With each landing into Catania’s Fontanarossa airport, on Sicily’s east coast, the same scene inevitably unfolds. Following a long interval of shimmering Mediterranean seascape, an immense cone-shaped mass of molten rock juts upwards so suddenly and tall it could seemingly scrape the underbelly of the plane. Even on a rainy day, the volcano’s pointed tip looms large above the cloud line. “Look! Etna,” the passengers whisper in relieved affirmation that their destination has been achieved.
A steady beacon and Mediterranean landmark since the time of the ancients, Mount Etna is a proud symbol of sicilianità—it sets the tone for the rest of the island. Unpredictable and exciting, epic and raw, tragic and beautiful: If a place can have sex appeal, Sicily has it in spades.
But what makes Sicily even more attractive to its visitors today—besides adventure, history and touring opportunities—is the fact that it is quickly becoming Italy’s of-the-moment food-and-wine destination. A new generation of creative chefs is revisiting and reworking their grandmothers’ secret recipes, and a new band of vintners is finally realizing the island’s enological potential.
According to the Italian Tourist Board, Sicily is Italy’s third most important wine and food destination after Tuscany and Piedmont, and although the data is difficult to confirm, some say Sicily has already clinched the number two spot over Piedmont. Yet despite the natural attraction wine enthusiasts feel for Sicily, enotourism is still in its infancy. Limited “wine roads” or “tasting itineraries” do exist in pinpoint areas like Alcamo in southwestern Sicily, but there is no effective island-wide entity charged with creating wine road maps and guidebooks, or coordinating strategies between winery tasting rooms, restaurants and hotels. At the end of the day, wine tourists are left to explore Sicily on their own. This can be both complicated and frustrating for foreigners.
Have a rental car but don’t know where to start? Here are three wine itineraries that cover the island’s main attractions, wineries and most-hyped restaurants.
Azienda Agricola Spadafora
Contrade Virzì (Palermo)
Tel: +39 091 6703322
Winemaker Francesco Spadafora has opened a small hotel and restaurant on his estate near the Sicilian capital.
Via Torre Mondello 22
Tel: +39 091 6841333
House specialties are warm octopus in a lemon/olive oil sauce and spaghetti with sea urchin roe.
Via Friuli Venezia Giulia 9
Porto Palo (Menfi)
Tel: +39 0925 78381
Relax, and let Vittorio walk you through the fresh catches of the day.
Osteria dei Vespri
Piazza Croce dei Vespri 6
Tel: +39 091 6171631
Try the saffron potato dumplings with a quail and asparagus sauce.
Relais Abbazia Santa Anastasia
Tel: +39 0921 672233
Sleep among sprawling hillside vineyards at this active wine estate and relais hotel, with 28 beautiful rooms that is run by Francesco Lena and his wife.
Wineries to visit (make an appointment first): Calatrasi (www.calatrasi.it); Corvo/Duca di Salaparuta/Cantine Florio (www.vinicorvo.it); Cusumano (www.cusumano.it) Donnafugata (www.donnafugata.net); Firriato (www.firriato.it); Feudo Arancio (www.feudoarancio.it); Planeta (www.planeta.it); Tasca d’Almerita (www.tascadalmerita.it); and Tenuta Rapitalà (www.rapitala.it).
Seventy percent of Sicily’s winemaking potential is found in western Sicily: the vineyard-hugging hills and valleys beyond Palermo to Contessa Entellina, and the white wine area of Alcamo. The best strategy for visiting western Sicily is to make your base in the regional capital Palermo, with its Norman palace, mosaics, opera houses, unique Sicilian-Moorish architecture and new restaurant and wine bar scene. Despite traffic in the city center, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you can reach most points in western Sicily from Palermo
Late starters can travel north of Palermo on the coastal road (113) for a leisurely drive past Capo Zafferano and Porticello (a fishing village with port-facing restaurants—stop here for an excellent seafood lunch), and Casteldaccia, where Corvo’s headquarters are located. By appointment, you can visit Corvo’s old cellars and taste wines including the flagship Duca Enrico (an austere 100 percent Nero d’Avola from the Duca di Salaparuta brand). Follow the coastal road to Cefalù; in the afternoon light, golden rays illuminate this sea town’s lofty cathedral. Just 30 minutes away, nestled in the steep mountains behind Cefalù is Abbazia di Santa Anastasia, a very romantic place to spend the night. A former Benedictine abbey built in the 12th century, the abbey is both a luxury hotel and one of the island’s most respected wine estates. They even allow guests to help with the harvest in September.
