From a stone seat where Goethe sketched the 2500 year old Greek amphitheatre in Taormina, I gazed at the glittering Mediterranean far below agreeing that nothing seems to change on this sunny island–except the prices. Since my last visit two years ago, the cost of everything had tripled.
Yet the food, especially in the best restaurants, is still a bargain compared to almost anywhere else in Italy. Sicilian cooking, which developed out of poverty, makes a feast out of vegetables–eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, wild greens, and fennel–and breadcrumbs, sheeps milk cheese, chickpeas, pasta, couscous, inexpensive fish like sardines, occasional lamb, with tiny shots of espresso stirred with equal amounts of sugar taken all day. The top restaurants may draw on a wider range of ingredients and add a level of refinement, but they stay true to the simple heart of the cuisine,
Al Duomo in Taormina
We were turned away three times by Al Duomo, Vico Ebrei, 11, Taormina; 0942-625656, www.ristoranealduomo.it, a small, casual restaurant in a very touristy if lovely hillside town, three times. We finally just showed up at 9 p.m. and were seated outside on the terrace during what was considered an unseasonable cold streak. (For San Franciscans, no problem).
Two chefs in a tiny kitchen work magic on traditional dishes like eggplant parmigiana served as a room temperature antipasto–slices of the sweetest eggplant, creamy ricotta and a vivacious tomato sauce– and a chunky caponata of gently sauteed eggplant, peppers, pine nuts, capers and celery. Small penne with fried bits of zucchini, eggplant and a little tomato sauce became something sublime when the waiter spooned a mixture of toasted breadcrumbs and grated ricotta al forno (sun- dried ricotta) on top, performing a miracle of cucina povera. The succulent meat from bony braised lamb; and juicy pork meatballs grilled on lemon leaves are two modest dishes that taste like a million bucks. The chefs used the same ingredients over and over yet made every dish feel new. Dinner for two with wine and tip, about $125
Duomo in Ragusa Ibla
Many consider Duomo, via Capitano Boccheire, 31, Ragusa Ibla, 0932.651265, www.ristoranteduomo.it, the best restaurant in Sicily. The cooking of Ciccio Sultano is creative, yet unmistakeably of the place. A warm seafood salad of squid, shrimp, octopus and cuttlefish on a “pizza” of a paper thin chickpea wafer that melts into the juices, sparkles. I’ve never tasted anything like it. Nor have I ever encountered such a lively black squid ink pasta tossed with seafood. Sultano enriched a sauce for succulent black pig with bitter chocolate, and paired chicken rolls stuffed with livers with a crisp cake of rice and potatoes.
The kitchen sent out many gifts like an intermezzo of ripe peaches chopped and frozen–a revelation. A dessert of chewy black “gnocchi “ of purple grape must with scintillating cinnamon granita and almond milk, conjured medieval and modern at the same time.
The chef behind this cutting edge Sicilian cooking spent 20 years in professional kitchens around the world but came home to open his own place in a converted house. His long haired partner has the look and gentle demeanor of a hippie– along with a nice command of English. Lunch for two with wine was $160.
Where to stay:
In Taormina, insist on a room with a view of the sea at the Hotel villa Belvedere, via Bagnoli Croce 79, 0942 23791, www.villabelvedere.it., a charming turn-of-the century, three story, palazzo with descending gardens,
(doubles start at $215 with breakfast)
In Ragusa Ibla, reserve one of the ten stunning, modern rooms at Locanda Don Serafina, via XI Febbraio, 15, 0932 220065, www.locandadonserafino.it. which are actually carved into the hillside.