Depending on my mood or the weather outside the window, the imaginary vacation island changes. I stroll at sunset on sandy stretches, or I snorkel in rocky Mediterranean coves, I sip cocktails in lush gardens or harvest grapes from volcanic moonscapes... the fantasies are all there, populating my wanderlust-infected daydreams.
But my reverie is not all make-believe, the settings draw inspiration from the many (way more than you'd think) islands of Italy. The Bel Paese is a small territory compared to other European countries. Yet, the number of islands––beyond the major Sicilian and Sardinian regions––is staggering.
The Italian peninsula boasts in fact an unbelievable number of regional archipelagos, islands, islets, rocks, stacks and faraglioni (the English translation of this term is 'rauks') whose total area is beyond 50,000 square kilometers, and an insular heritage of over 800 islands, only 80 of which are actually inhabited. And that's not counting the islands in Italy's lakes and rivers!
Clear turquoise waters, sandy beaches or rocky coves, volcanoes, vineyards, jaw-dropping landscapes, delicious seafood and local specialties. The choices off the Italian mainland are rich and varied. I have to stop dreaming and buy myself a ticket!
I mapped out my favorite Italian maritime islands divided by region, listing dining recommendations to boot. The first post of the Island Hopping in Italy series focuses on the islands of Sicily. We’ll be island-hopping across three archipelagos and two standalone islands, touching down on some of the Mediterranean’s most stunning isole for variety and biodiversity.
You think Sicily is one island only?In actual fact, Sicily (Italy's largest region) also boasts a group of archipelagos and smaller islands that make up about 1.11% of the entire regional surface.
The Sicilian archipelagos are the Aeolian Islands, the Aegadian Islands and the Pelagie Islands. The two stand-alone islands are Pantelleria and Ustica. Read on for a brief description of each island's highlights, and dining recommendations for each. Enjoy!
ISOLE EOLIE - AEOLIAN ISLANDS
StromboliThis active volcanic island is usually visited as a day-trip, but day-trippers that don't stay the night miss the best part: the incredible experience of witnessing the dramatic, active sciara del fuoco eruptions. A steep slope, formed of lava, lapilli (rock fragments ejected from the volcano) and incandescent debris, descends to the sea from the crater at 750 meters above sea level. The spectacle is best experienced at nighttime, and from the sea, watching the bursts of lava that plunge into the sea, causing an impressive show.
There are informal eateries on Stromboli, my favorite is family-owned trattoria Il Canneto a consistently a Stromboli must for over 40 years. The kitchen prepares only a dozen dishes, all focused on the island's native products and local Aeolian tradition, which rotate according to the catch of the day. I available, I always order the frittura di cicirella (small local fish fry); the tuna with onion cipollata; the delightful swordfish rolls, or the amazing macaroni pasta rolled in eggplant strips. Nice homemade desserts, so leave room.
PanareaPanarea is tiny, exclusive, and expensive, yet ridiculously stunning. Celebrities (and wannabes) who wear sarongs and walk around town barefoot flock to the island for the active nightlife, but volcanic Panarea is also a perfect destination for scuba divers, who can explore offshore shipwrecks and secret grottoes when the socialites are still sleeping.
A good place to enjoy a fine meal on Panarea is Hycesia, hidden in the alleys of Panarea. The kitchen offers ingredient-based cuisine and dishes of great balance. The menu often varies according to market availability and the chef's inspiration. In any case, try the paccheri pasta with cream of zucchini and clams; the shrimp crudo, or the tuna belly with mint-scented eggplant. The wine list is impressive with an interesting focus on French labels. I prefer to sit at the tables set in the inner courtyard garden.
SalinaThe second-largest island of the Isole Eolie is also the greenest and possibly the most beautiful, boasting a natural reserve. For the largest part cloaked in olive groves and grape vineyards, this is my favorite of the archipelago.
Where to eat on Salina? For an exclusive escape, be sure to reserve a table at Signum, where chef Martina Caruso earned the family business a Michelin Star. For an informal lunch head to Porto Bello, which serves typical Aeolian dishes with creative flair.
Located in Santa Marina di Salina, the restaurant boasts 360° views from the four terraces overlooking the sea. The menu changes often according to season, when available, go for the sweet-and-sour fish dumplings; crudo of red prawns served with yogurt sauce; grouper à la Porto Bello and the delicious rare tuna steaks with capers. The wine cellar includes mainly regional labels.
VulcanoThis tiny island gave the world the word "volcano," and thanks to the presence of several craters, is geologically fascinating. This is the perfect day trip from Salina or Lipari, packing sandwiches and fruit on your rented dinghy.
