The traditional cooking of the Aeolian Islands is an especially sunny and succulent version of the Sicilian kitchen. However, seafood plays an even more prominent role in Aeolian cuisine, and recipes reflect the culinary self-sufficiency and seasonality the islands’ relative isolation once required. For centuries, almost everything the islanders ate came from their own small farms or was fished from local waters. Small and sweet cherry tomatoes; various iterations of the caper plant, including its buds, berries and leaves; herbs, such as rosemary, oregano and basil; citrus fruit; garlic; onions; and olives. Bright-tasting wild herbs are still collected by many Aeolian families, too, including finocchio selvatico (wild fennel), mirto (myrtle), nepitella (mint), ruchetta selvatica (wild arugula) and dente di leone (dandelion).
For centuries, almost everything the islanders ate came from their own small farms or was fished from local waters.
Dishes to look out for include locally caught white fish such as dentice, which is often filleted, rolled, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and baked. Mollusks appear on many menus, as do calamari and totano, its larger cousin, either stewed in a tomato-caper sauce or stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs, olives, capers, garlic and parsley. Seppie (cuttlefish) is often cooked in its own ink, and polpo (octopus) is usually boiled and then served as part of a salad with capers, lemon juice, olive oil and chopped flat parsley.
A popular dish for a light lunch is pane cunzatu, or seasoned bread. In much of Sicily, this implies a well-stuffed sandwich, but in the Aeolians, it is a sort of salad served atop flatbread. This usually comprises fresh or sun-dried tomatoes, chopped mozzarella, capers, garlic and giant green olives, but tuna, sardines and shellfish are also used. The bread is heated for a few minutes in an oven before being seasoned, rather like bruschetta.
Here’s a selection of favorite restaurants in the Aeolians.
Owner Antonino Zaccone takes particular pride in sourcing almost everything in his kitchen from the island of Stromboli. His restaurant has a large terrace with fine views and is a local favorite for dishes like shrimp tartare; eggplant Parmesan; pasta with house-smoked tuna, arugula and cherry tomatoes; and grilled squid. The wine list is excellent and the service friendly.
Trattoria Ai Gechi
Via Salina 12, Stromboli. Tel. (39) 338-357-7559
The large open terraces of this friendly restaurant at the foot of the volcano provide a perfect setting from which to observe its drama, especially the glowing lava after dark. Start with some smoked tuna, and then try the spaghetti with mussels. The pizzas are also good. However, the primary point of coming here is the view.
Via Salvatore di Losa, Punta la Bronzo, Stromboli. Tel. (39) 090-958-6991
An easy walk from Il Gabbiano Relais, this seafood restaurant has stunning views and an appealing menu, which features catch of the day landed by local small-boat fishermen. The menu changes regularly, but dishes like spaghetti alle vongole and sea bream baked with cherry tomatoes, capers and olives are always available. Finish up with the excellent cannoli (tubes of fried pastry dough, filled with a sweet, creamy ricotta), an espresso and maybe a shot of chilled homemade limoncello.
Via Marina 8, Stromboli. Tel. (39) 090-986-204
On the waterfront in the pretty seaside town of Lingua, this local landmark serves the island’s best granita (sorbet) — the almond, pistachio and mulberry flavors are renowned all over Sicily. It also offers delicious pane cunzatu and excellent pastas on a spacious sidewalk terrace with views over the harbor. This is an ideal place for lunch.
Via Vittorio Alfieri 11, Piazza Marina Garibaldi, Lingua, Salina. Tel. (39) 090-984-3075
Overlooking the port, the open-air terrace of this seafood restaurant is an ideal setting for dinner on a warm summer evening. Start off with some crudi (raw seafood), a house specialty that will likely include swordfish, tuna, grouper and red prawns, and then continue with spaghetti al fuoco, a fiery pasta dish invented by husband-and-wife owners Teodoro Cataffo and Marilena D’Albora that comes with a sauce of tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, basil, crumbled baked ricotta and peperoncino (chile pepper), to which you can opt to add clams, mussels, prawns or mixed seafood, as well as truffles, zucchini, almonds and fennel. The catch of the day is reliably excellent, and local dishes like rare tuna with capers and swordfish with pistachios are delicious.
Via Lungomare N.G. 2, Santa Marina Salina, Salina. Tel. (39) 090-984-3125
Located a 10-minute drive from the Hotel Signum, this delightful agroturismo restaurant on a working farm is owned and run by the Galletta family. The cooking here is sincere, succulent and full of flavor and stretches to dishes like spaghetti all’Eoliana (pasta with cubes of swordfish, cherry tomatoes, capers, olives, eggplant, pine nuts and mint), and grilled squid stuffed with breadcrumbs, pecorino cheese and capers, among many other choices. The wine list features selections from the best producers in Salina. The Gallettas also sell products like caper pâté, salt capers and caper berries, as well as excellent jams, including Indian fig, lemon, orange and mandarin.
Ristorante del Agriturismo Galletta
Via Ruvoli 5, Leni, Salina. Tel. (39) 090-980-9192
This place makes a wonderful excursion for lunch — the ferry from Salina to Panarea takes 25 minutes — especially since Zimmari beach, one of the best in the Aeolians, is only a 15-minute walk away. At his stylish all-white restaurant with a charming terrace, chef Gaetano Nanì creates a new menu every day. Start with raw fish or shellfish dressed with oil and lemon, or maybe some caponata (cooked vegetable salad made from chopped fried eggplant, celery seasoned with sweetened vinegar and capers in a sweet and sour sauce), and then try the pasta with smoked eggplant and ricotta, or maybe the spaghetti with red prawns. If you are still hungry, share a baked scorpionfish. The desserts are excellent, and the panna cotta with caramel is particularly outstanding. Hycesia has the best wine list of any restaurant in the Aeolians, with more than 1,000 bottles, overseen by an amiable English-speaking sommelier.
Via San Pietro, Panarea. Tel. (39) 090-983-041