Sicilian ports land some of the best seafood in the world — superb shrimp from Mazzara, plus swordfish, squid and octopus — and its farms produce outstanding olive oil, as well as fine fruit and vegetables. The Sicilian kitchen has also been enriched by the cultures that have washed over the island: the Greeks introduced olive trees and grapevines; the Arabs brought cinnamon, saffron, couscous and rice; and the Spanish endowed the island with the chocolate, tomatoes and peppers they had discovered in the New World.
During the 1800s, the food-loving Sicilian aristocracy imported achefs from the Piedmont region, then under French control. These chefs, known as “monsu’,” Sicilian dialect for “monsieur,” created a hybrid cuisine that married French culinary technique to Sicilian produce. More recently, the island has grown a crop of talented young chefs, many of whom cooked abroad before returning home to open their own restaurants. Whether you choose a simple locanda or one of the impressive New Sicilian tables, you’ll eat remarkably well during a tour of the island.
La Madia. This friendly and unexpectedly stylish restaurant in the busy port town of Licata serves some of the finest seafood I’ve ever eaten, including sublime swordfish carpaccio and several unforgettable seafood pastas. The dish that I’ll never forget, though, was chef Pino Cuttaia’s cod smoked over a fire of pine cones, then lightly steamed and served with roasted cherry tomatoes and tomato-infused olive oil. It was delicious and brilliant in its deceptive simplicity. Corso F. Re Capriata 22, Licata. Tel. 0922-771443.
Don Camillo. Located on the main street in Ortigia, the most ancient quarter of Siracusa, this fine restaurant occupies a 15th-century convent that was converted to commercial use after an earthquake in 1693. The cool and calm interior provides a fine setting for chef Giovanni Guarneri’s delicious Sicilian cooking. Start with a house specialty, zuppa di mucco, a fish soup garnished with tiny neonati (newborn fish), or the spaghetti delle Sirene with shrimp and sea urchins, and then choose from dishes such as grilled tuna with pepper purée, or grouper in a potato cream. Via Maestranza 96, Siracusa. Tel. 0931-67133.
Il Bavaglino. Not far from Palermo Airport in the seaside town of Terrasini, young chef Giuseppe Costa’s restaurant has only five tables, which makes dining here an intimate and soothing experience. Start with the delicious spaghetti with sea urchins and saffron, or risotto with fava beans and pressed sea-bass eggs, and then try the swordfish with crushed pistachios, sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta, or the excellent fritto misto. Via B. Saputo 20, Terrasini. Tel. 091-8682285.
Duomo. Chef Ciccio Sultano is in the vanguard of the New Sicilian cooking. His delicate, delicious and creative dishes include a Ragusano cheese tartlet with wild apple conserve; Nebrodi pork (a Sicilian breed from the slopes of Mount Etna) stuffed with breadcrumbs and tomatoes, glazed with carob bean and served with a cantaloupe sauce; and cannolo filled with ricotta and served with warm prickly pear soup and almond sorbet. Though he has two Michelin stars, not all of the dishes on Sultano’s tasting menu are a success — we found the calamari “salad” in buffalo mozzarella soup rather bland — but there’s no doubt that he is an immensely talented chef. If you’re coming for lunch, there is also an à la carte menu. Via Capitano Bocchieri 31, Ragusa. Tel. 0932-651265.
Oinos. Located in Siracusa’s old Jewish quarter, this sleek, contemporary restaurant has a small garden terrace where meals are served during warm weather. Try the homemade pasta with sardines; grilled sliced Mediterranean tuna with a salad of oranges, onions and fennel; and hot apple tart with Muscat wine sorbet. Friendly, English-speaking staff — until recently, our waiter had lived in Austin, Texas — are happy to explain the exceptional wine list. Via della Giudecca 69, Siracusa. Tel. 0931-464900.
La Gazza Ladra. This excellent restaurant at the Palazzo Failla Hotel in Modica has a handsome vaulted dining room for the cool months and a delightful private garden for warm weather. Chef Accursio Craparo has won a Michelin star for his inventive contemporary Sicilian cooking, including dishes such as linguine with anchovy cream, wild fennel, baby onions, chili peppers and toasted breadcrumbs, and sliced steak with tomatoes, capers, mozzarella milk and fresh oregano. Meals are complemented by excellent service and an interesting wine list. Via Blandini 5, Modica. Tel. 0932-755655.
Casa Grugno. Given the number of tourists, dining out successfully in lovely Taormina can be a challenge. But we loved our meal at this 16th-century townhouse in the heart of the medieval quarter. (There is a charming garden terrace for summer dining.) Chef David Tamburini has won a Michelin star for inventive dishes such as rigatoni pasta with smoked Giarratana onions, cream, eggs and cured Nebrodi pork cheek; red mullet fillets with grilled fennel, oranges and saffron; and “Etna,” a meringue dessert with smoked chocolate and a prickly pear cactus fruit sauce. Via Santa Maria dei Greci, Taormina. Tel. 0942-21208.