Aug 27, 2018

Where to eat while island hopping in Italy - Sicily

I need a vacation. When I dream of stealing away from daily life the picture I paint in my head is always of an island.

Island hopping in Italy - Sicily

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.

sea cave, Mediterranean Sea, Italy

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!

Italian volcanic islands, sicily

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.

Island hopping in Sicily

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!

Island hopping in Sicily, Aeolian Islands

ISOLE EOLIE - AEOLIAN ISLANDS

Aeolian Islands map, Sicily
Seven spectacular islands make up the Aeolian Archipelago (locally called Isole Eolie) off the north-east coast of Sicily, above Messina and Milazzo. The volcanic origin of this cluster of islands makes for some fascinating features, from dramatic cliffs to vineyards, to thermal springs. Several parts of the tiny Aeolian islands, coves and outcroppings can only be explored by boat. I prefer rocky coves to the very few, often crowded sandy beaches. Consider renting a boat or signing up on small-group boat tours of the islands for the best swimming in your life. The Aeolian Islands are: Stromboli, Panarea, Salina, Vulcano, Lipari, Filicudi and Alicudi.

STROMBOLI, Aeolian Islands, Sicily

Stromboli

This 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.

Il Canneto, Stromboli - Aeolian Islands, Sicily

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.


PANAREA Aeolian Islands, Sicily

Panarea

Panarea 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.

Hycesia, Panarea - Aeolian Islands, Sicily

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.


SALINA Aeolian Islands, Sicily

Salina

The 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.

Signum, Salina - Aeolian Islands, Sicily

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.

Porto Bello, Salina - Aeolian Islands, Sicily

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.


VULCANO Aeolian Islands, Sicily

Vulcano

This 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.

Il Cappero, Therasia Resort Vulcano, Aeolian Islands, Sicily

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.

LIPARI Aeolian Islands, Sicily
© Andrea Grano

Lipari

The 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.

Filippino, Lipari, Aeolian Islands, Sicily

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.


FILICUDI Aeolian Islands, Sicily

Filicudi

Tiny 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.

Villa La Rosa, Filicudi, Aeolian Islands, Sicily

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.


ALICUDI Aeolian Islands, Sicily

Alicudi

An 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.


Aegadian Islands, Sicily


ISOLE EGADI - AEGADIAN ISLANDS

Aegadian Islands map, Sicily
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.


MARETTIMO - Aegadian Islands, Sicily

Marettimo

Looking 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.


FAVIGNANA, Aegadian Islands, Sicily
©Erika Chaubert Studer

Favignana

The 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.



Levanzo

Island 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.

Trattoria Arcobaleno, Levanzo - Aegadian Islands, Sicily

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

Pelagie Islands map, Sicily
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.


LAMPEDUSA Pelagie Islands, Sicily

Lampedusa

With 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.

Trattoria Terranova da Bernardo, Lampedusa, Pelagie Islands

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.


LINOSA, Pelagie Islands, Sicily

Linosa

Small 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.


Island hopping in Italy - Sicily

Pantelleria map, SicilySTANDALONE ISLANDS

In 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.
PANTELLERIA, Sicily

Pantelleria

White-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.

La Nicchia, Pantelleria, Sicily

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.

USTICA, Sicily

Ustica

Ustica map, Sicily
Small and isolated, Ustica is a Sicilian island that is not part of any archipelago. The black and fertile volcanic island has been visited and inhabited over the centuries by Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians and Saracens. Today, Ustica is one of the most important naturalistic areas of Italy, thanks to its Marine Reserve, the first and most important in Italy, which every summer attracts hundreds of diving enthusiasts who come for the rich sea depths and grottoes. The town center is enchanting, a maze of narrow alleys and steps that climb up the cliff, dominated by the Torre di Santa Maria, that houses the local Archaeological Museum, with prehistoric village remains and Hellenistic-Roman era tombs. Fishing is one of the most developed activities on the island; performed with small boats and traditional methods, providing local rock-habitat fish that's perfect for soups or grilled entrées. The island's small, red shrimp with turquoise eggs, excellent raw with a light marinade are the island's pride, are fished with traditional lobster traps called "nasse."

