Sicily, long romanticized as the birthplace of the Mafia, has begun attracting attention for its more fashionable and scenic attributes.
The design team of Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana has put their favorite haunt, the Eastern seaside party town of Taormina, on the map, and the recent volcanic eruptions of Mt. Etnat that have attracted 20 percent more tourists this year alone.
Yet to the traveler’s detriment, this tiny island in the southernmost region of Italy, still gets passed over in favor of the tourist-friendly environs of Rome, Florence and Venice.
For those seeking the authentic Italy, this tiny island is not to be missed.
It's a place where old men smoke cigars and play cards in piazzas until well after midnight and old women cook pasta col sugo con ricotta salata (pasta with tomato sauce and salted ricotta cheese) doused in local oils off menus that exist solely in their heads.
But for all it's alluring authenticity, getting around can also be a challenge.
First a few rules up front.
English-speaking is sparse and Sicilian Italian isn’t the same as what is spoken on the mainland, due to centuries of invasions by visitors from Arabia and Africa. The good news is that locals want to communicate and will do the very best they can with hand gestures and facial expressions.
Second. Don’t make jokes about the Mafia. It hits a little too close to home.
Third. Driving is a must. To experience authentic Sicily you will need a car. Many of the smaller towns are inaccessible by bus or buses do not run on a regular schedule.
Once you have these down, it's time to plan your tour.
One of the more capable guides to the island is Ciro Grillo, an alumnus of the region’s tourism bureau who organizes travel for international visitors through his Facebook page, Sicily Routes. (Facebook is the best way to communicate. Most small proprietors and tour operators don’t have a website but they do have a Facebook page and everyone is very timely about returning messages sent using Google translator.)
I first met Grillo when my father was tracking down our ancestors in the Sicilian countryside. He has since become a valuable wealth of information and a useful multilingual entré into the hidden treasures of the island. Grillo has guides that speak four languages and is available to plan large and small trips, as well as to coordinate logistics with some of the non-English speaking locals.
On my latest trip into Sicily I asked him to plot me an itinerary of authentic Sicily on the back roads.
Approximately 43 miles south of Palermo this hamlet on top of a rock on top of a mountain can be seen all the way from the Western coast but requires careful attention to the few street signs pointing into the hills from the city of Sciacca not to miss it altogether.
A day in Calta, as the locals refer to it, begins with a croissant and cafe in the Piazza Umberto I outside of the town municipal building where you are likely to run into the mayor, the delightfully cheery, Calogero Pumilia.
The old men playing cards inside of the Circolo Democratico will likely invite you to play a few hands with them as they try to regale you with their tales of the dragon who once inhabited the caves above the town before he was slain by St. Pellegrino at the dawn of Christendom.
Between breakfast and lunch, stop into the open studio of sculptor Salvatore Rizzuti, a full professor of fine arts at the University of Palermo, who whittled sticks as a shepherd in the fields around Calta until he was discovered by local arts patrons at age 18. Most days Rizzuti can be found sculpting life sized pieces with his doors wide open.
For lunch visit the old mill, now called M.A.T.E.S, a museum dedicated to the gastronomic traditions of Sicily that has on display tools and housewares dating back to the Middle Ages, among them books of prayers sworn to make each recipe divine.
Here you can learn about the Caltabellotta olive oil, first made by the Jewish settlers who followed the Norman invasion of the 12th century. The bright green oil, pressed from the tiny handpicked Buscionetta olives in the region is slightly spicy, tasting of artichoke, freshly cut grass and a bit of sage.
Take away oils, sheep’s cheese, cured meats and warm fresh bread to enjoy a picnic further up the mountain outside the Cathedral of St. Pellegrino or the Byzantine Church of St. Cono, near which you can explore the series of caves originally used as ancient burial sites and later as homes and hideaways during the two millennia of invasions.
A walk back through town brings you past the Norman Old Mother Church and the medieval Church of St. Lawrence, leaving a few hours left for a ride to what even the locals call the secret beach, Eraclea Minoa, a rare sandy stretch shrouded by a massive pine forest, or to explore the next town down the mountain, the even smaller, St. Anna.
At dinner, farm-to-table takes on new meaning when the lamb for the lamb chops at Mario Pumilia’s Trattoria La Ferla is raised less than 350 ft. from the restaurant.
Ferla is best known for his local specialty, the zucchini pasta, made from zucchini the size of cucumbers, with salsiccia sauce, a Sicilian take on Bolognese meat sauce made from spicy sausage and homegrown tomatoes with garlic and the local Caltabelotta oil.
The most remote of the three Egadi fishing islands off the West coast, Marettimo has long been a getaway for Sicilians during the summer months through late October, which increases the island’s population by 2,000 percent.
For years the one village on the island, a handful of streets of white washed homes with bright blue doors, had no commercial lodging for outsiders beyond rooms rented by locals. A bed and breakfast, La Terrazza Marettimo, recently opened with four rooms, but most visitors will still need to rent a room ($47-$95) from one of the locals who wait by the ferry docks offering up their lodgings.
One such home is that owned by Pippo Incaviglia and his wife Maria. They have no keys to give you. No one locks their doors on Marettimo. But they will give you a clean room, fresh towels and a VIP spot on Pippo’s boat.
Pippo fishes for tuna and swordfish in the mornings and takes visitors on a Giro dell’isola (trip around the island) in the afternoons beginning at noon.
His trips cost $28 and can take up to six hours stopping in grottos and inlets to allow passengers to dive off of plunging sandy cliffs into crystal clear water that fades from brilliant turquoise to an exquisite emerald green.
Incaviglia also arranges scuba diving sessions for the more adventurous traveler, literally pulling up next to his pal Pietro’s boat and chucking you overboard with a smile, a wave and a thumbs up. Pippo’s morning catch ends up in the cooler of Al Carrubo, the trattoria perched on the hill above town.
Open since 2001 and owned by the local maritime expert Vito Vaccaro, Al Carrubo is by far the best of the five restaurants dotting the island.
Ignore the signs warning against feeding the cats. There’s a reason they are the size of honey badgers. The house cats eat nearly as much as the locals of the house specialty, the Pasta ai Sapori dell’Isola, a thick homemade pasta topped with giant mussels covering local swordfish seasoned only with local sea salt and olive oil pesto from Trapani on the mainland that melts as it touches your lips.
After Al Carrubo, a late-night aperitif of mandorla (local almond) gelato is best enjoyed at the Cafe Tramontana overlooking the old port where a lone guitarist perches on the steps to serenade the after-dinner crowd including the scores of children who seem to have no bedtime.
The Madonie Mountains
Situated to the south of the beaches of Cefalu the Madonie mountains are speckled through with medieval towns like Soprana, Sottana, Castelbuono and Isnello. For hiking the Parco delle Madonie boasts six mountains over 5,00 ft., among them Pizzo Carbonara at 6,500 ft., which is home to three ski trails.
The best jumping off point for mountain hikes is the farming village of Valledolmo. The people of Valledolmo are small and friendly just like their town. Here cottage doors remain open all the time, through which old women stir their tomato sauce for hours during the late summer and fall before canning it for the winter.
Flash them a smile and they will invite you in with a wave of their hand and a flash of their spoon. Valledolmo is close to one of Sicily’s finest wineries on the Regaleali Estate where guests stay in a restored baglio, or farm villa, dating to the 19th century. A tasting will take you through a variety of reds made with the Sicilian Nero d’Avola grapes including the celebrated Rosso Del Conte. Valledolmo is also home to the Valledoro pasta factory where the local wheat is sowed, milled, turned into a paste and shaped at a single plant open by appointment to visitors.