For a proper lunch on the island, I suggest heading to Therasia Resort and dining at the restaurant, Il Cappero. Indulge in one of the several tasting menus, which also include a vegetarian and a gluten free option, and which obviously change according to season. Musts include u pani cunzatu (bread seasoned with salted ricotta from Vulcano, grape tomato, Nocellara del Belice olives, capers from Salina and fresh anchovies), tortello al capuliato (crushed sundried tomato, venus clams, basil and parmigiano), The spada nella roccia, or "sword in the stone" made with swordfish, prawns, pistachios from Bronte and ragusano cheese fondue. Stellar wine list. This is a place for true gourmands.
|© Andrea Grano|
LipariThe largest island of the archipelago is the most popular with summer tourists. The town has its charms, but it's also home to quite a few souvenir stands and loud touristy restaurants. On the plus side, Lipari is the easiest place to score budget lodging, particularly if you're island hopping and haven't planned long in advance.
For a fine meal, avoid the crowds and sneak to Filippino, that has been serving local specialties for over a century in the panoramic Piazza del Municipio, by the castle that houses the Aeolian Museum. The menu focuses on the catch of the day and on the island's local produce. Try the swordfish rolls with sweet and sour figs, or a twist on the traditional risotto with cuttlefish ink, but above all don't miss the maccaruna 'i casa alla Filippino, the house specialty pasta.
FilicudiTiny Filicudi has only a couple of small villages, with a handful of guest houses and only a few restaurants. This is the place where writers come to work on their novels, a place to unplug and become one with nature and the sea.
The best place for lunch on Filicudi is Villa La Rosa. At the core of the cuisine are local ingredients rendering simple and clean flavors, homemade baked preparations and courteous welcome complete the offer. I always recommend the lasagna with tuna and wild fennel; stewed flying squid with potatoes, but also treats like fried eggplant patties or the stuffed tomatoes. Their pizzas are equally delicious.
AlicudiAn extinct volcano rising from the sea, with about 100 full-time residents, Alicudi is the most remote of the Aeolian islands.
Coffee bar, info-point and restaurant L'Airone is a meeting place for islanders and regular tourists, thanks to its fish cuisine served on the charming terrace with a view of the sea. The menu revolves around the catch of the day, think pan fried shrimp, served with seasonal veggies. Dessert can be authentic Sicilian granita with a fragrant brioche. Prices are very affordable.
ISOLE EGADI - AEGADIAN ISLANDS
Three volcanic fragments of land called the Aegadian Islands (or Isole Egadi) are located off the northwestern coast of Sicily. A few minutes by hydrofoil from Trapani is this turquoise paradise where the sea and the sky merge in an infinite blue palette. On the Egadi Islands the pace of life is slow, shopping is done at makeshift stands where farmers with baskets full of tomatoes and eggplant sit streetside, along dry-stone walls; fresh fish is purchased directly from the small fishing boats that dock in the marina, and for some respite from the dry summer heat locals resort to tall glasses of mulberry granita. The islands of Marettimo, Favignana and Levanzo are three gems.
MarettimoLooking at it from a distance, Marettimo looks like a small mountain chain rising from the water. Apparently bare and parched seen from the sea, the island conceals a green heart, with paths that climb up 700 meters altitude and offer breathtaking views over steep white cliffs and the Mediterranean which opens to the West. The colors of Marettimo are blue of the sea, yellow of the tufa stone and the blinding white of the few scattered houses. Just a handful of beautiful beaches with crystal blue sea, but the real attraction of the almost deserted and completely pedestrian island are the grottoes.
At sunset I like to grab aperitivo with the locals in the piazza, seated at the informal tables Da Enzo: the chilled white wine comes paired with small plates of raw fish, bottarga, local pesto and raw prawns topped with orange juice and extra virgin olive oil, served on an orange wedge.
|©Erika Chaubert Studer|
FavignanaThe largest of the Egadi, Favignana an elegant and picturesque island. In the historic center, small tufa buildings and alleys conter the 19th century Villa Florio, symbol of the powerful noble family that dominated this rich and lush island. The coasts are full of coves and inlets with steep cliffs. Cala Azzurra, one of the most beautiful beaches of all the Sicilian islands.
A great place to have lunch on Favignana is Ristorante Bar Cavallo. Simple and basic, with outdoor seating, friendly service and dishes made with phenomenal fresh fish. I absolutely recommend ordering the mussel soup with croutons; the busiate pasta with sardines and fennel pollen; the tuna parmigiana and the grilled tuna belly. Close the gargantuan meal with the pistachio coffee and a Sicilian cassatella, a small fried pastry filled with ricotta and chocolate.
LevanzoIsland hoppers tired of the crowds should head to lovely Levanzo. Inland the island has just one tiny, peaceful village called Calla Dogana, on the coast are tranquil beaches, dramatic cliffs, and amazing hikes in nature. History-geeks should hit the Grotta del Genovese, a small cave holding Paleolithic graffiti dating back to 9,680 BC. Yes, you read correctly. The grotto is reachable by boat only.