Il Faraglione, Ustica, Sicily
@M.Coco/Riccio blu
Where to enjoy a meal of such marine abundance? At ristorante Il Faraglione, whose various level terraces overlook the small fisherman's wharf. The menu is graced by fresh fish, obviously, and locally farmed products, namely Slow Food Presidia lentils, which are served in all manner of surf and turf recipes.

Diving & snorkelling resources in Ustica

Blue Diving Ustica
Orca Diving
La Perla Nera

How to get to the Sicily's minor islands

Siremar
Usticalines
Flights daily connect Palermo with Pantelleria.

Aug 20, 2018

Dinner nostalgia

As a child, I dined out often with my family. The decades have changed the city's dining scene, for better and worse.

dining out in the 1970s Rome
Photo Roma Sparita

My earliest childhood memories are sensory. Restaurant meals played a big part in their shaping. For social and financial reasons, dining out, once commonplace, played a big part in my upbringing. Throughout my youth, I heard the words a cena fuori almost daily. 

I also recall the wonderful feeling of falling into slumber at the end of a meal as adults continued their animated conversation. In the background was the gentle hum of the dining room. I'd hear glasses clink, silverware tap bone china, and the "glug glug glug" of wine being poured. I'd rest my head on folded arms and drift securely into dreamland.

I treasured these post-prandial naps. I'm not sure I ever slept more soundly than as a small child in a restaurant.

For better or worse, that romantically lazy side of the Rome dining scene has vanished. Many places I remember from decades ago are gone or have changed ownership and mood. Charm is harder to find. So are quality meals.

Childhood visions are unique, and I've also changed. My taste is more sophisticated, and more demanding. But let me set all that aside for a moment to remember some of the restaurants that shaped my youth. Modern day alternatives are listed after each memory.

Continue Reading → On Viale dei Ricordi, as appeared on The American Magazine

Aug 11, 2018

Mozzarella di Bufala Cheese Q&A

"Why is it called mozzarella di bufala?" I get asked this by non-Italians a lot. My answer always surprises. "Because it's made with the milk of the buffalo". After a long silence I explain that the bovine in question is the water buffalo, not bison.

bufala is Italian for female buffalo

There are many––often conflicting––theories about how these gentle animals got to Italy from India. The theory I find more believable is that the introduction occurred during the Norman period in Sicily, where the animals arrived on ships towards the end of the 10th century during Saracen and Moorish invasions. In the period between 1189 and 1266 they slowly migrated to the current breeding areas. What's evident is that the buffalo, with its large, flat hooves and penchant for loose, muddy terrains, thrived in the southern regions' marshy low lands.

bufala is Italian for female buffaloThere is so much more to say about one of my favorite cheeses! That's why I'm sharing the knowledge acquired over the course of 3 years spent roaming around Italy reporting on the country's best, lesser known and most rare cheeses for my TV show ABCheese.

I'll answer the questions I get asked most frequently on the cheeses of Italy in a brand new blog series called "Cheese Q&A" Please feel free to add your mozzarella di bufala questions in the comments section below!

mozzarella di bufala

What is the history of mozzarella di bufala?

The first historical documents dating back to the 12th century, when the Normans controlled southern Italy, state that the monks of the San Lorenzo monastery in Capua used to offer "mozza" or "provatura" to the visiting pilgrims. The modern term mozzarella appeared for the first time in 1570 in a cookery manual by Bartolomeo Scappi, Renaissance chef of the papal court under pope Pius IV (Medici) and Pius V.

mozzarella di bufala

Where is mozzarella di bufala produced in Italy?