An alternate route from Palermo is to take the faster A19 highway to Catania and visit Count Tasca d’Almerita’s impeccable Regaleali estate (take the Scillato exit). Here, author and culinary expert Anna Tasca runs one of Sicily’s best-known cooking schools, where you can learn a wealth of Sicilian kitchen secrets, from making tomato paste to pickling capers.
Western Sicily’s wine road extraordinaire is Route 624, which leaves Palermo from the south and cuts straight across the island to Sciacca. Over the course of this two- or three-hour drive, you cut across dramatic vineyard vistas, mountain corridors, stone farmhouses and green fields peppered with grazing sheep. The countryside is clean and undeveloped and although you won’t find note-worthy restaurants or hotels along the route, you can arrange for many wine-tasting stops. Calatrasi, Donnafugata (although their tasting room is in Marsala), Cusumano, Planeta and Feudo Arancio (they offer a complete cellar tour) are some of the well-known Sicilian wineries on or shortly off of Route 624 that you can visit by appointment. Plan your day to have a late lunch at Vittorio in Porto Palo, near Menfi. The restaurant makes up for an informal and nondescript décor with what some claim is the best seafood on the island. After lunch, you can explore the temples and archeological park of Selinunte, a Greek colony founded in 650 BC.
Start the next day among historic monuments and vineyards in Monreale, a mosaic-rich Norman cathedral and cloister 20 minutes outside Palermo. Take Route 186 (which becomes 113 after Partinico) to Alcamo. This is the capital of crisp, mineral-rich Sicilian whites made from Chardonnay, Catarratto, Grecanico, Inzolia or blends of the above. One of the most photogenic estates to visit in the area is Tenuta Rapitalà. Further along 113, don’t miss the majestic Greek temple and theater of Segesta.
There are at least two more spots in western Sicily that should be included in any wine and food lover’s travels; they can be easily included on this itinerary before making a loop back to Palermo on either the northern or southern branch of the A29 highway. The first is the town of Erice, suspended some 2,500 feet above Trapani. On a clear day you can admire the rocky northern coastline to San Vito lo Capo and even make out Tunisia’s Cape Bon. In addition to its breathtaking views and bijoux stone buildings, Erice is famous for its sweets and pastries.
The second must-visit is Marsala, home of the fortified wine of the same name. Flanked by salt fields and adorned by a beautiful city center built in cream-colored stone, Marsala’s main attraction is a tour and tasting at the historic Cantine Florio cellars. During the 18th century the Mediterranean fleet of the British Royal Navy expanded its presence in the region and started to search for a local wine that would keep during long sea voyages and could replace their beloved Port. A merchant from Liverpool named John Woodhouse added alcohol to the local Marsala wine and began shipping it back to England, where it became an instant success. Marsala has since fallen out of favor, but a tour of the Cantine Florio offers a fascinating glimpse into the past of Sicilian winemaking. The family that owns the Donnafugata winery also started with Marsala production but has since moved on to make high-quality, dry wines that are popular in Italy and abroad. Donnafugata is one of the most successful Sicilian wineries when it comes to organizing wine tourism events. They offer personal tours and lunches, and stage jazz concerts with wine-tasting events.
When reflecting on the history of southeastern Sicily, perhaps the most important date to remember is January 11, 1693. On that day, a powerful earthquake struck the area, killing 50,000 people, leveling 50 towns and destroying a rich patrimony of Greek, Roman and Byzantine culture. A reconstruction project ensued, fueled by the lucrative tuna trade: it was so grand, it still remains unmatched in Southern Italy. In just half a century, the towns and cathedrals were rebuilt. Because Sicily had fully embraced the artistic muse of 17th century Italian Baroque architecture, the construction born from the earthquake’s rubble appears remarkably extravagant and consistent in style today. Balconies and façades with carved rosettes and nymphs in white stone embroider the cityscapes.
