The long hot Sicilian summer does not end in August: in the southernmost region of Italy, it just keeps on going, making it great for low-season tourists. The temperatures are bearable, unlike the searing heat of the months just ended, and it is much less crowded on the streets and beaches. Whether it is an extended holiday or a quick break, Palermo and its surroundings are full of pleasant surprises. Cities of art, archaeological sites, crystal waters, long golden beaches, coves and inlets full of fish that are served up in the best restaurants in the area.
From Palermo, the stunning coastline stretches east in the direction of Messina. There is no shortage of restaurants, with something for everyone, old names and new that confirm the good times currently enjoyed in this corner of Italy, which in 2022 has produced more than just a few surprises for foodies always on the hunt for something new.
For once, we don’t stop in the capital, though there are no lack of surprises: if in doubt, just ask the “old timers” Virga&Milano, who have once again been playing around with their projects by moving the Peruvian Diego Recarte–last year at Aja Mola–to Bocum, refurbished with a large grill for a super-contemporary variant of the only-grill kitchen (and which will soon have a new adjacent space specially for cocktails). But we don't stop there: we leave Palermo behind and take the road east.
Eating in the province of Palermo.
Bagheria First stop: Bagheria, just a few minutes by car and even faster by train.
The stage of news stories, books and films, it is the town of the Villas, including Villa Cattolica with the Guttuso Museum and Villa Palagonia, the eighteenth-century villa of the monsters, or pupi (puppets) as they call them here, not to be confused with Sicilian puppets, those brought back to glory by Mimmo Cuticchio whose collection can be visited in an area of Palazzo Branciforte in Palermo, the same that houses the Sicilian offices of Gambero Rosso.
Bagheria, just a few minutes by car and even faster by train
Now there are 62, but once there were about 200 pupi, providing Tony Lo Coco with the name for his restaurant just beyond the villa walls, topped by these fantastic figures, deformed mixtures between men and animals. Lo Coco is the most famous restaurateur in Bagheria: solid Due Forchette in the Gambero Rosso restaurant guide of Italy, he skillfully combines great raw materials and outbursts of locally-inspired creativity.
In search of something new, we move on towards the Arch of the Holy Trinity–which some also known as the Arch of the Eternal Father–until we reach Torre Ferrante. A 16th century watchtower in Aspra tuff: two floors and a small terrace overlooking the nearby arch, ancient walls that have undergone careful renovation, reviving the spaces with gentle colors, lively materials and modern style. Opened last fall, Limu is about to celebrate its first birthday.
And it does so in the name of contemporary cuisine by Nino Ferreri, a thirty-something Sicilian, whose training involved a variety of influences and experiences (in particular with Felix Lo Basso) before returning to his home region and opening his own restaurant, which unreservedly focuses on the precious heritage of products and producers that could not be more local: the fish, for example, comes from Aspra and Porticello, a stone’s throw from Bagheria; the meat and cheeses are from Madonie, starring in particular the Girgentana goat; the fruit and vegetables are from Bagheria; the flour is made from local grain. Then there is his dialog with tradition that is luxuriant though never exuberant, celebrated right from the initial sequence of amuses bouche: local classics in miniature version, a mouthwatering and perfectly studied start to the meal.
The fine “poor man’s” ingredients play a starring role (and it is no coincidence that Apparente semplicità is the name of one of the four tastings): delicious dishes, rich in flavor, sophisticated, never ordinary: Murici with potato and herb foam, cunzato bread and anchovies; the inevitable tenerumi soup revisited as filled pasta and cold broth; or an interpretation of sciaria, a soup of Arab-Sicilian origin with lemon pasta and “poor man’s” fish and rock fish; and the amazing mackerel in a black salt crust that is already a signature dish (recipe here); as is the enchanting and figurative cheesecake made with Girgentana goat’s cheese.
Marinades, hot or cold broths, beautiful compositions. Together with chef Ferreri, Giandomenico Gambino in the dining room and Maria Grazia at the reception bring it all together. LIMU restaurant – Bagheria (PA) – Via Ciro Scianna, 177 – +39 091 6496288 – limurestaurant.it
Eating in the province of Palermo.
Porticello The second stop takes us towards the sea, to the nearby Porticello, an outlying district of the town of Santa Flavia. Just 3 miles; if you're in the mood, you could even go on foot. We are also very close to the archaeological area of Solunto–an ancient Hellenistic-Roman city and Phoenician colony on Monte Catalfano–the Norman castle and the Tonnara di Solanto or the district of Sant'Elia with the fjord, the lighthouse of Capo Zafferano which marks the passage towards Tre Piscine and then on to Aspra.
