The New York Post reported Friday that New York socials were all set to head to Cartagena, Colombia this weekend for the engagement party for billionaire Alejandro Santo Domingo and Lady Charlotte Wellesley, but many were in a panic over the Zika virus. Apparently quite a few of the fashionable party guests tried to back out at the last minute because Colombia’s 20,000 confirmed cases of Zika are second only to Brazil’s. The Zika virus is scaring many who would be planning vacations to warmer climates this month, just as the Chikungunya virus set off fears last year during the winter. This writer had a Jamaican holiday all booked for this same time year, but after reading a warning about Chikungunya on the Lonely Planet website, I canceled the flight, the room reservation and sent the snorkel gear back to Amazon. Chikungunya, also a mosquito borne virus, had swept through the Caribbean and left thousands of the region’s inhabitants sick to varying degrees with the virus, and Jamaica was in the throes of it last winter. Unwilling to risk coming down with what sounded like a Lyme Disease level illness, as I knew there was no question that I would be bitten multiple times, I made other arrangements for our vacation at the last minute. My boyfriend and I took his brother and sister-in-law up on their offer of using their timeshare, and as it was at the last minute, our options were very limited. There was practically nothing available in Hawaii, our second choice, or other temperate European countries, such as Greece. We were left with two options in Sicily.
Sicily is not exactly a draw during the last weeks of February, as the climate isn’t conducive to the type of activities that make it so attractive during the warmer months. The last time I visited the island was in the summer, and most of my time was spent touring the volcanic archipelago that makes up the Aeolian Islands, just off the North coast of Sicily, a relatively quick ferry ride from the city of Messina. The islands attract up to 200,000 visitors annually during the summer months, and they are very much in line with my Fellini-esque vision of how a Sicilian holiday ought to be spent. Long outdoor lunches spent sipping crisp white Sicilian wines and dining on fresh caught local seafood, beneath the type of rattan awnings that cast dark horizontal shadows across white linen covered tables. Not much chance for that in February, or so I thought. We booked at the Marsa Sicla Residence in Sampieri for a full week’s stay, and I made our reservations for round trip flights to Rome. The plan was to take a cheap as chips flight from Rome to Sicily’s Southern city of Catania and pick up our car at the airport for the one and a half hour drive to Sampieri. This cut the airfare considerably and afforded us the opportunity to spend a few days in Rome before heading back to New York City. The rest was going to be a winter time adventure in a place that under normal circumstances I would only consider visiting in summer. But Sicily has a particular magic in winter, as we were to soon discover.
We rented a car from an efficient establishment called Sicily by Car through Priceline and got a fabulous deal for the entire week for just under $240 US. The manager talked me into adding a tom tom for an extra $20, and I found reason to silently thank him many times as I drove around the countryside and through the ancient cities. The tom tom did a great job of guiding us to Sampieri but got completely flummoxed once we reached the back roads that our resort was located on. We got very lost on the dirt and gravel roads that had become flooded with the heavy rains that had begun falling by nighttime. There were no street lights back on those dark country roads, and huge dark villas were barely visible in the rain soaked darkness as I pulled up to massive iron gates that gave off no sign of life at the end of long wet driveways. My boyfriend was ready to go back to Rome and check into our hotel there but I knew our resort was someplace in the wet darkness. I found it at last, as we drove up a long and very winding narrow road into a completely dark resort with a foreboding feeling. Just as the doubt that there would be anyone available to check us in began to take hold, I saw a huge main house on a hill with the light on. With a sense of relief, I parked under a wooden awning and we walked through the rain to the doors.
We were greeted heartily by Antonio, the manager, who had kept our table set and our dinner warm. We gratefully took the menu he handed us and sat down to check off the four courses of our choice and then headed off to our unit to put our things away while Antonio and the chef got busy in the vast kitchen. After settling in and changing into dry clothes, we went back up to the dining room and sat down before our first course, a huge warm bowl of Macchu, a type of Sicilian bean soup that was just sublime after the long, wet and dark journey. We had the dining room completely to ourselves that first night, as Marsa Sicla is a summer family resort and functions with a very limited staff during the winter. By the next morning the only other guests who would be there for our stay had arrived, but that first night we had Antonio all to ourselves. We were both completely enamored of him by the time he set a pitcher of Sicilian red wine on our table, and fully in love as he refilled it twice for us. It was an auspicious start to what would become one of the most magical experiences each of us have ever had in Italy.
