A foodie travel trip is on the cards for us this year. And Sicily’s top restaurants are a must! From Michelin-star dining to classic, Italian goodness, explore the culinary delights of this sun-bleached island with its mosaic of cultural influences.
A culinary heritage
Thousands of years of conquest and occupation left its mark on the island. Expect to find Spanish chocolate-making prowess (pinched from the Aztecs), and North African couscous and chickpea recipes, ancient Greek vines and olive groves. Sicilians are fiercely proud of this jumbled culinary heritage, and unique dishes and rituals they can call their own: caponata, busiate al pesto trapanese, pane e panelle fried chickpea sandwiches, the irresistibly simple pasta alla norma, sweet granita and brioche breakfasts.
One of the joys of exploring the island’s slow food scene is the high-low approach to eating. A hole-in-the-wall style café with makeshift tables can rustle up good honest Sicilian food just as exquisite as the Michelin-starred hotspots. Sicily’s age-old, raucous markets are dotted with vendors selling delectable morsels of fried anchovies, hefty, gooey-inside arancini and other island delights. The food is often paired with a dramatic setting: cantilevered over a cliff edge with an inky, menacing silhouette of Etna, or in a mountain cave, or spilling onto a beach with intensely turquoise shallows. They can be understated or high-octane theatrical affairs that elevate the island’s enviable produce to alchemical heights.
Zash Boutique Hotel and Spa, Etna
The easy-going, unpretentious spirit of this Etna hotel belies its gold-standard gastro form. Fleshing out the hauntingly pretty skeleton of an old palmento (a wine press carved into black lava stone basins with old millstones), the Zash Boutique Hotel and Spa restaurant sits under a grand peachy house, blistered by the sun and brimming with tales from its noble past. Chef Guiseppe Raciti won Zash a Michelin star in 2019 for his experimental spins of Sicilian classics. A balance is struck between the fussy, frothy, perfumed drama associated with Michelin-starred haunts and the pared-down Sicilian classics that let fresh ingredients lead the way. Whether opting for the chef’s tasting menu or à la carte, every plate feels like a little artwork – from the olive, anise and fennel bread staggered on podiums to the sweet finale (expect imaginative combinations such as a honey milk and hay pudding). The chef’s signature uovo poche croccante may sound basic, but only a master of the culinary arts can poach an egg to perfection and then wrap it in a thin coat that cracks like the top of creme brulée. The baccala (salted cod) in rich, red sauce with capers and pistachio is best eaten at a snail’s pace to relish every mouthful, washed down with Etna wines.
Address: Zash Boutique Hotel & Spa, SP2/I-II, 60, 95018 Riposto CT, Italy
Ristorante Locanda Don Serafino, Ragusa Ibla
As is so often the case in Sicily, the setting here is film-set worthy. Occupying an up-lit, vaulted cave (once stables for the church) in Ragusa Ibla’s old town, Locanda Don Serafino’s restaurant is a five-minute shuffle down several steep streets from the small-but-mighty boutique hotel. You’re in the foothills of the Hyblaean Mountains here, where the air is cooler and the houses are more pastel-fancy and Hans Anderson-esque than the resplendent honey-hued Baroques. Trailblazing Chef Vincenzo Candiano has turned Locanda Don Serafino into one of those Sicily restaurants that will print itself indelibly to your mind. Over 200 wine labels honour the island’s vines. Signature dishes include black spaghetti with sea urchins, ricotta and cuttlefish and a ravishingly good pork-belly secondi. Polished diners can choose from three tasting menus, all elevating the island’s enviable produce without feeling too overpowering or molecular.
