What to eat, drink, and see from Catania to Palermo and Marsala…and beyond

By Brian Freedman
Updated: February 26, 2019
Courtesy of Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo

When to Go: Spring and autumn mean more moderate temperatures—Sicily in the summer can get hot—though more coastal regions of the island offer plenty of cooling breezes and refreshing nights. December is the rainiest month, and vineyards will lack grapes and greenery, making this one of the island's least-visited times. 

Why: Sicily has been one the great jewels of the Mediterranean for millennia, and everyone from the Phoenicians and Greeks to the Romans, Vandals, Moors, Vikings, Normans, Germans, Spanish, and more have left their mark. As such, history buffs will find plenty to explore as they peel back the layers of the island’s incredible history. This diversity of cultures also means that the food here is unlike any other region in Italy, and the restaurants are better than ever, weaving classic Southern Italian influences with North African ones to offer a stunning range of fish, seafood, and pasta, and some of the best vegetable-based dishes in the country, including pine nut-studded eggplant caponata and crispy chickpea fritters. The wine, too, is better than ever, and reason to come alone: Whether you’re looking for bargain-priced bottles from small producers or higher-end vintages, Sicily’s vast range of terroirs and passionate winemakers make it a wine-lover’s paradise.

How to Get There: You’ll have to connect somewhere in Europe in order to get to Sicily, but most major airlines fly nonstop between the United States and Rome and Milan, where you can fly to destinations in Sicily, usually either Palermo or Catania. Turkish Airlines offers a nice business class option, and Alitalia’s business class is complete with a surprisingly diverse offering of Italian wines (including grappa!) and legitimately excellent pastas. You can also fly first class on Lufthansa between JFK and Frankfurt, and connect to Sicily on the same airline from there.

Getting Around: Sicily is an island of almost overwhelming variety, with mountains, beaches, sweeping countryside, and bustling cities. In order to make the most of it all, we recommend renting a car. Distances between regions can be substantial, so having your own transportation will save you money and frustration. Once you’re happily settled into your top-end hotel, however, the property will likely offer its own car service to ferry you around that particular part of the island. And if not, use taxis: Driving in narrow-streeted Sicilian cities can be intimidating for the uninitiated.

Where to Stay in Sicily

Tenuta Regaleali, Sclafani Bagni (Contrada Regaleali, 90020 Sclafani Bagni PA, Italy; +39 0921 544011): Approximately two hours by car from Palermo and set amid the rolling hills of Sclafani Bagni, this property offers all the rustic-chic charm that you’d hope for from rural Sicily, and the home-style cooking is outstanding (the pasta alla norma here is the best I’ve ever tasted).

Asmundo di Gisira, Catania (Via Gisira, 40, 95121 Catania CT, Italy; +39 095 097 8894): This property is located right next to La Pescheria fish market and set in a palazzo from the 1600s that contemporary artists have kitted out with decidedly non-17th century works. Each room is decorated and themed differently, and surprises can be found around every corner (including a Spider Man sculpture.)

Club Levante
Diego Mayon

 

Club Levante on Pantelleria (42 Vicolo Faraglione Pantelleria, 91017 Pantelleria TP, Italy; +39 0923 915305): A small island located right between Sicily and Tunisia, Pantelleria is famous for its Zibbibo passito, a honeyed dessert wine made from sun-dried Moscato grapes. Club Levante, with its infinity pool overlooking the sea and sophisticated riffs on the local cuisine, is worth the short flight.

Tenuta Capofaro on Salina (Isola di Salina , Comune di Malfa, Via Faro, 3, 98050 Malfa ME, Italy; +39 090 984 4330): Salina, one of the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site easily accessed by a ferry service that departs from more than a dozen locations around Sicily. Once you disembark, you’ll be picked up by a shuttle and whisked away to this stunning property, where whitewashed rooms are impeccably appointed yet understated; the kitchen, overseen by chef Ludovico De Vivo, features artisanal ingredients, most of which are grown on the property; and the Malvasia, grown on-site, is unforgettable.

Donnafugata Golf Resort & Spa in Ragusa (Contrada Piombo, 97100 Ragusa RG, Italy; +39 0932 914200): No matter how you play at one of the two courses here—Parkland, designed by Gary Player, and Links, by Franco Piras—relaxation is easy to come by here: Full spa services can be followed by drinks at one of the five bars, or a meal at any of the five restaurants. There’s a full lineup of kids’ activities, too, making this perfect for a family getaway.

Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo
Courtesy of Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo

 

Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo in Taormina (Via Teatro Greco, 59, 98039 Taormina ME, Italy; +39 0942 627 0200): A fixture in Sicily for nearly a century and a half, this five-star classic blends heritage and modern comforts seamlessly. With lush grounds, glorious views throughout, and a range of dining and drinking options that run the gamut from the formal to the poolside, it’s no wonder that this hotel is still so beloved.