Porticello is still an authentic fishing village, with boats returning to harbor at the end of the day after dark, the fish market, the local bar. There are a few restaurants, in the part overlooking the harbor or in the most captivating area, in San Nicolicchia, an enchanting strip of land that looks over the gulf.
Porticello is still an authentic fishing village, with boats returning to harbor at the end of the day after dark
Here, summer 2022 marks two new entries, just a stone’s throw from each other. La Strummula is the restaurant of the Borgo di Ciaùla hotel, 4 floors and just 9 rooms, in the building that belonged to the family of Luigi Pirandello, who apparently passed through here, and which inspired the sign inaugurated last spring. Santino Corso, already at the Charleston in Mondello (which will soon return to its historic home in Palermo with new chef, Gaetano Verde, young and with high-level international experience) is the chef and one of the patrons. Here, fish takes center stage, with Il mare all’insalata, for example, where seafood is combined with a brunoise of vegetables bonded by a clam water emulsion.
L’uovo in Sicily is a big favorite: crunchy, served with potato, lemon provola and Sicilian black truffle while in the Cubo,..nata, caponata and smoked eggplant become sauces to accompany black breaded fish. Thus it continues, with sauces, sometimes decidedly robust, acting as a consistent sidekick with some meat-based deviations - especially fillet steak and lamb.
No concessions to meat-eaters on the other hand at Al Faro Verde, the historic local restaurant, which reopens after months of renovation and many events–not all good–that took place recently. The Balistreri family, who founded this restaurant a generation ago, reopened the doors in the middle of August, but the new adventure aims to seasonally adjust the business also thanks to the renovations that have brought to light the beautiful building: a former tuna processing plant with a carefully designed outdoor area, a stone’s throw from the sea, in the direction of Solanto, and the interior with the three arches featuring metal, wood, glass and ancient bare stone.
To guide the way, the wise words of papà Benito, as they remember them: “The fish is always of 'its season': sardines in the colder months and up to St Joseph’s Day [TN: March 19], bogue in March, mullet in April, tuna in May and June, amberjack and swordfish from Ustica, and finally all the grace of God of the warm months to get to the autumn fish: pilot fish and dolphinfish.” But something has changed, in taste and presentation, more similar to the current trends: there’s fried pizza with burrata, tuna ham and semi-dry tomatoes or shrimp in kataifi pastry, for example, or the Sorelle Salerno spaghetti (Calabrian wheat, Sicilian factories) with sea urchins or fresh pasta bottoni with burrata, potato and prawns.
Great balance of vibrant ingredients and a venue that will certainly still be going strong even as the days get shorter. Hotel Borgo di Ciàula - Porticello - Santa Flavia (PA) - via Roma, 113 - +39 091 854 4557 - https://www.borgodiciaula.com Al Faro Verde - Porticello - Santa Flavia (PA) - largo San Nicolicchia, 14 - +39 091 957977 - alfaroverde.it
Eating in the province of Palermo. Cefalù
Third stop: Cefalù. We continue our journey following the traces of the Arab-Norman civilization, arriving in the medieval town with the cathedral that is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale. It is one of the most beautiful towns in Italy and one of the most popular seaside destinations in this part of the island, with the alternation of long beaches, bays and small inlets that attract many tourists. Those looking for an oasis of peace head to Le Calette, a resort owned by the Cacciola Micciché family, now in its third generation (also owners of the Mon Chou Chou pastry store in Cefalù).
The name describes the coastline that hosts two adjacent structures: one 4-star and one 5-star, with top-range services: spa, swimming pool, cosy corners for reading and relaxation, designed for guests who value peace and privacy.
This year, they opened the main restaurant Cala Luna, which in summer has outdoor tables, a stunning view of the bay, and the dramatic outdoor wine cellar; while in winter it moves to the round hall on the first floor, which offers an equally impressive view. This is home to Dario Pandolfo, from Milazzo, Messina, a chef of significant experience, from Geranium to Restaurant St. Hubertus of Niederkofler, to name only two. From Niederkofler, he has inherited a certain idea of local cuisine–all research and quality ingredients–which in Sicily means great products and great producers.