Sampieri is located in what is known as the Baroque region because of the concentration of cities in the Southwestern part of the island that feature the distinctive form of architecture. Using our little seaside resort as starting point, I programmed the tom tom for the city center of a different one of these cities each day, and thus began an adventure that was filled daily with new discoveries in food, wine, shopping and architecture. We started in Ragusa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that sits atop a wide limestone hill between two valleys. Ragusa required two days of concentrated walking, as the city is divided into two sections; old and practically ancient, known as Ragusa Ibla. It is in Ragusa Ibla that one of the most magnificent cathedrals on the island is located, the Cathedral of San Giorgio, construction of which was completed in 1775. The area surrounding the Cathedral is a warren of medieval streets that all lead to the edge of the cliff, with sweeping views of the surrounding valleys. There are a few world class restaurants in the area, one of which is Michelin rated, and right outside the Cathedral is a gelateria renowned for its Nero d’Avola flavored gelato.
Which brings us to the food, because that is what is most memorable about Sicily. The food and the wine. Well, the people too, and the architecture. Pretty much all of Sicily, actually, but I will stick with the food. After Ragusa we decided to make Modica our next stop. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Modica’s architecture has been recognised as providing outstanding testimony to the exuberant genius and final flowering of Baroque art in Europe. It is also renowned for its chocolate, which I will get to shortly. After parking in the city center, we quickly found a pizzeria tucked at the base of the mountain in a corner of a square near another cathedral. Again, we were the only patrons, so we had the undivided attention of the chef and his lovely staff of two. After gorging on two perfectly thin crusted, sweet sauced pizzas and a bottle of wine, we began what would become the most challenging of the many hikes we would embark upon as the city is literally built up the side of a mountain. The reward for our three hour hike was cappuccino and pastry in one of the many pasticcerias that line the Via San Michele where another Cathedral of San Giorgio is located. We loaded up on the famous chocolate at a tiny but densely stocked shop across from the cathedral and also scored a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a couple of tubs of olives, and some slices of Mortadella and Prosciutto. And bread of course.
The day after Modica we ventured over to Noto, which is known for its almonds. As luck would have it, we followed our noses down a tiny alley to a little establishment that was just gearing up for its dinner rush. We made a reservation for the following night at Ristorante Vicari and were rewarded with some of the best polpo we ever tasted; grilled octopus in a red wine sauce that was so tender as to be almost still alive. And those almonds. We divided an order of Ravioli Di Ricotta Ovina con crema di mandorle di Noto e salvia, which is basically cheese filled ravioli topped with a creamy almond sauce. A piece of heaven on your plate. Made with the almonds the region is known for. I have scoured the internet for the recipe for the sauce but the closest I have come is a walnut sauce from Giada de Laurentiis. Noto is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and there is much to see as far as examples of the best Baroque architecture that Sicily is known for, as well as wonderful little shops specializing in couture and accessories from Palermo based designers.
A trip to Portopalo di Capo Passero for fresh seafood was literally a washout as the day long rains flooded the roads and drove all but the very intrepid, us and lorry drivers, inside. The tiny fishing community is well known for its seafood restaurants, all of which were closed when we pulled up to the rain soaked city center. Starving after our drive back toward our resort, we pulled into the center of Pozzallo, the next largest town near Sampieri. More commercial and modern than the other cities we had thus far visited, my boyfriend voiced skepticism that we would find anything worthwhile and suggested we just head back to the resort and await dinner. I had other plans, as from experience I know that fortune rewards the resolved. In short order I led us into Sapori Doc, an enoteca that was literally a street level wine cellar that also served bar food. Again, we were the only patrons in the place, and the lovely young woman in charge spoke no English at all. Food has its own language, however, and she seated us at the single large table in the back room, surrounded by hundreds of bottles of wine organized according to region, and left us to pick out what we desired. Out of the back kitchen came perfectly grilled zucchini, grilled sausage topped with balsamic glaze, bruschetta and roasted almonds. We finished the simple meal with dolci and a dessert wine from the region.
