this was by far one of the best meals we had - the food, the service, the presentation, the setting. Bottom center the fresh fish on offer for the day; bottom left the kids enjoy a view of the sea; top left Claudio cool and happy, the perfect lunch; top left his perfect glass of passito di Pantelleria; top middle quince jam drying in the sun under hand stitched table cloths; top right the perfectly cooked pear enjoyed together with the passito.
Aci Castello, Acitrezza, & Acireale. Freshest muscles I have ever eaten, with a seaside castle made of stone as the view. Dressed that day in a colorful shalwar kameez, I danced my way into the castle after lunch to be joined by the ‘guard’ who turned out to be a poet, really one day more magical than the other. Top left view from atop the highest point of the castle; top middle Acitrezza and its famous sea rocks which according to local legend were the great stones thrown at Odysseus in the epic poem The Odyssey by the monster Cyclops; top right the famous cathedral at Acireale.
Catania. A rainy day ‘off’, Claudio lounged with the TV in our cozy room and I treated myself to a café day writing in Mom’s journal. Left breakfast of dual granita pistachio and almond with brioche; right ceci and pasta soup with a glass of Etna white, perfect lunch in the piazza.
Catania. We met Fiorenza and Hector in Noto, and as promised contacted them when we arrived in Catania to arrange an apero. Having rested on our day ‘off’ we were ready for an adventurous evening. We met them at Savia, a famous pastry shop in the center of Catania. After a bottle of local bubbles, they generously whisked us to their home for a spontaneous dinner party. More magic, amazing hospitality and friendship. Top right Hector and Fiorenza in their lovely home where they welcomed us like old friends. Note Bunny & the Bearli’s, love at first site and here Fiorenza holds them on high so their high spirited dog Leo did not have a snack!; top tight us together in their home; bottom center – this is marzipan – famous at Savia. I took this photo for my mom, it looks like real fruit.
Etna. Originally, we had given up on Etna, as we lacked the correct gear. Then, at dinner Fiorenza and Hector persuaded us to go to the midpoint where the excursions start and at least get a feel for it – and gratefully we did. Center right the kids sitting on a volcano; top left, us on a volcano; next left me embracing the moment in the mist at midway to the midway; next a selfie midway in full sunshine and dancing winds; bottom left my feet touching a volcano for the first time.
Catania. From Etna, thanks to Hector’s generous excursion by car the night before we made our way to the Roman Amphitheater of Catania featured left. This ancient theater is in the middle of the old city surrounded by modern day buildings, they just built around it; Again thanks to Hector’s advice, top right one of the courtyards in the Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena, a Benedictine Monastery from the 16th century; bottom right a fancy pre-dinner gin cocktail.
Catania. Fish so fresh it was still swimming, as seen bottom. Top center Fiorenza and I share a moment of pure delight.
Catania. These little creatures are to be eaten raw, as in still alive.
Catania. This video is titled Queen of the Shells. Fiorenza expertly navigated these little beasts, a cause for much excitement and fun for us mortals.
Catania. On our last day in Catania, again at Hector's suggestion, I went out early to see the market come to life and I was rewarded with sounds, sights, and even this special tuna hawking. Fish market in full color and full action, click image.
Palermo. It was an interesting feeling as we drove through the most amazing landscape with shades of brown, yellow, and gold hills dotted with green. Then the sea! It meant we were nearly to Palermo and a tear of joy and gratitude escaped my eye as I took the top photo; Bottom Giovanni and Claudio reunited in Palermo, both beaming with joy.
Palermo. On a day out visiting cultural sights, Giovanni charms all. Click image to enjoy his magic.
Rain on our last full day in Palermo gave us a different perspective. Top left we visit amazing trees in the center of the city; next left Saint Catherine in her own church, The Church of Saint Catherine, in whose convent the original marzipan was first made; next three us on the rooftop of the convent; center Claudio & the kids pose with a Irma, Giovanni, and a Palermo lion.
Palermo. Lugano. Top, Bearlilino helps Claudio navigate us on the highway as we make our way to the airport to leave, for now, Sicily. Bottom, the family reunites in Lugano.