Address: Ristorante Locanda Don Serafino Via Avvocato Giovanni Ottaviano, 13, 97100 Ragusa RG, Italy
Otto Geleng, Taormina
You’re in Grand Tour territory, where linen-and-loafered aristocrats once puffed cigars on the terrace of Sicilian grande dame Grand Hotel Timeo. It’s easy to imagine them still sitting here crossed-legged and contemplative on Otto Geleng’s bougainvillaea-smothered terrace. Patterned, lace tablecloths are caught in the dim, amber glow of flickering oil lamps and waiters recount the provenance of ingredients with the enthusiasm, of someone who’s grown them themselves. Diners can choose between fish, meat or vegetarian menus, all of which showcase Sicily’s finest produce, from the beef carpaccio with capers and Sicilian black truffle to the cuttlefish and wild herb risotto. With over 400 wines to choose from and Negronis shaken up in style from the bar, evenings linger on here as the pianist veers into more lively territory.
Address: Otto Geleng, Grand Hotel Timeo, Via Teatro Greco, 59, 98039 Taormina ME, Italy
Hostaria San Pietro, Trapani
Understated and, if not a little makeshift (think plastic tablecloths and a kitchen separated by those butcher chains), Hostaria San Pietro is where to go in Trapani’s Gibellina Nuova for intensely flavoured seafood couscous. The region’s North African influences (Tunisia lies just across the coast) are manifest in its cuisine. San Vito Lo Capo hosts an annual couscous festival, and chickpea fritters, pistachios and spices such as saffron and cinnamon feature across many of its restaurants’ menus. Hostaria San Pietro menu is hand-written on a scruffy piece of paper, according to the fisherman’s catch – cod, prawns, squid. The other dish to try is the busiate (also cooked with seafood), a pasta which derives its name from its preparation technique. Dough made from durum semolina flour is rolled round a wooden ‘buso’ stick to form a tight, telephone-chord shape. This is traditionally paired with pesto alla Trapanese (a Genoese import back when Trapani was a leading Mediterranean port), but the one to try here is with prawns and pistachio. The puddings are worth hanging around for, particularly the cannolis.
Address: Hostaria San Pietro, Via Porta Galli, 91100 Trapani TP, Italy
Hotel Signum, Salina
Cast adrift in the Tyrannean Sea between the dishevelled Sicilian port of Milazzo and Naples lies one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, a cluster of volcanic islands – the Aeolians. Time runs slowly, especially on Salina, whose volcanic slopes are carpeted in wild capers. The lava houses and fishing villages appear cantilevered over the cliffs, with views of a smoking Stromboli. One of them is the family-run Hotel Signum, refashioned as a boutique stay with the kitchen powered by Martina Caruso’s wild creativity (the youngest Italian chef to receive a Michelin star). Her delicate tasting menu featuring bagna cauda with raw sea urchins, octopus fagottino (homemade pasta), and a delectable breaded scabbardfish with tiger milk, is served on a terrace caught in a wild tangle of jasmine and bougainvillaea. There’s a sense that you’ve been invited to an aristocratic Italian’s island bolthole, oil lamps cast a sultry amber glow across table conversation as linen curtains swell like sails in the hot breeze. The form here is to kick off the evening on the bistrot terrace, scattered in old-world wrought iron benches with couples sipping the hotel’s signature Amarillo Brillo Mezcal cocktail, shaken up by Martina’s brother, Raphael Caruso.
Address: Hotel Signum, Via Scalo, 15, 98050 Malfa Salina ME, Italy
Il Carretto, Cefalù
Tucked away along a nondescript side street in pretty Cefalù, Il Carretto is your authentic neighbourhood trattoria with a graciously priced, ever-changing menu covering all the Sicilian classics. The mustard walls, mahogany chairs and old archways paint a homely, traditional picture with the clank of cutlery, conversation and unfiltered laughter. This is a proper, authentic, unfussy Sicilian restaurant, which is still a crucible of pride and local foodie culture with high standards of service. Families tuck into platters piled high with muscles, shrimp, fried octopus and calamari, before moving on to ‘involtini di carne alla Siciliana’ (veal, beef, aubergine or swordfish rolls with a cheesy, pine nut filling) – all served on lava stone. You can’t go wrong with any of the buttery seafood pasta dishes, and for a traditional Sicilian pudding, try the cassata – a kitsch-looking sponge cake spiked generously with liqueur, densely layered with ricotta cheese and decorated with the candied fruit you see painted across Sicilian pottery and fabrics.