I have saved the best for last. One day while we were having breakfast in the dining room, I overheard Antonio mention that he and his wife had plans for dinner later that evening at a new restaurant in Scicli, a beautifully Baroque city that is the location for “Inspector Montalbano”, a popular Italian television series that ran from 1999 to 2013. Scicli was just a short 25 minute drive from Sampieri, and I asked Antonio for the details and he explained that his good friends had just opened a pizzeria called Moscabianca. I determined that my boyfriend and I would end our tour of Sicily with lunch at this new spot, that turned out to be much more than a pizzeria. The business card says, “A Different Approach”, which it most certainly turned out to be. We arrived just at the start of the early dinner rush, so, once again, we were the sole patrons in the place. Thus, we received the full attention of the proprietors, Giuseppe Ammatuna and his lovely wife, Carmela Garofalo. Both are veterans of the high end Roman restaurant scene, and Moscabianca, which roughly translates into “something rare”, is the culmination of both their dreams to open an establishment in Sicily.
Ammatuna seated us at a table in one of the elegant and spare dining rooms with a view of an ancient side street. With his help, we chose a sublime wine from the list, and Ammatuna even supplied us with a brochure of the vineyard of its origin, Cristo di Campobello. As he discussed the virtues of the vineyard and the grape with us, Garofalo was busy in the kitchen preparing a perfect piece of filet and an order of ravioli with a side of grilled verdure. The ravioli were simple and perfect, with a sage and butter sauce. But the filet was a revelation. As a former vegetarian, I only partake of red meat under special circumstances, and this moment, in a beautiful Baroque Sicilian city certainly fell into that category. What was placed before us was a sublime piece of locally sourced meat that was grilled to rare perfection, topped with a few sprigs of fresh rosemary and crystals of sea salt. Accompanying were a few slivers of grilled apple. This, combined with the shavings of grilled carrots and zucchini created the perfect meal. On top of all this was the delight both Ammatuna and Garofalo took in sharing their enthusiasm for food and fine drink. As an aperitif, Ammatuna brought out a bottle of Amaro Montenegro, an herbal liqueur that is distilled in Bologna, Italy. It is made using over 40 herbs, including vanilla and orange peels. Suffice to say, it was the perfect coda to our Sicilian holiday.
As we waited at the gate at Catania Airport for our flight back to Rome, a huge roar echoed throughout the airport from a massive crowd of people. Veterans of the 9/11 terror attacks, naturally we were momentarily unnerved. Needlessly, it turned out, as the disturbance was caused by the members of Il Divo, the hugely popular, multinational classical crossover vocal group, passing through for their connecting flight. After a one hour flight to Fiumicino – Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, in Rome, we arrived to find the driver sent by our B & B near Vatican City, Tibullo. Michelle, the incredibly warm proprietor of Tibullo, promised that he would be waiting, and he transported us from Fiumicino into Rome swiftly in a big black Mercedes. Tibullo is located near the Castelo St. Angelo, St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican City, which, in my opinion, makes it the best spot to stay in Rome. The rooms are beautifully appointed, and our bathroom, while not en suite, was just outside the door of our room. Michelle guided us through the functions of a wonderful self serve espresso/cappuccino machine, and our room was restocked each morning with fresh bread, biscuits, fruit and juice.
The winter holiday that we had originally envisioned, snorkeling the reefs around Negril, Jamaica, lounging on the cliffs and dancing to Reggae at Rick’s Cafe, turned out to be something else entirely, thanks to the tiny mosquito and the virus it was carrying. Sicily, underpopulated by tourists, opened its magical doors to us, and we felt privy to its charms in a way that might not have seemed as fulfilling with hordes of fellow tourists. The Sicilian roads were practically empty, and we had no difficulty finding a table at our restaurant of choice. Back in Rome, the Vatican was as crowded as ever, but by booking a guide through What a Life Tours, we swept to the head of the line and right through security in a matter of minutes. The tables at Piazza Navonna were not quite as crowded, and we shopped the streets around the Spanish Steps well into the night. It wasn’t exactly the tropical escape we originally longed for, but, in the end, it turned out to be exactly what we were looking for.