Cannoli, crema e caffè
Sicily is the go-to destination for most of us when in need of a quick break. Yet, somehow, few of us manage to go beyond the obvious sightseeing and shopping points to discover the more hidden attributes.
Think tranquil resorts, a wealth of organic produce, medieval architecture and some seriously fancy restaurants. Because, yes, there is more to this charming island that the ever-popular Catania markets and the cobbled streets in Taormina.
My mission on this trip? Experiencing a rather sophisticated stay that involved a lot of amazing food and wine, while staying somewhere that didn’t come with throngs of tourists and their splashing children. There is a time and place for both, but this trip was not going to be one of them.
The first decision was whether to fly or take the Virtu Ferries catamaran (http://www.virtuferries.com/) . The latter takes approximately one and a half hours, and I opted for it for multiple reasons. The ferry timings are perfect for those who want to get a full weekend of fun – we arrived in Pozzallo on Friday at about 8.15am, just in time for breakfast.
The plan was to take the 9.30pm ferry back on Sunday, which meant that we could still plan a full itinerary for our last day. I was reassured that the catamaran was super stable and I’d barely realise that we were moving and, what do you know, they weren’t lying.
The second reason for picking a ferry crossing was just as practical – mobility, as you need to a car to explore the region properly. Initially, the idea of driving was a source of some concern but, happily, in this region traffic is light and getting into towns like Modica and Ragusa is simple, with clearly marked parking areas, so we encountered zero problems.
The third reason was more subjective – it is infinitely more comfortable and picturesque than a flight. You get the sunrise, the sunset, the vista, the ability to go out on deck to smoke (if you’re foolish enough to do that to your body)... you get this gist.
But back to our Pozzallo docking. Should we first find our hotel, or should we stop for breakfast? We decided not to be so Maltese about filling our tummies and to first find the resort where we were staying – the Cambiocavallo Unesco-Area & Resort (http://www.cambiocavallo.it/) , a four-star property a mere 10-minute drive away from the port of Pozzallo.
Surprisingly, the area is extremely quiet, even though the resort is conveniently placed on the main thoroughfare that leads to Modica. As soon as you walk through the main gate, you are magically transported into a mass of greenery, with fields extending beyond the resort itself and creating a gorgeous landscape. The Cambiocavallo blends beautifully with its natural environment, with an olive grove and palm trees, rose bushes and chirping birds surrounding the main building and the pool area.
Everywhere, there’s natural stone and wood – including within the rooms themselves – and it’s immediately clear that the design was created by someone who is very aware of the importance of natural elements. Later, I was to discover that the owners of the resort are celebrated architects in Italy and, suddenly, it all made sense.
For someone hailing from an island that managed to kill off hundreds of trees in the past year, this was extremely refreshing. But back to our tummies. It was 9.30AM, too early to check-in. Not a problem for Ignazio Occhipinti, who manages the Cambiocavallo: our luggage was quickly taken care of and we were invited to join the other guests who were still having breakfast. So we did, sitting outside in the shade, surrounded by chirping birds, emerald green lizards and honest-to-goodness bees.
We’d barely docked and Sicily was already giving us a slice of heaven. We must have taken a good hour and a half just taking it all in, together with freshly-made ricotta cannoli, croissants, typical cheeses and some fortifying espresso. Eventually, we figured we should get off our butts.
The Cambiocavallo is perfect for those who only want to laze around by the pool, but we were trying to achieve a bit more. So off we drove to Modica to have lunch at the Michelin-starred Accursio (http://www.accursioristorante.it/), headed by the wonderful Accursio Craparo. The chef patron is known in culinary circles as the Chef of the Two Sicilies, with his cuisine uniting the two extremeties of the island through the use of seasonal produce and traditional dishes that are given a modern-day twist.
Eating at the Accursio was a bit like eating a fresh slice of Sicily, as we were soon to find out thanks to our eight-course degustation menu. Yup, that’s eight courses and you will not regret a single one of them as, from the initial amouse bouche to the final dessert, you will find your tastebuds continuously surprised and seduced.
This is the restaurant for those who enjoy tasting the unexpected, as Accursio heads a team of chefs whose specialty seems to be thinking out of the box. Such as with the Pappa al Pomodoro, where the traditional Tuscan tomato and bread concoction is turned on its head, served cold and with prawn. And the result is amazing.
Or the Bassa Marea, a dish with chickpeas, prawns, mussels, monkfish and clams artfully arranged to look like an ocean reef. Or even dessert – one, a fluffy cloud of candyfloss that hid a coy cannolo; and the other, a rather worrying egg presented on my plate. My face must have been a picture. I asked for dessert, dammit, not a boiled egg.
Only, it turned out to be a reconstructed crema, filled with a kind of fruit based mixture that tasted like happiness. I left the Accursio not only with my tastebuds singing, but also amazed at how seemingly obvious dishes can be turned into something special under creative hands.
Late afternoon was spent taking in the sights – and the Chocolate Museum – in Modica. The town is nothing short of stunning, divided into Modica Bassa and Alta, the Alta part with buildings rising dramatically out of the valley into the sky. No dangers of over-development here, and the medieval aesthetic has been maintained, so that just walking around this Unesco Heritage site is a pleasure in itself.
