Great Foodie Destinations 2016 – Sicily, Italy

Eats, Sicily, Italy, NatGeo

Sicily, Italy

Photograph by Peter Jordan, Alamy

Sicily is historically a culinary crossroads. Greeks brought olives and grapes, Arabs added sugarcane and spices, and the Spanish threw in tomatoes and chocolate. Thanks to beloved volcano Mount Etna, the island’s fertile soils have regularly produced a bounty of olives, pistachios, and fruits, while the surrounding seas are brimming with seafood.

The island is also a new frontier for Italian wines. Innovative young winemakers are taking advantage of Sicily’s reasonable property costs and rediscovering many of the island’s indigenous grape varietals like Nero d’Avola, Cattarratto, Nerello Mascalese, and Grillo.

What to Eat: Family-operated Pasticceria Palazzolo has operated in Palermo since 1920. It’s renowned for Sicilian specialty cassata, a sponge cake with layers of sheep’s milk ricotta, almond paste, and white icing topped with candied fruit. Also try Sicily’s many deep-fried delicacies—a legacy of Arab influence—like arancini, meat-filled rice balls, at I Cuochini in Palermo and crunchy cuttlefish, shrimp, and squid at La Tavernetta da Piero on the island of Ortigia in Syracuse.

What to Drink: Sip fragrant Marsala wine, which is traditionally served as an aperitif, in the city where it’s produced. Local bar La Sirena Ubriaca serves sweet, dry, and every variation in between alongside snacks like bruschetta topped with pistachio pesto, mulberry jam, or bottarga pâté made with cured fish roe.

Edible Souvenir: The west coast of Sicily is home to some of Europe’s oldest salt marshes. Trapani sea salt is unwashed, untreated, and hand processed using traditional salt pans and is said to retain a distinct flavor. Buy a bag of it at gourmet shop Bazar del Miele in the city of Trapani.

Food Experience: Visit one of Sicily’s up-and-coming winemakers. Stemmari in Sambuca offers guided tours in English Monday through Friday. The winery also offers guided tastings of their wines, like the native Sicilian Grillo or a rich Nero d’Avola. Schedule in advance by e-mail.

Cultural Tip: Sicilians take pranzo, the main midday meal, quite seriously. Stores often close from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. so employees can return home to eat.

Fun Fact: According to legend, the famous Sicilian dish of pasta con le sarde (bucatini pasta with sardines, fennel, pine nuts, and raisins) was first assembled in 827 when Admiral Euphemius of Messina returned from Tunisia.

Staff Tip: Whether you travel to Sicily by plane or boat—your two options—among the first things you’ll see when you arrive are vineyard-covered slopes and fields of fruit and olive trees: Wine and fresh produce are central to Sicilian life. In fact, Sicily now ranks as one of Italy’s top wine producers. Typical foods to try: Chicken Marsala at a restaurant in the town of Marsala; pasta with sea urchin; caponata, made with local eggplant and pine nuts; pasta with Trapanese pesto (basil mixed with Sicilian almonds); and hand-crafted chocolate from the southern town of Modica. To drink, it’s wine and more wine. Indigenous grape varietals to look for include Nero d’Avola, Zibibbo, Malvasia, Grecanico, Grillo, and Nerello. Keep an eye out for local labels such as Spadafora, Donnafugata, Planeta, Graci, and Occhipinti.

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