The zestiest lemons, the fruitiest olive oils, the most amazing anchovies... if you love food, you can't help but love Sicily too. Here's a chef's guide to the gastro goodies on offer
I first went to Sicily four years ago, and have been back three times since then. It’s the mixture of the climate, the culture and, of course, the gorgeous food that draws me back. Wherever you go, you always eat well. Even the simplest pasta is guaranteed to be delicious. The locals know what goes well together, be it at a posh restaurant or at a simple roadside market stall. They simply enjoy eating!
Even the island's history is like an onion - you peel back layer after layer after layer and discover something new around every corner. There's the legacy of the Romans, Greeks and Arabs, but then you’ve got the Phoenician, Byzantine and Spanish influences as well. Even the Normans played a part. All of that has made this fantastic cultural mix, which extends to the food and drink.
For me, it’s all about the food. What stands out? The fish is absolutely out of this world, and the lemons just seem zestier, and the olive oil fruitier. The local fruit is amazing, especially the melons. And don’t get me started on the cheese - oh, my goodness! My favourite dish, though, is made from sea urchins, just steamed gently (they’re easy to overcook) and served in their shells in a simple broth. Or maybe it’s the little anchovies, my God, just with a bit of Parmesan, placed under the grill. Delicious.
I love to eat at Casa Grugno on via Santa Maria dei Greci in Taormina (www.casagrugno.it; 00 39 0942 21208). The owner shows real hospitality and captures the essence of beautiful, simple Sicilian cuisine. For example, he does mackerel with natural yoghurt and linguine. I mean, I’d never have thought about putting any of those together but it’s an amazing dish.
And then there’s also Al Duomo in Taormina (www.ristorantealduomo.it; 00 39 0942 625656), which is more brasserie-style and rustic, but does great Italian classics. I’d definitely say try the linguine vongole - it’s stunning.
But one of the joys of Sicily is going out and finding your own food at the markets. The Catania fish market, for example, is worth the trip for the anchovies alone (they’re to die for), and it has beautiful shrimps. I came across it on my first trip and now always go back. I get things from there and just go away and cook them, totally, totally fresh.
There’s also a fantastic vegetable market in the north of Taormina. It’s quite difficult to find, but really worth it, so ask around. The tomatoes and melons really stand out, with their freshness and sweetness.
As for places to stay, I normally get an apartment because I want somewhere with a kitchen so I can cook! But I know that’s not for everyone, and we all want some pampering when we’re on holiday, so I’d recommend a hotel such as the Arathena Rocks in Giardini Naxos. It’s quaint, and has a lovely big pool, terraces and a garden, with great views down to the sea and Mount Etna. The staff are very friendly, but what really makes it for me is – surprise, surprise – the food, cooked by an old Italian mama. You’d never really imagine it, but I thought it was stunning. In low season, doubles go from €116, including breakfast.
Another option is the San Domenico Palace Hotel in Taormina, which I think is breathtaking. It does a good afternoon tea, too. It’s a bit of a budget-buster, with doubles from €261, including breakfast, but it’s in the centre of town and it’s worth it in my view.
And you can’t come to Sicily without stopping now and again for an aperitif. I’d recommend the Wunderbar in Taormina (Piazza IX Aprile; 00 39 0942 625 302), which is an amazing place with fantastic views that justify the rather steep prices.
If you’ve got a hire car, as you probably will, try to explore the little villages just north of Taormina. I can’t remember their names, but you’ll see stalls and carts by the side of the road selling little cheeses like ricotta and mascarpone, which are simply amazing. Oh, goodness! You see, for me, it really is about the food. Just thinking about those cheeses makes me want to go back...