My favorite place to eat on Levanzo is Trattoria Arcobaleno. I like to linger at the table on the restaurant's terrace overlooking the sea, enjoying local specialties like homemade pasta with clams; fresh amberjack or prawns fished out of the sea minutes before the meal; and the house special, the spiedino di spada, grilled swordfish skewers.
ISOLE PELAGIE - PELAGIE ISLANDS
Lampedusa, Isola dei Conigli, Linosa and uninhabited Lampione form the southernmost Sicilian archipelago of Italy, the Pelagie Islands, from the Greek πέλαγος, pélagos meaning "open sea."
Geographically African, the Sicilian Pelagie Islands are located between Malta and Tunisia. Lesser known and "wilder" than the Aeolian and Aegadian islands, the main island of the Pelagie is Lampedusa with its famous "satellite", Isola dei Conigli; then there's Linosa, an extinct volcano now home to a small village with colorful houses and paradise cove Cala Pozzolana. Lampione is the smallest, only 200 meters long and 180 meters wide, is an uninhabited natural paradise, only reachable by boat.
LampedusaWith its beautiful Spiaggia dei Conigli, singled out as the most beautiful beach in the world, Lampedusa is the ideal destination for a relaxing beach holiday. Natural paradise and habitat of Caretta caretta Loggerhead sea turtle species, Lampedusa is the perfect destination to admire Italy's southernmost sunsets.
Fine seafood and delicious local products can be enjoyed at the tables of Trattoria Terranova da Bernardo. The food offer and warm welcome surely make up for the lack of seafront views. Owners Gianni, Bernardo and Fiorenza serve and prepare a vast array of appetizers (dried and stuffed tomatoes, grilled anchovies, eggplant parmigiana, boiled octopus, cuttlefish with tomato and peas, to-die-for caponata, homemade tuna in oil, mini seafood meatballs with tomato sauce). Main dishes are equally tantalizing, pasta with tuna and fennel pollen, or with grouper ragù, spaghetti with tomato pesto and almonds with shrimp, to mention a few. But above all stuffed squid and a super seafood couscous.
LinosaSmall and volcanic Linosa is located 50 km north of Lampedusa, smack in the center of the Mediterranean. The island is lush, with about a hundred residents year-round, who inhabit small, colorful houses, amid stretches of prickly pear cacti dotting the dark volcanic coasts. Ideal for divers and snorkeling lovers who can admire multi-color fish wandering through the underwater lava rocks.
Rocky coves for swimming and kayaking can be reached only on foot or by bike, as in summer it's forbidden to access Linosa by car.
At lunch, sit at the colorful terrace of Ristorante Errera, only a few steps from the sea, the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks. The sensory overload culminates with the flavors of the island. The appetizer extravaganza opens with marinated tuna, swordfish carpaccio, seafood salad, mussels au gratin, mackerel patties, shrimp cocktail, sarde a beccafico, caponata and many other delicious local specialties. Pasta starters can include lentil soup, pasta with swordfish, eggplant and fresh mint, linguine with reef mullet and fennel. The wine list includes interesting Sicilian labels.
STANDALONE ISLANDSIn the Tyrrhenian Sea and in the Sicilian channel, the islands of Ustica and Pantelleria don't belong to an archipelago, rather form two distinct municipalities in the provinces of Palermo and Trapani.
PantelleriaWhite-domed dammusi lava stone houses, Malvasia vineyards and African atmosphere make Pantelleria one of the most fascinating islands in the world. A favorite celebrity destination, Pantelleria boasts black lava coastlines, cobalt blue sea and picturesque villages with Arabic names, like Khamma and Mueggen. Among the natural attractions don't miss Specchio di Venere (Venus's mirror), a natural lake that is located inside the crater of a volcano; or the Arco dell'Elefante, a rock that resembles the trunk of an elephant; crystalline Balata dei Turchi and the sweet island's fortified wine, passito.
To get your fill of capers and insalata Pantesca, head to La Nicchia, a remodeled gorgeous lava stone house with its own wine cellar and garden seating, under the fruit trees, Edison bulbs strung between branches. The menu offers island specialties like spaghetti with prawns, amberjack fish with breadcrumbs, or the delicious veal meatloaf. Leave room for dessert, specifically, granita made with passito wine, and bacio pantesco, the island's own crispy fritters stuffed with sweet ricotta and chocolate chips.
Diving & snorkelling resources in UsticaBlue Diving Ustica
La Perla Nera
How to get to the Sicily's minor islandsSiremar
Flights daily connect Palermo with Pantelleria.