The Baroque corner of Sicily is the island’s least visited and, according to many, the most beautiful. On the Iblean Plateau, white stone walls crisscross the territory, framed by trees. Because this is also the most remote part of Sicily, a cursory visit should take three or four days.
Starting in Catania, take the coastal Route 114 directly to Syracuse. The archeological zone includes a celebrated Greek theater and a 70-foot-high, ear-shaped cavern called the “ear of Dionysius,” which is known for its excellent acoustics. This area’s highlight is the island of Ortigia, which hosts the city’s historic center and Duomo cathedral. At the moment, Syracuse is experiencing a real estate boom, with older buildings being returned to their former splendor.
Follow the coastal road (now Route 115) to Avola. This sleepy seaside town lent its name to the island’s premier indigenous winemaking grape, Nero d’Avola, although researchers are not sure if the grape actually originates here. Just a few kilometers away, Noto is a showcase of Sicilian Baroque and the capital of this unique architectural movement. Sadly, the main cathedral is covered in scaffolding since its dome collapsed in 1996, but the best of Noto can be admired via a leisurely stroll down the main street, Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
About 30 minutes away is Modica. Noto stands tall on the crest of a hill, but Modica is built within the folds of a deep ravine and is otherwise invisible from above. Compact and beautifully preserved, it is best know for its artisan chocolate production. The last in the trio of Sicilian Baroque towns is Ragusa Ibla, home to two of Sicily’s hottest restaurants: Locanda Don Serafino, built underground in former stables, and Ristorante Duomo, run by star chef Cicco Sultano. Both take care to stock the best Sicilian wines.
From Ragusa you can head along Route 514 to Caltagirone, Sicily’s majolica mainstay. The town is noted for its 142-step Scala di Santa Maria; Sicilian history is portrayed in colorful tiles along each step. Not far is the Villa Romana del Casale near Piazza Armerina. This Roman villa, lavishly decorated in precious mosaics, is one of Italy’s most important archaeological sites. The mosaics look like pixilated digital photographs of the ancient world.
Those with less time can continue straight from Ragusa along E45 past Gela to Butera, which is located slightly inland. An excellent wine tasting and touring venue is Feudo Principi di Butera. Sprawling and manicured vineyards lead the eye to a beautifully restored castle; the estate is even open to the public without an appointment on weekends—a rarity in Sicily. Returning to the coast, Licata boasts La Madia, one of Sicily’s most distinguished restaurants.
Agrigento and its valley of temples is less than an hour away on Route 115. Founded by the Greeks in 581 BC, the temples were built facing the sea for everyone to admire. The Temple of Concord (among the world’s best preserved Greek temples) and the Temple of Olympian Zeus (among the largest in the world) continue to inspire awe in those who visit today.
Via Maestranza 96
Tel: +39 0931 67133
Don Camillo has ushered Syracuse into the epicurean spotlight. The house specialty is zuppa di mucco: neonati (just-born fish larvae in a tasty broth).Locanda Don Serafino
Via Orfanotrofio 39
Tel: +39 0932 248778
An epic Sicilian culinary adventure set within the ultimate underground wine cellar setting; encyclopedic wine list. Also has very romantic rooms carved within the stone for overnight stays.
Via Capitano Bocchieri 31
Tel: +39 0932 651265
The culinary hideaway of Sicily’s hottest chef, Ciccio Sultano. Specialties include spaghetti with anchovy, shaved bottarga (dried tuna roe) and carrot concentrate.
Eremo della Giubiliana
Strada per Marina di Ragusa, km 9
Tel: +39 0932 669119
A former ancient religious retreat that is now a picturesque luxury hotel.
Vico de Naro 5
Tel: +39 0932 754703
Sleep under frescoed ceilings at this elegant bed and breakfast located in the heart of Modica. The celebrated Fattoria delle Torri restaurant is under the same management.Caffè dell’Arte
Corso Umberto I, 114
Tel: +39 0932 943257
Chocolatiers Bonajuto is more famous (www.bonajuto.it) for its thickly grained chocolate, but the people-watching is better at Caffè dell’Arte across the street.