Very imposing is the baroque church of San Pietro and the Castle of the Counts of Modica. A couple of espresso shots later and we were ready to make the 15 minute drive back to the Cambiocavallo, for a very well-deserved sunning and snoozing session by the pool.
We were shown to our room – all eight rooms at the resort come with a terrace that leads directly to the pool, and there are also two suites. The best part of our room was definitely the shaded terrace area, complete with recliner and benches, which were going to turn out to be very useful that evening after we’d had our swim and snooze.
Initially, the plan was to dine at the Cambiocavallo itself – given the fact that it’s a boutique resort, you need to let them know in the morning and, judging by what I had seen, the chef here also follows a from-field-to-table philosophy, with produce gathered from nearby farmers and fishermen.
Sadly, lunch left us too full for dinner, so we did the next best thing, buying some typical regional cheeses, bread and olive oil from nearby and supplementing this with a bottle of white from the resort’s cellar. Enjoyed in the breeze, from our terrace, with the owls hooting, it was pure bliss.
The next day dawned with purpose – that of another lazy breakfast, featuring more freshly-baked Sicilian treats – and an outing to Singola Ristorante Naturale (http://singola.tumblr.com/), a vegan restaurant the reputation of which is stellar. I’m no vegan, but I’m not averse to enjoying dishes created purely out of the bounty of agriculture.
Singola focuses on the use of genuine flavours and dressings; an added bonus is dining outside, in the company of some very friendly cats. Creativity is the name of the game so, for starters, we enjoyed a platter – Medulle – that combined a variety of salads with some gorgeous dressings and the pezzo forte, a reinterpretation of the Maki, a very pleasing concoction that replaces fish with shredded carrot. A delicate arancina with lemon ricotta (the only non-vegan ingredient, clearly stated) and, for mains, a vegan lasagna and fettuccini with mushrooms.
Everything at Singola is made in-house, using 0km produce as they like to put it. This includes the olive oil, made using a combination of local olives and also the pasta itself, made with Sicilian flour, produced from local wheat. This gives every dish a very distinctive flavour. Closing dinner was a vegan tiramisu, with apricot custard and strawberry, and vegan ice-cream.
An experience that shattered all my misconceptions that vegan food is drab or not tempting. Sunday dawned with a new foodie goal – the Locanda del Colonnello (www.locandadelcolonnello.it), up in Modica Alta.
The drive to Modica Alta from the Cambiocavallo is gorgeous – you approach the lower side of town via a gentle descent, and suddenly you see Modica Alta rising out of the valley right ahead of you, for all the world as though you’re in some movie. Up, up, up we drove through narrow, winding roads flanked by stunning medieval architecture and a rather imposing St George’s Cathedral, until at the very top we parked pretty much outside the quaint alleyway leading to the Locanda del Colonnello.
A couple of photo ops later (selfie time!) we walked into the super-hip restaurant, Bob Dylan softly playing in the background and some really intriguing art capturing our attention. But chef Francesco Mineo was soon to show us that the Locanda del Colonnello has a lot more going for it than good art, good music and good vibes.
Things kicked off with a basket of homemade bread and Sicilian olive oil. Tempting, but I’d been down this road before. Pacing is key when dining at a restaurant like the Locanda del Colonnello, famed for using only the best ingredients from the territory, making the most of its connections with local producers in order to create dishes with flavours that are both full and subtle.
A contradiction in terms, I hear you say? Mysteriously, no. I’m not sure how Chef Francesco and his team manage it, but manage it they do. With every single dish that was served, we could taste the individual ingredients, not one overpowering the other, creating an explosion of flavours with every bite.
Mackarel with gazpacho and wasabi? You’d think with such strong ingredients each would be fighting against the other, but no. The linguine with cuttlefish, hazlenut and mint were of an exquisite, fragrant lightness; the longfin tuna combined with the eggplant (prepared in a very particular manner, leading to a yummy smoky taste) was amazing; gnocchi with ricotta, lemon and Ragusano cheese... so satisfying.
Every dish is an ode to the ingredients, proffering nature’s bounty in its best version. The test of any meal, for me, is its ending. My lemon cream, strawberry and crunchy almond concoction was superb, as were the following mini-cannoli and chocolates.
It is well-nigh impossible to leave this place without a smile on your face. And there you have it – a weekend in Sicily with nary a shopping centre or flea market in sight. Nothing but amazing food that makes the most of nature’s bounty, and a tranquil, stunning accommodation.
Sicily, alla prossima.
Getting there: Virtu Ferries operate daily trips between Malta and Pozzallo and Pozzallo and Catania. Coach transfers between Pozzallo and Catania are possible, and check out their site for regular special offers. (http://www.virtuferries.com/)
Where we stayed: The 4-star Cambiocavallo Unesco-Area & Resort is a boutique hotel located in the countryside, just 4 km from the beaches, a short drive away from Modica, Noto, Scicli and Ibla. (http://www.cambiocavallo.it/)
This article first appeared on the Sunday Circle magazine.