Where to Eat and Drink in Sicily

Me Cumpari Turridu
Courtesy of Me Cumpari Turiddu

 

Me Cumpari Turridu, Catania (Piazza Turi Ferro, 36/38, 95131 Catania CT, Italy; +39 095 715 0142): Passionately and deliciously aligned with the Slow Food movement, this restaurant is a deeply soulful evocation of what makes Sicilian food and wine so unique. Go all in with a serving of malfadina with donkey mortadella washed down with, of course, Sicilian wine from the extensive list.

Uzeta Bistrò Siciliano, Catania (Via Penninello, 41, 95124 Catania CT, Italy; +39 095 250 3374): From sweets to more filling meals, Uzeta has it all. But for the experience you’ll remember most of all, stop by in the middle of the afternoon, stand at the counter, and snack on one of the miraculous arancine on offer, lovingly displayed in the glass cases. 

C&G Cioccolato & Gelato, Catania (Piazza Abramo Lincoln, 21, 95128 Catania CT, Italy; +39 095 446001): It can get hot in Sicily, and the best way to cool down is with a great cone of gelato, preferably enjoyed al fresco, and preferably involving pistachio, while walking aimlessly in the sunshine. Sicilian cakes and tarts are also available. 

Vinicolo Glam&Drink, Catania (Via del Colosseo, 8, 95124 Catania CT, Italy; +39 095 836 0730): This wine and cocktail bar serves some of the best gin and tonics in the city, and their bar snacks, like fresh-cut prosciutto, cheeses, and olives, make for a lavish aperitivo. 

Tropical Bar, Milazzo (Via dei Mille, 9-11, 98057 Milazzo ME, Italy; +39 090 907 3989): It doesn’t look like much from the outside, just your average seaside café set amid the tourist shops, but treat yourself to a brioche and granita. This combination is a Sicilian classic, and here the buttery, nutty richness of the brioche is impeccably balanced by the acidity and sweetness of strawberry or lemon granita. 

Ke Palle Arancine D’Autore
Courtesy of Ke Palle Arancine D’Autore

 

Ke Palle Arancine D’Autore, Palermo (check out the web site for the most convenient location and phone numbers): With four locations in Palermo and one in Trapani, this small chain was my first snack in Palermo upon arriving. The speck, walnut, and mozzarella-filled ones were game-changing. 

La Sirena Ubriaca
Courtesy of La Sirena Ubriaca

 

La Sirena Ubriaca, Marsala (Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, 39, 91025 Marsala TP, Italy; +39 0923 020500): Stop by for a glass or three of wine, and then, well lubricated, browse the selection of local wines, olive oils, and culinary goodies to bring home. Showing up back at work with 180 grams of pistachio pate for the boss will guarantee you that raise you’ve been angling for. 

Tenuta Capofaro
Matteo Carassale

Tenuta Capofaro (Isola di Salina, Comune di Malfa, Via Faro, 3, 98050 Malfa ME; +39 090 984 4330): Here, most of the ingredients have been grown on-site, and Gambero Rosso hailed their house-baked bread as the “best bread on the table in Italy” in 2018. The rest of the food here tends to use Sicilian classics as jumping-off points for totally unexpected flights of fancy. And the crudo is marvelous, especially alongside a crisp glass of white. 

While You're Here 

Hit Up Catania's Famous Fish Market: If you’ve ever daydreamed about what Sicily looks like, La Pescheria is probably a close approximation. Sellers hawk fish and seafood, much of it still writhing and twitching, at the top of their voices; locals pick up their haul for dinner; and tourists jump and giggle uncontrollably when an eel suddenly flips its tail at them. Some of the best fried fish and seafood you’ll ever have, the cartoccio di mare, costs a miraculous six euros at the nearby Scirocco Sicilian Fish Lab (Piazza Alonzo di Benedetto 7, 95121).

Visit Mt. Etna: Take the winding train, the Ferrovia Circumetna, alongside fields of dried lava, to some of the most terroir-driven wineries in Sicily. It runs between Riposto and Catania, with plenty of stops along the way. Once you’re up on the mountain, the brilliantly structured wines at Tascante make a perfect introduction to the landscape. Visits to Tenuta delle Terre Nere and Benanti would round out a fantastic Etna experience. Soothe your palate after a morning of tasting with lunch at Parco Statella in Randazzo (Via Montelaguardia, 2/s, 95036 Randazzo CT, Italy; +39 095 924036), and dinner at Dai Pennisi in Linguaglossa, which serves meats sliced in-house at the butcher counter.

Sample World-Renowned Olive Oils: A visit to Mandranova (92020 Palma di Montechiaro, AG, Italy; +39 393 986 2169), an award-winning producer of remarkable extra-virgin olive oils in Agrigento, can be followed by a cooking class or a relaxing stay at one of their villas or rooms.