The fine “poor man’s” ingredients play a starring role (and it is no coincidence that Apparente semplicità is the name of one of the four tastings): delicious dishes, rich in flavor, sophisticated, never ordinary
The sea is only one of the stars of the menu, in which everything gleams with an augmented Sicilianity of products and suggestions: from Sicilian amuses bouche to spaghetti in tomato water with Mazara prawns and sea urchins–evolution of the dish proposed at Ngonia Bay in Milazzo last year– which combines acidity, sweetness, salty notes and the unpredictable fatness of mascarpone; then there is the cod with buttermilk, parsley, lemon caviar and mussel water (where the northern European influence is more evident) and the risotto with black garlic and mussel sauce, with the adoption of impressive technical skills, such as the tomato millefeuille that accompanies the charcoal-grilled sirloin and the special liquid nitrogen effects for the buffalo milk and ricotta ice cream, manna and citrus fruit.
It is accompanied by a wine list carefully selected by Paolo Bertero, who includes a range of regional labels, organized by wine area, not without a few trips over the border for even lesser-known names. One example: Tarlant, for Champagne. As befits such a quality resort, Le Calette also a more informal menu for the poolside: raw and cooked prawns, pasta with sea urchins but also salads, club sandwiches and other tasty treats to see you through a day of sunshine and dips in the water.
Eating in the province of Palermo. Finale di Pollina
Fourth stop: Finale. We continue along the coast of Cefalù, which extends for about 19 miles, traveling about half this distance to reach our last stop. Finale di Pollina, coastal area of the town of Pollina, 2400 feet above the sea in the Madonie Regional Park. The Torre del Marchese dominates the coastline, while the Gole di Tiberio natural canyon, just over six miles from the sea, is an excellent destination for an inland excursion.
Just below, towards the sea, the Cloud by Gabriele Picco offers an alienating view: the vintage Fiat 500 with a cloud sculpture on the roof rack is a permanent installation, the first in a series of works devoted to clouds by the artist from Brescia. It’s no surprise: we are in an area with a high density of artistic creativity: from the Civic Museum of Castelbuono, with its permanent exhibition on manna, to the Hotel Museum Atelier sul Mare di Tusa.
Heading straight towards the sea, you will arrive at your destination. Stazione Vuccirìa is the latest–visionary–project by Virga&Milano, who have successfully engaged none other than Kobe Desremaults. The Flemish former enfant prodige, with his In De Wulf and Chambre Séparée drew processions of enthusiasts from all over Europe, and beyond. He was even endorsed by René Redzepi who–about ten years ago–recommended we should keep an eye on him. After the closure of his latest project, he vanished, only to reappear a few months ago, the pride of the group of restaurants that also includes Gagini (with the superb Mauricio Zillo).
It is a temporary affair–until the end of October–pending finding a space further inland for a farm restaurant, which will certainly be a big hit. While waiting to return to the countryside (after all, In De Wulf was in the middle of the woods) Kobe did “summer on the beach” in an austere and fascinating structure: a former railway station overlooking the beach in Pollina, with a large grill under the canopy, a courtyard with pergola and a number of tables (but it is worth sitting at the counter); finally there is the sunset which, if you are lucky and arrive in time, fills the sky and then that one room that, if you are even more fortunate, adds pleasure to pleasure, with the glorious feeling of waking up overlooking the sea. Chef Kobe is at home right away (even speaking in Italian, with some Spanish contamination) and gets to work at the grill which is his favorite stage.
Meat and fish hung to take in the smoke, the oven to finish the dishes with quick steps, the internal “service” kitchen for first courses and little more, the rest is a kitchen of pure assembly, pure technique, pure enjoyment, pure taste; but the utmost precision. Everything performed live by a close-knit team focused intently on cutting, roasting, plating, seasoning, smoking, moving, portioning and positioning at a steady pace, with the added bonus of the sea roaring immediately below. Top products, which often appear to be little treasures unearthed who knows where (and it is no coincidence that the menu changes daily), processed exactly as expected in such a place: very little, at least it would appear so.
As if all the work were to listen to what they have to say and ensure that they do it as best they can; in reality there are very careful preparations, steps that make the products as ready as possible, marinades and fermentations, the caress of the smoke, the carefully modulated grill. The very greatest care. The zucchini flower goes with the zucchinis, the ceviche di mustia (groundfish) with sea fennel, the sardines with Nero dell'Etna and nerello to break the exhausted taboo that prohibits the combination fish/cheese/red wine, the great test of cooking with Castelbuono lamb. There are fruits, vegetables, herbs, legumes (lentils with grouper), broths (such as mussels with tomatoes), leaves (fig leaves with yellow tomatoes, to end).
It's not Italian, it’s not Belgian, it’s not international, but it is all of these together spontaneously, almost without worrying about how it is done. And the evening goes by, one dish after another. You forget about how well-cooked, you forget about the preparation, you even forget about combinations. You simply forget and accept that everything is almost a natural consequence of just being there. But no. Because some things require a certain skill
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