Here are instructions to find quite possibly the best calzone in the world. From the cathedral of San Giorgio in the small town of Modica, southern Sicily, walk down the Corso San Giorgio. About halfway down the steep hill on the left there is a door in the ancient stone wall. Don’t look for a sign; there isn’t one. Ditto a name. Just find the door – it’ll be the only one open when the noonday heat grips the town.
Inside, a few battered Formica tables line the walls, and staff lounge behind a glass cabinet containing nothing but a few nondescript looking bread rolls. Buy a roll. They cost a euro 50 each, a sum of money so small it’s not worth the effort of converting it into dollars. Take the roll outside, sit on the steps of the cathedral and bite into it. It’s a hand-sized calzone, flour, yeast, oil, salt for the bread. Tomatoes, garlic and mozzarella for the filling. It is stripped down, even basic. But it is wonderful.
And in this little handful of pizza heaven there’s a mystery too: How does this poor, mostly rural island have a world-class cuisine and food culture? Partly, it’s position and history: Sicily was ruled by the Arabs for centuries, and southern Sicily is on a same latitude as Algiers and Tunis. North Africa is only a hundred miles away. But despite its cosmopolitan location, for centuries Sicily has been one of the poorest parts of Europe, and its poverty is reflected in the simplicity that is the hallmark of Sicilian cuisine. It takes great ingredients – tomatoes, fish, olive oil – and combines them with superb care and attention. This is peasant food, but for hundreds of years those peasants were inspired by the decadent and pleasure-loving aristocracy who ruled and exploited them.
The very Sicilian combination of Mediterranean vigor and listless corruption is at its strongest in the capital, Palermo, the entry point for most flights from the rest of Europe. It’s a proud, energetic city, but most people would agree it has seen better days. Argument abounds as to when those days were, but the generally accepted date for the city’s highpoint is somewhere around the ’80s – the 1180s that is.
Growing from an ancient fishing settlement into a prized port that was won and lost by the Greeks, Romans and Arabs, Palermo was captured by the Normans in 1072 and for a hundred years was Europe’s most cultured city. After a dazzling century, Palermo declined as Sicily became a backward corner of various European empires, mainly the Spanish. Of course, because this is Italy, decline includes an imposing opera house, a brace of ornate cathedrals and some of the finest street markets and food stalls to be found anywhere.
Dating from the Norman period, the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cappella Palatina and Cattedrale di Monreale boast sprawling mosaics and domes and columns with more than a hint of the Muslim and Byzantine in their design. The historic centre of the city at the Quattro Canti – the Four Corners – features a set of imposing, three-story facades from the baroque, the other architectural era that is so well-represented across Sicily.
Palermo is best enjoyed on foot, taking in the faded magnificence of the city’s thoroughfares and following one’s nose down alleyways and back streets, with regular stops for lemonade or coffee. Palermo’s street food is exceptional: Highlights include chickpea fritters known as panelle and quaglie, a dish of fried eggplants. More adventurous diners – or those in touch with their inner waste-not-want-not peasant – can try various combinations of stuffed and fried offal.
In the evening, restaurants only get going by 9 pm, so expect to dine late. Start at least one meal with a shared plate of antipasti. Small dishes of caponata, an eggplant confit, tomato salsa and Arab-inspired tuna and onions are offset perfectly by a creamy dollop of ricotta, the national cheese. Pasta Sicilian-style is often served with fish including sardines and anchovies, raisins and pine nuts, as well as more tomato, more eggplant and more ricotta. Finish off with ice cream and an almond dessert wine that tastes like liquid marzipan, then roll back to the hotel through the hot midnight alleys still flush with promenading families, street touts and stray cats.
A word to the cautious. Palermo is a European city that appears on a map of Europe. But driving in Palermo is nothing like driving in Europe. As befits an island close to Africa, there’s something of the exotic in the way Palermo’s drivers fit three lanes’ worth of traffic into two lanes’ worth of road, or the way its scooter drivers weave every which way but sensible. It’s perfectly okay to drive, but the more nervous might find it easier to take a taxi or bus from the airport and, when it is time to move on, either pick up a rental car in the city center or go back out to the airport and rent one there.
Out of Palermo, driving is much more relaxed and the best way to reach the island’s many wonderful towns and historical sites. Just outside the city is Corleone, famous for its mafia connections and now home to CIDMA, an anti-mafia museum whose displays feature the trials against the Cosa Nostra in the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the connections between Sicily and the mob, there is much more to the island than the Godfather, but the sun-drenched, bucolic landscapes that feature in the film are as beguiling and relaxing in real life as they are on celluloid.
Driving across to Sicily’s southeastern corner, with Mount Etna hovering ethereally in the distance, takes around three hours. Here lies the ancient, in fact originally Greek, city of Syracuse and Sicily’s most beautiful hilltop towns: Noto, Modica and Ragusa. Although of a typically Sicilian millennia-long pedigree, these three were entirely rebuilt after a massive earthquake hit the region in 1693. The local aristocracy, rich from exporting wine, lemons and wheat and keeping the proceeds for themselves, grabbed the opportunity to create a fashion statement on a huge scale. They employed architects trained in Rome and familiar with the newly popular baroque style to create a Sicilian version: flamboyant, curvaceous architecture featuring leering grotesque masks and statues of putti – chubby toddler boys whose connotations are considerably less religious than cherubs. The Catholic Church got in on the act too, and the result is an ornate stone fantasy of palazzos, churches and sweeping staircases, with specially planned thoroughfares showcasing the nobility’s impeccable taste.
Noto’s main street, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is one of the prime examples of this brazen style of urban design. A long, pedestrianized avenue lined with fine palaces and bijou stores, its centerpiece is a square, the Piazza Municipio, that features a huge staircase sweeping up to the Cattedrale di San Nicolò. It’s a fabulous place to wander aimlessly, perhaps waiting for the sunset which turns the stone a soft pink. It’s also a perfect place to indulge a sweet tooth, as Noto is reckoned to produce Sicily’s finest ice cream and exceedingly good crushed ice granite.
Modica, the second baroque town, is a short journey through the rocky limestone countryside from Noto, and is famous for its chocolate. This is of course in addition to the iced nougat parfaits and the ubiquitous cannoli, the stubby little pastry cigars filled with sweetened ricotta that adorn every coffee shop bar.
Ragusa, the final town in the “baroque triangle,” is approached through a rather stolid new town. But pop out of the other side and there’s Ragusa Ibla, the old town, whose tangled streets are spread out across one side of a steep gorge. There’s no reliable way to navigate a town like this. Head up steps and under arches, try not to end up in someone’s backyard, accept going around in a circle at least once, until popping out somewhere near the main piazza where one can sit down, order some lobster gnocchi, or perhaps the swordfish risotto, with a blood orange salad on the side.
Ragusa is home to reputedly Sicily’s finest restaurant, the Ristorante Duomo, a two-Michelin-star place doing high-end versions of the island’s classics. It will of course provide a sumptuous and memorable dining experience, a must-do if the budget allows. But if not, don’t despair. Look for a hole in the wall, find a calzone and eat it underneath a statue of a small fat boy whose face has been captured in bliss for all eternity.