Take in Some Local Art (and Local Cocktails): Palazzo Butera (Via Butera, 18, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy; +39.091.7521754), in the Kalsa district of Palermo, is the brainchild of Massimo Valsecchi and Francesca Frua de Angeli, who purchased and restored the sprawling estate, which has roots in the late-17th century. It’s still a work in progress, but a visit to see the rotating art installations, as well as a meal, cocktail, or glass of wine at Le Cattive is rewarding even now. Also check out their smoked-rosemary Negroni for a revelatory twist on the classic.

Explore Marsala: A few days in Marsala is worth the trip to the western part of the island. The wine is far more varied than the sweet stuff we see here might lead visitors to believe, and the food is revelatory. Ciacco Putia Gourmet (Via Sebastiano Cammareri Scurti, 3, 91025 Marsala TP, Italy; +39 0923 711160) is a must for a casual bite, a few glasses of wine, and phenomenal people-watching. The charcuterie is worth considering, as are, unexpectedly, the hamburgers, which they take quite seriously here. And renowned wine producer Donnafugata (Via Sebastiano Lipari, 7, 91025 Marsala TP, Italy; +39 0923 724245) offers six different types of tastings for visitors to their stunning property in Marsala.

Eat a Spleen Sandwich: Pane con la milza, or pani ca’ meusa—it’s a spleen sandwich. Get over any squeamishness and dive right in: Enjoyed with a beer while standing outside the shop where you bought, it is perhaps the best five or six euros you’ll ever spend. Available primarily throughout Palermo from street vendors.

Snack on Panelle: These fried chickpea fritters are the ultimate snack, either on their own, with a beer, or alongside a crisp glass of Sicilian white wine.

Wander Mercato del Capo: Winding and maze-like, this Palermo market is a food-forager’s dream, with seemingly millions of olives, cheese and meat stands, vegetables worthy of a still life, and more.

Leave Room in Your Suitcase For

Capers: They're among Sicily’s most essential food items, especially the ones from the island of Pantelleria, which themselves have been recognized by UNESCO. Yes, they really are that good. Buy the salt-packed ones, and much more than you think you’ll ever need.

Mt. Etna Lava-Stone Crafts: Hewn into tiles, tabletops, simple beaded bracelets, and more, the randomly pitted, vaguely rustic-looking basalt will be a permanent reminder of your time in Sicily. I personally wear a bracelet from here with regularity. And when I taste Sicilian wines with my colleagues, and talk turns to Nerello Mascalese, I’m suddenly the coolest person in the room. At least, that is my delusion.

Zibibbo di Pantelleria: Traditionally crafted from dried grapes that were grown on vines planted in crater-like ditches—it protects them from the wind—this wine is what all Moscato wants to be when it grows up: Concentrated, honeyed, floral, spicy, and unforgettable.

Wines From the Mt. Etna Region: These bottles are finding their way into more and more wine bars and high-end retailers in the United States, but actually visiting the producers on the various flanks of the volcano will throw the vast differences in style into sharp relief. You won’t be able to resist filling an extra suitcase with these to re-taste at home.

A Jar of Caponata: Make that many jars of caponata. Because everywhere you go in Sicily, there will be a different recipe for the great eggplant-based dip. Of course, calling it a dip is far too limiting: I’ve enjoyed it on pasta, spread on bread, and, more times than I’m happy to admit, directly from a spoon, one after the other until I was firmly and happily in a food coma. Bringing it home in a sealed jar makes it legal (just check it with your bags), and the spread will serve as a delicious, mostly-healthy reminder of the island.

Cutting Boards and Cork Screws: You'll find loads of both crafted by local artisans from gorgeously whorled Sicilian olive wood at the various markets throughout Sicily. From cutting boards to trivets and beyond, these are versatile, useful, and rarely too expensive. Small cutting boards can usually be purchased for less than 30 or 40 euros, with prices rising accordingly based on size and craftsmanship. Cork screws, depending on the quality of the mechanism, can range from around 40 euros for a basic model up past 100 euros.

Resources 

Tauck Tours (800-788-7885): This company has built itself into one of the most reliable and highly regarded tour operators for destinations around the world, and they offer a ten-day Sicilian tour providing a detailed look at the island and its history. And while eating and drinking aren’t an explicit focus with Tauck, you’ll visit a range of cities and towns throughout, and meals tend to run the gamut from casual to more fine-dining, with time built in to explore—and dine—for yourself.

Exodus Travels (844-227-9087): They are currently offering a “Sicily Food Adventure” package that runs for seven nights and focuses on local culinary and wine offerings in Palermo, Trapani, Agrigento, and Siracusa. 

Wines of Sicilia DOC: This is the regional wine board, and an excellent resource for information on what makes the island such an up-and-coming destination for wine.

Visit Sicily: The web site of the Sicilian tourism board is chock-full of advice, photography, travel guidance, and more. It’s an indispensable resource for potential visitors, and the food section is excellent. 

Lee Marshall: An expert on Sicily and Sicilian travel who writes for a range of publications. Check out his work and sample travel itineraries online—the advice is detailed and varied.

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