Via Filippo Re Capriata 22
Tel: +39 0922 771443
This hole-in-the-wall restaurant is a monument to Sicilian culinary innovation. Dinner starts off with a tasting from the olive oil menu: oil with volcanic ash and oils from different cultivars that emphasize artichoke, onion or almond bouquets.
Hotel Villa Athena
Tel: +39 0922 596288
Sleep so close to Agrigento’s temples, you can almost hug the columns. Ask for a room with a view in the oldest part of the villa.
Vico Ebrei 11 (Piazza Duomo)
Tel: +39 0942 625656
House specialities here adhere to the culinary traditions of this side of Sicily. Try the goat stew.
Hotel Villa Ducale
Via Leonardo da Vinci 60
Tel: +39 0942 28153
A romantic hideaway with wide, sweeping views of the sea and volcano.
Locanda del Vinattiere
Via Fontana 10
Tel: +39 095 721 1865
Full course fish or meat-based menus are available and subject to the creative whims of the chef.
Osteria i Tre Bicchieri
Via San Giuseppe al Duomo 31
Tel: +39 095 7153540
The best food in Catania. Canelloni stuffed with prawn ragu, cherry tomato cream and fried fennel is a good place to start.
Pasticceria Santo Musumeci
Piazza Santa Maria 9/10
Tel: +39 095 921196
Honestly, must be the best pistachio ice cream in the world (served inside a freshly baked sweet roll). Follow up with shaved ice flavored with almond milk.
San Domenico Palace Hotel
Piazza San Domenico 5
Tel: +39 0942 613111
Sicily’s best hotel has views that contemplate Mount Etna’s every cough and
If Sicily’s wine routes, the one that packs the most powerful panoramic punch is the ring road (also a railway) that circles the base of Mount Etna known as the Circumetnea. If you start in Catania, you can easily complete the trek in one day, but you should try to extend your tour with one or two days in Taormina or on the beach.
This smoldering volcano rises nearly 11,000 feet from the sea and spans an area larger than metropolitan New York. Plumes of steam and smoke regularly rise from its craters and remind us of its potential for destruction: If lower fissures and volcanic cracks were to suddenly rip open, Etna could wipe dozens of towns away with its molten flows.
Start at Paternò on the southern flank of Etna, and continue along Route 284 towards Adrano. The fertile volcanic soils have created a viticultural wonderland where indigenous head-pruned vines like Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio struggle to survive. But cooler temperatures and higher altitudes have also proven ideal for white wines, some wineries are experimenting with Pinot Noir as well. This is viticulture at its most extreme and the results bring deeply distinctive wines with polished mineral characteristics that are produced nowhere outside this dangerous territory. Two of the best estates are Benanti and Cottanera (the latter with 120 acres of vineyard along the flanks of the volcano). Both accept visitors by appointment.
The village of Bronte of the eastern flank is home to Italy’s best pistachio groves. The bush-like trees thrive in the volcano’s fertile soils and produce a crop every second year. Locals have happily incorporated the green nut in most of their recipes, from pistachio cookies to swordfish baked in a pistachio crust.
The most attractive of Etna’s villages is Randazzo, which is built entirely of black volcanic stone and is remarkably preserved—it has never succumbed to an eruption. The Pasticceria Santo Musumeci on the central Piazza Santa Maria makes the best pistachio gelato you are ever likely to encounter. The Circumetnea continues onto Linguaglossa (named “great tongue” after a violent lava flow) where there are plenty of skiing and hiking opportunities. Or from Randazzo, you can take the more direct Route 185 to Taormina.
Grafted to a rocky peak, the romantic town of Taormina is sandwiched between blue seas and sky and enjoys epic views of snow-capped Mount Etna and the rocky coastline. With beautiful villas, hotels and cafés, this is one of Sicily’s must-see destinations. South of Toarmina are a succession of coves and beaches spanning from Isola Bella to Aci Castello (near Catania), where huge rocks along the coastline are said to be the boulders hurled by the cyclops at Odysseus and his crew. Nowhere along this course will you be able to escape from the overwhelming presence of Mount Etna.
And no place you visit in any corner of Sicily will you be able to forget, or regret having taken the time and effort to visit.