Sicily: A Cheese Lover’s Itinerary
By now, you know that I am smitten with cheese travel. Of all the places I’ve visited, Sicily ranks #1 in my mind for having the most cheese-enthused citizens. (Sorry, Vermont.) The Sicilians I met during my two week cheese trek in June didn’t just love waxing poetic about their neighbor’s ricotta, they wanted to grab your hand and take you next door straightaway so you could eat it warm.
Even more impressive: locals know Sicily’s dozen or so traditional cheeses by heart and are eager to chat about their favorite styles, perfect pairings, and must-try regional dishes. Suffice it to say: Sicily is one big cheese party. I loved it, and I can’t wait to go back.
For those of you interested in traveling to Sicily in pursuit of delicious dairy, let me pass along highlights from our itinerary. Full credit for trip-planning goes to artist and curator Marianne Bernstein, who invited me to chronicle Sicily’s cheese culture as part of her volcanic-island-based project, Due South, and to Sicilian native and professional travel planner Karen La Rosa. Check out her site for loads more tips.
Castle Di Tusa
Our journey starts here, in Castle di Tusa, a tiny beach town not far from Palermo — a terrific spot for adjusting to island life (seafood, siestas) and exploring the northern part of the island by car. It’s also an easy town to explore on foot, full of winding corridors, lemon trees, and sultry sea air.
We stayed at The Tus’ Hotel for 4 nights. Think: gorgeous pool overlooking the ocean and clean, affordable rooms. Head to Ristorante Grotta Marina for freshly caught seafood, grilled vegetables, and plentiful pitchers of wine. Don’t miss the older, even quainter part of the city — a short but steep drive up the mountain — where you’ll find some of the island’s best ricotta at the local caseficio and one of Sicily’s best scenic views at The Belvedere, a bar stocked with Italian craft beers.
Day trips: Dart over to the tiny mountain town of Mirto to pick up the best picnic fare you’ll ever find at La Paisanella, a pristine meat and cheese shop that is renowned for its black boar sausage, clay-baked ricotta, and Provola di Nebrodie (the local mountain cheese). Owners Luisa and Agostino don’t speak English, but they happily offered us a glorious tasting of the cheeses in their case. At nearby shops, we stocked up on cherries, apricots, fresh bread for the road. The local pastry shop, La Cometa, has great gelato and fabulous butter cookies topped with jam and pistachios, which I munched while meandering through hillside olive trees, snapping photos of stray cats and ancient Byzantine steeples.
Near the charming town of Gangi in the Madonie Mountatins, there’s a rustic cooking school in a 14th century Benedictine abbey. It’s run by noted cookbook author Giovanna Tornabene, a kind and proud native who speaks English and supports a local shepherd who makes beautiful cacciocavallo (a gourd-shaped cheese). We stopped in for a delicious lunch and toured the grounds, which look like something from a Merchant Ivory film — there’s a courtyard full of antique roses, fruit trees, and flowering vines.
Giovanna’s seven small rescue dogs were sleeping in the sun, and a pair of sheep stood grazing in a corner next to a pair of crumbling pillars. Book a few nights at the inn, and ask Giovanna to teach you how to make traditional Sicilian dishes, like the wonderful ricotta, eggplant, and mint frittata she served us or the digestif she described made with bay leaves from her trees.
A bustling city known for its open-air food markets, Catania is full of creatives, crumbling splendor, and colorful graffiti. We loved staying at BAD, an inexpensive art hotel with a glorious rooftop terrace (ask for the top floor apartment; it has a kitchen). The market unraveled right outside the front door, and there were plenty of spooling market streets to explore. Cheese vendors are especially plentiful, and you can spend an entire morning wandering amid bins of snails, whole swordfish, garlic braids, and fresh peaches.
Breakfast on fresh blood-orange juice, lunch on wine and oysters, and then make yourself a fabulous market cheese board of Piacentinu (a sheep’s milk cheese laced with saffron and peppercorns), sun-dried tomatoes, and toasted pistachios.
If you want to splurge on a great dinner, head to Wine Bar and order a bottle of Etna Rosso and swordfish risotto with capers and smoked scamorza; Wine Bar also offers a terrific Sicilian cheese board with local honey. Also, be sure to visit the city’s oldest bar, which has a hidden grotto in the basement with a trickling stream that passes almost unnoticed by diners in fashionable shoes. To atone for so much goodness, tour the cathedral of Saint Agatha, with its marble and lava rock interior, in the morning before the tourists descend, then treat yourself to life-changing cannoli studded with pistachios at Prestipino Cafe on the piazza.
My favorite cheese city! Ragusa is a beach town, agrarian paradise, and dairy hub. Here, you’ll find one of Sicily’s most stunning cheese shops, Dipasquale’s, plus a traditional-cheese research center (CoRFiLaC) which offers a terrific tour and tasting of Sicilian cheeses paired with wine (well worth the 35 EU). We loved staying in a country inn outside the city, Casina di Grotta di Ferro, where host Massimo Brullo shared all of his cheese connections, including a visit to his cheesemaker neighbor who provided us with fresh ricotta every morning. The inn and its grounds are stunning, with a stone courtyard, a glistening pool, and a communal kitchen that includes a wood-fired oven.
Massimo, our host, spoke perfect English and plied us with espresso throughout the day, answering questions and making recommendations for unusual restaurants, including a buffalo farm within a few kilometers where we feasted on two kinds of buffalo cheese made on site, along with buffalo prosciutto. Plan a beach day, a day or two in town, and at least one day to simply relax under the magenta bougainvillea by the pool. It’s hard to imagine a more divine place on earth. For those who like wine in their gelato, make sure to hit Ragusa’s Gelato Divini for a spiked scoop. Nearby, the town of Modica is chocolate central. It’s a little sick.
For my final night, I dropped my bags at the Artemisia Palace, an affordable boutique hotel in the heart of the city and walked a few short blocks to the historic opera house (Teatro Massimo) to score last-minute tickets to the ballet. People-watching from a velvet-lined box seat in this opulent music hall was a highlight, so was a Sunday morning stroll to the Palermo cathedral, where I happened to catch a beautiful, incense-drenched mass. To eat: great street food, terrific pastries, granita, and gelato everywhere you look.
Sicily Travel Tips
- Look for cheap flights through Meridiana Airlines
- June is a great time to visit, right before the tourist season
- Festivals, religious and otherwise, abound in Sicily — check dates in advance
- Consider renting a car and staying in small towns along the coast — they’re manageable and full of friendly locals who will happily tell you about regional specialties.
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