Pantelleria: Italy tasting like Africa

by argantree

This volcanic island off Sicily boasts remote rocky beaches, thermal spas, vineyards and a cuisine that blends Italian and North African flavours. Here is a guide to local dishes and where to eat them

There are few places where caper plants grow wild on rocks and even tarmac, and where oregano retains its freshness and fragrance for months after being sun-dried. One of these places – if not the place – is Pantelleria, the volcanic island off the south-west coast of Sicily that is closer to Tunisia than to Italy.

Its dramatic landscape seems moulded by Mother Nature herself, with strong winds grazing its surface in winter and harsh rays scorching the verdant hills in late spring and summer. Of course, the island and its inhabitants have adapted to the environment: citrus and olive plants never grow into tall trees that could be blown away; their branches extend along the ground like tentacles – as do those of the zibibbo grapevine introduced by the Phoenicians and popularised by the Arabs.

For a place surrounded by water, Pantelleria might be expected to have a population committed to fishing – but once again, Bent al-Ryon ("Daughter of the Wind", which is what the Arabs called the island) surprises you. Farming and viticulture are the most popular activities. Locals also grow fruit and vegetables and produce a wide array of delicacies from cheese to sweets.

Whatever grows on the island will, sooner or later, find its way into your mouth – so why not experience Pantelleria through its food? There are many excellent restaurants to choose from, or you could rent a dammuso (a traditional domed house with thick walls that keep rooms cool in summer and warm in  winter) and prepare your meals on a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean. Wherever you choose to enjoy them, here is a list of dishes not to be missed:

Why not kick off a meal with an insalata pantesca? Normally a side dish, it is also a great entrée, and many versions are available. The original recipe uses few ingredients: boiled potatoes, firm ripened tomatoes, green olives, capers, oregano and an onion that locals call cavuli. Some add sun-dried tomatoes or fresh tumma cheese (see below). Salads will never taste the same again…

Tumma, which I mentioned, is the most popular diary product on the island – a soft, unsalted and low-fat cheese ideal for people who want to keep their figure. Another popular cheese is Ricotta. The variety found in Pantelleria is a world apart from the product of the same name found elsewhere in Italy, due to a curdling process which is helped by sea water.

Remember to take a bag when you wander across hills and coastal cliffs, where you will find myriad herbs growing wild. If you're going to try just one, make it the lovely finocchio di mare – green with thick, rounded leaves and lilac-colored flowers. Select a bunch of young, thin leaves, place them in a jar and add white wine vinegar. After 15 days, you will have a great dressing for tomato salad.

My weakness is first courses such as pasta with pesto pantesco, which has nothing to do with the basil-based sauce from Liguria, the region in Italy's north-west. This one is made with fresh chopped tomatoes, flat-leaf parsley, garlic, oregano and olive oil. I strongly advise using it to flavor grilled fish.

Don’t leave Pantelleria without trying its couscous. Once again, it is different from that found elsewhere and is a favorite among locals, who prepare it with fish, meat and fish broth and garnish it with fried vegetables. Nor should Ravioli alla Pantesca be missed. Filled with ricotta and mint, it is often served with pork ragout sauce and flavored with cinnamon. It also tastes good with basil-and-tomato sauce or sage and butter.

If fish is your thing, go for something unusual such as pasta con salsa di patelle chi cirasi (pasta with mussels and cherry tomatoes.) At low tide, whether it is winter or summer, you will often see people with buckets and knives ready to collect the suction cup-shaped mussels. You won't have properly experienced local fish without trying cernia a ghiotta (grouper). I’ve been told that "catching a grouper" in the local dialect roughly translates as "being drunk" because legend has it that catching a 4-5kg grouper sparks a three-day feast.

Before dessert, think about trying Cucuru’ma (vegetable stew) or the mouthwatering Sciakisciuka (vegetables with slightly melted soft cheese). All dishes can be accompanied by local passito or moscato wine, which are particularly well suited to the many delicious desserts, such as the bacio pantesco (literally, "kiss"). If you survive the sugar rush from its sweet ricotta, you will find yourself in complete ecstasy. Also don’t ignore ravioli dolci fritti, a fried pastry traditionally prepared to celebrate christenings. In case you are still worried about your figure, there is also a steamed version made with honey and cinnamon.  

Where to eat

Ristorante La Risacca (0923 912975), Pantelleria. Wide range of antipasti. Good also for pizza. Silvio is one of the most appreciated chefs on the island. Price €20-35.

Ristorante la Pergola (0923 918420), Suvaki. Rustic, airy and spacious. Ravioli, couscous and fish sauces with pasta not to be missed. Price €25-35.

Ristorante La Favarotta (0923 915347), Khamma Fuori. This family-run restaurant, hidden in the countryside, isn't easy to spot. It’s a gem offering traditional dishes including coniglio alla pantesca (rabbit). Price €20-30.

Ristorante La Vela (0923 916566), Scauri Scalo. A few meters from the sea, this is a special place. In May, we were spoilt by being the only customers – but that was before summer season picked up. Couscous on Friday if ordered in advance. The charming owner grows vegetables and produces zibibbo/passito wine. Price €25-35.

Where to buy wine

Agricola Valenza (0923 916 466; fax 0923 916 466), Azienda Agricola, Contrada Monastero, Pantelleria. Right in the middle of an old crater in the heart of the island, called Contrada Monastero, this great wine producer makes moscato and passito for people who are passionate about wine. (If money is no object, go for Moscato San Vito 1994, made with grapes from the oldest vineyard.)

Where to stay

Pantelleria Gold-Club Levante. Twelve dammusi spread over a hill near Arco dell’Elefante and Faraglione – two of the most impressive places on the island – with stunning views. Price €220-320 per person per night, depending on the season and the number of people.

Pantelleria Dream. Another top-notch hotel composed of luxurious dammusi, conveniently located in the north-east of the island. The property also has a beauty centre and restaurant. Price €150-250 per person per night; prices vary seasonally.

Private lettings: Agenzia La Cossira (+39 0923 913 629, Renting a dammuso is a favoured (and sometimes cheaper) option. There are few agencies, but La Cossira is reliable and committed to promoting the island on "the Continent" – in other words, mainland Italy. Prices vary hugely.

Where to spoil yourself

Specchio Lago di Venere. Indulge in a mud bath in the Venus Lake, enjoying spectacular views – an experience not to be missed.