Address: Il Carretto, Via Mandralisca, 66, 90015 Cefalù PA, Italy
Noto has always been something of a Baroque heartbreaker. Its honey-hued churches, and grand palazzi are scrunched together in an imposing fashion with granita-sweet cafés spilling out onto a wide, sunny thoroughfare. Amid all this antiquity is a modern spin on tradition. Found in the upper part of the town’s historic centre, Crocifisso is widely considered to be Noto’s finest restaurant. The creative, colourful appetisers are balanced on ceramic Moors’ heads and the polished crowd absorbs the quietly elegant, white table-cloth setting. Marco Baglieri’s dogged commitment to Sicilian produce (and just generally eating well) keeps any of that frothy, laboratory-style flamboyancy at bay. Instead, generous portions of eggplant arancino with Ragusano fondue, tuna steak with a pistachio and sesame crust and caponata, and sea urchin spaghetti are all flawlessly cooked in an elevated traditional style without being overembellished. Sommeliers recommend native labels from an extensive wine menu to pair with the seafood.
Address: Crocifisso, Via Principe Umberto, 46/48, 96017 Noto SR, Italy
Occupying the former studio of the 16th-century sculptor Antonello Gagini, this Palermo restaurant’s antiquity greatly contrasts the modern, slightly zany dishes on the tasting menu. Chef Mauricio Zillo’s inventive combinations draw on his Italian-Brazilian background serving up corallino with zucchini leaves and nasa prawns, and a cod parmigiana. These ambitious spins on the classics arrive on oversized statement plates or dark, glazed ceramics.
Address: Gagini, Via dei Cassari, 35, 90133 Palermo PA, Italy
Orazio Cordai, Catania
Along with its faded and somewhat melancholic baroque splendour, Catania is best known for its superb street food. Once you’ve ticked off the cathedral, the fish market and a few museums, it’s really all about exploring the Tavola Calda Catanese – Catania hot tables where slightly scruffy restaurants or vendors churn out their specialities, hiding delectable morsels from tourists who beeline for the more commercial places. Orazio Cordai is one of them, a nondescript hole-in-the-wall whose decor is never going to win any prizes but whose crispelle pastries are legendary. Allegedly discovered by the Benedictine nuns of Catania, these Sicilian pastries are made from Semolina dough slathered in honey and citrus peel, which are then stuffed either with ricotta (in pastry balls) or anchovies (in a long shape), then fried in seed oil or lard. Work up an appetite at the nearby Collezione di Pupi Siciliani before pulling up one of Orazio Cordai’s terrace chairs (the dense, crispy arancini are also remarkably tasty).
Address: Orazio Cordai, Viale Libertà, 13, 95024 Acireale CT, Italy
Don Camillo, Syracuse
This Syracuse institution, right in the heart of Ortigia’s buttermilk antiquity, is an elegant old timer, with bags of character. Diners inspect the catches of the day amid the 15th century tufa walls, stacked wine bottles and vintage sketches. It’s worth noting that there’s a two-course rule here – far from a scoff-and-dash haunt. Before ticking off San Francesco d’Assisi all’Immacolata, Don Camillo demands a good two hours of your day to fully appreciate each mouthful of Chef Guarneri’s reliably classic, fish-focused Sicilian menu. Much like the ancient Greeks of Syracuse, great emphasis is placed on the wine pairing and the beauty of each dish for the three tasting menus. Highlights include the tuna steak with Nero d’Avola, a shrimp spaghetti with sea urchins (gracing the menu since 1986) and a Nebrodi black swine roast. Expect that blend of confident, meticulous and charismatic service that’s found in its purest form in old Italian restaurants, and the most divine selection of Sicilian puddings and gelato for a sweet-toothed finalé.
Address: Don Camillo, Via della Maestranza, 96, 96100 Siracusa SR, Italy
Why not enjoy the best beaches in Sicily while you explore the culinary delights of this sun-drenched islands.