Mozzarella di bufala DOP (protected designation of origin) is produced in 4 macro-areas: in the Campania region in the provinces of Caserta, Salerno and part of the provinces of Benevento and Naples; in the Lazio region it is produced in part of the provinces of Frosinone, Latina and Rome. In the Puglia region, mozzarella di bufala campana is made in a part part of the Foggia province, and in the tiny region of Molise it's made in part of the province of Isernia. Any product marketed as mozzarella di bufala outside of the designation of origin label is not protected by the Consortium's strict production guidelines.

consorzio mozzarella di bufala campana dop

How is mozzarella di bufala made?

It takes 4,5 liters (that's a little over a gallon) of water buffalo milk to make 1 kilo of mozzarella di bufala. To turn that gallon of white gold into the milky ball of happiness that is mozzarella di bufala, cheesemakers have to turn the fatty liquid into solid, in a complex operation. The 2-hour old raw milk is first of all cultured, meaning lactic acid bacteria is added at the beginning of the cheese-making process to convert sugar into acid, which coagulates milk proteins.

spinning the curdmimmo la vecchia mozzarella di bufala

Once the milk is curdled the cheesemakers break the mass and obtain curds. The curds are then left to soak in the whey to acidify further, after which is my favorite part of production: the magical filatura (i.e. spinning) phase. Slowly adding boiling water the curds are stretched and spun by the mastro casaro (master cheesemaker) in large inclined wooden tubs. Using a special bowl and a stick, he turns the ugly tofu-like curds into a large snow white, satiny mass of hot mozzarella. Very quickly the large mass is portioned and severed (in Italian this verb is "mozzare") by two or more cheesemakers facing each other, who with their bare hands cut off different sizes from larger sections, either in the classic 200-gram ball, 50-gram bocconcino, small bite-sized ciliegine or the large braided treccia, and then dropping them in a cool salt bath.

mozzarella di bufala in salt brine

mozzarella di bufala cut by hand

The idenifying mark of bufala shaped by hand and not by a machine is a clearly visible 3-point "scar" on the surface of each mozzarella. Just a few hours after soaking in the salty brine, mozzarella di bufala is ready to be eaten.

How long does mozzarella di bufala keep?

I'm going to say this now, and you'll just have to trust me: mozzarella di bufala should never be refrigerated. Kept in a bowl floating in its whey storing liquid, mozzarella di bufala should be eaten within a few days of its production, at room temperature. Refrigerating messes with the texture and the chill nullifies the delicate taste, numbing your taste buds. Besides, who has mozzarella left over anyway?

mozzarella di bufala should never be refrigerated

What should real mozzarella di bufala taste like?

The taste is lactic (milky), a hint of hay and a wild, slightly acidic twang. The light creamy and almost sweet taste contains barely a hint of salt. The texture is rich, creamy and oozingly delicious...with twice the fat of cow's milk, fresh mozzarella di bufala has plump, bulbous consistency that weeps sweet, rich, grassy whey when bitten into. The experience can only be described as sensual.

proper way of eating mozzarella di bufala

What's the best way to eat mozzarella di bufala?

I believe the best way to enjoy bufala is eating it with your hands: biting into it, whey dribbling down your chin. It's equally satisfying plated alongside ripe heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and seasoned with only a thread of extra-virgin olive oil––the magical caprese salad. 


mozzarella di bufala on pizza

I also love to add it raw, ripped in messy swaths, on pizza, pasta, vegetable dishes and salads. Sliced and sandwiched between slices of crusty bread with sautéed greens, or with prosciutto, or even better: paired with blistered shishito peppers. Day-old bufala is perfect for mozzarella in carrozza fried sandwiches.

mozzarella in carrozza, fried bufala sandwiches


Would you like to know more on the topic of mozzarella di bufala? Read this article Tasting Mozzarella di Bufala Straight from the Source

I purchase my mozzarella di bufala at the following dairies:
Caseificio il Casolare
La Baronia
Tenuta Vannulo
Barlotti
Caseificio Giuliano

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