Growing up in New Jersey, every summer while friends across the United States were headed to camp, Elena’s parents put her on a plane to go to Italy.
Decades later as a travel advisor, summers in Sicily spent with family served her in a much deeper capacity than she could have imagined as a kid.
As the child of Italian parents, Elena craved the ‘normalcy’ of eating peanut butter and jelly while paddling around an upstate lake. Decades later as a travel advisor, it turns out those summers in Sicily spent with family eating mortadella sandwiches served her in a much deeper capacity than she could have imagined as a kid. Not only does her connection to Sicilian culture remain undeniably strong, but Elena is an expert in the region on behalf of her discerning clients. We checked in with her to learn more about the ins and outs of the island.
Is Sicily really that different from mainland?
If you’re asking this question, it’s clear you’ve never chatted with a Sicilian on the matter. Elena shares, “I particularly love designing Sicily itineraries because of the history, people, food and distinct change of landscape as you drive throughout. Culinary traditions in Sicily are very different than the mainland and even vary from the eastern part of the island to the western coast. So, whenever I design a trip to Sicily really try to move my clients from east to west.”
What is there to do in Sicily?
The island is packed with truly authentic experiences. Below are just a small sample of experiences that are possible to curate for clients:
For an adrenaline rush and epic views, take a Jeep tour up Mount Etna.
Enjoy a wine tour with roots dating back to the 1800s.
Jet out with a local fisherman for the day to catch some rays and hopefully some fish!
UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Villa Romana del Casale, Archaeological Area of Agrigento, Isole Eolie (Aeolian Islands), Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto (South-Eastern Sicily), Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica, Mount Etna + Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale
Visit an Olive Oil Estate passed down from generation to generation and depart with the best souvenirs for your kitchen.
Partake in a cooking class in the countryside with a Sicilian family. “Nonna” is often the star of the show here for a truly intimate and authentic experience.
For a more professional-level cooking class, partner with a Michelin-starred chef to learn the tricks of the trade.
Street food tour in Catania: Travelers love this one as it drops them right into the whir of activity at the market with tastes of some really interesting foods along the way.
Meet and spend the day with a real sheepherder and get to see how they produce ricotta!
Become familiar with working life on the sea as you sail from Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea’s private beach with stops at a traditional picturesque fishing village and lively fish market on Catania. An enriching day on Taormina Mare concludes with a lunch served at the baroque aristocratic house of Rosalba Cutore and her family.
Rosalba Cutore’s house in Catania
Where do you stay?
Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea
When Goethe called Taormina a “piece of paradise on earth,” he may well have been describing Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea. Set along one of Italy’s most picturesque bays on its private beach, it is just a courtesy shuttle ride away from the town center. Enjoy blissful refuge in one of 68 elegantly furnished guestrooms, and take in panoramic views from the outdoor heated swimming pool. Enjoy the morning complimentary boat cruises, relish fresh seafood at Oliviero Restaurant and relax with a soothing massage in your room or outdoors beneath an aromatic orange tree.
Verdura Resort, a Rocco Forte hotel
Set on a glorious stretch of coastline in southwest Sicily, Verdura Resort offers style and sophistication for a well-traveled clientele seeking a quiet or active getaway, romance or time with family. The resort boasts 203 stylish rooms, suites and villas, world-class golfing, watersports, tennis, football and a truly luxurious 43,000-square-foot spa with four thalassotherapy pools. Verdura’s organic farm products are handpicked every day and used to prepare gourmet experiences in the resort’s four restaurants and five bars. Golfers from all over the world come to enjoy the two 18-hole championship courses and a nine-hole par-three course, all designed by world-renowned golf architect Kyle Phillips and playable all-year-round. The resort’s award-winning 4,000sqm Verdura spa with its holistic treatment’s offer, health programmes, a collection of running trails through olive and lemon groves, 6 tennis courts, numerous watersports and one football pitch, makes the Resort an ultimate Destination Spa for health, wellness and fitness retreats.
Verdura also happens to be the home to the Rocco Forte family’s quintessential Sicilian farm where the sun is shining, the crickets are chirping, and the air is heavy with the scent of freshly grown aromatic herbs. The azure blue sea shimmers in the distance with a skyline that stretches for miles. In the orchard sit 2000 olive trees and a copse of 20 lemon trees, laden with fresh fruit with 3000 Sicilian orange trees in the distance. You can walk through the acres and find pomegranates, almonds, prickly pear cacti and a plethora of fresh vegetables and beautiful botanicals (if it sounds like a kind of paradise, it’s because it is). This whimsical place, Verdura Società Agricola, is the very organic farm where Irene Forte Skincare lovingly sources their ingredients for Rocco Forte Hotels’ spas across Europe.
Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo
Follow in the footsteps of Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren and experience the glamour, romance and luxe way of life at Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo. Located just beside the ancient Greek Theatre, its 71 guestrooms are decorated in exquisite Italian-baroque style and most boast views of the sea and Mount Etna. Stroll through town to shop for ceramics and visit local artisans, then visit the hotel’s Wellness Centre, immersed in the verdant park, for a spa treatment made with local flowers and fruit essences. Dinner, set on the terrace overlooking majestic Mount Etna, features tantalizing Sicilian and Mediterranean cuisine.
What’s the hype with the food?
Although they are still masters of pizza and pasta, Sicilians are even more commonly known for their produce and seafood. The fish is so fresh it’s as if it’s still alive! Be sure to try fried sardines with lemon and olive oil. Tuna, octopus and swordfish are island staples and they are well known for their lunch-time delicacy, the arancino. It’s typical to find lamb, pork, and horse versus beef, so be open-minded! Sicilians also coined the creation of cannolis, and are well-known for their delicious granita dessert.
Menu Translation, per favore
Arancini: The most popular street food in Sicily and each town will have their unique twist to the arancini, so it’s important to try the it over and over as you move East to West of the island! This morsel is a fried rice croquette filled with a variety of meats, and veggies thrown in the mix.
Cannoli: You could have a traditional cannoli or a modern version. Marzapane will be filled with almond paste and sugar, shaped and colored in fruit or vegetable shapes. Keep in mind that one pastry could take up to 45 minutes to design and the result is just incredible.
Granita: limone with brioche is a typical breakfast item. Or, you could get your gelato with a brioche!
Panelle: This is a dish that has Arabic influences.
Sfincione: A cross between pizza and foccia.
Frittelle: Fried dough filled with ricotta.
Pasta Al Norma, Spaghetti Ai Ricci di mare + Pasta Con Le Sarde: three of the most popular pasta dishes in Sicily, keep an eye out for these.
Can’t Miss Dinner at…
Pino Cuttaia’s restaurant, La Madia, located in Licata province of Agrigento. He takes Sicilian classic dishes and really gives it a beautiful modern twist. Daily fresh breads are prepared using local flavors such as figs, pistachios, almonds and onions.
Cicco Sultano’s restaurant, Duomo, located in Ragusa Ebla makes for an incredibly memorable dining experience. He’s super innovative while keeping that Sicilian loyalty to his local farms and suppliers. Everything coming out of his kitchen is authentic and Sicilian – the seven-course tasting menu is highly recommended!
Trattoria Da Federico, located just outside of Catania in a town called Aci Trezza, for Spaghetti Ai Ricci Mare that’s to die for! Aci Trezza is an off-the-beaten-path fisherman’s town famous for faraglioni, the volcanic rock formation in the sea from when Mount Etna erupted many years ago.
Antonio Frasca’s restaurant, Vossia, located in Marina di Ragusa which is this amazing restaurant right in the heart of all the action. The owner is not only a personal friend, but his food is really innovative using only local ingredients and the freshest fish. His wine selection is impressive, specializing in natural organic wine.
Chicca Fumia’s restaurant, Mezzaparola, is located in Donnalucata and embodies the dynamic personality of the dominant Sicilian woman who owns it. This little hidden gem offers a laid back vibe, warm hospitality and delicious seafood caught daily from the local fisherman. Chicca’s black squid Arancini is sure to be something you go home raving over!
Savia, located in Catania, is another place you go to if you want incredible arancini. After all, going to Sicily without having an Arancini is like going to Rome and not seeing the Vatican, they just don’t compute! Try a sweet and salty – you won’t regret it.
Arrivederci! Ciao! Addio!
Like my grandfather once said to me when I was a little girl, “to know who you are you should always know where you came from.”
No matter how you choose to spend your stay, we’re certain that the magic of Sicily will overtake you much the way it has filled Elena with cherished memories for decades. It’s the kind of setting that brings to life the stories she tells, from Nonna standing in the middle of the street in the tiny town of Solarino with a wooden spoon yelling at her and her cousins for coming home so late from a night out from walking the piazza to driving to the campagna for an afternoon lunch underneath her grandfather’s olive tree that had him beaming with pride. We invite you to let your journey include evolve into moments you’ll hold on to for decades to come, too; whether that involves meeting new friends, relaxing, eating, drinking or simply sunbathing on the beaches of Marina di Ragusa. In the words of Elena, “It is the greatest joy to return every single summer and see the same loving faces…Sicily – and Italy, really – drives so much of who I am and continues to inform the special experiences I create for my clients. Like my grandfather once said to me when I was a little girl, ‘to know who you are you should always know where you came from.'”